Industries in Depth

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that focuses on soil health.

Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that focuses on soil health. Image: Unsplash/ Roman Synkevych 🇺🇦

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Industries in Depth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Agriculture, Food and Beverage is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Agriculture, Food and Beverage

Listen to the article

  • Regenerative agriculture focuses on improving the health of soil, which has been degraded by the use of heavy machinery, fertilizers and pesticides in intensive farming.
  • There may not be enough soil left to grow food to feed the world within 50 years.
  • Regenerative agriculture and other farming methods that don’t harm the climate can improve farmers’ incomes, as well as cutting emissions and boosting soil health.

This leads to productivity losses of $400 billion a year and is a risk to food security in the future.

Regenerative farming can restore agricultural land and reduce the industry’s environmental impact, including lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that focuses on soil health.

When soil is healthy, it produces more food and nutrition, stores more carbon and increases biodiversity – the variety of species.

A teaspoon of soil contains up to 6 billion microorganisms, says Australia’s New South Wales Government. Soil is also a habitat for species including insects and fungi.

Healthy soil supports other water, land and air environments and ecosystems through natural processes including water drainage and pollination – the fertilization of plants.

Why is regenerative agriculture needed?

Agriculture today, including the use of heavy machinery, fertilizers and pesticides to maximize food production, is contributing to soil degradation and loss.

Within 50 years, there may not be enough soil left to feed the world, according to regenerative farming organization Regeneration International.

Intensive farming also churns up CO2 naturally stored in soil and releases it into the atmosphere. This contributes to the global warming that is driving climate change.

Agriculture accounts for over a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the United Nations (UN).

While damaged soil and eroded land can make environments more vulnerable to extreme weather events like flooding, which are increasing in frequency and intensity as the Earth warms.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing about nature?

What does regenerative agriculture involve?

Regenerative farming methods include minimizing the ploughing of land, explains Regeneration International. This keeps CO2 in the soil, improves its water absorbency and leaves vital fungal communities in the earth undisturbed.

Rotating crops to vary the types of crop planted improves biodiversity, while using animal manure and compost helps to return nutrients to the soil.

Continuously grazing animals on the same piece of land can also degrade soil, explains the Regenerative agriculture in Europe report from the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council. So regenerative agriculture methods include moving grazing animals to different pastures.

Regenerative agriculture focuses on improving soil health through methods including crop rotation and reduced ploughing.
Regenerative agriculture focuses on improving soil health through methods including crop rotation and reduced ploughing. Image: IUCN

What are the benefits of regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative farming can improve crop yields – the volume of crops produced – by improving the health of soil and its ability to retain water, as well as reducing soil erosion.

If regenerative farming was implemented in Africa, crop yields could rise 13% by 2040 and up to 40% in the future, according to a Regenerative Farming in Africa report by conservation organization the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UN.

Improved yields will help feed the world as the global population grows.

Regenerative farming can also reduce emissions from agriculture and turn the croplands and pastures, which cover up to 40% of Earth’s ice-free land area, into carbon sinks. These are environments that naturally absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, according to climate solutions organization Project Drawdown.

These restored agricultural lands could absorb the equivalent of between 2.6 and 13.6 gigatons of CO2 a year, Project Drawdown notes in its report, Farming Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis.

Regenerative agriculture can improve crop yields – the volume of crops produced – by improving the health of soil and its ability to retain water, as well as reducing soil erosion.
Regenerative agriculture can improve crop yields – the volume of crops produced – by improving the health of soil and its ability to retain water, as well as reducing soil erosion. Image: Project Drawdown.

In the European Union, the World Economic Forum estimates that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could be 6% lower a year by 2030 if a fifth of farmers adopted “climate-smart” agriculture such as regenerative farming.

The Forum’s 2022 report, Transforming Food Systems with Farmers: A Pathway for the EU, also finds that soil health would improve - over an area equivalent to 14% of agricultural land across the 27-country grouping. Farmers could also boost their incomes by between €1.9 and €9.3 billion a year.

Other benefits of regenerative agriculture include more efficient water use and fewer pests, because greater biodiversity makes the land more resilient, the Forum says.

Regenerative farming practices can improve soil health and farmer incomes, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Regenerative farming practices can improve soil health and farmer incomes, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Image: World Economic Forum.

Where is regenerative farming already being used?

Regenerative farmers and networks are growing regenerative agriculture globally. Regeneration International lists a network of partners across Asia, Latin America, the United States, Canada, Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

In Australia, the case of regenerative farmer Neils Olsen is one such example. He is the first farmer in the world to be paid through a government system to sequester soil carbon. Olsen’s system involves planting a mixture of crops and grazing plants – like pulses and grasses – in strips in the same field, to increase soil nutrients, yield and soil carbon.

In Brazil, cotton farmers are planting second and third vegetable crops, including sesame, pumpkin and corn, alongside their main cotton crop. They are also using organic alternatives to chemical fertilizers. Their cotton yield has tripled in the two crops since they started, while yields of the other crops have grown as much as seven times, according to conservation news site, Mongabay.

Other regenerative farming examples include farmers in Tanzania, East Africa, growing beans, bananas and maize alongside commercial crops such as cardamom.

Have you read?
Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Industries in DepthNature and Biodiversity
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

1:50

Top 5 countries leading the sustainable tourism sector

Robin Pomeroy and Linda Lacina

April 29, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum