Rooting Renewal: India’s Sustainable Future with Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is gaining significant attention as a sustainable farming practice that aligns with India’s 2070 net-zero emission target. Emphasizing soil health and biodiversity, it aims to restore ecosystems and ensure sustainable food production. In India, where over 29% of land faces degradation, regenerative practices offer a crucial solution amid water scarcity and climate variability.

Although the transition from conventional farming to regenerative farming is facing challenges such as lack of knowledge, reduced yields, and skeptical farmers, adopting methods like no-till farming and agroforestry, farmers can enhance resilience, yield, and income while also mitigating climate change, fostering thriving communities, and strengthening economies.

fertilesoil_tpciImage Credit: Pexels

The term “Regenerative agriculture” was introduced in the 1980s by organic pioneer Robert Rodale to describe the objectives of organic farming. This approach emphasizes conservation and the restoration of food and farming systems. It aims to enhance ecosystem services, regenerate topsoil, increase biodiversity, build resilience to climate change, improve the water cycle, and strengthen the health and vitality of farm soil. Regenerative agriculture employs methods that focus on revitalizing soil health while boosting the ecosystem and biodiversity in surrounding areas. This farming philosophy seeks to heal the earth and regenerate natural resources, such as soil, that are gradually being depleted.

The application of regenerative agriculture is dynamic and holistic. By adopting permaculture and organic farming practices such as conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters, and pasture cropping, farmers can not only boost food production but also enhance their income and improve the quality of topsoil.

Sanjay Joshie, Head of Climate Change, Agriculture, and Livelihoods at ECHO India, suggests that “for agriculture to thrive, sustain India’s population, and fuel its economy, we must work in harmony with nature rather than against it.”

Why Regenerative farming is important?

According to soil scientists, the current global rate of soil destruction is alarming. In 50 years, the consequences could be catastrophic, resulting in significant public health issues due to degraded food lacking essential nutrients and trace minerals. Additionally, there may not be enough arable topsoil left to sustain our food supply. A UN report emphasizes that protecting and regenerating the soil on our 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 8 billion acres of pasture land, and 10 billion acres of forest land is crucial. Without these efforts, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 20°C, or halt the loss of biodiversity.

In India, over the past few decades, the agricultural industry has experienced a gradual decline due to extreme and changing climate patterns, poor groundwater conditions, acidified and depleted soil, increasing pests, and deteriorating ecosystems. As of 2023, over 29% of India’s total geographical area is degraded due to topsoil loss from erosion and a shortage of fresh water. The topsoil essential for agriculture, rich in organic matter and microorganisms, takes approximately 500 to 1,000 years to form just one inch.

Today, the rate of topsoil erosion due to agriculture has exceeded the rate of soil formation. Additionally, the country is facing a severe water crisis, with 91% of freshwater being used for agricultural purposes. Nearly 17 states and union territories are classified as over-exploited, as their annual groundwater extraction surpasses the annual extractable groundwater resource.

Here, regenerative agriculture can be a game changer as it promotes the development of healthy soil, which can produce high-quality, nutrient-dense food while enhancing the land. This approach ultimately leads to productive farms, healthy communities, and strong economies.

Commenting on the current agricultural challenges, Joshie adds “The Green Revolution rescued India from the brink of starvation, transforming its capacity to feed itself and become a major food exporter. However, it has also led to the overexploitation of groundwater and soil fertility. Regenerative agriculture, though not a cure-all, is a positive step towards revitalizing the agricultural ecosystem and maintaining harmony with nature.”

By adopting regenerative agriculture technologies globally, several significant benefits over sustainable agriculture can be achieved:

  • Produce food for increasing population: Small farmers produce food with less than a quarter of all farmland, as the soil gets fertile with regenerative practices, they will be able to produce more even from their confined lands.
  • Decrease greenhouse gas emissions: A regenerative food system could be a key driver of solutions to climate changes as current industrial food system is responsible for 44% to 57% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Reverse climate change: As the emission reduction is inadequate, the climate change can be reversed by increasing soil carbon stocks.
  • Improve crop yields: Regenerative farming helps produce higher yields even in extreme weather and climate change unlike the conventional farms.
  • Create drought-resistant soil: Adding organic matter to the soil increases the water holding capacity of the soil, hence building soil organic matter.
  • Preserve traditional knowledge: Understanding indigenous farming systems reveals important ecological clues for the development of regenerative organic agricultural systems.
  • Restore grasslands: One third of the earth’s surface is grasslands out of which 70% has been degraded which can be restored with holistic planned grazing.

Globally, regenerative agriculture has emerged as a sustainable alternative that prioritizes biodiversity, soil health, and ecosystem resilience. The regenerative agriculture market presents lucrative opportunities due to the increasing demand for sustainable food production systems. According to Precedence Research, the global regenerative agriculture market size reached USD 975.20 million in 2022 and is projected to grow to approximately USD 4,290.92 million by 2032, with a CAGR of 15.97% from 2023 to 2032.

Source: Precedence Research, values in US$ million*

Regenerative farming practices

Regenerative farming encompasses a variety of techniques aimed at rebuilding soil and sequestering carbon in the process. The following are some of the farming, ranching, and land use practices that are instrumental in creating regenerative food systems and fostering healthy natural ecosystems:

  • Aquaculture: Regenerative aquaculture differs from conventional methods by considering the broader impact of farming aquatic species. It incorporates shellfish like oysters, mussels, and clams in oceans, which filter large volumes of water daily, alongside beneficial seaweeds. On land, companies such as Atlantic Sapphire Salmon are pioneering sustainable practices that conserve water and recycle waste. Innovations like biofloc systems and bacteriophage therapy are also emerging to support disease control, promoting the adoption of regenerative aquaculture.
  • Agro-ecology: Agro-ecology aligns closely with other sustainable farming approaches by emphasizing the use of available biomass and biodiversity to enhance soil and plant quality, rather than relying on chemical fertilizers and synthetic compounds. By carefully considering gradients of moisture, temperature, and soil resources, agro-ecology guides the selection of farming systems and crop combinations best suited to specific conditions, offering insights into effective interventions and technologies.
  • Agro-forestry: Agroforestry involves deliberately integrating trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to generate environmental, economic, and social advantages. These components harmoniously interact to enhance resilience, boost biodiversity, and optimize the land and resources for greater productivity, profitability, and climate friendliness. This integrated approach yields significant ecological and economic benefits, offering an alternative method to produce food, timber, biomass, meat, and various other products.
  • Biochar: Biochar, is charcoal derived from biomass through thermal decomposition (pyrolysis), and a stable carbon-rich solid that can persist in soil for millennia. It is being studied for its potential to sequester carbon, mitigate global warming, and address climate change through pyrogenic carbon capture and storage processes. Biochar enhances soil fertility, particularly in acidic soils, boosts agricultural productivity, and offers protection against certain foliar and soil-borne diseases.
  • Compost: Composting is a process where organic solid waste breaks down with air. It recycles organic material by turning it into compost, which is great for plants as it acts like a natural fertilizer. To work well, composting needs human effort, air, and warmth from inside. The best results happen when there’s a good balance of carbon and nitrogen, ideally about 25 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Compost benefits plants more than synthetic fertilizers because it releases nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium slowly over time. It also helps activate minerals in soil that plants normally can’t use, like rock phosphate.
  • Holistic Planned Grazing: Holistic Planned Grazing is a planning approach that addresses the complex integration of livestock production with crop, wildlife, and forest management. Its goal is to promote ongoing land regeneration, ensure animal health and welfare, and maintain profitability. This method focuses on three key actions: grazing, animal impact, and rest periods, which are essential components of holistic management tools.
  • No till farming: No-till farming avoids plowing soil between crops, leaving dead crops on top to decompose slowly. This method reduces human intervention that can lead to soil degradation by exposing the upper soil layer, promoting weed growth, and causing leaching and erosion. It also helps maintain higher levels of organic matter and moisture in the soil, creating optimal conditions for agricultural crops to thrive consistently over time.

Although regenerative farming is beneficial in several ways, the transition from conventional farming to regenerative farming is a time taking process that is facing several challenges like:

  • Lack of knowledge among farmers and training programs
  • Initial costs as it can require significant investment in new equipment, seeds and soil amendments.
  • Reduced yields in initial years that can impact farmer income.
  • Government policies and schemes favoring conventional farming methods
  • Prolonged use of fertilizers and pesticides has made the transition to regenerative practices difficult

Sunil Khairnar, an agribusiness expert, emphasizes the urgency of accelerating the transition from conventional to regenerative farming methods. He suggests that the “Indian government should introduce subsidies, grants, and low-interest loans to support farmers adopting regenerative practices, and offer tax benefits for expenses related to implementing these techniques.” Additionally, Khairnar advocates for the “enhancement of agricultural extension services to provide hands-on training in regenerative practices, and the integration of regenerative agriculture into the curricula at agricultural universities and colleges.”

Even at its slow pace, regenerative farming holds a great potential in supporting India’s 2070 net zero emission target as well as farmers and allied businesses. As per Solidaridad’s field analysis, a small farmer in India can possess 1tCO2 (1 ton of carbon) to 4tCO2 by adopting regenerative practices on 1 hectare of land. Per ton of carbon today is priced at INR 1,500 to INR 2,500 which could be a significant revenue source for the farmers. Secondly, many FMCG companies are now prioritizing partnerships with new suppliers who already have regenerative practices in place.

Several Indian companies are consistently working towards farmer requirement in adapting regenerative practices. Sai sustainable agro uses agroforestry technology to transform degraded land and support farmers multiply their income. Krishi janai pbc created an online and offline marketplace to help bridge farmers practicing regenerative agriculture and consumers seeking verified organic products. Bioprime agrisolutions Pvt Ltd offers an innovative solution to help farmers reduce crop losses and get assured yields by strengthening the climate resilience of their crops using physiology modulating biomolecules.

Still at a nascent stage, regenerative farming is gaining significant attention as a sustainable practice that goes beyond conventional methods. Apart from restoring ecosystem and increasing crop resilience, the practice could help farmers play a vital role in mitigating climate change and increasing their income. Although the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture requires support from policymakers, businesses and consumers, it can shape a sustainable and resilient food system for future generations.

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