More Australian farmers are moving towards regenerative agriculture, citing a host of benefits to overall profitability and productivity, marketing potential and even the ability to monetise soil carbon gains.
While the term refers to a range of individual practises, regenerative agriculture can be defined as an approach to farming that focuses on restoring soil function in order to maximise carbon sequestration and soil water holding capacity.
“[It’s a] form of agriculture in which farmers go beyond seeking to be sustainable to regenerate agriculture ecosystems that have been adversely affected by agriculture in countries like Australia over long periods of time,” said Nick Gill, Head of the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities at the University of Wollongong.
Speaking about the issues caused by conventional farming systems, Dr Gill stressed that the development of regenerative agriculture has its roots in restoring soil function lost over the last 200 years.
“Regenerative agriculture practitioners seek to repair that through agricultural practices,” Dr Gill said.
Regenerative farming can include a number of existing methods such as the addition of biochar and compost to soils, holistic grazing and even aquaculture, so long as the emphasis is on the restoration of soil organic matter and soil biology.
Regenerative Agriculture Hailed as a Climate Change Saviour
Regenerative agriculture is seen by many as a solution to climate change, through its ability to improve the soils’ capacity to store carbon.
“One of the best-kept secrets in the world today is that the solution to global warming and the climate crisis (as well as poverty and deteriorating public health) lies right under our feet, and at the end of our knives and forks,” said Ronnie Cummins from Regeneration International – a not-for-profit organisation promoting the regen ag on a global scale.
Australian farmers have recently started to sell carbon credits generated by improving carbon levels in their soils, including the landmark sale of a carbon portfolio worth $500,000 to tech giant Microsoft.
Wilmot Cattle Co in New South Wales used regenerative farming methods including rotational grazing and high-density stocking rates to improve their soil carbon from 2.5% to 4.5% in just three years.
While many growers consider the role of carbon sequestration as a profit generator, industry experts are warning that Australia might not be the place to chase soil carbon gains specifically for the carbon market.
Richard Eckard, Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Melbourne, said that declining rainfall in Australia will reduce the potential to build soil carbon.
“Backing something like soil carbon, which is really just dependent on rainfall, is really tricky in a country that can’t depend on its own rainfall,” he said.
According to Professor Eckard, improving soil carbon could be more valuable in terms of its ability to drive on-farm productivity, rather than its value as a credit. Data from a study in Western Victoria showed that an increase in soil carbon drove on-farm profitability by $150 per hectare, compared with a return of $15 to $20 in carbon credits.
“And so, I ask the question if the inherent productivity benefit is $150 per hectare per year of high carbon, why are we chasing $15 to $20 worth of soil carbon credits that lock you into long-term commitments rather than just banking the productivity and saying my farm is more sustainable as a result?”
Professor Eckard also reminded farmers that selling a carbon credit could be a marketing disadvantage as more consumers are choosing to buy environmentally sustainable foods.
“Once [a credit] goes to another entity like the coal industry who use it as their offset, what happens to that farm when the supply chain says we will only buy your product if it’s carbon neutral?”