A binding definition for the concept of regenerative agriculture is still lacking. At the same time, growing attention is being focused on this new approach to sustainable farming. At the DLG Colloquium 2023 on the topic of "Regenerative Agriculture" at the beginning of December in Berlin, experts and practitioners classified this concept and analysed its potential.
DLG President Hubertus Paetow noted that the relatively new concept of regenerative agriculture was promising in that it aims to harmonise greater sustainability in farming with maintaining productivity. Another new and welcome aspect was that the regenerative agriculture approach is "dynamic in terms of target achievement". The approach to achieving goals such as improved soil quality or biodiversity thus could be adapted in the concept of regenerative agriculture in a results-orientated manner. Paetow emphasised at the DLG Colloquium that this would be more effective than "rigid adherence to regulations".
Green Deal places numerous demands on soil health
According to the observations of PD Dr Gernot Bodner from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, regenerative agriculture has become increasingly important over the past ten years. Bodner identified several drivers that are fueling the practices included under this heading. Political objectives such as the EU Green Deal climate protection and sustainability programme, for example, would formulate numerous requirements for soil health and the improvement of soil quality in order to increase and preserve biodiversity.
In addition, there is a trend towards conservation agriculture in many European countries, whose approaches are being further developed in regenerative agriculture, explained Bodner. According to Bodner, while conservation agriculture favours minimal soil movement, permanent soil cover and diverse crop rotations, regenerative agriculture additionally focuses on improved root growth, biodiversity through mixed crops or agroforestry systems and, ideally, the integration of animals. Advances in agricultural technology, such as precision farming systems, would also contribute to the growing importance of the concept. There is already a scientific consensus that regenerative agriculture has a stronger effect on building up humus in the soil than organic farming or conservation agriculture due to its focus on evergreen systems.
Whether market expectations can also be a driver for regenerative agriculture remains to be seen, Bodner explained. This is the case for organic farming with its own marketing systems that have developed over time. Similar to other sustainable farming approaches, however, a decline in yields is also to be expected in regenerative agriculture. Meta-studies show that organic farming results in a global average yield reduction of 25 per cent, while the figure for conservation tillage is around 6 per cent.
At the DLG Colloquium, Prof. Dr Verena Haberlah-Korr from the South Westphalia University of Applied Sciences in Soest explored the question of how principles of Integrated Plant Protection are compatible to the concept of regenerative agriculture. Like integrated plant protection, regenerative agriculture also favours preventative measures to keep the soil healthy. These include maximising soil cover and "moderate, adapted cultivation of the soil." Haberlah-Korr also categorised spot spraying as a potentially regenerative agricultural practice. This precision farming technique allows a targeted and thus reduced application of herbicides only on the weeds, emphasised the expert. The "toolbox" of integrated plant protection therefore certainly overlaps with the principles of regenerative agriculture, she concluded. However, chemical plant protection will not be replaced by regenerative agriculture: it will still remain indispensable as a "medicine" in the future, the professor emphasised.
Lea Fliess, Managing Director of the Forum Moderne Landwirtschaft (Forum Modern Agriculture), outlined why regenerative agriculture is suitable as a role model for the advancement of modern agriculture. In the media, regenerative agriculture was seen as a "problem solver" by both, the trade press and general press, said Fliess. The concept thus brings modern agriculture positive attention in society. The Forum Modern Agriculture and its members define regenerative agriculture as "the best of both worlds", i.e. conventional and organic agriculture, emphasised Fliess. This is because scientifically sound practices from both approaches with proven benefits for soil health, climate protection, biodiversity and yield resilience are utilised in the concept.
Transformation begins in the mind
Jan Große-Kleimann from the Große-Kleimann family farm, a conventional pig and arable farm in the German area of Münsterland, contributed a report from his own experience of regenerative farming. He argued in favour of multi-dimensional approaches to manage problems in agriculture such as soil erosion or plant diseases. In his opinion, these multidimensional approaches consist of eliminating the causes of such problems, rather than simply treating the symptoms. He also emphasised that "transformation begins in the mind" - and goes hand in hand with letting go of established doctrines: "What can I support today" and not "what can I fight today" is the fundamental question in holistic approaches to farming, Große-Kleimann stressed .
On his farm, Große-Kleimann implements the concept of regenerative agriculture in an "apple agroforestry system", among other things. This system combines cereal cultivation and fruit growing. The agroforestry system allows the farm to diversify into bread rye marketing, as bread rye cultivation is integrated into the system. Important ecosystem services are also provided: "Animals and birds return thanks to the diversity of crops," said Große-Kleimann.
At the same time, he did not hide the fact that the transformation to regenerative agriculture, or from "farmer to ecosystem manager", requires hard work, financial resources and patience: In Große-Kleimann's view, communication with society may be time consuming, but it is nonetheless essential for the appreciation and willingness to buy products derived from regenerative agriculture. For example, the Große-Kleimann family farm has organised a planting campaign inviting the general public for planting the apple trees in its own agroforestry system. Successes in soil development also take a few years to become visible, Große-Kleimann added. And finally, you have to be able to "finance the transformation."
About the DLG Colloquium
The DLG Colloquium takes place annually in December. In this series of events, the DLG works with experts to discuss social trends, primarily in the area of sustainability, that are relevant to agriculture. The focus is on how such trends can be profitably integrated into agricultural practice.