As government ministers co-opt terms like Regenerative Agriculture to suit their needs, we break down what they actually mean, and why questioning where your food comes from is of paramount importance.
Today's news headlined the Minister for the Department of Environment, Farming, and Rural Affiars (DEFRA), Therese Coffey, say that Glyphosate is “absolutely fine” to use and is “critical for regenerative farming”. This follows another news story that; "the UK's controversial pesticide policies have resulted in 36 toxic chemicals banned in the EU being allowed by the government post-Brexit." Perhaps the old-thinking of maximum production at the expense of the environment is driving this legislation towards making sure that the UK is as self-sufficient as possible, but we now have an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that what we should be prioritising is Nature-friendly farming above all else. If we continue to produce food whilst depleting natural resources and harming our ecosystems, we will not have anything left to grow.
A term that has become increasingly popular is Regenerative Farming, but what does it mean? It is not as strictly defined as Organic (which of course has a stringent certification system on which you can depend), but it's intention is to farm with Nature and to restore the environment. To not only maintain the status quo, but to also add life back to the land. This term, however, is being co-opted by corporations, government, and just about anyone who needs to greenwash their actions without actually understanding what it means. At it's very core Regenerative Farming means:
1. To limit mechanical and chemical disturbance of the soil - therefore no glyphosate (as this is a very harmful toxic chemical substance).
2. To always keep the soil covered (with vegetation and/or materials), never to leave it bare - so in a regenerative farming system you would never see fields of ploughed earth left bare).
3. To promote as much biodiversity as possible. To shift away from huge fields of a single crop, and instead to mimick what Nature would do without intense human intervention.
4. To integrate animals and plants into the same system; for example to have orchards and grazers, or vegetables and ducks or chickens (they are brilliant slug eaters).
5. Keep plant roots in the ground as much as possible.
Currently there is no certification system for regenerative agriculture, which is why it's so easily co-opted by anyone who needs to use it to their advantage, and a system is only regenerative if it follows all four principles, not just one or two. The proof with regenerative really is in the pudding - much like Permaculture (which is also a regenerative system of growing food), it only works if you consider the whole system. A farmer will know that they are farming regeneratively if they see more biodiversity on their land, have better water and soil retention in their fields, have less disease because there are more natural predators, grow better tasting food because there is more life in their soils, and therefore there are more nutrients available to be integrated into their produce (be that plants and/or animals), their crops are less vulnerable to extreme weather patterns (because they are growing a greater variety of things, and not all plants are in full-sun), the list goes on and on...
Perhaps at some point we will have a certification scheme that we can depend on in terms of purely "regenerative" farming, but many bodies, such as The Soil Association, and The Biodynamic Association, will argue that the practices that they certify are already regenerative - that they are the labels to look out for.
So, how does this relate back to us, making choices about what we buy, cook & eat? Well, knowing how your food is produced, and choosing, when you can, food that is produced in a way that is environmentally-friendly, and if possible also restoring the natural environment, can make an enourmous difference. If we all chose to only buy food that Organic, Biodynamic, Regenerative, Local, In-season, from a farmer that we know and respect - well our isles would look very different. These options, however, are not available to all of us, be that because of the superior cost of buying well-produced food, through lack of knowldge or skills of what to do with raw ingredients, lack of availability or accessibility to those ingredients or pre-prepared meals, and confusion about what to choose. What we can all do is get curious.
We can ask questions, begin to look for certain labels (like Organic), start to get informed about what is in season, start to question how our food is produced. We can start to talk about it with family and friends, we can talk about it with our local MP! We can start to talk about it with our children, our parents. We can try growing our own vegetables (even on a windowsill). We can begin to get more in touch with how our food is produced, where it comes from, and what and who went into making it.
At Sustainable Food Places our sixth key issue is Food for the Planet. "By changing what we, as individuals and institutions, choose to eat, we can transform what, how and where food is produced and thus help to minimise any negative impacts on climate and biodiversity."
Therese Coffey says Glyphosate is 'absolutely fine' to use, SouthWest Farmer, Danny Halpin, 14/09/23
Glyphosate is “absolutely fine” to use and is “critical for regenerative farming”, the environment secretary has said. Therese Coffey said the herbicide, which is the key ingredient in the weedkiller RoundUp, is necessary for farmers who are “desperate” to continue using it. The chemical is valued for its ability to kill unwanted plants and is used in agriculture and horticulture while also sprayed around many UK towns and cities. Its use by farmers grew 16% between 2016 and 2020, Government figures show, who use it as an alternative to ploughing, which reduces soil erosion and carbon emissions.
'The toxic poster child of Europe', The Ecologist, Monica Piccinini, 13/09/23
Back British Farming Day 2023: celebrating our farmers, Farmers Guide, 13/09/23
Cusworth G and Garnett, T. (2023). What is regenerative agriculture? TABLE Explainer. TABLE, University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University and Research. doi.org/10.56661/2caf9b92