What is concrete behind regenerative agriculture?

What is concrete behind regenerative agriculture?

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In vogue for several years, particularly within large agri-food groups, regenerative agriculture is increasingly put forward as a solution to the challenge of producing sustainably. However, is there a concrete definition of this agricultural model? Or is it just a better marketing concept?

Is regenerative agriculture the future of agriculture?Is regenerative agriculture the future of agriculture? (© Adobe Stock)

FFaced with climate, environmental and food challenges, agriculture is experiencing an unprecedented paradigm shift. “We were less than 3 billion in 1946, we are 7 billion today, the world population has tripled in nearly 80 years. We must now merge environmental protection and production, and move towards high-performance agriculture overall”, recalled Michel Dubois, scientific advisor, referent in agricultural sciences at UniLasalle, on the occasion of a conference organized June 9 by Agridées.

The integration of sustainability into agricultural systems has led to the emergence of new forms of agriculture that refer to agroecology: soil conservation agriculture, agriculture of life or, more recently, regenerative agriculture. However, the framework of the latter remains ambiguous. Is there, behind this new form of agriculture, an agronomic reality initiating a new agricultural revolution? Or is it just a marketing concept?

A principle, the “regeneration” of the commons

For Michel Dubois, there is little difference in vision between regenerative agriculture, soil conservation agriculture (ACS), or agriculture of life, which pursue “similar objectives”. “The technical-scientific debate between the three seems sterile,” adds the scientist.

Why “regenerative” agriculture? “What has a function is the living, which functions with energy. The first energy is that of the sun, which is then distributed in the chain of life. To regenerate is therefore bring available energy for biodiversity to express itself, through plant cover, crop combinations… The photosynthesising plant is the only organism that will capture the sun’s energy and redistribute it”, explains Sébastien Roumegous, co-founder of Biosphere. Who specifies that the implementation is complex: “it will take a lot of intelligence, but the plant will become a pillar in the future”, he adds.

A “more meaningful” concept

While the objectives are similar, conservation agriculture has a solid definition around three pillars, the permanent plant cover of the soil, the sowing without tillage, and the diversity of crops (intercropping, double cropping, rotation, etc.). For Diane Masure, farmer in ACS in the south of Champagne and member of Apad, soil conservation agriculture also means permanent learning and the sharing of knowledge through groups of farmers. “We must not forget that what is important for a farmer is to be in control of his destiny”, she explains.

In ACS, the farmer obtains yields similar to those of her neighbours, but her costs are lower (less phytos, less fuel because less tillage, etc.). If the ACS keeps its promises in terms of increasing biodiversity and preserving the soil, it recognizes that “regenerative agriculture is more speaking at the level of the financiersit’s more marketing”, ACS being too quickly associated with glyphosate.

Only marketing assets?

Why would regenerative agriculture appeal more? For Michel Duru, Jean-Pierre Sarthou and Olivier Therond, from Inrae, “a major advantage of regenerative agriculture is to be based on a story highlighting a principle, the ‘regeneration’ of common goods (soil, water, air, biodiversity), which can lead to the support of a diversity of actors “, they write in Regenerative agriculture: pinnacle of agroecology or greenwashing? (Les Cahiers de l’agriculture, July 2022).

Thanks to its ability to federate, regenerative agriculture can thus bring the sectors together more. “The concept of regeneration applied to food systems would be a means of better reconcile environmental and social approaches of sustainability by considering all of the actors concerned”, note the authors of the article. Nevertheless, “the mobilization of the achievements of agroecology, as a science, practice and movement, could help to specify its contentstill unclear, so that its promises translate into real progress and are not exclusively carbon-focused,” they add.

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