How fast can regenerative agriculture build topsoil?

Bringing Topsoil Back to Life with Regenerative agriculture

Conventional agricultural methods continue to deplete topsoil and degrade soil health, and the current high erosion rates throughout the world are of great concern because of the slow rate of topsoil renewal; 500 years for 2.5 cm layer of fertile topsoil to form under agricultural conditions. 

Building up, maintaining and conserving the fertility of different soil types around the world in the face of diverse climatic conditions is one of the biggest challenges to modern agriculture. In this context, regenerative practices offer a promising pathway towards revitalising our soils and ensuring long-term agricultural sustainability.

Understanding soil’s vital role

Soil plays a critical role in sustaining life on Earth. The topsoil, a thin layer beneath our feet where plants grow their roots, is formed through ancient processes of decay and transformation by countless tiny organisms. These microscopic beings, although mostly unknown to us, play a crucial role. This vibrant ecosystem, essential for plant growth, relies on a delicate balance of nutrients, organic matter, and microbial activity.

Throughout history, humans have discovered that soil health is essential for agriculture. It’s fragile and needs careful management for long-term fertility and resilience, forming the very basis of sustainable farming practices. However, centuries of agricultural practices, including slash-and-burn techniques and monoculture farming, have taken a toll on soil health worldwide. As a result, more than half of the world’s agricultural land is degraded. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), approximately 33% of the world’s land suffers from erosion, pollution, and urbanization. 

The emergence of regenerative agriculture

Enter regenerative agriculture, a holistic approach that aims not only to halt soil degradation but also to restore and enhance soil health. Unlike conventional methods reliant on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, regenerative agriculture focuses on building topsoil, increasing soil organic matter (SOM), and fostering biodiversity.

Research conducted by the University of Washington’s organic and regeneratively managed student farm demonstrates the efficacy of regenerative practices in rebuilding soil health over time. Over a twenty-year period, topsoil thickness increased significantly, accompanied by a rise in soil organic matter content. Measurements of topsoil thickness and organic matter content were collected across 14 distinct plots on the farm to quantify trends over time and estimate net change in soil organic matter and soil organic carbon:

  • SOM content increased by 0.5% per year
  • Topsoil thickness exhibited a significant linear increase of 0.86 cm per year

These findings underscore the potential of regenerative agriculture to reverse soil degradation and maintain productive agricultural spaces.’

Principles of Regenerative Agriculture Infographic - RegenZ

The principles of regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture operates on a set of principles designed to enhance soil health and ecosystem resilience. These principles include:

  • Minimum physical disturbance: Avoiding tillage and other practices that disrupt soil structure.
  • Soil cover: Utilising cover crops and mulching to protect the soil from erosion, maintain moisture, add organic matter to the soil, and enhance biodiversity and microbial activity (Did you know that one handful of healthy soil contains more micro-organisms than there are people living on earth?).
  • Crop rotations: Rotating crops to prevent nutrient depletion and promote biodiversity.
  • Living roots: Ensuring continuous root presence in the soil to support microbial activity and nutrient cycling.
  • Animal integration: Incorporating livestock into farming systems to enhance soil fertility and nutrient cycling.
  • Understand the context of your farm operation

By adhering to these principles, farmers can foster a regenerative cycle of soil health and productivity, ultimately leading to sustainable agricultural practices.

Beyond soil health, regenerative agriculture also offers significant economic and environmental benefits. By reducing reliance on synthetic inputs and improving water retention, regenerative practices can enhance crop yields while mitigating the impacts of climate change. Regenerative agriculture also promotes biodiversity, preserves natural habitats, and empowers farmers, particularly those in vulnerable communities.

How fast can regenerative agriculture build topsoil?

One of the most pressing questions surrounding regenerative agriculture is its speed in rebuilding topsoil. According to studies, regenerative practices can yield remarkable results over time. For instance, at the UW student farm, topsoil thickness increased by 0.86 cm per year, while soil organic matter content showed a gradual improvement of 0.5% annually. Such findings suggest that regenerative agriculture has the capacity to build topsoil, offering hope for the restoration of degraded lands worldwide.

Regenerating hope

The good news is that soils and the soil-plant ecosystem have an incredible ability to recover. Regenerative agriculture thus represents a transformative approach to soil restoration and sustainable food production. By harnessing the power of nature and embracing principles rooted in ecological balance, farmers can rebuild topsoil, mitigate climate change, and secure our agricultural future. 

At RegenZ, we provide agricultural technical services and facilitate the supply of sustainable agricultural inputs. Our mission is to improve soil health, human health and nutrition by offering integrated products and services to the extended agricultural and horticultural communities of Southern Africa. Get in touch if you need some help along your regenerative journey. 

Profile Picture of Alex Platt

About the Author: Alex Platt

Alex is Business Development Manager at RegenZ. He's inspired by the potential of regenerative farming and takes a special interest in the technology and products that are moving agriculture in a more sustainable direction.