Regenerative Agriculture in South Africa: All You Need To Know – RegenZ

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Regenerative agriculture is the solution for South Africa’s farmers. In this guide, we’ll summarise everything you need to know about regenerative farming, regenerative agriculture methods and regenerative soil practices. 

principles of regen ag

Regenerative Agriculture in South Africa

As the world battles a global pandemic, the past year and a bit has reminded us of the importance of our health. Intertwined with human health is the health of our planet, which is also currently in a crisis caused by climate change and the collapse of biodiversity. 

Adding to the threat, the world’s population is projected to grow from the current 7,8 billion people to 9,7 billion people over the next three decades. In South Africa, the population has been forecast to grow from 54 million people to over 65 million in 2050.

Along with a growing population to feed, farmers are challenged by changing climate conditions and the overall sustainability of their operations. 

The agricultural industry is one of the major culprits regarding biodiversity loss. According to the Regenerative Agriculture Association of South Africa, the industrialised production of food:

  • Erodes soil
  • Damages the natural environment
  • Is responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions
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Around the world, more than a quarter of the carbon emissions contributing to climate change come from growing and processing food. 

Climate change and its associated droughts, floods and extreme weather are already disrupting harvests, wiping out growing seasons and creating food supply chain volatility. In the future, South Africa is expected to experience less rainfall and higher temperatures, which will have a negative impact on water resources, soil and crops.

On top of the scourge of climate change, producers also have to grapple with natural resource degradation due to years of incorrect grazing management. It is estimated that the average net primary productivity in South Africa decreased by an average of 29kg of carbon/ha/year in the period from 1981 to 2003, and has continued to decline since. 

One Solution:

In fact, the only solution—is regenerative agriculture. Switching to regenerative agriculture methods minimises carbon emissions, promotes biodiversity, protects the soil and ensures agricultural sustainability.

What Is Regenerative Agriculture?

There is no one definition of regenerative agriculture. According to Regenerative International, regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that regenerate soils by restoring the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nutrient cycle and, in the process, producing nutrient-dense foods while restoring the soil’s other crucial ecosystem services.

Regenerative agriculture is farming in a way that improves agricultural ecosystems, farming with nature rather than against it. Along with increased yields and resilience to a variable climate, regenerative agriculture strives to rebuild and restore ecosystem function.

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We know that healthy soils result in healthy produce. With regenerative farming methods, this ecosystem-based approach aims to improve farm’s resilience, yield and quality. It does so by restoring soil health, increasing biodiversity, reducing the effect of synthetic inputs, and restoring a variety of ecosystem services. These regenerative management actions lead to a more sustainable and resilient agricultural system. Another important benefit is the removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the storage of carbon in soils.

What is the difference between regenerative agriculture and organic farming?

While regenerative farming shares many of the same aims as organic farming, it moves beyond the practices of replacing chemical inputs and improving microbiological diversity. Although these are important goals of regenerative farming, its overriding goal is to mimic and work with nature rather than against it.

The Key Difference Between Regenerative And Sustainable Farming

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Photosynthesis does two important jobs:

  1. Draws down carbon
  2. Is nature’s “air-conditioner”, cooling the environment via transpiration

Why we need Regenerative Agriculture

As we discussed in the introduction, the current two major food production issues are human health and the environment (with a direct link to climate change).

Our current systems of food production damage the environment, erode our soils and increase greenhouse gas emissions. For the last 75 years, ploughs, chemicals and fertilisers used in the industrial agricultural industry have depleted our soils to the extent that they now produce nutrient-poor food. Depleted soils and chemical inputs impact both human health and environmental health.

So, what can we do to fix this? Put simply, we need to return carbon to the soil instead of pumping it into the atmosphere. Regenerative agriculture is the way to do this.

Thus, agriculture has the greatest potential for cooling the planet

albert einstein
hand

Five reasons why we have to change to regenerative farming:

  1. We are putting carbon into the atmosphere rather than storing it in the soil (carbon sequestering)
  2. We are losing 0.3% of our soil per year. That amounts to 30% in the last 100 years
  3. We are producing nutrient-poor food
  4. Our health is suffering
  5. We are using ten times more energy to produce our food than the energy the food contains

Sustainable is not sufficient

Simply put, there are really only two types of agriculture:

1

Destructive

2

Regenerative

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Basically, all agriculture that does not build soil biology and reinstate natural mineral and water cycles can be seen as destructive. 

Given the dire condition of our soils in South African and around the world, sustainable agriculture can no longer be our goal; we can’t merely “sustain”; we need to “regenerate”.

Agricultural practices that destroy soil:

Agricultural practices that help build soils:

Here's what good soils can do:

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Hold Carbon

hold water icon

Hold Water

Infiltrate Water

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Support
Microbiology

Reduce Synthetic
Inputs

Plant nutrient dense icons

Produce Nutrient-Dense Plants

How Regenerative Agriculture Works

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Regenerative agriculture goes back to working with natural systems rather than against them.

This includes methods such as:

  • Grazing animals in ways that mimic plains game on grasslands
  • Using old methods of crop farming from before the time of chemicals
  • Going back to the philosophy of the sun as the only source of energy,
  • Subverting monoculture
  • Restoring carbon and water cycles

Regenerative agriculture calls on farm management that forms carbon loops rather than a series of carbon emissions that take carbon from the soil into the sky. As a result, these practices rebuild the soil, stimulating microbiology and fixing the water cycle. By maximising the photosynthetic potential of that soil, regenerative agriculture captures more carbon and cools the planet.

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At the end of 2019, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture began two studies:

  1. To examine the feasibility of regenerative farming
  2. To monitor its effects

So far, many of these studies have concluded that in South Africa, the secrets to regenerative farming are:

  • Increasing biodiversity
  • Using native crops
  • Using manure from local animal farms

The Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture

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What’s good for the earth is good for us.

Professor David Montgomery

With the practice of regenerative agriculture:

resilient plant

1

Land produces plants that are more resilient to drought and disease.

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2

Fewer pesticides and chemical applications = healthier soil and fewer carbon emissions.

drought management

3

Healthy soils absorb more water for better flood management.

resilient plant

4

More organic matter in the soil means increased yields.

pesticide sprayer

5

Minimised tillage means more carbon is sequestered in the soil = reduced greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Regenerative agriculture benefits the environment, the farmer and the consumer.
Here’s how:

Regenerative farming techniques such as using cover crops, crop rotation, compost and animal manures organically revitalise the soil and give it nutrients. This represents a long-term solution to soil fertility, rather than plying the soil with harmful or synthetic fertilisers.

Regenerative agriculture improves the soil structure and resilience, thus buffering production against droughts and floods and protecting the soil against water and wind erosion.

Healthier soils mean less rainwater run-off and improved water infiltration into the soil with more plant-available water. This has become particularly important as a way to manage climate change with improved drought tolerance, resilience and endurance.

Over time, farms that incorporate regenerative agricultural practices see improved yields as a result of healthier crops. This also reduces the need for harmful insecticides and herbicides.

More and more studies indicate that the restoration of degraded land greatly increases carbon capture and storage rates in the soil. The soil microbial communities that exist in symbiosis with plants play a major role in biogeochemical cycles by influencing carbon and nutrient cycling. Thus, better soil and land management means healthier soil with a higher capacity to sequestrate atmospheric carbon, reducing its detrimental effects on people and the environment.

Ultimately, healthier soils and healthier crops produced in a more sustainable way benefits the farmer’s bottom line. Using fewer inputs means money saved in production, and higher quantity quality and diversity of yield create more income-generating potential.

Crops grown using regenerative principles are more nutritious to eat, which means that they do a better job supporting a growing population of people and preventing illness and disease.

The Benefits Of Regenerative Farming For Livestock Farmers

Regenerative Farming Methods

Making The Switch To Regenerative Agriculture

"Soil health should be seen as a journey and not a destination"

The first thing to change when switching to regenerative farming is your mindset. Too often, farmers look for quick fixes to improve production outcomes. This is a condition of the 20th and 21st Century mindset, whether we’re talking about farming or anything in life. Technology has enabled instant gratification and quick fixes, which may work in the short term, but don’t solve problems and create a better world in the long term.

The mindset that regenerative farmers need to adopt is a “soil health mindset”. This is based on the understanding that the soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem—not just a growth medium. It involves thinking through what you are doing and where you are going with production practices.

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At first, it can be difficult to quantify or translate the benefits of regenerative farming into a monetary value. Start-up costs are high, as you need special equipment and plenty of good quality compost. Fear of change also drives people to continue using their old plant nutrition practices along with new techniques, leading to a doubling of costs and effort.

The mindset that regenerative farmers need to adopt is a “soil health mindset”. This is based on the understanding that the soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem—not just a growth medium. It involves thinking through what you are doing and where you are going with production practices.

Start with the soil

Like anything, the switch to regenerative agriculture should be a gradual conversion. It should be well planned and founded on good production principles. The sensible starting point is focusing on the health of the soil.

5 Simple Soil Health Principles For Regenerative Farming
science

Use the science

Measure everything to gain more insight and a better understanding of what’s happening in and around the plants. Use science as a guideline to calibrate decisions in line with the needs of the soil and plant.

Use technology

Just because regenerative farming incorporates pre-industrial era philosophies, it doesn’t mean that they need to be carried out the same way that they were hundreds of years ago. Today, technology can provide data-driven solutions to improve our ability to understand and manage the relationships between production factors and inform decision making.

The Journey Towards Regenerative Agriculture

Conclusion

The time for regenerative agriculture is now. If anything, we are already too late. Farmers who want to remain viable need to look long-term and build a system that will help ensure their longevity and profitability. This is essential to ensure that the next generation views agriculture as a viable career path and to feed the world’s growing population.

At Zylem, we focus on “soil and plant health for human health.” For three decades, we have been forging the future of regenerative farming throughout Southern Africa. We provide agricultural technical services and facilitate the supply of sustainable agricultural inputs.

Our mission is to improve human health and nutrition by offering integrated products and services to the extended agricultural and horticultural communities of Southern Africa. Our focus is on sustainably and regeneratively improving soil health and plant health by applying innovations in crop production technology.