Conservative and Regenerative Versus Intensive Agriculture

In a recent report Dr. Robin Batterham outlines the benefits of conservation and regenerative agriculture and calls for greater scientific analysis of these agricultural practices. He suggests that advancements in satellite observation systems could be used in conjunction with ground proofing to that end.

Key Points

  • The benefits of conservation and regenerative agriculture are well-documented in the scholarly literature.
  • Those benefits include improved yields, superior water retention, cooler soils in summer, greater resilience, a reduction in runoff and erosion, and a reduction in the use of fertilisers and other farm chemicals.
  • An objective, science-based approach to conservation and regenerative farming trials is necessary to fully understand the discrepancies between the scientific literature and the experience of farmers.
  • Australia does not have enough data to make a considered call on the carbon sequestration potential of regenerative agriculture. Therefore a campaign that focuses on measuring Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) changes for different farming practices would be beneficial.
  • Satellite observations, in conjunction with other readily available farm data and ground proofing, will assist in the gathering of more information on SOC which, in turn, will enable more targeted improvements in agricultural productivity, profitability and sustainability.

Analysis
Much has been written on the advantages of both conservation and regenerative agriculture showing the case for conservation agriculture is compelling for rain fed agriculture. Yields are higher and are sustained over long periods, both in Australia and globally. It is seen that the yield improvement is of the order of 0.5 to 5 tonnes of grain/hectare. There are also well-documented studies covering the superior water retention, cooler soils in summer, greater resilience, reduction in run-off and erosion and, of course, reduction in the use of fertilisers and farm chemicals. In dry climates 50 per cent of the rain that falls on crops evaporates, which is a powerful argument for the adoption of conservation agriculture.

The obvious question is: why are not all farmers compelled to switch? The answers are numerous and mostly behavioural, such as ignorance and adherence to the status quo. As well, the benefits are local area, weather and crop(s) specific. Furthermore, the productivity models used by many advisers are based on intensive agriculture and do not cover the multifaceted nature of alternative practices or the nitrogen requirements being largely supplied from cover crops and not from artificial fertilisers. A piecemeal approach that only covers one aspect of the system at a time can underestimate benefits.

In a recent study on corn, regenerative versus intensive agriculture delivers 29 per cent less corn but 78 per cent more profit over sustained periods of time. The conclusions are telling: ‘By promoting soil biology and organic matter and biodiversity on their farms, regenerative farmers required fewer costly inputs like insecticides and fertilisers, and managed their pest populations more effectively.’ SOC ‘was a more important driver of proximate farm profitability.’

 

Ref: Dr Robin Batterham AO, Future Directions 11.10.18