There is growing momentum behind a shift to ‘regenerative’ agriculture in the UK, which can help to mitigate the climate crisis, say leading experts in the sector.
“More and more people are seeing other farmers doing it [regenerative farming] and are happier for it,” said John Cherry, who founded Groundswell, the UK’s flagship event for regenerative agriculture, on his farm in Hertfordshire. “People may be getting a higher yield with conventional approaches, but it is costing them more too with all the inputs, so they are not making more money.”
Minette Batters, head of the National Farmers’ Union, has set out an ambition for UK farming to be climate neutral by 2040. Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy has now recommended that the government put aside up to GBP700m to pay farmers to create nature-rich, carbon sequestering landscapes.
Food and farming – a key UK sector – has a large carbon footprint, accounting for one-fifth of our emissions. That figure rises to about 30% if you factor in the emissions produced by all the food we import. Agriculture accounts for about 10% of emissions, but in recent years there have been a number of commitments to reducing that.
There are already more than 1,700 organic farmers across the UK registered with Soil Association Certification, covering almost half a million hectares of farmland. As well as using fewer pesticides, organic farms have more wildlife and store more carbon in their soils, reducing climate emissions.
But in recent years, ‘regenerative’ farming techniques have seen a significant growth in interest.
When Groundswell started six years ago, there were just a couple of hundred attenders. This year, more than 3,500 people turned up, including environment secretary George Eustice, who told the crowd that Brexit was a chance for the UK to lead the world on supporting regenerative agriculture. Under new subsidy plans announced by his department, farmers will be offered up to GBP70 per hectare to take up regenerative techniques, including mixed farming systems where crops are cultivated alongside livestock to help boost soil health.
Even the most traditional farming media outlets have been awash with praise for the new approach managing land and producing food in recent weeks, admitting that many farmers are now experimenting with some of the ideas.
Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced it was launching a regenerative farming project to transition its beef suppliers in the UK to more sustainable approaches. And writing in the Guardian in May, Prince Charles called for a “rapid transition to regenerative farming”.
As well as shows like Groundswell, membership of regenerative farming groups has soared. The Landworkers Alliance, set up in 2014, represents more than 1,500 farmers and landworkers across the UK promoting more regenerative approaches to farming. While the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Pasture-fed Livestock Association have more than 1,500 farmer members between them.
The lockdown had also given farmers a chance to pick up on a proliferation of online events and content on regenerative farming, said Nikki Yoxall, 34, a first generation regenerative farmer in Aberdeenshire. “While those practising it are still a minority, there’s a lot more awareness and interest in it from all quarters.”
The end of subsidies and rising cost of inputs like fertilisers is pushing farmers to reconsider what they do. “If you accept that things can’t carry on as they are, then you can leave the industry or try something different,” said Herefordshire regenerative beef, sheep and fruits farmer Rich Thomas, 42. “If you take away chemicals slowly then you can wean yourself off a little bit every year and look to start farming in a different way. It’s about trying to regenerate and better use our soils.”
Yoxall, who runs a grazing service for farmers and landowners to help manage and maintain their land and soils, said regenerative agriculture was a more accessible type of farming for new entrants too, given its lack of reliance on high inputs and machinery. “If we have more regenerative agriculture in the UK then we’ll need a lot more farmers in the UK for sure.”
But the ideas are also attracting existing, older generations of farmers who want to leave a positive legacy on their farm. “I’m getting regular calls now from the 55-year-old plus age group who realise they’ve degraded their land and just want to make amends and leave it in a better state,” said Herefordshire farmer and regenerative agriculture consultant Ben Taylor-Davies.
And it’s picking up public support. “There’s an interest in it as a label beyond just farming, with people looking for wool and leather from a regenerative farming origin too,” said Cotswold-based regenerative farmer James Allen.
Allen said consumer interest would ultimately be a bigger driver than government policy. “Organic started as a niche, but now every supermarket has its own range. It [regenerative farming] is on a wave gaining momentum all the time,” he added.