The H3 research on regenerative agriculture started in January 2021. While there is no agreed definition of regenerative agriculture, some suggest that it involves adoption of five key principles which can be implemented through farming practices which aim to improve soils and the wider environment. These principles and examples of related practices typically include:
- Avoiding disturbance to the soil – through Reduced or zero tillage (ploughing), reduced soil compaction through use of lower tyre pressures on agricultural machinery and avoiding working soil in wet weather;
- Keeping the soil surface covered through maintaining crop ground cover throughout the year;
- Growing a range of crops – incorporating more diversity in the rotation of crops grown to include Nitrogen-fixing legumes and deeper rooting species;
- Maintaining living roots within the soil year round;
- Integrating livestock where possible, or using farmyard manures or imported slurry.
Advocates of regenerative agriculture believe that these farming practices benefit soils, predominantly because they enable organic matter to accumulate. The higher levels of organic matter confer different physical and chemical properties to the soil, which also make it more resilient to changing weather patterns by improving drainage in wet conditions, and through retaining moisture in dry conditions. Furthermore, higher levels of organic matter store Carbon within the soil and support greater biodiversity such as worms and micro-organisms. These organisms help to make nutrients available to plants, which may also reduce chemical fertiliser requirements. The diversity of cover and crops grown can therefore help to develop fertility within soil.
Maintaining ground cover throughout the year decreases soil erosion, and the introduction of field margins and boundaries can improve the prevalence and diversity of fauna, including beneficial insects and birds, which may also reduce pesticide requirements.
These practices differ from the more ‘conventional’ farming systems which typically: remove all living plants and residues at harvest – leaving soil bare before the next crops are sown; disturb the soil by ploughing; compact the soil with heavy machinery; and generally require higher levels of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers.
Whilst some farmers have started to adopt regenerative farming practices, and may have experienced some of these benefits, the effects have not been scientifically studied at the landscape scale. The H3 research aims to understand the beneficial effects of regenerative agriculture through scientific study of soil, wider environmental outcomes and food quality in two UK landscapes. A social science component of the research seeks to understand the diversity of views on ‘regenerative agriculture’ and the drivers and barriers to farmers changing their farming practices, supporting them through the life of the project using peer learning and knowledge exchange activities, both within and beyond the farm clusters where the research is taking place. The research will also analyse the impact of new policy initiatives including the Environmental Landscape Management (ELM) scheme involving the investment of ‘public money for public goods’.
The H3 research process involves genuine co-production within a team comprising: multi-disciplinary academics (from the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Bristol); stakeholders and partners including the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) and the Soil Association; and the lead farmers from the two different farming landscapes where the research is being conducted.
The H3 research team have made great progress in the first 18 months which includes:
- Identifying and mapping replicate sixty hectare blocks of land in three treatment types: ‘conventional’, ‘regenerative’ and ‘transition to regenerative’, with 8 of each type, across the two experimental landscapes.
- The development of protocols to monitor soils, winter birds, pollinators, natural enemies and pests. This included developing more detailed power analyses to inform sample sizes.
- Completion of baseline field sampling for winter birds, soils, pollinators, natural enemies and pests.
- Completion of a first round of qualitative interviews with farmers from both clusters.
- Training in practical measures of soil health in one farming cluster.
In the short term H3 will facilitate the collection of data indicating what effect different cultivation and agronomic systems can have on soil health and environmental outcomes. In the longer term the project could form part of a bank of knowledge dictating farming systems of the future.
If the data indicates that certain systems are effective and sustainable, both environmentally and financially, then these systems could be adopted across the country.