Regenerative agriculture needs to be made more concrete and measurable

March 20, 2023

Regenerative agriculture could be a new and more sustainable solution for our current food production system. For his PhD research, Loekie Schreefel examined how regenerative agriculture works and how it could be implemented.

“I want to make the benefits regenerative agriculture more concrete and more measurable, so it will become more attractive for policymakers to provide funding to farmers, and more worthwhile for farmers to adopt regenerative practices,” says Schreefel, who recently received a PhD from Wageningen University & Research (WUR).

We need to make the transition to a more sustainable food system if we want to continue to feed a growing and more prosperous population. At the same time, we need to produce this food within the limits of what the planet can sustain and with respect for the welfare of humans and animals. This is where regenerative agriculture comes in, because it is designed to take the environment, people, animals, the climate and the economy into account.

What is regenerative agriculture?

“It is clear why regenerative agriculture is important as a more sustainable form of food production: the current food production system is harmful to the environment because it emits greenhouse gases, decreases biodiversity and depletes the soil and other natural resources,” says the PhD.

“However, there is a general lack of understanding of what regenerative agriculture actually is and how best to implement it. This is not an ideal starting point and brings with it the risk of greenwashing.”

Schreefel carried out an extensive, international literature review. Based on this research, he describes regenerative agriculture as a form of farming that starts with soil conservation and also has various environmental and socio-economic benefits.

However, his PhD research reveals that the definitions of regenerative agriculture are not equally applicable to every farmer. For example, a dairy farmer with peaty soils faces very different challenges to an arable farmer who farms a clayey soil. As a result, it is often unclear which practices can actually be classified as regenerative agriculture and how best to monitor these practices and financially reward them.

Combining computational models

To search for context-specific solutions to the challenges farmers are currently facing – and will face in the future – Schreefel decided to combine several computational models in his research.

The resulting mathematical model can suggest different combinations of tailor-made regenerative practices using the farm management system, soil type and climate as data inputs. The model also estimates the effects of these practices on regenerative goals such as soil health, as well as the potential financial returns. The results to date have been promising. For example, an arable farmer on a clayey soil can use regenerative practices to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and improve the quality of their soil.

Financial rewards

The research does reveal that farmers who switch to regenerative solutions can suffer financially, so it is important to carefully examine the revenue model.

“Rather than only rewarding productivity, financial compensation could also be provided based on the positive impacts of regenerative practices on the environment,” thinks Schreefel.

“To be able to offer farmers financial rewards, it is important to measure the short and long-term effects of new regenerative practices, such as strip farming. Currently, there are no universal measurement tools for this. Direct measurement methods are available that are precise, but costly, while other methods are too simplistic. So there is a lot to be gained here.”

'Regenerative farming' collaboration project

Loekie Schreefel's PhD research is part of the public-private cooperation 'Regenerative Farming'. This project is made possible by topsector AgriFood, TiFN, FrieslandCampina, Cosun, BO akkerbouw en Rabobank.