Marc Gràcia, Polyfarming coordinator, and Ángela Justamante, Polyfarming communications coordination.
Agriculture releases 12% of the total CO2 Spanish emissions into the atmosphere every year. Producing food is essential for our survival, so is reducing emissions. Is there an agri-food model capable of reversing this situation? CREAF, through the LIFE Polyfarming project, funded by the European Commission’s LIFE programme, demonstrates with scientific data that the regenerative agri-food model, focused on restoring soil health, is a feasible solution to this global challenge.
According to the results obtained over the last three years at the Planeses pilot farm (Girona, Catalonia), a regenerative vegetable garden’s fertile soil stores around 30 times more atmospheric carbon per year than a conventional one. Also, soil organic matter has doubled in the last three years. This increase has also improved the water holding capacity of the soil by 15-20% compared to a conventional system.
In addition, according to the project, regenerative grasslands, which are managed by grazing animals, sequester about three times more carbon per year than unmanaged grassland. These annual carbon sequestration rates occur during the first six years after switching from conventional to the regenerative agri-food model. After these years, the soil remains a significant sink, as the stored carbon is not released into the atmosphere. On the other hand, this agricultural model has already been shown to emit 40% less CO2 than conventional agriculture by not using pesticides or chemical fertilisers and reducing machinery.
The LIFE Polyfarming project has carried out the regenerative agri-food model for five years on an abandoned farm located in Catalonia. The experience has also resulted in the handbook ‘Polyfarming Manual’, a regenerative agri-food model guide with a scientific basis, the first in Spain. The handbook and replication sessions of the model in Extremadura and the Basque Country aim to encourage the change toward the regenerative model. The project has also produced a Layman’s report with the main results.
From rural abandonment to profitability
Because the Polyfarming system reduces dependence on market inputs and heavy machinery and uses technologies accessible to all and applicable at different scales, it is an effective formula for restoring agro-silvo-pastoral activity in abandoned Mediterranean mountain areas, because a country without fertile land is not capable of producing food, nor of deciding its own agricultural and food policies. Recovering lost fertility makes it possible to promote food sovereignty and produce quality food for the whole of society without being controlled by large external lobbies.
A genuine and demonstrative example: the Polyfarming System Manual
The Manual comprises several chapters that explain the regenerative system from the perspective of soil, forest, grassland, livestock and crops, detailing how to combine and integrate nature resources in an agri-food production model. It also incorporates specific regenerative agriculture and livestock practices and the environmental, productive and economic benefits of applying them. In addition, it includes a section with the financial costs, both the different techniques separately and the total balance. This material resulted from exhaustive documentation, analysis, and evaluation of the real experience of applying the Polyfarming system on the Planeses farm.
Enhancing the soil’s life
What is exactly the regenerative model? Regenerative agriculture claims that soil health is intrinsically linked to the overall sustainability of our food system, including both our health and the planet’s health. Therefore, it aims to regenerate, stimulate and maintain soil fertility and biodiversity: it enhances a soil with high content of organic matter, biodiversity and the ability to produce food using nature’s own resources.
It does this by employing agricultural, livestock and silvicultural techniques that naturally nourish plants and protect soil from interventions that may affect its own biological processes. Warning! It doesn’t mean going back to the past. On the contrary, it is an innovative model that incorporates all the new scientific knowledge we have today about how soil and vegetation nutrition works.
Based on this, the practices it proposes are characterised by eliminating tillage, which breaks down soil structure; maintaining vegetation cover, in order to avoid leaving the land bare and prevent soil erosion; increasing plant diversity and production; combining agriculture and livestock farming, using grazing animals to fertilise the ground, while the animals enjoy a good diet; planning a better use of water; and avoiding the use of heavy machinery, fertilisers, pesticides and chemical fertilisers so as not to deteriorate the soil, nor to depend on large agrochemical companies.
To explain concrete regenerative techniques Polyframing has produced short videos explaining six essential techniques to discover regenerative agriculture!
A step beyond organic
The term ‘regenerative agriculture’ was first defined in the early 1980s by the Rodale Institute. This US non-profit organisation described it as a real alternative to conventional agriculture, which damages the land, the planet’s health and our own, and as a step beyond organic. But, why? Ecological or organic agriculture proposes practices that focus on maintaining the conditions of the soil ecosystem, not damaging it, preserving its biodiversity and reducing pollution. But regenerative agriculture goes a ‘step further’ and not only maintains but also enhances the recovery of degraded soils: it exponentially increases their organic matter content, their capacity to retain and use water, and the diversity of plants, insects and microorganisms that form part of their food web.
Coordinator of the Polyfarming project: Marc Gràcia, senior researcher at CREAF.
If you want to learn more about Polyfarming and regenerative agriculture, some recommended readings are:
- The One-Straw Revolution
- Kiss the Ground, Netflix.
- What is regenerative agriculture? – Interview with Marc Gràcia (with English subtitles)
- Polyfarming Manual
- Six essential techniques to discover regenerative agriculture!
- Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life
- The biggest little farm
- M. Gracia, M.J. Broncano, J. Retana (2021) Manual para el diseño e implementación de un modelo agroalimentario regenerativo: el sistema Polyfarming. Barcelona (España), CREAF.
- Web del Instituto Rodale.
- Fenster TLD, LaCanne CE, Pecenka JR et al. Defining and validating regenerative farm systems using a composite of ranked agricultural practices [version 1; peer review: 2 approved] F1000Research 2021, 10:115.
- Burgess PJ, Harris J, Graves AR, Deeks LK (2019) Regenerative Agriculture: Identifying the Impact; Enabling the Potential. Report for SYSTEMIQ. 17 May 2019. Bedfordshire, UK: Cranfield University.