“The objec­tive is to regen­erate soils and surface ecosys­tems”

Prof Jean-Pierre Sarthou is a specialist in agro-ecolog­ical systems and professor at the Toulouse school of agri­cul­tural and life sciences. He talked to The Furrow about the defi­n­i­tion of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture and its future prospects.

Where does the concept of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture come from?

It is already quite old and was first used by the Rodale Insti­tute in the US – a private organic farming research centre – in the 1980s. Orig­i­nally, it was a branch of the organic move­ment.

How is it defined today?

Like so-called conser­va­tion agri­cul­ture, the concept of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture aims to regen­erate the soil by minimising distur­bances. In addi­tion, it also seeks to restore ecosystem func­tions on the soil surface in order to promote bene­fi­cial insects. In prac­tice, however, the defi­n­i­tion remains vague. There is no scien­tific consensus or guide­line that would enable the estab­lish­ment of a label, for example.

Could this be a problem for scaling up?

Big indus­trial agri-food compa­nies are adopting a regen­er­a­tion narra­tive on a large scale because it is a very good selling point. We can only welcome this trend. It will allow many farmers to change their farming prac­tices to benefit their soils. On the other hand, the vague­ness of the concept in terms of prac­tical imple­men­ta­tion causes me some concern. There is a risk of a lack of support from consumers.

The vague­ness of the concept of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture risks making consumers less supportive of it.

Prof. Jean-Pierre Sarthou

Could you elab­o­rate?

In part, regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is a city dweller’s dream because it has its roots in the organic farming move­ment. However, given the strong crit­i­cism of glyphosate usage by some non-special­ists, I expect that part of the popu­la­tion will have miscon­cep­tions, which could lead to a back­lash. This means that we must expect two things from the industry: First, that they define clear guide­lines so as not to come under suspi­cion of green­washing; and second, that they commu­ni­cate honestly with the public about the use of herbi­cides. Beyond that, the ques­tion of the further devel­op­ment of organic and regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture remains.

Is it possible to adopt minimum tillage with no chem­ical use?

This is currently not possible in temperate climates. Even on a global scale, I have only ever seen one field where this worked; a test site in Cambodia. But I am opti­mistic that in the long term we will be able to develop no-till farming systems in our lati­tudes that can do without synthetic inputs. This is an impor­tant agro­nomic goal.