Imagine that agricultural landscapes existed not as monocultures, but as a refuge for local biodiversity while providing diverse and nutritious food, clean water, fertile soil, carbon storage, and quality jobs.
This dream is already true, and I experienced it on a Brazilian agroecological farm. There, the dryland has been transformed into an exuberant green oasis visible from miles around.
A partnership with consumers provides healthy and sustainable food, while creating five full-time, quality jobs. The farm is also supported through a payments for ecosystems services scheme for its role in the protection of watercourses that supply 200,000 people downstream. It’s a daily occurrence to see rare species like tatu or parrots on the land.
Replicating this example at scale is one way of achieving the transformation in our food systems that society is demanding.
By understanding the value that is provided to nature, people and businesses through regenerative agricultural practices and technologies, we can enhance natural, social, and human capital, alongside traditional business value.
Agroforestry in practice
Water: Agroforestry practices provide ecosystem services such as water remediation and protection against flooding. The roots of diverse plants also foster water retention and infiltration to recharge groundwater stores.
Soil: The integration of a natural diversity of trees, crops and livestock fosters productivity and nutrient cycling. The ecological succession of species combined with pruning provides organic matter that limits erosion. Organic matter acts as skin that protects the earth and produces fertile humus. Other regenerative practices include no tillage, mulching, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters and pasture cropping. Soil fertility is a product and the matrix of life; it’s another fundamental stock of natural capital.
Air: The trunk, roots and branches of trees form its biomass, and abundant soil organic matter ensures sequestration of carbon, removing it from the atmosphere and aiding the mitigation of global warming. Agroecology is recognized as a strategy to design climate change-resilient farming systems. Photosynthesis releases fresh oxygen and some plants can enhance air pollution mitigation thanks to their filtering capabilities. In warm regions, the evapotranspiration and shadows provided by trees reduce temperature and dryness, improving air quality, a stock of natural capital.
Biodiversity: The combination of the diversity of trees, crops, livestock and local species allows agroecological landscapes to act as a sponge of genetic and natural resources. By protecting habitats with fresh water, air and rich soil, healthy landscape create new ecological niches. Biodiversity and rare species can better connect and prosper, enhancing natural capital stock.
Economy and Society: Healthy agricultural landscapes also provide many more public goods and economic value than nutritious food alone. For instance, producers can be rewarded through payment for ecosystem services for their stewardship of water, air, soils and for supporting biodiversity; these systems can provide a holistic way of caring for our society, environment, and the economy. Decreased chemical inputs and reduced agricultural run-off foster a clearer local environment for workers and local communities and mitigate damage to the ecosystem.
Agroecological, organic and agroforestry models have demonstrated their economic viability and it’s also established that polyculture systems can deliver more food per square meter than monocrop plantations. Small, abundant and local food systems generate compounding benefits, improving dietary health, recreation possibilities and better profits for farmers.
A decentralized strategy to provide employment and agro-ecological education in rural areas would ensure a decent life for farmers, their families and employees. Associations, cooperatives and trusted partnerships with food companies or consumers can foster the creation of economic, societal, and also ethical values for the communities. Employment, cooperation, just institutions, and health are fundamental components of human and social capitals.
Capitals and regenerative approaches
All elements that have been described correspond, in some way, to a positive improvement of natural capital, but also social, human and produced capital.
Measuring the positive effects of an agroecological farm’s activities on our environment, society, and people gives us the opportunity to understand and improve them. A regenerative approach makes sure that these effects always put more back into the system, than they take out. This retroaction catalyzes ecosystem services, nurtures natural capital and benefits human well-being in a virtuous cycle.
The dream vs reality
The reality is that we are overshooting the natural regeneration rate at an accelerating pace. We are not providing nature with the room it needs to regenerate and support humanity. Food production is the most significant driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss but can also be a core solution.
We have already lost half of our fertile soil, and this loss is silent and invisible. The proportion of agricultural land devoted to livestock, including their feed crops, is estimated at 77% of global agricultural land; which represent one of the most serious impacts on the planet.
I describe current conventional agriculture as a mining activity that extracts without replacing the stock. This provides prosperity for a short time; but at tipping points, the reduced natural assets can collapse and stop the provisioning of the goods and services we depend on. This also represents severe risks for food business and the global economy. We are locked into an economic short-term vision while system transformation requires a long-term and holistic perspective. The urgency for action is growing as this depreciation of resources is becoming increasingly material.
In a regenerative system, people and nature are not working for the economy; the economy serves nature and human well-being. We don’t yet know the total value provided by agroforestry systems, but we know that they are significant and that in many cases they are invisible and unaccounted for in our decision-making.
This is a call for further research to recognise the value of agroecological practices in different localities and contexts. Evidence, data and studies are needed to inform decisions and set targets to scale up regenerative agriculture.
If natural capital delivers value to humans, this value must be reallocated into nature to guarantee the preservation of the ecosystems we depend on. Investment decisions need to restore all the capitals, while considering acceptable trade-offs between them. A capitals approach provides the information that businesses and policymakers need to understand these relationships and to make the changes we need.
Natural ecosystem regeneration can be our biggest source of inspiration and deliver benefits across the systems we depend upon for our wealth, health and happiness.