Regenerative agriculture: lessons learnt at Groundswell

Do people realise the extent to which they rely upon farming? In many other professions, such as medicine, those who enjoy good health can have years between visits to healthcare professionals. In contrast, it is hard to imagine how we could live without UK farmers. For instance, UK farmers produce 60% of all food eaten in the UK (Contributions of UK Agriculture, 2017). Despite the importance of UK farmers for our national infrastructure, there is little understanding of the web of issues facing farmers today. Drawing from our recent experiences at Groundswell, we hope to highlight some of the surprises that we discovered during our conversations with farmers, agronomists, charities, and even film producers!

Our first surprise was appreciating the complexities between agronomists and farmers. We knew from our interviews that farmers are often cautious of the advice from agronomists because some receive commission for the chemical companies they represent. In one sense, the polarisation between agronomists and farmers was exacerbated at Groundswell because many farmers who have adopted the principles of regenerative agriculture (Regen Ag) on their farms either have background expertise as agronomists themselves, or have needed to learn much of the expert of knowledge of soil and arable health required for agronomy. In this sense, many farmers invested in the principles of Regen Ag are expanding their knowledge and reducing their need to appeal to agronomists. In contrast, the majority of  farmers outside of the Regen Ag movement still depend on the knowledge and guidance of agronomists.

The problem is that the legacy of the relationship between agronomists and farmers has itself become a barrier against behaviour change. Without complete trust between agronomists and farmers agronomists are hesitant to suggest innovative changes to farming practices which may result in short term losses in yields and profits for farmers. The concern is that farmers will cease the contracts with their agronomists if their advice results in a loss in profits or even yields. We listened to many anecdotes about farmers who are worried about how the judgment from local farmers if their yields look smaller from the roadside.  The message that is difficult to convey is if you reduce your input, maintenance, and labour costs, then profitability can increase despite the reduction in yields. In short, “yields are for vanity, profits are for sanity!”

The five principles of Regen Ag are diversity, livestock integration, minimise soil disturbance, maintain living roots, and protect soil surface. Regen Ag provides simple accessible guidelines for farmers who want to adopt more sustainable practices. It offers an alternative approach to the binary division between conventional and organic farmer by encouraging farmers to make changes where possible, whilst understanding that chemical inputs on farms remain a last resort for managing soil health.

Establishing effective pathways to increase the number of farmers integrating the principles of Regen Ag is far from simple. It is not merely about increasing knowledge between farmers and agronomists, without building robust networks of trust between agronomists and farmers there is very little possibility for change. One suggestion from agronomists to help build these networks of trust was for agronomists to invest in profit shares so that there are incentives in place for both agronomists and farmers to increase the overall profitability of farms. We must recognise that any strategies for behaviour change need to account for the underlying caution toward the industry of agronomy by significant numbers of the farming community. Some agronomists consider this fundamentally as a psychological issue. Building from this perspective it seems obvious there is a space for psychologists to develop therapeutic techniques to develop and consolidate trust between farmers and agronomists. Currently many farmers and agronomists are stuck in status quo where it seems easier not to “rock the boat” on either side. The problem is that long-term this is not sustainable for various reasons.

The sustained use of chemicals alongside conventional farming practices (such as tilling) is a significant factor for reductions in soil health and soil biodiversity. In turn it creates a feedback cycle whereby larger quantities of chemical input is required to sustain yield levels, but these chemicals inadvertently create the conditions for increased antimicrobial resistance. One way to reduce chemical inputs is to adopt practices such as intercropping and crop rotation. These practices can have a number of immediate benefits including planting crops that deter pests, improving soil health, creating resilience by encouraging selective pressures between crops.

Tilling not only reduces biodiversity but it also compacts soils increasing risks associated with flooding. Public awareness has tended to focus on the increasing amount of concrete as one of the leading contributors of flash flooding. However, water retention differs significantly between different soil management systems. The rainfall simulator demonstrated how water runoff from even 2 inches of rain on cultivated soils were significantly higher than permanent pastures, no-till soils and herbal leys. Issues associated with cultivated soils such as compaction and lack of biodiversity significantly reduce water retention. The need for solutions to flash flooding are rapidly increasing given the rise in unstable and unpredictable weather system associated with climate change. The tendency to frame the solution to flash flooding solely as the need for more fields and less concrete overlooks the important relationship between soil health and water retention, which should be at the centre of flood prevention schemes. Although the number of fields is an important factor for flood prevention, we should be focusing on what’s happening in these fields – or more precisely underneath them. Encouraging robust and established root systems and soil biodiversity through co-cropping, crop rotations, and reduction in chemicals significantly increases soil retention. In this sense, there is clearly a role for farmers to adopt soil management practices that increase water retention within their farms, but these potential environmental protections from farmers need to translate into subsidies and incentives at the local and national levels.

The central message of Groundswell is that Regen Ag is providing the opportunity for farmers to build resilience both in their farms and in their communities. New technologies and avenues of funding are providing opportunities for farmers to exchange knowledge and increase their autonomy together by engaging in new collaborative ventures. Cluster farming initiatives have provided opportunities for farmers to build local support networks and identify longer-term goals and potential funding sources. The future development of resilience at these levels requires communities to support one another to encourage farmers to become indispensably rooted in communities. Some cluster farm leads are specialists offering support to farmers to help establish their long-term goals, secure funding opportunities, and increase the autonomy and security from the ground-up. In fact, there are a number of organisations seeking to support farmers by working with academics, policy makers, and industry. To name a handful of the organisations, we connected with representatives from Innovation for Agriculture, AHDB, FWAG, and Soil Heroes.

We have returned from Groundswell with a deeper appreciation of the complexity of issues that farmers are currently tackling. From navigating their complex relationships with agronomists to uncertainties about how government will account for their needs in the upcoming Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS). There is a clear sense in which farmers feel that ELMS current focus on agroforestry and rewilding creates potential obstacles to providing sufficient support for farmers in the economic and environmental uncertainties on the horizon. Regen Ag demonstrates the crucial role for farmers.

Find out more about our project on the use of fungicides in arable farming.


This blog is written by Dr Andrew Jones, University of Exeter. Andrew works on a Cabot Institute funded project looking at understanding agricultural azole use, impacts on local water bodies and antimicrobial resistance.

Journey to the heart of academic research

Many believe that keeping feelings, emotions, individualities and identities out of the field, the lab and the experiment is the golden rule that guarantees the validity of scientific work. From this perspective, good science requires neutrality and objectivity.
I’m not so sure, and today I want to share stories about the feelings and emotions I have lived with BIOsmart, a project where British, Colombian, Chilean, Irish and Spanish citizens work together, and tell you about how my emotions have made me reflect on what we may mean by good science.
María Paula delighted with her walking stick, lovingly crafted by one of our drivers.


I’ll start by saying that I am both Colombian and British. I have lived in the UK for 20 years now and when I have brought the UK team to do fieldwork in Colombia, I have felt pride and joy in having them taste our ajiaco, arepas, empanadas and aguardiente, and feast on the bounty of colours, textures and tastes of our fruit markets. I have felt pride too because my fellow Colombians always greet us with our traditional warmth and cheeky humour and this has put a finger on my nostalgia as an immigrant; for this warmth, the easiness with which we smile and become best friends in a matter of minutes, are what I most dearly miss when I am in England. But this nostalgia is mixed with gratitude, for the academic system in the UK has allowed me to return to Colombia and work for people I love. My identity matters and is at the heart of the passion and commitment with which I work.
These feelings are replenished at every farm visit we make. Coffee, freshly squeezed lemonade, home-made juices and yogurts, even hot chocolate made with home-grown cocoa beans are always waiting for us. We reciprocate this generosity and always arrive with fresh bread from the bakeries and meal by meal we learn about farmers’ lives in Caquetá and they learn about our own lives in the UK. This learning happens outside the lab, before we start counting plants and insects and before we begin the formal interview. This learning, and the feelings of respect, solidarity and gratitude that come with it, is inconspicuous in the data that will go into papers and presentations; but without it, our research practice would be less meaningful for all involved. This learning, imbued with emotions, is what gives real meaning to our work and I feel pride in the British team too, for I have seen them care about the farmers and our Colombian partners as much as I do. This shows in the friendships they have built and the character with which they work.  They have spent time with farmers’ children, they have kept in touch with farmers, drivers and colleagues. It shows too when we get up at the crack of dawn because we want to be as hard-working as the farmers and the Colombian team of scientists who are already waiting for us: we don’t want to be late and mess up their day. Good science cares, so we are out in the cars by six in the morning. I was moved by how this caring goes both ways. My aging body and my city lifestyle makes it tricky for me to walk in this hilly and boggy terrain. The drivers have become part of the team too and, one of them surprised me one day with a gift. He had chosen a branch from a guava tree, peeled it and polished it and crafted a beautiful walking stick that I have with me.
The farmers always showed us great hospitality, we even enjoyed hot chocolate made with homegrown cacao beans. Photo: María Paula.
But there have been other kinds of emotions too. Too often, farmers apologise for their lack of formal education and tell us how this makes them feel ignorant and inferior. This has made me feel angry, for I know this lack of formal education and this sense of inferiority are the result of a political, economic, social and cultural system, of global dimensions, that neglects and despises peasants. On every occasion I tell farmers that their level of formal education does not reflect their worth and I tell them how they are knowledgeable in ways that humble us. I strive for our conversations to return to them the dignity they are owed. This has made me think about objectivity and neutrality. If being objective is the commitment to understand what the real problem is and good science is about caring, then I don’t want to be neutral. I have wanted to spend more time with them and contribute beyond the knowledge we are all creating.
Enjoying some downtime in Florencia. Teamwork is at the heart of BioSmart.
Sometimes, these contributions have been real and immediate. After we finished the interview and we had become instant friends in the way Colombians do, a farmer told me they had come to the village that day not only to see me, but also to sell some chickens. They would have preferred to keep them for longer because then they would have sold for a better price. But they were short of money to pay the electricity bill and the only option was to sell the chickens. However, what they got was not enough and now, they did not have the chickens or the money to pay the bill. Chickens are income and food and electricity is essential. I gave them some of my own money. Some might think my gesture creates a culture of assistencialism, that what I ought to do is help them be more productive so they can improve their income and not have money problems. Perhaps, more cynical views would even question their story. I didn’t and even though my work is meant to help alleviate poverty in the long term, I felt I wanted to help there and then. Was I right to do so? I feel I was.
María Paula conducting an interview with a farmer in Caquetá, Colombia.


This questioning of neutrality has been fuelled by other emotions too. For example, one morning, I felt deep sorrow and broke into a deluge of tears as I listened to a woman deliver an improvised fifteen-minute speech. Standing tall by the porch of her house, she wanted to know if we were visiting the farm on behalf of the oil and mining companies. She told us how their presence makes her fear for the future of her children and despair for the effects that extractive projects are having on the land she grew up in. She also told us how some project implementers, not all, have discriminated her and refused to sign her up to agri-environmental initiatives because she is a woman. We were all moved by her courage and her eloquence, including her husband and her children. What a brave mother and wife you have, I told them. As we said goodbye, we had a long and tight hug and again, I felt that I need and I want to do more.
Sometimes this feeling comes with urgency. At the time of writing, my heart is worried about a man who is thinking that selling his land, the most pristine of all the farms I visited, is his only option because he is in debt.  The only way to earn a living is to have cows but he does not want to have cows: he would much rather look after the forest, but this does not provide him with a living. “Help me find a buyer”, he says, “but someone who cares for the forest just as I have”.
I feel rage for the injustices these people live in. I cannot and I don’t want to be neutral. I feel conflicted and wonder if I need to worry, for I am pondering how to be at once the researcher and the activist, the University employee and the solidarity campaigner. I want to help and, as I ponder how, I feel that what we mean by good science might be better practised from this place where my emotions and my research meet. I want to think my feelings and emotions articulate a goodness where impact is not only what comes at the end of the project, often in the shape of outputs or closure activities, but what touches and nurtures the lives of all involved from the beginning.
I want to think good science involves acknowledging emotions to the point of writing publicly about them. Vulnerability may be challenging, but embracing it enriches you as a person and as researcher: after all, one cannot be extricated from the other.
This blog is by Cabot Institute member Dr María Paula Escobar-Tello. She is the Principal Investigator on the BioSmart project and leads the cultural geographical components. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from María Paula. View the original blog. View the blog in Spanish.
Visit the BioSmartAmazonia website
María Paula Escobar-Tello


How the great phosphorus shortage could leave us short of food

You know that greenhouse gases are changing the climate. You probably know drinking water is becoming increasingly scarce, and that we’re living through a mass extinction.

But when did you last worry about phosphorus?

It’s not as well-known as the other issues, but phosphorus depletion is no less significant. After all, we could live without cars or unusual species, but if phosphorus ran out we’d have to live without food.

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for all forms of life. It is a key element in our DNA and all living organisms require daily phosphorus intake to produce energy. It cannot be replaced and there is no synthetic substitute: without phosphorus, there is no life.

Our dependence began in the mid-19th century, after farmers noticed spreading phosphorus-rich guano (bird excrement) on their fields led to impressive improvements in crop yields. Soon after, mines opened up in the US and China to extract phosphate ore – rocks which contain the useful mineral. This triggered the current use of mineral fertilisers and, without this industrial breakthrough, humanity could only produce half the food that it does today.

Testing crops in 1940s Tennessee.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Fertiliser use has quadrupled over the past half century and will continue rising as the population expands. The growing wealth of developing countries allows people to afford more meat which has a “phosphorus footprint” 50 times higher than most vegetables. This, together with the increasing usage of biofuels, is estimated to double the demand for phosphorus fertilisers by 2050.

Today phosphorus is also used in pharmaceuticals, personal care products, flame retardants, catalysts for chemical industries, building materials, cleaners, detergents and food preservatives.

Phosphorus is not a renewable resource

Reserves are limited and not equally spread over the planet. The only large mines are located in Morocco, Russia, China and the US. Depending on which scientists you ask, the world’s phosphate rock reserves will last for another 35 to 400 years – though the more optimistic assessments rely on the discovery of new deposits.

It’s a big concern for the EU and other countries without their own reserves, and phosphorus depletion could lead to geopolitical tensions. Back in 2008, when fertiliser prices sharply increased by 600% and directly influenced food prices, there were violent riots in 40 different developing countries.
Phosphorus also harms the environment. Excessive fertiliser use means it leaches from agricultural lands into rivers and eventually the sea, leading to so-called dead zones where most fish can’t survive. Uninhibited algae growth caused by high levels of phosphorus in water has already created more than 400 coastal death zones worldwide. Related human poisoning costs US$2.2 billion dollars annually in the US alone.

With the increasing demand for phosphorus leading to massive social and environmental issues, it’s time we looked towards more sustainable and responsible use.

There is still hope

In the past, the phosphorus cycle was closed: crops were eaten by humans and livestock while their faeces were used as natural fertilisers to grow crops again.

These days, the cycle is broken. Each year 220m tonnes of phosphate rocks are mined, but only a negligible amount makes it back into the soil. Crops are transported to cities and the waste is not returned to the fields but to the sewage system, which mainly ends up in the sea. A cycle has become a linear process.

We could reinvent a modern phosphorus cycle simply by dramatically reducing our consumption. After all, less than a third of the phosphorus in fertilisers is actually taken up by plants; the rest accumulates in the soil or is washed away. To take one example, in the Netherlands there is enough phosphorus in the soil today to supply the country with fertiliser for the next 40 years.

Food wastage is also directly linked to phosphorus overuse. In the most developed countries, 60% of discarded food is edible. We could also make agriculture smarter, optimising the amount of phosphorus used by specially selecting low-fertiliser crops or by giving chickens and pigs a special enzyme that helps them digest phosphorus more efficiently and therefore avoid extensive use of phosphorus-heavy growth supplements.


Original phosphorus cycle (left); the broken cycle (centre); and an optimised cycle (right).
Author provided

It takes vast amounts of energy to transform phosphate ore into “elemental phosphorus”, the more reactive and pure form used in other, non-agricultural sectors. Inventing a quicker route from raw rocks to industrially-useful compounds is one of the big challenges facing the future generation. The EU, which only has minimal reserves, is investing in research aimed at saving energy – and phosphorus.

We could also close the phosphorus cycle by recycling it. Sewage, for instance, contains phosphorus yet it is considered waste and is mainly incinerated or released into the sea. The technology to extract this phosphorus and reuse it as fertiliser does exist, but it’s still at an early stage of development.

When considering acute future challenges, people do not often think about phosphorus. However, securing enough food for the world’s population is at least as important as the development of renewable energy and the reduction of greenhouse gases. To guarantee long-term food security, changes in the way we use phosphorus today are vital.
This blog is written by Charly Faradji, Marie Curie Research Fellow, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol and Marissa de Boer, Researcher VU Amsterdam, Project Manager SusPhos, VU University Amsterdam

Charly Faradji

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2nd Generation biofuels: a transdisciplinary dialogue

“Globally, there are politically important evidence gaps, but nationally, those evidence gaps are just not important enough for policy-makers to take account of them”.  
This was one comment summing up the discussion I had at a workshop on the development of 2nd generation, or cellulosic, biofuels (biofuels produced from crops or waste, that is not otherwise used as food).  The workshop’s aim was to produce ‘A transdisciplinary dialogue on the opportunities and challenges of cellulosic ethanol in the UK’, and was run by Dr. Kate Millar, the Director of the Centre for Applied Bioethics.  It was part of a number of events convened for the EU Framework 7 project, “Integrated EST-Framework” (EST-Frame).  Bringing together 12 scientists, engineers, environmental scientists and social scientists is not an easy feat, but the 24 hours’ of the workshop produced some extremely interesting discussions.
My own research considers endeavours to overcome some of the sustainability problems commonly associated with 1st generation biofuels (e.g. sugarcane and wheat), and so I was particularly interested in how the development of 2nd generation biofuels might change the sustainability landscape. Would many of the problems associated with biofuels in general – increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when compared with fossil fuels, land grabbing, food insecurity and biodiversity loss – disappear if we were to start producing 2nd generation biofuels? 

Policy problems 

Oilseed rape grown for  1st
generation biofuel has limitations.
Image credit: Richard Webb
Much of the first day of the workshop was spent discussing ‘policy problems’ that would need to be overcome for the successful production of cellulosic biofuel for consumption in the UK. 2nd generation biofuels have not been viably commercialised to date largely because of the cost of production.  But this is not the only policy problem to be overcome.  2nd generation biofuel will not only come from ‘waste’, but also from crops, such as miscanthus, which are specifically grown as biofuel feedstock.  But policies to encourage the use of crop residues for biofuels, depend, first, upon the categorisation of the cellulose left behind in the farming of particular crops as ‘waste’ and, second, upon a decision that the ‘best’ use of that waste is its conversion to energy.  This decision may, in turn, depend upon an assumption relating to national energy security.
When discussing the problems that would need to be overcome for the production of 2nd generation biofuel, it soon became clear that our own understanding of the problems depended upon the frames through which they were envisioned, and/or the assumptions that might be made in even categorising them as problems in the first place. Such frames and assumptions need to be unpicked when making policy decisions relating to, for example, the ‘best’ use of land, the ‘best’ conversion processes, displacement effects resulting from the adoption of those policies, and the valuations made in assessing ‘costs’ resulting from the production of such biofuels.

Indirect land use change (ILUC)

One thorny issue relating to biofuels production has been that of ILUC.  ILUC has been a huge spoke in the wheel of policy-makers’ development of policy in relation to the development of biofuels, not only in the UK, but in the EU, and further afield.  Endeavouring to tackle this issue involves identifying potential knock-on effects resulting from direct land use change to biofuels feedstocks (whether 1st or 2nd generation). These might include increased GHG emissions, erosion, biodiversity loss, or increased insecurity in relation to land rights or food supply of local people.  
While the focus of policy-makers’ concerns in relation to ILUC has to date been GHG emissions, views in relation to all of these issues also depend upon one’s assumptions/framing.  Furthermore, such issues are by their very definition uncertain (because they involve future potential scenarios) and, in tackling each of them, require policy-makers to give value (either positive or negative value) to those potential scenarios.  Some of the values endowed by policy-makers in assessing indirect or direct land use change may be quantifiable.  Others, such as the values given by local people to their landscape before it is transformed for biofuel feedstocks, may not be.  Moreover, land use change resulting from policies made in the UK, may be taking place in countries as far afield as Africa or South East Asia, for example.  
While some participants thought that this demonstrated that even endeavouring to tackle an issue such as ILUC was purely altruistic, and therefore usually not important enough for national policy-makers to be swayed by, others argued that it was not altruism that demanded its recognition, but an appreciation of the integrated nature of our world, its people and environment, and markets for feedstocks.  Without actively sympathising with policy-makers, many participants recognised that there are no right answers when it comes to ILUC.

Need for a holistic approach in policy-making

Image by Steve Jurvetson
When discussion moved on to consider the types of evidence required for policy-makers to tackle the policy problems, we soon realised that different forms of ‘evidence’ were often integrated.  Moreover, it was not lack of evidence that was the problem for policy-makers, or even ambiguity and uncertainty in the evidence, but the appraisal of that evidence.  This requires political decisions to be taken, something that policy-makers seem, ironically, to be distinctly uncomfortable with in relation to this area.
The workshop was a valuable exercise.  To paraphrase one participant: many of the technical or economic issues relating to the development of cellulosic biofuels in the UK could be resolved by taking a very narrow view of the problem.  However, such issues do encompass wider issues.  Countering the scientists’ and engineers’ ‘problem-solving’ approaches to policy issues, with social scientists’ more critical understanding of the social issues surrounding the problems is always going to be a challenge, but one that, I believe, is crucial if those problems are really going to be solved with any success.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Elizabeth Fortin, University of Bristol Law School.