Regenerative agriculture: Working from the ground up for a more resilient food system

Regenerative agriculture: Working from the ground up for a more resilient food system

Gabriella Cynthia Andries
Gabriella Cynthia Andries
Communication Coordinator

Our life relies on agriculture, yet many current agricultural practices are highly unsustainable. The "green revolution" was introduced in the 1960s to increase global food production, which it was able to achieve but at the expense of depleting the natural system and biodiversity caused by the heavy use of chemical inputs and industrialised farming.

We forced nature to work like machines, but it doesn't have to be that way. At Rikolto, we support our partners to switch to sustainable production for a more resilient and inclusive food system.

The food system and climate change

The UN Food Systems Summit, held during the UN General Assembly in September 2021, highlighted food and agriculture as a sector both affected by the climate crisis and a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.[1] According to the FAO data released in November 2021, 31 per cent of human-caused GHG emissions originate from the world's agri-food systems. That's a 17 percent increase from 1990 when the global population was smaller.[2]

We need a thriving natural world and healthy ecosystems to grow nutritious food to feed the growing population and absorb carbon emissions. One of the approaches that Rikolto promotes in our sustainable production strategy is the practice of regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture is a method that aims to restore degraded soil biodiversity and rebuilds soil organic matter, thus helping sequester atmospheric carbon in soil and improve water efficiency.

So what does regenerative farming look like in practice? To better answer these, we sat with Nyoman Artha from Pasar Rakyat Bali, our Food Smart Cities partner since 2020. Pasar Rakyat is a social enterprise distributing fresh and organic produce from local farmers to urban customers in Bali at affordable prices.

Putting regenerative agriculture into action with Pasar Rakyat Bali

Nyoman, why is it essential to switch to regenerative agriculture, and how do you implement that in Pasar Rakyat?

What we are trying to do now is to restore the agricultural land damaged by the use of chemical pesticides during the early 1970s in Indonesia. Since the green revolution, we have forced nature to do more than it can do.

Regenerative agriculture practices are all about how we protect and improve soil health. If the soil ecosystem is nurtured and balanced, we create a healthier foundation that can yield more nutritious crops that are free of harmful toxins.

It reduces the need for farmers to purchase costly fertilisers and pesticides, and they can charge higher prices for better quality crops, allowing them to profit from the environmental services.

Healthy soil works like a sponge that can capture and store more water, reduce soil erosion, and increase drought tolerance. Good soil also needs insects, worms, fungi, bacteria, and other living organisms that provide the foundation for soil to function properly, allowing it to take in, store, and deliver water to plants.[3] When we kill soil organisms with herbicides, the ground dries out quicker, requiring farmers to put more fertiliser to grow crops, which means a higher cost in farming.

At Pasar Rakyat, we do regenerative farming by first preparing the soil to foster a balanced ecosystem.  We do this by minimising the intake of chemical substances that are difficult to decompose. Instead, we use more natural and sustainable options for fertiliser, anti-fungal treatment, and pest control, for example, by using fermented cow and goat manure that has the necessary microorganisms to break down organic substances.

We have "demonstration plot" where we train farmers to do sustainable farming cultivation. For example, we equip farmers with the knowledge to make organic fertiliser by utilising natural resources from their surroundings. By doing this, farmer groups are also integrating the circular economy concept, in which they reuse or recirculate resources to minimise agricultural waste. It helps reduce cost and provide farmers with additional income by selling high-quality organic fertilisers.

The second is by strategically designing agricultural landscape and cultivation plans to optimise biodiversity. Multiple crops rotated in the field mimic natural ecosystems and enhance biodiversity, hence contributing to healthy soil. That's why we encourage farmers to implement intercropping techniques combined with crop rotation. For example, when we plant corn, we also plant chilli under it, so the chillies can grow when we harvest the corn. Therefore, over time, we don't need to till the soil because it is well designed. Monoculture doesn't exist in nature, only multicultural or multi-cropping.

By getting involved in this process, from planning to harvest, farmers can apply their knowledge at the sample garden, solve problems, and experience the benefits of sustainable farming, thus becoming more enthusiastic about exploring it themselves.

Currently, Pasar Rakyat has six sample gardens. One site in Catur, Badung Regency, covers an area of 40 acres. Five sites in Tamblingan, Buleleng Regency, are smaller scales with five acres per site. Through sample gardens, farmers can observe the difference between crops cultivated using conventional and sustainable treatments. We are collecting data and insight from our activities, including the process, advantages and disadvantages of each model, results, and continuity. Therefore, we can improve our approach and tools to better assist farmers.

Towards a resilient food system

Rikolto catalyses collective action among local food system actors to improve urban food environments and supply chains to ensure healthy and sustainable food for all citizens. As one of Rikolto's food smart cities partner, can you tell us more about Pasar Rakyat's involvement in stimulating urban food security?

We have a farm-to-table model, bringing premium organic foods to consumers directly from local farmers. Smallholder farmers are an integral part of the food value chain, but they face significant risks from climate change and daily risks from selling perishable products. If we can't build a better value chain that can reward farmers fairly and over the long term, fewer people will be interested in becoming farmers. The grand design of Pasar Rakyat is to develop an effective and innovative agricultural value chain that favours micro, small, and medium agribusinesses.

At the pre-production and production level, we equip farmers with the skills to cultivate crops that follow regenerative farming principles. We then buy their harvest twice a week regularly to package and distribute to consumers in the cities. We distribute them in three ways: selling for profit, without profit, and donating to people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, farmers can earn a consistent income, while urban residents can access nutritious and safe food. We are committed to bringing consumers great products at the lowest price possible, fair-trade practices and cross-subsidising donation options to help provide space for all of us to share with those who cannot afford food.

Can you share one last concluding thought on regenerative farming?

With regenerative agriculture, each hectare of land can produce plants that are more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as drought, flood, and extreme weather. It has the potential to provide farmers with numerous benefits while also providing the world with healthier foods and a better planet to live in. The transition to regenerative farming will require a long-term commitment. It is essential to continue making progress that protects the resilience of farms and the future of food security.

Want to learn more or collaborate with us? Contact our colleague!

Nonie Kaban
Nonie Kaban
Good Food for Cities Southeast Asia Regional Director