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Effective regenerative agricultural practices in France: a farmer's perspective
23 October 2023

Effective regenerative agricultural practices in France: a farmer's perspective

4 minute read
Corporate climate action
Giulia Chivée Agricultural Value Chains consultant, France
Adrien Mies Regional Practice Lead, Agricultural Value Chains

Conventional agriculture, forestry and land use practices account for 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions and have led to widespread loss of biodiversity, the very foundation of our food system.

The Agricultural Value Chains team at South Pole works to bring the farming system into harmony with nature. Where conventional farming is associated with a range of negative environmental impacts, from a huge global emissions profile to long-term biodiversity loss, transformative regenerative farming techniques allow more carbon to be built into our soils, cutting concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, creating resilience to changing weather patterns, and boosting food security.

Visiting a farm that pioneers and promotes these techniques is a great way to see how this theory works in practice. Earlier this year, South Pole's experts dedicated to the agricultural value chain visited a farm in France to review first-hand the tangible benefits that conservation agriculture offers both farmers and ecosystems.

Regenerative agriculture practice in the field

The 170-ha family farm, run by Julien and Géraud, is located about a hundred kilometers away from Paris. Handed down through several generations, the farm didn't always use regenerative agricultural techniques, but the farmers have become strong advocates of cover cropping and agroforestry practices.

The dual benefits of cover cropping

The first of these means that crops are planted not for the purpose of harvest but to keep the soil surface covered between the growing season of the two main crops. Residues are then left on the soil (becoming mulch), incorporated into the soil, or removed.

This practice has the dual effect of protecting the soil surface and improving the soil health, with benefits both for the ecosystem and the farmers, including the enhancement of:

  • Soil structure: cover crops minimise tillage and reduce the risk of erosion. In 2015, Géraud's family farm started no-till and cover cropping; their soil hosts living roots for 300 days a year. Thanks to that practice, they did not suffer from water run-off and topsoil loss during the 2022 floods on their farm.
  • Water retention and infiltration: the surface canopy provided by cover crops, especially if the residues are left on the soil, increases water infiltration, and retention. Plus, as previously mentioned, no-till and improvement of the soil structure reduces water run-off and evaporation, leaving more water available for the crop during the driest months.
  • Soil fertility: cover crops increase the soil's organic matter and can increase the availability of nutrients (mainly nitrogen) for the subsequent main crops. Higher organic matter also means a greater soil life: Géraud's family farm records the presence of 2 tonnes of earthworms/ha. By comparison, conventional farming has an average of 100 kg of earthworms/ha, and the equivalent for organic farming with tillage is 140 kg/ha. Earthworms are important because their burrows create macropores, through which roots can proliferate, which in turn creates a less compacted soil structure. In addition, the roots and shoots of cover crops feed bacteria, fungi and other soil organisms, offering a broad range of benefits from greater nutrient availability for plants to the breakdown of ligneous biomass (hard, woody biomass with slow degradation.).
  • Biodiversity: the vegetation and flowers from the cover crops attract insects and pollinators and provide shelters for fauna. By hosting beneficial organisms, the crops can also act to suppress the outbreak of disease and trap pests.
  • Carbon storage: by improving soil organic matter, cover crops enhance the capacity of the soil to store carbon, removing carbon from the atmosphere .

Julien and Géraud use a cover crop mix of five to ten different species, which brings in a good balance of benefits, from improvements to soil structure and nitrogen supply to the generation of biomass, and also suits the diversity of the soil types on the farm.

The pair also graze sheep on the farm for six months of the year, which adds natural manure, aids the process of hard biomass breakdown, and makes use of the forage from the cover crop rotation.

Restoring the ecosystem by working as one

By restoring the soil ecosystem with cover cropping, farmers can get economic benefits at the same time as reducing their environmental impact, and improving their farm's and their crops' resilience to climate change. By mitigating carbon emissions at the field level, the whole agricultural value chain benefits from cover cropping, and moves one step closer to fighting climate change.

However, changing agricultural practices is not that simple, and needs specific knowledge to avoid creating competition with the main crops (nutrients, light, water availability, pests…). It takes close collaborative effort from different stakeholders to help farmers implement an adaptive and sustainable approach.

A partnership to help agricultural value chain companies with this implementation

As one of the largest climate solutions providers, South Pole advises agricultural clients on implementing sustainability strategies such as the introduction of cover crops and other regenerative agricultural practices such as agroforestry.

Thanks to a partnership with Biospheres, our clients can go one step further and implement these practices at a farm level. Biospheres is a specialist in the large-scale agricultural transition to regenerative practices, providing growers and farmers with technical and agronomic support, and training teams in the field.

Together, Biospheres and South Pole help companies and farmers unlock the potential of regenerative agriculture in their value chains, from the definition of ambitious yet credible climate commitments to the implementation of regenerative practices at a farm level.

Read our Press release to know more about our partnership with Biospheres.

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