The origins of regenerative agriculture are rooted in permaculture. At its core, this philosophy takes nature as a model to develop a system thinking approach; in other words, working with nature, not against it. David Holmgren, the co-originator of permaculture, describes it as a design system based on 12 key principles which in turn rest on three guiding ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share
Permaculture draws on ideas steeped in small-scale farming and rural life. If we were to focus on agricultural applications exclusively, “the development of self-sufficient farming ecosystems” would be a good definition of permaculture.
It is a holistic philosophy that has evolved over decades, and various authors and influences have played a role in its development. The regenerative agriculture model grew out of this transformation with one primary objective: the revitalization and improvement of soil health.
Why is the health of our soils so important?
The Rodale Institute defines healthy soil as “that which allows plants to grow to their maximum productivity without disease or pests and without a need for off-farm supplements”.
One of the most important characteristics of healthy soil is the presence and co-existence of microorganisms that have an essential function in terms of plant health. For example, bacteria act as natural antibiotics to keep pests at bay, while fungi help retain water and nutrients. Along with other external factors, this microbiota is essential to the decomposition of natural waste in the soil and the production of what we call organic matter, also known as humus.
Organic matter plays a decisive role in the soil, because it stimulates the development of a balanced ecological system, that is to say, the growth of vegetation and plants such as the grapevine.
Healthy soils with a suitable amount of organic matter offer a wide range of benefits: they prevent erosion, hold more water, maintain biodiversity – which is crucial to combating diseases and pests – and improve the mineral and nutrient content that feeds the plants.
The grapevine is a plant organism that can adapt to a wide variety of soil types. As is true for every plant, the soil is its home and food source. The type and quality of the soil underpin the traditional reasoning behind the famous vinicultural concept of TERROIR. In their book Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking, Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop provide clear examples of how terroir influences the final flavour of the wine.
According to the OIV, there are around 18.2 million acres under vine worldwide, which means we have to ask ourselves: how can we improve and ensure the quality of the soils where our vineyards grow in the long term? The answer is clear: we must follow a path that integrates the concept of regeneration. The aim of regenerative viticulture is not merely to maintain the status quo but to rehabilitate and therefore build resilience over time.
By implementing winegrowing practices aimed at restoring soil health, we can increase organic matter while at the same time the soils sequester carbon below and above the ground. This is known as “carbon farming”. Plants use solar energy to fuel their growth cycle and in the process they capture carbon and store it in the soil for decades, centuries even. This makes our soils one of the most significant carbon sinks on Earth: healthier soils literally translate into a healthier planet.
In his book Growing a Revolution, David R. Montgomery writes that even the most modest estimates point to the substantial potential for soils to capture enough carbon to make a real difference. Consequently, regenerative practices provide a real solution to our environmental problems.
This places winegrowers in a key position in terms of mitigating accelerated climate change. So, where do we start? Both organic and biodynamic viticulture are important starting points for the introduction of regenerative agriculture.
These practices share crucial components such as cover crops, composting, improving biodiversity, and conserving and improving organic matter. They strive to protect the soil from erosion while retaining water, nutrients, plant material, and the microbiota, which in turn keeps carbon in the ground.
Non-profit organizations across Europe such as The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation are building a community of professionals from the wine and grape sector to demonstrate the benefits of regenerative viticulture and create awareness within the industry.
The Rodale Institute has been working along these lines since 1947, conducting research into the cultivation of healthy, living soils to promote the use of regenerative agriculture as a better, natural, and more responsible form of modern farming.
Given its holistic approach, regenerative viticulture also opens up a wide array of possibilities for economic and social improvements within the sector. For example, it can generate local employment opportunities and wealth, as well as reduce the variable costs arising from drastic climatic changes which currently affect wine regions around the world.
We are beginning to recognize the impact of conventional winegrowing and its heavy consumption of natural resources. The moment has come to accept that if we continue down this path, we will soon reach a point at which we will have depleted the earth’s capacity and with it the potential of our vineyards to keep producing great wines.
Marta Juega, Ph.D.