Regenerative agriculture with Joshua Jiménez – A systems thinking approach to feeding and restoring our planet
“To work with nature, we need to understand the systems that are in play. The key to success is systems thinking. Taking all parts of the equation into consideration, and looking at how project’s goals fit into and can work with those systems, not fighting against them”.
Joshua Muñoz Jiménez is a specialist in regenerative agriculture, with a passion for creating productive agricultural models that enhance and work with the local environment and community. Through his coaching, consulting and education Joshua helps farms transform into resilient, ecological models for the next generation.
This article explores how conservation and agricultural goals can work in harmony to accelerate nature regeneration and how this way of thinking can be used across the field of conservation – and in your career.
What guided Joshua into land management?
“There was always a running theme with the landowners I talked to, a recognition that their grazing lands are not what they used to be. They are not as green; the creek is not as high, and the land is much less productive than when their grandfathers managed the land. They can see that something is seriously wrong. These are the people that spend every day in nature, it is their life, they don’t even have a word for nature, they are part of it, they are nature.”
Human society took a huge developmental leap around 10,000 years ago with the domestication of plants and animals. For instance, turning wide-ranging herds of wild animals into controlled herds of domesticated ‘stock’ that are reared in one space. Unfortunately, this practice has been slowly turning the world’s grasslands into deserts, with little or no commercial productivity potential or ecosystem function remaining.
Joshua explains, “If you watch National Geographic, you see these massive herds of roaming bison or wildebeest making huge migrations across landscapes. These herds are constantly on the move because of predator pressure, essentially being chased by lions or wolves, leading to a life on the move. They naturally eat what’s at their feet, trample the ground, defecate and urinate. Then, they move on, they do not come back to that same spot for perhaps half a year!”
“These natural behaviours allow grasses and plants to regrow, there is no soil compaction from constant trampling. This means when it rains the water infiltrates the soils instead of the runoff created by soil compaction. The sporadic visits of the herds actually increase species diversity by fertilising the soils and creating space for new growth.”
“With regenerative grazing, we are imitating these wild movements of ruminants by moving livestock in tight herds around the landscape, only spending a few days in each area before moving on. This is done with electric fencing, virtual fencing, well-trained livestock dogs or in some cases just a simple stick. By imitating these natural systems, we are able to have more animals per hectare than traditional grazing systems, and increase livestock productivity without damaging the environment. In fact, nature can flourish with these systems.”
Joshua goes on to explain the difference between regenerative agriculture and “sustainable” farming. “We often hear the word sustainable used, but when you sustain something, that implies that we are keeping things the same. We are maintaining the speed at which the train is going to fall off the cliff. Putting this in an environmental context, we don’t want to sustain current practices that are destroying the natural world, we want to create something better, we want to help to regenerate these systems.”
“In a nutshell, regenerative agriculture aims to bring back degraded systems to their maximum potential for biotic life, carbon sequestration ability and nutrient cycles, whilst at the same time producing more food per input of labour, and more food per hectare.”
By understanding and mimicking grasslands natural systems, regenerative agriculture can achieve both conservation and agricultural goals. By simply rotating livestock around the land, this technique makes a huge difference to the land in which it is implemented.
Joshua states, “For example, here in Argentina, I may have three tones of native plant’s biomass per hectare, whereas my neighbours, with conventional grazing methods, have 200 or 300 kilos per hectare. Without planting or changing anything, just the way I graze my livestock, I increase my profits and native biodiveristy levels back to natural standards.”
Some of the barriers to the change
Joshua’s passion for how these actions can restore natural spaces is clear to see. However, for many landowners, their biggest concern is profits rather than the health of the ecosystem. Joshua tells some of the barriers when it comes to sharing his work and how he has been able to work with other landowners to inspire change.
“To help the environment is my main reason for working in this field, but how do I convince a family that has been grazing in a certain way for 300 years to change their practices? Thankfully, these regenerative models are more profitable than common practices, and profit is something that landowners are willing to listen to. They are not going to change what they are doing to simply improve water retention or improve habitats for local wildlife.”
“But, if you can actually have four or five times more cows, and therefore profits, that is what makes them listen. Then, once they see these improvements in action, after a couple of years, they start to see and get interested in the other environmental benefits.”
It is clear that regenerative models can not only improve things for the environment but actually increase productivity and profits for landowners. So why are farmers not switching to regenerative models?
“I think that education and awareness is the biggest drawback. For example, in Argentina most of the country is grasslands, the ranchers and landowners are incredibly isolated, and they are not really keeping up with science or even the latest world news. So, the knowledge itself is not getting to where it needs to be. As well as, these are people of the land, you can talk to them and tell them new ideas as much as you like, but what they need is to see a working example and to see these methods implemented successfully.”
“Unfortunately, there is also a less simple answer, and that is how we have artificially propped up conventional ranching and farming with subsidies. The subsidy system, governmental handouts to maintain productive national lands, is making it possible for these unsustainable and largely unprofitable farms to continue using the methodologies they always have done.”
These reasons led Joshua on his mission to create successful models of regenerative farming that can be applied at any scale.
“I have been able to apply these methods in North Carolina on five acres, in Georgia on 25 acres, and now I am doing it here in Argentina on 23,5000 acres. I want to demonstrate that the goals of farmers and conservationists are the same and it is much easier to work on a system together than put energy into opposing systems and ideologies. Both parties need the ecosystem to be healthier and more productive.”
“At the end of the day, we need to eat right? So, we need land to produce food. However, land doesn’t have to be one or the other, you can have highly biodiverse lands, that also host highly productive spaces for agriculture.”
“At the moment, I am working here in my home, regenerating native sub-Andean grasslands, otherwise known as Patagonian Steppe. This land has seen conventional farming turn the landscape into a desert. My aim is to use regenerative grazing to reverse that desertification. This will not only create a productive livestock system but bring back and create habitat for the endangered animals that call these grasslands home.’
How can regenerative agriculture be integrated into alternative conservation and community goals?
Regenerative agriculture doesn’t just stop with land-focused thinking, it can create new opportunities for communities and improve the health of people’s homelands.
“I am working on creating equitable employment models. In Argentina, landowners take all the profit and the land employees end up with very little. Me and my team are creating models where employees are also able to profit in shares of the operation. By bringing life back to these lands, we create opportunities, young people may not have to go to the big cities to find work, they can continue to work on their ancestors’ land, maintaining incredible cultures, just with slightly different agriculture practices.”
A great example of how communities can get involved with restoration and be entrusted as custodians of their land was Joshua’s project in Georgia. He shares, “One of my proudest achievements so far was my work in Georgia, a small-scale project that was able to have big impacts. The goals were to heal the degraded land and its history. The area was a slave cotton and crop plantation.”
“First, we used a dream team of goats and sheep to get the land productive once again. Once this was achieved, we created a reparations framework to give the newly productive land back to the descendants of those who were once enslaved on the land. They are now the stewards of the land, maintaining its productivity and taking profits from their work.”
Incredibly the multiple benefits of regenerative farming do not just stop in the local area, the impacts of these changes can be global. “We have to urgently sequester carbon from our atmosphere, and I am confident that if we can restore the grasslands of Argentina through regenerative grazing, we can account for a huge amount of the sequestration needed.”
This is a perfect example of the connectivity of our natural world, a concept at the core of regenerative farming. “You must think like a system in order to work with an ecosystem. Once you apply holistic principles to conservation, or any part of your life, and you are not thinking about individual concepts in isolation, you will find that solutions come easily. By looking at systems as a whole we can begin to understand them, help them, protect them and even work them to profit from those systems, without destroying them.”
Applying the systems thinking approach to a conservation career path
In a world with rapidly growing populations, increasing the number of people to feed, as well as declining natural resources, regenerative agriculture appears to be a real feasible answer to supposedly opposing issues.
It’s through people like Joshua, creating working models whilst building capacity within communities, that regenerative agriculture can become a normal practice. Through using a systems approach, we can start to dismantle mismanaged current practices, and move towards a future where nature restoration and food production can work in harmony.
Joshua is a firm believer that the systems thinking approach discussed above is a great problem solving tool for aspiring conservationists. It is very easy for conservationists to become blinkered by their speciality professions, however, by analysing the greater systems involved and integrating the needs of both social and environmental aspects, broader solutions can be achieved.
Furthermore, Joshua encourages those looking to enter the environmental field to broaden their horizons when it comes to professional training and experience gathering.
Although a field may seem irrelevant to ones desired career path, by exploring other fields you can build a portfolio of theories, tools and solutions that can be applied across the environmental sector, offering the opportunity to bring new or alternative thinking to a chosen career.
Learn more about regenerative farming
You can find out more about the practise of regenerative farming at www.resylien.com – where Joshua received his training, and a great educational tool.
Visit Joshua’s website, www.munozjimenez.com, to find out more about his work and how you can get in touch.
Joshua also suggests this TED Talk with Allan Savory, a leader in the field of regenerative farming:
You can also explore our ultimate guide to learn more about career in restoration and rewilding.
Author Profile | Jordan Gledhill