Why Regenerative Agriculture Is the Future of Sustainable Food

Photo: Getty Images / Dougal Waters
Today’s agricultural practices—the cultivation of crops and livestock as well as deforestation to make room for more farmland—are responsible for an estimated one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The effects of industrial agriculture are quite visible, from the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to the horrific (and government sanctioned) wildfires in the Amazon rainforest to make room for cattle ranchers.

While organic farming has had an undeniably positive impact on the planet, we can do even more to reduce our carbon footprint by embracing organic’s offspring: regenerative agriculture. The transition has been a long time coming and is the result of a lot of hard work started many years ago, says Danielle Treadwell, PhD, an associate professor of agricultural sciences at the University of Florida who trains local farmers.

“The visibility, attention, and interest in the term regenerative agriculture is widespread and gaining a lot of momentum,” says Jeffrey Mitchell, PhD, a cooperative extension specialist with the University of California at Davis Department of Plant Sciences.  Here’s what's behind the buzzword—and what it can potentially do for the planet.

The history of the regenerative agriculture movement

Organic farming laid the groundwork for the American regenerative agriculture movement, say experts. Organic farming is commonly attributed to J.I. Rodale, who came up with the term in the 1940s and founded the Rodale Institute. Most organic farming practices are also commonly used in regenerative agriculture, including reduced use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

As the organic movement grew in the 1970s, larger farmers began dedicating acreage to organic crops. When they saw economic benefits—reduced costs from using fewer chemicals while maintaining similar yields—they began implementing some additional practices, like using compost, into traditional farming, says Dr. Treadwell.

Then, in the 1980s, Midwestern corn and soybean producers faced a farming crisis due to a dramatic decline in soil performance. “Farmers in certain regions were up against the wall in terms of economics. They could only grow crops every other year,” says Dr. Mitchell. To address this crisis, they began by reducing tillage (how much land is plowed) and using cover crops (plants grown between harvests to slow soil erosion and increase biodiversity) to try and rehabilitate the land. They started to see big changes as the soil came back to life, and many farmers have been applying and refining these techniques since.

Around the same time, big agriculture got into organics and volume of produce increased. Along with this, “there was a loosening of standards,” says Erik Oberholtzer, who co-founded Tender Greens in 2006 and is a consultant to food brands looking to support regenerative organic agriculture. Some industrial suppliers technically adhered to the USDA definition of “organic” but used aggressive farming practices like tilling that harmed the land, he says. Wen-Jay Ying, the co-founder of Local Roots, a New York City-based farmer’s market subscription service, believes that the term “organic” has been green-washed; some of its original intentions have been lost in practice. “Organic is better than conventional, but we can still make better choices,” she says.

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The son of J.I. Rodale, Robert, decided to take organic farming a step further by coining the term "regenerative organic.” This holistic farming approach is built on the tenets of organic farming paired with soil-health and land management practices that emulate nature, says Dr. Mitchell.

A breakdown of what's typically involved with regenerative agriculture:

  • Crop rotation, or successively farming more than one plant on the same land
  • Cover cropping, or planting year-round so the land isn’t fallow during off-seasons, which helps prevent soil erosion
  • Conservative tillage, or less plowing of fields
  • Cattle grazing, which naturally stimulates plant growth
  • Curtailing the use of fertilizers and pesticides
  • No (or limited) GMOs to promote biodiversity
  • Animal welfare and fair working practices for farmers

“If agriculture is one of our biggest problems, it can be one of our greatest solutions,” says Diana Martin, the director of communications for the Rodale Institute. "Bob felt we could farm in a way that isn’t just sustainable, it could actually improve our resources. Not just the land but even the communities, economies, workers, and animals."

What can regenerative agriculture do for the environment?

Experts argue that regenerative agriculture can potentially reduce carbon emissions produced by farming. Through photosynthesis, plants capture sunlight. They turn it into carbon-based energy, which they store in their roots, and oxygen, which they release into the air. When plants die, their roots form a stable carbon skeletal structure underground that has many bonding sites for water and nutrients, says Dr. Treadwell. These roots attract bacteria and fungi to the soil that breathe in oxygen and out carbon dioxide, just like you and me, and store carbon as they eat up plant matter. The carbon they’ve ingested eventually becomes part of the soil when they die.

Industrial farming practices like tilling, or chopping up the top layer of soil, disturbs the soil, including the root structures and microorganisms storing carbon. This disruption knocks carbon out of the ground and into the atmosphere, where it combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the most prevalent types of greenhouse gases. “Researchers have run CO2 meters behind tractors, and they measure huge CO2 spikes as that chemical reaction takes place,” says Dr. Treadwell.

Destroying the carbon in the soil is also damaging the health of our soil, making it harder to grow crops. If we keep our current farming practices, according to one United Nations estimate, we have fewer than 60 harvests left before we destroy the world’s top soil. “We might see the last supper in our lifetimes,” says Ying.

Regenerative agricultural practices, such as cover cropping and livestock grazing, aim to keep a living root in the soil at all times. These practices cycle nutrients without aggressively disturbing the soil to keep carbon stored underground where it belongs. Meanwhile, composting boosts populations of beneficial soil microbes that feed plants and help them manage pests. This reduces the need for fertilizers, which, when used excessively, can release nitrogen (another greenhouse gas) into the air. It also decreases dependence on herbicides and pesticides, which kill healthy bacteria and fungi in the soil.

Ultimately, these farming practices can help restore the natural balance of healthy soils thriving with life, which theoretically act as a vacuum for carbon. The science showing that healthier soils increases carbon sequestration “isn’t always consistent,” says Dr. Mitchell, but in practice, it’s promising.

"If agriculture is one of our biggest problems, it can be one of our greatest solutions." —Diana Martin, director of communications for the Rodale Institute

Importantly for farmers, yields from industrial farms and regenerative farms are identical, say experts—except in cases of extreme weather, where regenerative outperforms conventional. That’s because increased carbon retention in the soil helps it to retain more water, says Dr. Mitchell. In periods of drought, plants can tap into those stores to survive, resulting in up to 40 percent higher yields in organic versus industrially-farmed soil, according to a long-term study by the Rodale Institute.

“Conventional agriculture works really well when everything goes according to plan. But the new norm is extreme weather, which is what we’re trying to prepare farmers for,” says Martin.

In drought-prone California, regenerative agricultural practices could be a game-changer in improving the water use efficiency of the soil, says Dr. Mitchell. He adds that for farmers, these systems can be appealing because they offer long-term savings on the costs of agrochemicals.

Research into regenerative agriculture’s ultimate impact on the environment is still emerging. But we can look to organic farming as an example: It releases an estimated 40 percent less carbon emissions than conventional practices, according to researchers and the Rodale Institute. A 2014 white paper by the group further estimated that “we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to regenerative organic agriculture.”

How farmers are putting regenerative agriculture into practice

Both Drs. Mitchell and Treadwell note that some traditional farmers have been incorporating regenerative agricultural practices like reduced tillage, crop rotations, and cover cropping for years. Many began when their yield per acre was declining due to poor soil health and faced a steep learning curve. “In our own research, farmers stuck their necks out trying to grow crop after crop with these principles. Early on we failed,” says Dr. Mitchell.

Once farmers get over the initial hurdle, says Dr. Treadwell, they don’t stop using practices like cover cropping, which reduces their reliance on fertilizers, pesticides, and water. Their soils also often measure an increase in carbon compared to nearby farms, adds Dr. Mitchell.

“It’s more work and expense in the short term, but they like the effects it has on the farm. What we’re seeing now with all of our farmers is an interest in doing a better job of conserving natural resources. Some of it is economic. Some of it is [that soil is] an asset on the farm, and farmers are recognizing the value of that asset,” Dr. Treadwell says.

Farmers who are interested in regenerative agriculture practices can get support from land grand universities, federal agencies, and nonprofits, she notes. Dr. Mitchell points to the USDA’s conservation innovation grant (CIG), an initiative that involves 20 farmers who are establishing many of the same principles involved in regenerative agriculture.

Meanwhile, in 2018, the Rodale Institute introduced the Regenerative Organic Certification, or ROC, a nonprofit overseen by experts in farming, ranching, soil health, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness. ROC builds off of the organic label, adding requirements for soil health, animal health, and farm worker fairness. Rodale is currently working with 21 farms all over world, with crops from rice to dairy vegetables to cotton. Dr. Bronner’s is one such partner that’s farming palm oil—a crop that has traditionally had a detrimental impact on the environment—in Ghana.

The Carbon Underground, another nonprofit dedicated to soil health, introduced its own regenerative agriculture standard known as the Soil Carbon Initiative, which the group designed with 150 stakeholders including Danone and Ben & Jerry’s. Participant farmers can earn an “SCI-Verified” Stamp of Participation after doing tests including measuring microbial biomass and organic carbon and water holding capacity of their soil. Whichever label sticks, “we’re all working toward same goal,” says Martin.

In the consumer space, Local Roots’ cattle grower and veggie farmer are both practicing regenerative agriculture, while many of Tender Greens’ producers follow tenets of regenerative agriculture. Ocean Spray has committed itself to having all of its cranberries verified as sustainably grown by 2020, and actively prioritizes regenerative and environmentally-friendly farming practices. Even General Mills has made a goal of using regenerative agricultural practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. “A lot of people working in same arena and moving in same direction. It helps to communicate a consistent message to buyers and consumers,” says Dr. Treadwell.

But will we buy it?

Like organic, regenerative agricultural products will ultimately cost more due to increased labor costs. “We need consumers to be willing to pay for it,” Martin says.

In the next decade, Martin hopes that regenerative organic agriculture practices will become more mainstream. “We’re hopeful that there’s a group of consumers who are not just demanding the cheapest food possible, but who want transparency and want the story behind the products they’re buying,” says Martin. “Farmers are businesspeople. When consumers buy, farmers will grow.”

Companies that are already committed to organics can evolve to regenerative agriculture relatively easily, says Oberholtzer. The next step would be for regenerative agriculture to follow in the footsteps of the organic movement and get adopted by big retailers like Costco, Whole Foods, or Walmart. (A promising start in this direction: Whole Foods called out regenerative agriculture as one of their biggest trends for 2020.)

We still have a long way to go, considering only about 1.4 percent of the world’s farmland is organic today—but experts are optimistic. “I haven’t seen energy and broad-based interest and excitement [in regenerative agriculture practices] as intensely as it exists right now. It’s an exciting time. It’s not going to be instantaneous. It’s still difficult to implement, but there’s a growing body of people engaged in trying to get there,” says Dr. Mitchell. And that's half the battle.

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