What Is Regenerative Agriculture?

by Siena Chrisman

9/12/19

If you shop at farmers’ markets and pay attention to where your food comes from, you may have been seeing a new term around lately: regenerative agriculture. Maybe you’ve got questions – what does it mean? Is it the same as organic? Should I look for it? We’re here to help.

What Organic Really Means

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Chief Science Advisor for FoodPrint, calls regenerative agriculture “organic plus.” As she puts it, “It’s the next iteration of sustainable agriculture.” Sustainable farming practices aim to use only the resources that are available; regenerative agriculture focuses on actively “building health into the system,” beginning with increasing soil fertility. Regenerative agriculture is a holistic systems approach that starts with the soil, and also includes the health of the animals, farmers, workers and community.

The United Nations estimates that with current farming practices, the world only has about 60 years of topsoil left. Ninety-five percent of our food comes from topsoil and soil plays a key role in absorbing carbon and filtering water. Unless new practices are adopted, the amount of arable land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of that in 1960. The message is clear: we must stop depleting the soil and start farming in ways that renew it. Healthy, living soil has the potential to pull and store tons of carbon from the atmosphere; studies show that use of regenerative agriculture practices worldwide could sequester 50 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the course of a century. In fact, some people use the term regenerative agriculture synonymously with “carbon farming.”

Regenerative practices also build resilience, mitigating the effects of extreme weather caused by a changing climate. Healthy soil absorbs and retains water, protecting land from both flood and drought; fosters biodiversity; and provides crops with higher nutrient density, especially important when nutrient availability in plants is also expected to fall with rising temperatures.

Rangan is excited about what the practices can do. “There’s so much hope and potential in regenerative,” she says. “It’s not just a theory or pie in the sky: it’s critical to us being able to grow food beyond 50 years.”

60

The number of years the United Nations estimates we can rely on the world's existing topsoil if current farming practices continue.

Regenerative Agriculture’s Five Key Principles

Minimize soil disturbance

Although we think of farmers plowing their fields and turning over fresh soil, it turns out that tillage – breaking it up or turning it over like with a plow — disrupts soil structure and destroys the colonies of beneficial bacteria, fungus and other organisms that are key to healthy soil function. No-till or minimum tillage farming allows the soil structure to rebuild.

Maximize crop diversity

Planting the same crop in a field year after year – or even rotating two different crops like corn and soybeans, which is the predominant practice in the US — exhausts nutrients in the soil and gives pests a chance to establish a strong foothold. A wide variety of crops instead replenishes nutrients and disrupts lifecycles of pests and disease.

Keep the soil covered

Soil left uncovered after harvest – a common practice on US farms – is prone to blow or wash away, taking microbes and minerals important to plant development with it. Cover crops (like rye or vetch, usually grown not for sale but for their huge benefits to the soil), planted after the main crop is harvested, shield soil from the elements, return nutrients lost in the previous crop, and aerate packed down areas.

Maintain living roots year-round

Cover crops protect soil from above and from below. A bare field also has no living plant roots underground. Without a root system below ground, soil can become like sand, with nothing to stop it from eroding. Living roots, whether from a cover crop or rotation of a second cash crop, create a web that holds soil particles in place.

Integrate livestock

Much of the middle of the country used to be covered with prairie grasslands, which co-evolved with bison. That animal grazing stimulated new plant growth while the bison hoofs broke up their manure and worked it into the soil. Grasslands are a fantastic carbon sink, but today those prairies have been turned into corn and soybean fields with degraded soil. With well-managed practices, cattle and other grazing animals turn grassland pastures into exceptionally beneficial ecosystems—even carbon neutral, in some cases.

Terms to Know
Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture is a holistic systems approach that starts with the soil, and also includes the health of the animals, farmers, workers and community.

Brands Get on Board with Regenerative Agriculture

Given the scale of topsoil loss and rapidly escalating climate crisis, the need to shift towards regenerative agricultural practices is urgent. Many brands are getting on board, as food and fiber companies want to guarantee a steady supply of raw goods in a changing climate – and capitalize on consumers’ ever-growing interest in their foodprint.

Some companies focusing on regenerative agriculture are known for a long-term commitment to environmental sustainability. Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s are two of the green businesses backing a new Regenerative Organic Certification.

Others are more surprising: in the biggest corporate commitment to regenerative agriculture, General Mills announced in March that it would work with farmers in its supply chain to shift a million acres of farmland to regenerative practices by 2030. A year prior, in March 2018, Danone North America, maker Dannon yogurt, Horizon Organic milk, Silk soymilk and other brands, launched its own soil health initiative, including a commitment to contribute up to $6 million to soil health research. Applegate Farms, a natural and organic meat company now owned by the multinational Hormel Foods, launched a line of pork sausages earlier this year from small farms that use regenerative practices and are certified by American Grassfed Association.

Investment firms are even getting in on the action: last year, Forbes wrote that impact investing in regenerative agriculture “could be the biggest level for creating positive change available to investors today,” pointing to several investment firms that are acquiring conventionally-managed farmland and overseeing their conversion to regenerative practices. Indigo Agriculture has launched an initiative to sequester one trillion tons of carbon dioxide by incentivizing the farmers it works with to adopt regenerative practices.

How to Purchase Regenerative Products

With so many companies getting into regenerative agriculture – and with so many labels already out there – it can be hard to know what to look for. Because regenerative agriculture is a holistic system, including not just environmental concerns, but animal and worker issues as well, Rangan suggests looking for products that carry several labels—for example, beef that is organic, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and certified by the American Grassfed Association.

The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), currently in a pilot phase with almost 20 companies certified, aims to simplify the field: it is a single label that incorporates strong standards of soil health and land management, animal welfare and social fairness for farmers and workers. Its certification standards encompass those of other labels, including USDA Organic, Animal Welfare Approved, Non-GMO Project verified and others. Once it’s fully rolled out, ROC will be available not just for farms but for transportation, slaughter and processing facilities that produce food, cosmetics and fiber. Building on existing labels will give producers another way to distinguish themselves without a lot of additional paperwork, and give consumers more choice while minimizing confusion in the grocery aisle.

If you love a certain product but it isn’t certified in the way you’d like to see, Rangan suggests engaging directly with the company. “Companies want to know there’s a demand,” she says, before making the often-expensive transition to regenerative practices. If you’re at a school, hospital, or other institution, letting the food service company that you’d like to see grassfed animal products on the menu can have a big impact in creating a local market for these producers, since the company deals in such large volume.

Do Your Research

As for trusting the word of a large corporation about the practices in its supply chain, Rangan recommends doing some research—and don’t be afraid of complexity. True regenerative agriculture practices focus on building soil, minimizing fertilizer and pesticide use, and improving human and animal welfare. “You cannot call yourself regenerative if you’re not addressing that full spectrum,” she says. It’s a complex system, and if a company is only touting its work in one area, that’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s probably not regenerative.

With this changing landscape, will people get label fatigue? Rangan instead thinks the growing number of options shows the public is interested and engaged with where their food comes from. “It’s a good problem to have,” she says. “Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t have been able to get their minds around it,” while today, existing labels and new terms show that the food and farm system is moving in a more positive direction.

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