The industrial food system is devastating to the environment, to communities and to people. While there are many different ways to talk about more sustainable alternatives, regenerative agriculture is one of the most popular terms used to talk about an ideal food system. Although a growing number of operations are using the word regenerative to describe their practices — including big agribusinesses who use it to market industrially grown products — the farming techniques generally included under the umbrella term regenerative agriculture come from the traditional knowledge of Indigenous people and small farmers around the world.
Regenerative agriculture is a recognition that simply stopping the destructive practices of industrial agriculture isn’t enough: agriculture must also actively heal land that has been damaged by years of industrial crop and livestock production. This includes a special focus on soil, which quickly erodes under poor land management. But regenerative agriculture isn’t just one way to farm, and it encompasses a variety of farming methods that produce food in a way that works with and builds up the surrounding ecosystem. Focusing on soil and adopting regenerative methods can have immense ecological benefits. With its capacity to lower greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and its potential to make farms more resilient against the stresses of climate change, moving towards regenerative agriculture is a necessity in the face of a warming climate.
While these techniques prioritize environmental sustainability by building up soil and fostering biodiversity, shifting to a more regenerative food system requires prioritizing food justice, respecting Indigenous people’s rights and restructuring farm policy to reduce corporate influence and bring local control to food systems.
Regenerative agriculture seeks to heal the damaging, extractive relationship between industrial agriculture and the land. On the scale of individual farms, it does this by building complex agroecosystems where nutrients, water and other resources cycle between different crops, livestock and nature rather than using the environment as a dumping ground for extra waste and fertilizer. When done correctly, regenerative agriculture can rehabilitate areas that have been stripped of vegetation, soil and biodiversity while ensuring that food production can continue without further damage.
There are several critical principles that regenerative systems rely on to minimize their footprint and heal degraded land. Many of these principles come directly from Indigenous people around the world, who have tended the land this way for millennia and managed to both feed their communities and preserve wildlands and biodiversity.1 Ultimately, the goal of these principles is to build on-farm ecosystems that harness the power of natural systems rather than working against nature. When appropriately applied, the environmental principles of regenerative agriculture can produce plenty of healthy food without negative impacts on the surrounding environment.
Healthy agroecosystems start from the ground up: soil is one of the most important resources on Earth, and preserving and building it up is one of the core goals of any regenerative agricultural system. It’s easy to think of soil as just dirt, but in reality, it’s a complex living system. In healthy soils, plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms all interact.2 All of these organisms are important for making sure that nutrients can flow freely through the environment.
One of the most important components of soil is organic matter, which is made of carbon and comes from living things. Plants and bacteria deposit organic matter into the soil as they grow, and animals add it through their manure. Bacteria and fungi help break down plant parts and other materials into small pieces of organic matter. This cycle adds enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil, holding three times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere itself.3 In addition to being imperative for soil fertility — organic matter acts as a sponge that holds water and nutrients — maintaining this soil carbon is critical for slowing climate change.4 Preventing the loss of organic matter and adding it back to soil whenever possible is one of the most important facets of regenerative agriculture.
This starts by never allowing the surface of the soil to be bare. Farmers can do this by reducing tillage, or the plowing of the soil. While plowing seems like a foundational farming practice, recent research has shown that it’s often unnecessary. Plowing can help warm up soil quickly and help control some weeds, but it also breaks soil up and leaves it vulnerable to erosion. Leaving old plant roots and other material in the ground anchors the soil and prevents compaction while adding organic matter. Not tilling the soil also keeps communities of beneficial soil organisms intact that are important for recycling nutrients so plants can take them up.5
Another common practice to build up soils on regenerative farms is planting cover crops: plants that are grown to improve soil quality and prevent erosion in between seasons. Depending on the farm and what the soil needs, these crops can vary. Grasses add organic matter and prevent nutrients like nitrogen from washing away as soil erodes, while legumes can add nitrogen to the soil, an important nutrient that is often added through synthetic fertilizer. Some cover crops, like forage radishes, break up compacted soil with thick, deep taproots.6 When it’s time to plant the main crop, farmers need to kill the cover crop. Sometimes they can harvest some of the material as hay or allow animals to graze on it, but in other cases farmers rely on cold temperatures or specialized crushing tools to kill the cover crops without chemicals.7
All of these practices can generate big returns for soil and for farmers. Combining no-till with cover cropping can minimize erosion and make soil more resilient to drought.89 While it can take several years for farmers to adjust to no-till and cover cropping, they are typically able to match their earlier crop yields within a few years while also enjoying the added benefits of resilient soil.10
In keeping with the first principle to focus on soil, regenerative systems minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. While these can be useful tools for farmers in the short term, they harm soil organisms, insects and other wildlife in ways that throw natural nutrient cycles out of balance and disrupt on and off farm ecosystems.
On a conventional farm, synthetic fertilizers are applied at several points in the growing season. They’re rich in nutrients that accelerate plant growth, especially nitrogen, which helps farmers harvest more crops per acre. However, overreliance on them has several downsides. Chemical fertilizers disrupt the activity of bacteria in the soil that naturally cycle nitrogen, throwing the bacterial communities out of balance and accelerating the rate at which bacteria digest other organic matter in the soil.11 They also leach into groundwater and pollute rivers and streams, contributing to algae blooms and dead zones in water bodies far from the farm, such as the Gulf of Mexico, where runoff from industrial agriculture causes an oxygen-free dead zone that covers thousands of square miles.12
of insect species could go extinct in the next few decades.
Pesticides are also disruptive to agroecosystems. While insecticides may help eliminate certain pests, they also can affect non-target organisms that are beneficial, like earthworms, bees and other beneficial insects1314 Fields where pesticides are used intensively are no longer inhabitable by insects, and the expansion of industrial agriculture is the main reason scientists predict that 40 percent of insect species could go extinct in the next few decades.15
Herbicides, or weedkillers, can be similarly harmful to non-target organisms, drifting to harm other crops or wild plants. Herbicides and fungicides can also directly harm soil microbes, and the use of many different kinds of herbicide are associated with reduced microbial diversity in soil.16
Regenerative systems rely on vibrant, healthy soils and thriving populations of beneficial organisms, but these in turn rely on having a varied habitat to thrive in. Industrial agriculture relies on monocultures — large areas where a single crop is grown — because they are simpler to maintain with chemicals and easy to harvest and market. But these monocultures don’t foster a productive agroecosystem.
Growing a diverse array of plants together can benefit their growth. Growing different crops together this way is called intercropping. In a classic example used by the Indigenous people of North America, corn, beans and squash are grown together in a system called the Three Sisters. Corn stalks provide structure for climbing beans, which fertilize the soil. Meanwhile, squash leaves shade out weeds and help keep water from evaporating in the heat.17 Intercropping like this can dramatically boost crop yields and help farms produce more food. A diverse agroecosystem can also incorporate non-food crops, like pasture for animals or wood for fuel and timber.
Diversity over time is also critical: rotating between multiple crops can give farmers a chance to build up soil’s organic matter with plants that leave lots of residue or add vital nutrients like nitrogen to the soil by planting beans or other legumes. Researchers have also observed that adopting more diverse crop rotations directly increases the amount of beneficial bacteria in soil.18
Rotation also has benefits for disrupting cycles of harmful organisms like pests who destroy crops. Insects that prefer a single food source can’t establish large populations when farmers grow diverse, multi-year rotations and avoid repeatedly growing large swaths of a single crop.19 Similarly, incorporating more species of crops can help reduce weed populations. Farmers in the Midwest have found that vigorously growing species like rye can outcompete even the most tenacious, herbicide-resistant weeds when planted in rotation with other crops that are more vulnerable.20
Biodiversity on the farm is especially important for disease resistance: monocultures of the same crop grown year after year are vulnerable to being wiped out because plants are genetically identical. Growing multiple kinds of crops can help ensure farmers still have a good harvest if disease strikes. Preserving different varieties of the same crops is essential for safeguarding our food supply: in several cases, entire industries have been disrupted because they relied too heavily on a single variety that ended up being susceptible to disease. This nearly caused the collapse of the banana industry in the 20th century, for example.21 Farmers who grow rare and heirloom varieties are key players in this preservation effort.
Diversity in regenerative agriculture doesn’t stop with crops. Livestock are another critical component of many regenerative systems.
In the industrial food system, animals are not integrated into agroecosystems: cattle, pigs and chickens are housed away from crops or pastures, crowded into tight quarters, fed diets of resource-intensive industrial grain, and the vast quantity of manure they produce leaks into water sources and causes serious imbalances. Even when that manure is collected, it causes problems: it generates huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as it decomposes, and when it’s used on fields as fertilizer, it’s often added far in excess of what’s needed, causing additional water pollution issues.22 Beef cattle in the industrial system are especially problematic: while their gut bacteria allow them to digest food other animals can’t in a pasture setting, they also emit large quantities of methane.
In contrast, regenerative systems use an appropriate number of animals for the agroecosystem and take advantage of their role as nutrient cyclers. Grazing animals can take foods like grass that are inedible to humans and turn them into edible meat and dairy. Their ability to do this on steep hills, dry environments or in other inhospitable areas helps farmers and ranchers make the most of their land. In appropriate quantities, their waste is also beneficial: manure contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients which are critical for plant growth, while decomposed manure adds vital organic matter back into soils. These nutrients can be used to improve soils where crops are grown, but also show huge benefit to the pastures where animals graze.
When cattle and other animals are carefully managed on pasture, they can help foster better plant growth, higher biodiversity and better soil health. This process involves intensively grazing sectioned-off areas of a field, allowing animals to graze most of the available vegetation in one area before moving them to another. The original area recovers while the animals graze subsequent areas. This is called rotational grazing. The periodic stresses of heavy grazing encourage plants to root deeper, while the manure that animals leave behind enriches soil and promotes strong regrowth.23
Cattle aren’t the only animals that can be raised on pasture, though others may require some supplemental feed. Pigs can be beneficial players in a pasture, digging deep in soil and incorporating more manure and other nutrients. The pigs also benefit from the natural open environment: they are less stressed and less likely to develop parasitic infections.24 Chickens can also be moved around on pasture, where they feed on insects and plants, particularly weeds that can otherwise overtake pasture environments.25
The benefits from appropriately managed rotational grazing can be immense: the carbon deposited in manure and sequestered by strong plant roots helps support more organisms in soil and draw down carbon from the atmosphere. These benefits are most obvious when former cropland is turned into pasture. In one study of a regeneratively managed farm, researchers found that cattle helped to sequester more carbon in the soil than they emitted themselves, helping the farm have far lower emissions per pound of meat than its conventional competitors.26 Researchers modeling the whole food system suggest that if rotational grazing replaced much of the industrially produced grains that feed livestock today, the increases in soil carbon could offset the greenhouse gas emissions that come from erosion on poorly managed cropland.27
While these would be significant gains, this involves more than a simple dietary change for livestock. In a truly regenerative system, animals shouldn’t overwhelm the land they graze on, and this means that they can’t be kept in dense quarters like they are on CAFOs. Grassfed animals are also lighter and slower growing, so producing the same amount of meat and dairy on pasture would require far more land than currently used for conventional agriculture.28 While there would be enormous benefits to trading some crop land for pasture — well managed pastures are healthier agroecosystems than industrial monocultures — it’s important to address the possibility that this might also cut further into wildland that’s best left undisturbed. Poorly managed grazing on vulnerable land is a major driver of extinction for endangered species worldwide, especially for carnivores like wolves that ranchers see as threatening their herds.2930 The conversion of healthy ecosystems like forests into pasture for livestock would release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than even a well-managed system could sequester.31
Ultimately, regenerative systems do need animals to really thrive, but a genuinely regenerative food system that preserves wild lands and wild biodiversity may not produce the amount of meat and dairy that we’ve grown accustomed to in our industrialized food system.
The industrial food system does much more harm than simply degrading the environment. Ultimately, the current system prioritizes profit over people, removes control over food from individuals and communities and exacerbates inequities and historical injustices, particularly towards Indigenous people and people of color. As an alternative to the industrial food system, regenerative agriculture must go beyond environmental sustainability and address foundational issues in who controls farmland, who makes and profits from food, and how food is distributed to people.
Building a more regenerative food system ultimately requires adopting traditional knowledge beyond the principles of farm management. Treating resources like clean air and water as communal and empowering all members of a community to participate in decision making has always been a critical principle of Indigenous food systems, and it remains critical to building a genuinely regenerative system today.32
The leaders of many Black and Indigenous-focused agriculture organizations have decried the way that many overwhelmingly white-led organizations talk about regenerative agriculture: by focusing solely on ecological practice and ignoring the fact that most principles of regenerative agriculture come from Indigenous land management techniques, some organizations continue to marginalize the people whose work has made the movement possible.33 Reversing this trend is critically important, but the obligation to Black and Indigenous people goes beyond acknowledging their contributions: addressing historic crimes and inequities, particularly land theft and slavery, is critical to building a fairer food system.
Much of the farmland in the United States was illegally taken from Indigenous people. Part of acknowledging the contributions of Indigenous people involves recognizing this historic crime and its consequences: would so much of the land in the US today need to be regenerated if it had never been taken from Indigenous people who were managing it so sustainably in the first place?34 Land return programs, some managed by the government and others through tribal land trusts, are giving control and ownership of lands back to the Indigenous people who originally lived there. As lands return to Indigenous management, they see big ecological benefits as wetlands, prairies and other habitats are rehabilitated.35 This is also critical to building Indigenous food sovereignty, as regenerated lands are places to hunt, forage and farm.
Black people in the US have also been victimized by the development of the modern food system. The foundation of the US food system was slavery, and enslaved people provided much of the labor on farms throughout the United States before emancipation. Even after emancipation, the US government failed to redress the harms that Black people suffered, continuing even today through discriminatory practices at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that have led to a massive loss of black-owned farmland.36 Much like returning Indigenous land to its rightful owners is important to communities and ecosystems, building Black food sovereignty is also key to a fair food system that works for everyone.
Part of the difficulty in getting farms to adopt regenerative practices is the economic structure that encourages farmers to maximize production and locks them into a system of chemical inputs and monoculture production. This is the product of government policy and corporate control of the food system. Only democratizing the food system and rebuilding fair markets and infrastructure to supply regional food systems can help align food production with natural systems and community needs.
The industrial food system relies on commodity crops and products, items like corn, soy and meat that are produced in huge quantities to be identical inputs to processors. This has created a system where farmers compete to produce the most of these commodities as possible. In addition to creating wide swaths of industrial monocultures, this means that these products are often overproduced. This causes the price at which farmers can sell their crops or livestock to drop, which only encourages them to produce more to try and break even. As farmers and ranchers try to make up for low prices with higher volume it starts a vicious cycle that hurts farmers and benefits the large multinational buyers who buy their raw materials for low prices. American agricultural policy tries to smooth out the ups and downs of this system by giving farmers subsidies that ensure they manage to stay in business, but this ultimately encourages farmers to continue to overproduce the same small number of crops.37
Advocates for regenerative agriculture say that changing or eliminating these incentives would help to discourage industrial monocultures.38 More regulation of agriculture and agribusiness — measures like banning certain pesticides, eliminating factory farms and doing more to monitor pollution from fertilizer and manure — would bring more of the true costs of industrial agriculture to the price tag of food and make regenerative agriculture more competitive and cost efficient.
Consolidated agribusinesses, which sell seeds, chemicals, food and more, have an outsized say on food policy, spending more than $100 million annually in lobbying to keep most of agriculture deregulated.39
Corporations have also tried to capitalize on the surge of interest in regenerative agriculture, introducing their own definitions of what it means to be sustainable. These typically include only environmental claims about soil health and carbon sequestration without acknowledging the need for a more holistically regenerative food system. A closer look at these corporate initiatives is cause for concern: many lack actual monitoring to confirm whether they are in fact employing regenerative techniques and many are using terms like regenerative solely as marketing.40 In many cases, agribusinesses are advancing visions of regenerative agriculture that actually require more of their proprietary products, like herbicide manufacturers selling their products as a way to kill off a winter cover crop.41 This can blunt the effectiveness of cover cropping as a way to regenerate soil and foster biodiversity.
Similar problems apply to some of the policy proposals to encourage “climate-smart” agriculture. For example, some policymakers believe that carbon markets, where farmers are paid by the government or other organizations for the carbon stored in their fields, are a good way to encourage farmers to pursue better soil health. But without better measuring and monitoring, there’s little way to guarantee carbon is actually stored, and there’s no way to ensure farmers continue to protect the soil’s health in the future. This — along with the eager way lobbying groups for corporate agriculture have latched onto the proposals — leads critics to say initiatives like carbon farming are just another way for large operations to earn money without making substantial changes.42 Farmers who already use regenerative methods may even be left out, since they may not be able to demonstrate they’ve added new carbon to their already-healthy soil.43
The corporate food system may seem inescapable, but the reality is that it doesn’t even feed most of the world. At least one third of all the world’s food is produced by the smallest farms, and at least half comes from those under 25 acres, small operations generally run by families.44 These small farmers may not have the lobbying dollars of corporate interests, but they can still band together to advocate for a better food system. La Via Campesina, a movement of small farmers worldwide, has successfully influenced policy from the United Nations and national governments that encourages food sovereignty and champions genuinely regenerative agriculture.45
While there are many barriers that are slowing the adoption of regenerative agriculture in the US food system, there are also many producers who already use regenerative methods and who are helping to build more localized, democratic food systems. As food buyers, it’s possible for us to help support producers who are farming regeneratively and get more involved in our communities as they build alternative networks to the corporate food system.
There are a few labels that attempt to certify whether or not products are regeneratively produced, though their definitions and standards vary. One of the largest is the Regenerative Organic Alliance, which requires that farms meet the USDA organic standards as well as several additional provisions that encourage low tillage of soil, better animal welfare, fair pay and democratic decision making processes for workers.46 The initiative has support from several non-profits as well as several food companies. The farmer-led Real Organic Project certifies whole farms for regenerative practices, applying a tighter framework than USDA Organic for soil health and animal well-being.47 While neither label addresses every dimension of regenerative agriculture, products with the label or products are a good starting point for supporting a regenerative food system.
Even with more labels in development to certify regenerative practices, it can be difficult to find products that have a specific regenerative certification. However, other labels can provide a window into how some products are produced and help you avoid products that are most harmful to animals and the environment. If there are no regenerative labels available to you, USDA Organic is a good starting point to ensure that food is grown without synthetic chemicals, one of the most critical things to address in the transition to a regenerative food system. Similarly, animal welfare certifications can help to ensure that animals were able to graze outside, even if they can’t ensure whether the pasture was managed through rotational grazing.
Previous page photo by JRC_Stop Motion/ Adobe Stock.