BY DEANNA WILLARD
Regenerative Agriculture is the “farming and grazing practices that reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle” (Cummins, 2020). Essentially, regenerative agriculture differs from traditional agricultural practices in that the focus is on soil health and promoting preservation or resources rather than depleting them. The overall goal for regenerative agriculture is to take carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by traditional agriculture methods, and transform it into useful material, such as organic matter, to enhance the soil.
Regenerative Agriculture focuses on four main areas of preservation: conservation tillage, diversity, rotation and cover crops, and messing with it less. Conservation tillage is the practice of tilling as minimally as possible to reduce the CO2 emitted in the atmosphere and stop diminishing the quality of the soil and essential microbes found within (Climate Reality, 2019). When the soil is not disturbed, as it traditionally would be after each crop cycle, there is more time for carbon dioxide to make vital changes in the soil, such as increasing the organic matter content. Next, the diversity of the plants that can be grown in soil where regenerative agriculture is practiced is increased. By rotating different types of plant crops, farmers are increasing abundance and variety of nutrients and minerals available in the soil. By increasing yield, farmers are in turn decreasing land usage for additional crops that would be needed to meet demand. Rotating crops and use of cover crops go together with diversity, in that they promote a variety of nutrients in the soil and production of rich organic matter, rather than an overabundance of a certain nutrient with deficiency of another from repeating the same crop. Cover crops are particularly useful for literally protecting the soil. Utilizing cover crops between main crops will cover the soil and protect if from erosion and depletion of nutrients. The Climate Reality Project stated in 2019 that “bare soil is bad soil.” The last installment for preservation is to “mess with it less” (Climate Reality, 2019). This entails being very mindful of chemical fertilizers and pesticides being used as they can affect the quality of the soil long term. A disruption of soil microbiome could mean a lack of nutrients available to plants in the future, limiting yield and quality of crops.
Rather than thinking of regenerative agriculture as a newly discovered idea being utilized by only a select few, it's actually more accurate to think of it as being rediscovered. For hundreds of years now, regenerative agriculture has been practiced by Indigenous peoples of America. Specifically, they practiced a method known as Intercropping, which is planting complementary crops together so that the individual characteristics of each aids and enhances that of the other (Heim, 2020).
While regenerative agriculture is a somewhat new practice to the modern world, with Bob Rodale presenting it to the USDA in 1989, many local and small-time farmers have been following in the footsteps of Indigenous Americans by incorporating these ideas into their work for decades now (Rodale, 2020). Locally grown produce may not always be grown regeneratively, but it does have a reduced carbon footprint because transport across the country in not required (Green America, 2017). If you are looking for ways to support regenerative agriculture but are not a farmer yourself, you can always start small. Green American organization states you can start as small as in your own backyard or in a community garden. Volunteering at or purchasing food from local farmers markets and co-ops can also support sustainable agriculture, as a lot of these growers use more sustainable methods, and do not have to transport the food very far to get to you. If you purchase food from a specific grower, do not be afraid to ask about how they grow your food. You may want to ask questions about their pesticide use or how often they till their land to get an idea.
Growers interested in regenerative agriculture and becoming certified can do so by contacting the Regenerative Organic Alliance. This is a non-profit organization following Bob Rodale’s principles for sustainable farming. This organization can grant a grower the Regenerative Organic Certified certification for meeting all holistic and higher standard qualifications. This certification differs from the USDA Certified Organic seal because in addition to upholding those standards, the ROC also encompasses soil health and animal welfare requirements (Rodale, 2020). The three main pillars of the Regenerative Organic Certification are soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Soil health, as discussed above, focuses on crop rotation, cover crops, reduced tilling, and building organic matter. The animal welfare portion ensures that the five freedoms for animals are met. These are freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain and disease, to express normal behavior, and from fear or distress (Shelter, 2009). Finally, social fairness seeks to bring farmers fair wages and safe working conditions (Rodale, 2020). Some of the largest brands in the United States are participating in regenerative agriculture right now. Names such as Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia are Regenerative Organic Certified. The food manufacturing giant General Mills uses a “multipronged approach” in support of regenerative agriculture, although not RO Certified yet (Climate Reality, 2019).
With a higher quality and yield for crops, there is not necessarily an argument against Regenerative Agriculture that makes sense. It can not only save time and money, but precious resources that are often nonrenewable. Even adapting small practices such as reduced tilling and chemical fertilizers can save our soil and resources years.
Climate Reality. “What Is Regenerative Agriculture?,” July 2, 2019. https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/what-regenerative-agriculture.
Cummins. Regeneration International. “Why Regenerative Agriculture?” Accessed January 4, 2021. https://regenerationinternational.org/why-regenerative-agriculture/.
“Five Freedoms.” Accessed January 4, 2021. https://www.sheltervet.org/five-freedoms.
Green America. “What Is Regenerative Agriculture?” Accessed January 4, 2021. https://www.greenamerica.org/what-regenerative-agriculture.
Rodale Institute. “Regenerative Organic Agriculture.” Accessed January 4, 2021. https://rodaleinstitute.org/why-organic/organic-basics/regenerative-organic-agric
Tracy, Heim. “The Indigenous Origins of Regenerative Agriculture.” Blog. National Farmers Union (blog), October 12, 2020. https://nfu.org/2020/10/12/the-indigenous-origins-of-regenerative-agriculture/.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deanna is a Dietetics student at Kansas State University in her final year. She previously earned her Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Science at NC State University and has a passion for sustainability and a low-impact lifestyle. She teaches a community learning center course on Plant-based Nutrition and Cooking, and loves developing new healthy recipes in her free time.