What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Food System
May 24th, 2021 | By Morgen Harvey and Claire LaFontaine

Move over organic, there’s a trendier set of farming and processing practices: regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is a term used to describe agricultural practices that focus on the health of the ecological system as a whole, not solely on high production yields of crops.

For decades, the modern food and agriculture industry has mostly been operating through monocultures, large farmlands planted with only one crop. The priority has been placed on producing a high yield or harvest without regard to the health of the resources required to produce it. With growing demands for ag businesses big and small to address climate change and think holistically about the ecosystems and communities they serve, many more eco-friendly farming practices such as regenerative agriculture have begun growing in popularity.

So what is regenerative agriculture?

As a concept, regenerative agriculture aims to be more all-encompassing than organic or other types of agricultural practices, but is not currently defined by a certain criteria or collection of practices. A study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems in 2020 looked at how the term “regenerative agriculture” was used in 229 scholarly articles and found that while there was not a consistent definition across the board. However, there were five main principles agreed upon the most: improving soil health, increasing biodiversity, aiding in carbon sequestration, incorporating humane treatment of livestock and farmworkers and improving the overall larger ecosystem as a whole. The National Resources Defense Council has done an excellent job detailing the reasoning and rationale behind the principles, as well as the passion regenerative agriculture inspires in producers and communities.

Even without a formal definition or consensus as to how to define or emphasize certain aspects of regenerative agriculture, many agree that certain methods and practices can be seen as “regenerative” due to how they prioritize the care of our ecosystem. These practices can include:

  • Incorporating crop rotation and cover cropping
  • Increasing plant and crop diversity
  • Practicing conservative tillage to prevent erosion and increase soil health
  • Animal integration, managed grazing and pasturing
  • Composting and waste reduction
  • and more

One of the biggest potential benefits of regenerative agriculture—and the one with the most interest from researchers and businesses alike—is that it can help combat climate change. The thought is that regenerative agriculture’s strong focus on soil health and reduced tilling efforts can lead to more carbon being sequestered into the earth instead of being released into the atmosphere as a harmful greenhouse gas. The Rodale Institute is highly optimistic, claiming that if all global croplands and pastures were converted to regenerative organic agriculture, that the world could sequester more than 100% of the planet’s current annual CO2 emissions.

Many experts, however, say the science isn’t quite there to support the claims yet, with studies showing mixed results across locations and plots, soil composition and dozens of other factors. Whether regenerative agriculture ends up being a scientifically-proven way to fight climate change or not, its methods still offer many benefits to the ecosystem, producers and consumers alike.

The origins of regenerative agriculture

Originally coined by the Rodale Institute in the late 1980s, regenerative agriculture as a term was very originally heavily rooted in minimal or no-till practices. However, the idea of regenerative agriculture is not a new concept. While the term itself has grown in popularity over the last two decades, spurred in part by agricultural and climate research as well as in marketing and sustainability efforts for businesses, the core idea and the practices behind regenerative agriculture have been around for thousands of years.

Native Americans, Indigenous Peoples, and People of Color have been practicing this holistic approach to agriculture for generations, incorporating techniques like those above as a way of working with the land, not against it. As regenerative agriculture moves forward as a concept and a goal for the future of our food system, it’s important to respect both the history and the intent behind the practices.

How does regenerative agriculture differ from organic agriculture?

While it may be attractive to try and pit regenerative agriculture against organic agriculture, the truth is that they share a lot in common. Organic and regenerative farming approaches are not mutually exclusive. Farmers can choose to incorporate some regenerative-based efforts and not others, opt for organic farming practices or pursue organic certification, yet still not approach planting and harvesting in a way that explicitly aligns with regenerative goals.

One key difference, however, is that organic agriculture is legally defined and highly regulated in the United States by the USDA. To meet USDA-certified organic standards, farming, food and textile processing operations must agree to adopt certain practices for their crops, livestock or production outputs. These practices include incorporating crop rotations, not using synthetic fertilizers, pasturing and raising animals without use of growth-enhancing substances, among others. Obtaining USDA certification is often a time and resource-intensive process for producers.

For regenerative agriculture, the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) aims to provide a holistic, best-in-class certification system that builds upon principles set forth by USDA Organic, Fair Trade and other leading certifications by prioritizing soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. Unlike USDA Organic and other certifications, however, the ROC is not federally-defined or regulated, though the group and its advocates hope to help establish legal standards through their efforts.

What’s next for regenerative agriculture?

With so much attention being placed on regenerative agriculture, it’s worth thinking about what the future may hold. With all the attention and goodwill, will more and more farmers move to implement regenerative techniques and practices? Will it follow the same path as “organic” and become a federally regulated and recognized label you see in the grocery store?

For a practice that incorporates an entire ecosystem and is very much up to individual interpretation, regulation seems to go against the spirit of the concept. Entering the certification and regulation world as it currently exists can lead to inequity challenges and be exclusionary to those who truly started this movement. In order for this concept to be truly revolutionary, it will require tackling social issues in addition to farming practices in a creative and collaborative way from all facets of the food industry. Regardless of the final consensus on regenerative agriculture, holistic practices such as these offer promising environmentally friendly solutions for the food and agriculture industry.

Header photo by Zoe Schaeffer. Inline photo by Rebecca Ritchie.</em></p>

Tagged: Regenerative agriculture, regenerative, organic, organic farming, food system, agriculture, climate change, what is regenerative agriculture

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