It’s a relatively new buzzword in the agricultural realm, but regenerative agriculture has been around since the dawn of civilization. It’s much more than organic certification, no-till farming, or companion planting, but encompasses all of these practices and ties them all together.
The intent behind regenerative agriculture is to heal and restore soil health and fertility. Modeled after indigenous farming practices and natural systems, regenerative agriculture provides a sustainable farming model that predates and contradicts conventional agriculture.
Keep reading to understand what regenerative agriculture is, how these alternative farming practices positively impact the environment, and whose voices the regenerative agricultural movement leaves out.
What is regenerative agriculture, anyway?
The term regenerative is often used interchangeably with sustainable, but it is important to draw a distinction between regenerative agriculture and sustainable agriculture. Both of these farming practices are beneficial for the planet–and each has its place in agriculture–but there is a slight difference between them.
The purpose of sustainable agriculture is primarily to build resistance against climate change, while regenerative agriculture seeks to reverse the effects of climate change. Sustainable agriculture is a powerful alternative to conventional agriculture, but regenerative agriculture takes this important and necessary work one step further.
In an article published by North Carolina Cooperative Extension, the author explains that regenerative agriculture
“Refers to a practice of farming and land use that aims to improve or restore the overall health of the soil, thereby increasing the soil’s capacity to sustain production and provide environmental benefits (Ohletz).”https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/01/regenerative-vs-sustainable-agriculture/?src=rss#:~:text=What%20we%20can%20say%2C%20in,production%20and%20provide%20environmental%20benefits.
The root word regenerate is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “formed or created again, to restore to original strength or properties, and “to change radically and for the better” (“Regenerate Definition & Meaning”).
Regenerative agriculture differs from sustainable agriculture in that the latter uses resources without depleting them, while regenerative agriculture actively rebuilds and reinvigorates the same resources that it uses.
The foundations of regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture can be distilled down to five basic principles:
- Crop diversification
- Minimal tillage
- Cover cropping
- Reduced use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
- Integrated livestock management
The vision is a holistic agricultural system centered around these five practices that work together to preserve soil health. Regenerative agriculture focuses on maintaining the longevity of an integrated system rather than its outputs and productivity, ensuring that harvests are enjoyed for generations to come.
Why regenerative agriculture is important
Conventional agriculture is problematic for a number of reasons, climate change being the first. Worker and animal welfare is another concern, as is the pollution of natural resources and contamination of food products.
Air and water pollution are among the unpleasant effects of commercial agriculture. According to the Economic Research Service, the agricultural sector accounted for a little over 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, releasing approximately 670 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The United States Geological Survey also draws concerning correlations between commercial agriculture and “impairments in the Nation’s rivers and lakes (“Agricultural Contaminants | U.S. Geological Survey”).”
The problems of desertification and habitat destruction can also be attributed to conventional agricultural practices. The Population Reference Bureau draws a connection between desertification and “the expansion and intensive use of agricultural lands, poor irrigation practices, deforestation, and overgrazing” (“What’s Behind Desertification? | PRB”).
6 benefits of regenerative agriculture
There’s a reason that the regenerative agricultural movement gains momentum by the day. This agricultural system includes holistic practices like no-till, composting, rotational grazing, and organic pest and disease management, among other applications.
1. Builds healthy soil
There are a number of ways that regenerative agriculture seeks to minimize soil disturbance, on both a physical and chemical level. Minimizing tilling and avoiding synthetic chemicals are the first steps in the process of improving soil health and fertility.
Tilling, while convenient, is incredibly detrimental to soil. Repeatedly driving heavy machinery and equipment compacts dirt over time, resulting in a hardpan that plant roots, microorganisms, and water molecules can’t penetrate.
Healthy soil begins at the microscopic level, and overtillage disrupts these delicate ecosystems. Leaving soil undisturbed allows for a healthy exchange of air and water between soil particles, which is crucial for plant root development.
Regenerative agriculture maintains soil health by avoiding the use of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers, which alter dirt’s chemical makeup. Many of these chemicals are so harsh that they eradicate far more than the pests or diseases they target.
In place of synthetic fertilizers, regenerative agriculture depends on compost to add organic matter back into the soil. Decaying organic material is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients that plants need to thrive.
Composting closes the loop between eating and growing, uniting the system–waste is transformed into fertilizer that becomes food for productive plants.
2. Slows erosion
Tillage is only half the battle of erosion–the next step of regenerative agriculture is to protect fertile soil through mulching, cover cropping, and responsible grazing.
Integrated livestock management is a cornerstone of regenerative agriculture. Well-managed livestock lands strike a healthy balance between land and animal, avoiding overgrazing that leads to desertification and habitat destruction.
The practice of silvopasture integrates forest farming and livestock management. According to the USDA, ranchers introduce native trees, shrubs, grasses, and legumes to the livestock grazing area, and protect the plants by keeping grazing periods are intentionally short.
Rotational grazing is a little bit different. The NRCS explains this ranching technique that moves livestock through different different compartments (called paddocks) within a pasture to minimize overgrazing.
While one paddock is being grazed the rest of the pasture rests, allowing grasses and native plants to develop deep root systems and survive multiple seasons.
3. Increases biological diversity
Diversity is life, and variety brings sustainability. Regenerative agriculture encourages crop diversification, or the planting of a wide array of different plants.
Diversified plantings deter certain pests and eliminate the danger of a complete loss. Even if one planting succumbs to pest or disease, the grower is left with other crops.
Crop diversification makes sense form an economical standpoint too, since diversified plantings also tend to be more productive and more resilient.
Most crops benefit from companion planting–and having a wide range of herbs, flowers, and vegetables will bring an equally diverse mix of beneficial insects and pollinators to the garden, helping control pest populations and increase plant productivity.
And when it comes time to save seed, the a greater variety of genetic material guarantees stronger plants with more desirable traits.
4. Improves water quality
Regenerative agricultural practices like minimal tilling, composting, and cover cropping improve soil consistency as well as composition. Healthy soil is better equipped to handle floods and droughts than compacted soil, evenly distributing water to crops when the plants need it.
Healthy soil is capable of purifying and holding water–and not just for plants. As clean, reliable water sources across the world dwindle down, regenerative agriculture has the potential to improve water quality and quantity.
5. Mitigates climate change
Not only does regenerative agriculture build whole system resiliency, but some practices actually work to halt climate change at the source.
Carbon sequestration is a pillar of regenerative agriculture, and one proven method to mitigate climate change. Trees, shrubs, and plants in general take in carbon dioxide as part of their respiration process, storing the gas in their leaves, stems, and roots in what is commonly called a carbon sink.
As more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, it only makes sense to plant more trees and crops that naturally filter out carbon dioxide from the air.
6. Production of healthy food
While not the only benefit of regenerative agriculture, feeding people is a top priority. We all need to eat, and as the world’s population grows we need more sustainable ways of producing large amounts of nutrient-dense foods.
Regenerative agriculture has a place everywhere, but is especially suited to rural food deserts, areas without access to fresh, affordable food. Regenerative agriculture provides produce, meat, eggs, milk, and so much more to the communities that need it.
“Organic” is a label bestowed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program that is used by some farms and products. Organic certifications necessitate that plants come from organic seeds whenever possible. For crops to be certified organic, the crops must be grown on soil that has been certified organic for at least three years.
Organic farming practices do not use synthetic substances–including pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, fertilizers, or other chemicals–at any point during cultivation, harvesting, or processing.
3 shortcomings of regenerative agriculture
As a movement, regenerative agriculture is far from perfect. There are some concerns that exclude certain groups of people.
1. Exclusion of marginalized communities
The very reason that regenerative agriculture is good for the economy is the same reason why it’s also problematic. Regenerative agriculture is modeled after indigenous farming practices, including human-scale cultivation and companion planting
“Regenerative agriculture” as a brand commodifies black and indigenous practices and wisdom–without financially benefiting either group.
The regenerative agriculture movement is predominately white. Many of the movement’s leaders, organizations, and funders are white–many black and indigenous people of color have not been invited to participate or been appointed to lead, even though regenerative agriculture is informed by indigenous farming practices, and often appropriates it.
As we notice the ways that commercial agriculture damages the land, we become more aware of the ways that people have been enslaved, discarded, removed and commodified for monetary gain. By choosing regenerative agriculture, we honor ancestral wisdom and pay homage to marginalized groups
2. Steep learning curves
When growers make the switch from conventional to regenerative agriculture, they will undergo a period of transition where they may actually see fewer yields as the plants and soil adjust to new (albeit better) conditions.
Growers, too, must experience a learning curve–it takes time to transition from one way of farming to another. Growers will need to spend time and money on new training, tools, and equipment, and they may have to reconcile lost earnings during the period of transitioning land from conventional to agricultural practices.
Though regenerative agriculture is cheaper in the long run, the initial investment isn’t exactly modest. Fortunately, research shows that regenerative agriculture does eventually pay for itself.
The NRDC studied the long-term results of several farmers who switched to regenerative agricultural practices, and found that
“the overall health and yields of their crops improved as a consequence of their regenerative farming techniques. Cost-savings from reduced use of chemicals, including fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and antibiotics, had a positive impact on farm and ranch profitability (“Regenerative Agriculture Part 4: The Benefits”).”https://www.nrdc.org/experts/arohi-sharma/regenerative-agriculture-part-4-benefits
While profit may not be the primary motivating factor behind adopting regenerative agricultural practices, many farmers and producers have seen financial success from adopting some of these techniques. Regenerative agriculture allows production of animals and crops to be sustainable in the long term, even showing signs of improvement over time.
4 leaders in regenerative agriculture
Many farmers are taking up the torch to do the hard work of regenerative agriculture, and you can learn more about their projects and support this community by clicking on the links below.
1. Soul Fire Farm
Soul Fire Farm is a BIPOC-owned regenerative farm in Petersburg, New York. Co-founded by Leah Penniman and her husband, Soul Fire Farm’s mission is to heal the land using regenerative agricultural practices, all while bringing fresh, nutritious food to a food desert.
2. La Ferme De Quatre Temps
La Ferme De Quatre Temps is a Quebec-based market farm and training center with a mission to teach a new generation of responsible growers while simultaneously providing the surrounding community with locally grown produce and humanely raised meat.
3. Mudbone Grown
Mudbone Grown is a BIPOC-owned regenerative farm in Portland, Oregon, co-founded by Shantae Johnson and Arthur Shavers. Johnson and Shavers also launched a nonprofit and farm incubator: Feed ‘Em Freedom Foundation.
4. Four Seasons Farm
Founded by Eliot Coleman and his wife Barbara Damrosch, Four Seasons Farm was one of the first regenerative farms to achieve worldwide attention, and while the farm is primarily a working farm, educating the next generation of farmers an equally important part of the mission.
Regenerative agriculture is a multifaceted and integrated system of sustainable farming practices that prioritize longevity and overall health over production and profit. Although regenerative agriculture is timely movement with a lot of potential, we need to make sure everyone is invited to the table, and all voices are heard.
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“Agricultural Contaminants | U.S. Geological Survey.” USGS.gov, 1 March 2019, https://www.usgs.gov/mission-areas/water-resources/science/agricultural-contaminants. Accessed 10 October 2022.
“Climate Change.” USDA ERS, 10 June 2022, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/climate-change/. Accessed 10 August 2022.
Ohletz, Janel. “Regenerative vs. Sustainable Agriculture | North Carolina Cooperative Extension.” Durham County Cooperative Extension, 5 January 2021, https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/01/regenerative-vs-sustainable-agriculture/?src=rss. Accessed 10 August 2022.
“Pastures for Profit: A Guide to Rotational Grazing (A3529).” Natural Resources Conservation Service, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1097378.pdf. Accessed 9 October 2022.
“Regenerate Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/regenerate. Accessed 10 August 2022.
“Regenerative Agriculture Part 4: The Benefits.” NRDC, 14 February 2021, https://www.nrdc.org/experts/arohi-sharma/regenerative-agriculture-part-4-benefits. Accessed 10 October 2022.
“Silvopasture.” USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/nac/practices/silvopasture.php. Accessed 9 October 2022.
“What’s Behind Desertification? | PRB.” Population Reference Bureau, https://www.prb.org/resources/whats-behind-desertification/. Accessed 10 August 2022.
About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.