Regenerative Agriculture: What It Is and Why We Need to Transition ASAP
Author: Faye Lessler
Climate change is a global threat, and it requires everyone to work together to mitigate its human-driven causes as well as its impacts on human civilization.
Although solutions proposed to address our climate crisis often focus just on cutting down carbon emissions, it's important to note that climate change is not just about having too much carbon in the atmosphere, but it's actually also a symptom and manifestation of biodiversity loss, degraded soils, and dysfunctional, broken ecosystems.
Therefore, reducing emissions from manufacturing or the fossil fuel industry isn't enough; we also need to restore our lands and regenerate healthy soils to strengthen their capacity to cycle carbon, water, nutrients, and energy, while better regulating atmospheric temperature.
This is why regenerative agriculture is increasingly being recognized as a key, comprehensive solution to being able to not only enrich agro-biodiversity and improve nutrition levels within our foods, but also meaningfully sequester carbon to rebalance CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
To illustrate the potential of this, in an interview with Fashionista, Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s CEO and President, said:
"The science is saying that if we converted all of the industrialized agriculture to regenerative, organic practices, we could sequester all the world's carbon.”
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture refers to a way of farming the land that puts soil health at the top of the farmers’ priority list.
Scientists have found that healthy soils are comprised of 50% - 80% carbon, mostly in the form of bacteria, fungi, decomposing plant matter, insects, and worms. Unfortunately, modern industrial agriculture operates in a way that completely disregards soil health, employing techniques that were designed to maximize yields in the short term, but that degrade the land and emit mass amounts of carbon dioxide in the long term.
The costs of industrialized agriculture:
Industrial agriculture typically involves planting just one type of crop on a plot of land, called monocultures—monocultures suck up nutrients from the soil but do not replace them, forcing farmers to add synthetic fertilizers to their fields which can kill the organic matter that lives in healthy soil.
Industrial agriculture also employs tilling, or the process of digging up the top layer of soil to remove dead plant matter and make room for new seeds. But tilling also releases a lot of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
Finally, because monoculture crops do not have significant genetic differences, fields are prone to being ruined by one pest or disease. As a result, industrial agriculture relies heavily on toxic pesticides.
Regenerative agriculture is not a new way of farming, but rather inspired by the way small farmers managed their land for centuries before industrialization. These age-old methods take inspiration from nature and will often look different depending on where in the world the farm is located.
Regenerative farmers do not spray pesticides, use synthetic fertilizers, or plant monoculture crops. Instead, regenerative farmers choose crops to plant together (this is called ‘intercropping’) based on how well they will each support each other, as well as the greater ecosystem on the farm.
Regenerative agriculture in action
One example of regenerative agriculture and intercropping can be traced back to the Ancient Mayan civilizations of Mexico. The Mayan farming practice referred to as the “Three Sisters” plants three different crops together; corn, pole beans, and squash. These three plants are beneficial to each other, therefore increasing the yield of the land without harming the soil.
The beans fix nitrogen into the soil, which the corn and squash plants need to thrive. In turn, the corn stalks provide a structure for the beans to climb. Squash plants grow along the ground, creating a moist environment for the soil, while their prickly vines and leaves deter pests.
Growing these three plants together means that the farmer will not need to add fertilizer to the soil, nor will they need to spray their crops to protect from pests, since the plants are doing all of that work naturally. Once the Three Sisters are harvested, a regenerative farmer will send chickens through the field to eat up dead plant matter and leave their droppings behind, therefore further fertilizing the soil and leaving it healthier than before.
Regenerative agriculture can be employed with any different kind of crop, and many in the fashion industry are excited about the prospect of employing these nature-inspired practices in cotton fields. The fashion industry can also benefit from regenerative agriculture when it comes to the raising of cattle for leather and sheep for wool.
Regenerative grazing in action:
Regenerative grazing practices involve rotating the animals around to graze on one patch of grass at a time, ensuring that the grazers only take as much as the plants can sustain without overgrazing and causing desertification.
As the cattle or sheep graze, they leave their droppings behind and trample them into the soil with their hooves, which provides rich nourishment for the soil. Ranchers who employ regenerative agricultural practices often find that their fields become full of different types of grasses that the cows and sheep love to eat and that have ultra-long roots. Those long roots help to stabilize the soil, allowing it to act like a sponge to soak up rainfall, therefore preventing soil from running off during storms and allowing the land to be more resilient during times of drought.
These farming practices may seem simple on the surface, but they are such a far cry from modern industrial agriculture that transitioning the global industry will require a lot of education and time.
Efforts to implement regenerative agriculture are so important, as the health of the soil and the harmony of the natural world stand to make a big difference when it comes to climate change. Fortunately, there are some who have already begun the work that will be required to turn industrial farms into regenerative ones.
Where to learn more about regenerative agriculture:
RegenOrganic Certified is the leading initiative working to educate farmers and implement regenerative practices around the world. They have established an alliance with farmers and food & fashion brands to work together on creating a regenerative and organic certification for farmers which will measure their holistic operations including pasture-based animal welfare, fairness for farmers and workers, and robust requirements for soil health and land management.
Fibershed is a Northern California based nonprofit that works with local ranchers and fiber producers as well as other Fibershed initiatives around the world to educate and implement carbon-sequestering, soil regenerative practices. They run educational workshops and classes that are beneficial for both farmers and consumers, and they have a marketplace where consumers can purchase products made from regenerative farming.
Regeneration International is a nonprofit working to promote a transition to regenerative agriculture around the world. They are mostly focused on the farming of food crops to feed the world with healthy food while making an impact on climate change.
Savory Global is a nonprofit working with food and fiber systems to regenerate grasslands around the world. They work with brands, farmers, and activists to develop regenerative projects in areas where they can support local farmers and stewards of the land.
Kiss the Ground is a nonprofit providing training and education to empower regular people to go out and advocate for regenerative soil practices. They have developed curriculum around regenerative agriculture and soil health that is designed for school children, businesses, and consumers.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is one of the first books to give an example of regenerative agriculture in the section about grass farming with rancher Joel Salatin. Pollan visits Joel Salatin’s land and details the challenges and benefits of his regenerative ranching practices in this book.
The Third Plate by Dan Barber is written by chef and founder of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Stone Barns is a regenerative, organic farm located in New York State where Dan Barber serves haute-cuisine that is all produced as locally and sustainably as possible. His book walks the reader through many different challenges that modern farming presents as well as a number of elegant, regenerative solutions.