Regenerative Agriculture: What Is It?
Our planet is at risk, and the global food system is part of the problem.
Thanks to industrial farming, half the world’s topsoil was depleted in the past century, and future predictions aren’t much better. If current rates of farmland destruction continue, the earth will become critically short of fertile land within 60 years.
Since giving up eating entirely isn’t an option, improving how food is produced is critical for global sustainability. And it turns out, taking care of farm fields yields impressive benefits for the rest of the planet, too. Farmers and scientists alike are finding that improving soil health has lasting impacts on every level of the ecosystem and that sustainable farming might be one of the best ways to combat soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and even climate change.
As an alternative holistic land management philosophy, regenerative agriculture is disrupting the industrial food system and improving soil fertility, one farm field at a time.
But what is regenerative agriculture, and how is it different than other sustainable farming techniques? We’ve addressed these questions below.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Sometimes referred to as carbon farming, regenerative agriculture is a farming philosophy that views restoring soil health and sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is just as necessary as making a profit.
‘Regenerative’ refers to any process that naturally improves or restores the system that it’s part of, rather than harming it. The phrase ‘regenerative agriculture’ was first used by the American farming nonprofit the Rodale Institute in 1980 as a way to define their soil health-focused sustainable farming practices.
In this way, regenerative farming works to rebuild depleted soil by restoring its nutrient levels so that it can grow better crops. Regenerative farmers also strive to reduce erosion, improve their soil’s capacity to hold onto water, promote biodiversity, and produce more food in smaller spaces.
In this way, the principles of regenerative agriculture are designed to create a system of mutually beneficial relationships where outputs become inputs, waste is minimized, and resources are reused as much as possible.
How Does It Work?
When farmland becomes overused or eroded, it loses most of its carbon content, which is a valuable form of organic material. To combat this concern, regenerative agriculture works to restore soil to its naturally robust, carbon-rich state. A fundamental principle is that land should be tilled as little as possible, which allows it to regain fertility through biological methods like cover crops, compost, and managed animal grazing.
Adding organic material to farmland has other benefits, as this healthy soil becomes a carbon sink. This means that the ground holds more carbon than it releases, leading to a net loss of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These low-tech, low-cost techniques can be implemented on all farms, and they are especially suited for small farms.
The following farm practices (and many others) are considered regenerative:
- Minimal Tilling or No Tilling: Plowing up the soil each season wrecks the structure of the communities that live within it, and it contributes to soil erosion and CO2 emissions. In contrast, no-till farming enhances the soil structure by preventing it from compacting and improving water infiltration and retention rates.
- Intensively Managing Animal Grazing Systems: Contrary to what you might think, well-managed grazing systems can improve pastures. Letting cattle, goats, and other livestock graze appropriately will stimulate better plant growth, increase forage biodiversity, and even contribute natural fertility through manure. Not only does this create a healthier pasture, but the benefits get passed on to the animal and the consumer, too.
- Naturally Increasing Soil Fertility: Artificial fertilizers make plants less resilient to the unique threats in their environment, causing them to grow vulnerable. In contrast, cover crops, crop rotations, natural compost and animal manure can improve the functionality of the soil microbiome while allowing the plants to grow more robust.
By some accounts, building up soil health and sequestering carbon within it might be the best solution to combat climate change and restore the world to better health, all while providing the food, fiber, and fuel that we all need to live.
How is Regenerative Farming Different Than Organic and Biodynamic Farming?
At first glance, the principles of regenerative agriculture sound similar to organic. However, there are some critical differences between them.
According to current the USDA organic certification standards, organic certification is defined more by what can’t be done to farm fields, like not using chemical fertilizers or pesticides. However, an absence of toxic chemicals doesn’t necessarily mean that the land is being improved.
In contrast, regenerative farming focuses on techniques that directly improve soil health. It is a dynamic and holistic approach to food production that integrates the principles of organic agriculture with conservation tillage, crop rotation and cover crops, and other sustainable strategies. This makes regenerative farming similar in scope to biodynamic, though biodynamic agriculture has a longer history and more certification standards in place.
In this way, regenerative agriculture sets the bar higher for food production than organic certification, as it demands that farm practices not only refrain from damaging the planet but also improve it in the process.
Where Can You Find Regenerative Food?
While regenerative farming is taking off around the world, finding food that qualifies can be difficult. The farms that have transitioned to regenerative growing practices are part of a small, yet bold minority that is making inroads to get regenerative foods focused more prominently on store shelves.
Currently, no standardized certification system exists for Regenerative Agriculture, but the Rodale Institute is working to change that. Working with a team of farmers, rankers, scientists, and other brands, the nonprofit introduced a draft of standards for a Regenerative Organic Certification plan in September 2017. If finalized, this certification system will go ‘beyond organic’ to produce clear requirements and expectations regarding soil health, animal welfare, and even farm laborer standards.
In the meantime, buying Demeter-certified Biodynamic products like we offer at White Leaf Provisions ensures your food was produced with a soil-building mindset, even without the regenerative certification. White Leaf Provisions believes that healthy food begins with healthy soil.
Support Regenerative Farmers from the Soil Up
As the regenerative agriculture movement continues to grow, it’s essential to support these pioneering farmers by purchasing these products. Even allocating a few dollars a month towards climate-friendly foods will make a difference for what shows up on store shelves, ensuring that regenerative products will slowly become more available.
To cut out the store altogether, consider buying products directly from regenerative-minded farms at your local farmers’ market. Below are some of the best questions you can ask to identify the origins of a farm product and learn if it was grown in a way that supports soil health.
- How did growing this product improve the ecological systems it was part of?
- Were cover crops, crop rotation, compost or other natural fertility techniques used?
- Were intensively managing animal grazing systems used for meat, dairy and egg products?
- Did the farming practices work to sequester carbon into the soil?
Choosing Regenerative to Renew the Earth
Every time you prepare a meal, you make a choice about the kinds of farming practices you support. By seeking sustainable-grown foods that restored soil health, improved the surrounding ecosystem, and sequestered greenhouse gases deep into the soil, you can choose to be a force for renewal on the planet we all share.
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