The term “regenerative agriculture” has been making headlines in 2019. As recently as yesterday, CBS News examined the term and the attached claims that it can restore land and reverse climate change. But what is regenerative agriculture, and how does it distinguish from organic, conventional and sustainable farming?
Regenerative Agriculture: What it Is, and What it Isn’t
The development of the term “regenerative” is credited to Robert Rodale, son of the “father of the modern organic movement” J.I. Rodale. Rodale’s goal was to distinguish farming that is “beyond sustainable” (i.e. beyond farming that simply seeks to limit its drain on natural resources), a type of farming that “takes advantage of the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed. In that primary sense it is distinguished from other types of agriculture that either oppose or ignore the value of those natural tendencies,” Rodale explained.
In collaboration with his daughter, Robert Rodale described “Seven Tendencies Toward Regeneration” that would come to define regenerative agriculture in spirit and practice:
- Pluralism – promoting a diversity of plants, people, cultures, and experiences.
- Protection – preventing bare soil and resulting erosion, increasing the health of soil microbial communities, building resilience in the face of “economic and cultural fluctuations,” and improving agricultural and personal hardiness.
- Purity – avoiding “detrimental habits” such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides (which Rodale likens to smoking and thinking negatively) the potential for health and success increases.
- Permanence – deeper and more developed root systems results in improved communities, both in terms of perennial plants and businesses and economies
- Peace – weed and pest interference are disrupted, as are systems of violence and crime.
- Potential – regenerative agriculture moves nutrients upwards in the soil profile (a form of grassroots, or “trickle-up” economics” resulting in more productive soil.
- Progress – soil structure and soil life improves, as does the health and wealth of its inhabitants.
The practices that contribute to the enhanced flourishing of natural systems include: conservation tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, composting, and biodiversity. Though demanding an incredible commitment of stewardship, “Simply put,” Rodale asserts, “recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture.’ These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.”
The next generation of farmers is keenly aware of the need for these practices. The National Young Farmer Survey, conducted by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) in 2017, compiled results from over 3,000 practicing farmers below the age of 40 in the US. Of those, “75% described their farming practice as sustainable, and 63% as organic. Nearly a third of the young farmers said they follow ‘holistic management’ principles, and almost a quarter practice permaculture.”
By definition, commodity row cropping typically falls outside of the scope of regenerative agriculture (it is so intimately liked to high food miles, synthetic inputs, and monoculture), but every step towards incorporating these practices is a step in the right direction. Restoring degraded lands, planting diverse polycultures, and providing living wages to farmers across the globe are not just sappy ideals, they are proven methods to enhance security and increase profits by eliminating risk and waste.
“Regenerative organic agriculture for soil-carbon sequestration is tried and true: Humans have long farmed in that fashion, and there is nothing experimental about it, the Rodale Institute reminds. “What is new is the scientific verification of regenerative agricultural practices.” The body of research continues to support the efficacy of these practices and the next generation of consumers and producers is taking notice.