The International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2019 Food & Health Survey found that less than 1 in 4 Americans had heard of regenerative agriculture, with 55% stating they had never heard of it but would be willing to learn more. Large companies, like Minnesota-based General Mills, are starting to catch on as well by investing in crop research to promote regenerative agriculture. Despite the recent buzz, regenerative agriculture has been in practice for thousands of years by a multitude of communities and indigenous peoples. So what is regenerative agriculture? Why is it important? And how does it differ from all the other -culture words? This article will begin to address these questions.
Regenerative Agriculture (RA)
Regenerative agriculture (sometimes called regenerative organic agriculture) as a term was first coined in the mid-1900s by Robert Rodale, an American organic farmer pioneer. Rodale describes regenerative agriculture as taking “advantage of the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed.” Similar concepts like permaculturePermaculture = a set of design principles introduced in the 1970's, emphasizing biomimicry and mutually beneficial synergies in agricultural and ecological restoration settings. and holistic managementholistic management = a systems thinking approach that creates a functioning system by integrating different elements; e.g. combining grazing cattle with grassland rotation fall under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture. But all of these terms, including RA, are relatively new compared to the Indigenous knowledge that these are founded upon. Core principles of RA practice include:
No tillage:plowingplowing = breaking up the soil bed before planting seeds. Plows used to be pulled by animals (and can be done by humans with handheld tools) before being replaced by tractors. and tillagetillage = engaging in plowing activities that rake up and break the soil bed (the top 6-10 inches) before planting seeds dramatically erode the soil, creating a bare or compacted environment, which is hostile for important soil microbes. By adopting low- or no-till practices, farmers can minimize physical disturbance to the soil, and gradually increase soil organic matter, creating healthier environments for plants and microbes to thrive. No tillage also keeps carbon in the ground by not breaking up the soil which stores carbon.
Eliminating bare soil: not only is leaving a field fallow unproductive, the soil is prone to further erosion from wind or rainfall if exposed. By planting cover crops, the roots hold soil down while providing a profitable crop or habitable ecosystem.
Biodiversity: adopting polyculture not only increases resilience against pests, diseases, and extreme weather, but can also feed microbes through an array of plants that release different carbohydrates (sugars) through their roots, returning all sorts of nutrients back into the soil.
Integrating livestock and crops: combining crop and livestock management can reduce land use while mimicking natural ecosystems to reduce inputs. Inputs like animal manure can maintain soil nutrient levels, while a diverse cropping landscape protects against overgrazed pastures.
Pasture cropping”Pasture & Organic Annual CroppingOAC = organic production foregoes harmful synthetic additives, relying instead on compost application, green manure, biodiversity as pest control, etc.
Compost & Compost TeaCompost tea = a liquid produced by extracting bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes from compost. The tea improves the nutrient retention of the soil thus stimulating plant growth.
Biochar Biochar = biomass (organic material from ag or forestry waste) burnt through the process of pyrolysis (burning with little oxygen). This burning technique releases little to no contaminating fumes. Thus, biochar is a stable form of carbon that can’t easily escape into the atmosphere and can be added to increase soil quality. The energy or heat created during pyrolysis can be captured and used as a form of clean energy. & Terra Preta terra preta meaning 'dark earth' = a ~7,000 year old practice of adding charred biomass to soils from the Amazon's indigenous communities.
Holistically Managed GrazingHolistically Managed Grazing = a practice which involves moving vast herds of livestock from one area to another for grazing, with long recovery periods for the land in between grazing times to protect grasslands against overgrazing. This differs from rotational grazing where it doesn't matter if the grazing period is short (1-2 days), for overgrazing can happen even within that short span. Instead, grazing time is determined by the land's rate of growth or seasonal forage availability. Though typically applied to grazing cattle, holistic management is truly holistic in that its core can be applied to general resource management, like watersheds or fisheries.
Animal IntegrationAnimal Integration: from cattle under coconuts (South Pacific) and oil-palms (Malaysia and Cameroon) to geese under orange trees (Cuba) and ducks under plantains (Dominican Republic), integrating livestock and crops provides a win-win situation. The understory of perennials act as cover crops or weed suppressants for main crops while providing forage for the animals.
AquacultureAquaculture = farming—but with water. the cultivation of aquatic plants and animals in fresh or salt waters under controlled conditions for harvest.
Perennial CropsPerennial Crops = plants that grow back year after year without the need for replanting, as opposed to annuals, which require reseeding every year.
SilvopastureSilvopasture = a subset of agroforestry. Silvopasture is the intentional combination of trees, forage plants and livestock as an integrated, intensively-managed system.
AgroforestryAgroforestry = a land-use system that integrates trees into agricultural landscapes used for crops and/or livestock
Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture
Uniting all these practices is an emphasis on working with closed loops and minimizing cultivation. In other words: mess with it less. Tapping into natural flows like the nutrient, water, and carbon cycles minimizes disturbances by avoiding synthetic additives and intense mechanical manipulation (which have bred phenomenons like pesticide-resistance and compacted soil). This holistic approach is enacted through systems thinking, whereby every stage of production is seen as an integrated part rather than a singular external force. This way of modeling agriculture is more conducive to replenishing as opposed to depletion, for every stage is nested in another stage, feeding into a larger self-regulating system.
In addition to soil benefits, a global shift to regenerative agriculture can:
Decrease greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate runaway: the current industrial food system is responsible for 44-57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Through no-till practices, carbon stays in the ground while healthy soils draw down carbon as a sequestration sink.
Improve dietary nutrition:there is now a push for more diverse agro-ecosystems to diversify the nutrient output of foods. Our increasingly homogenized diets are responsible for many negative health effects and are insufficient for nourishing our bodies.
As the search for sustainable agriculture grows, many are returning to traditional or “pre-modern” forms of cultivation, looking to indigenous practices as guidance. Indigenous farming is not just farming practiced by Indigenous people. It is a product of cultures deeply tied to a specific place. After all, rural and Indigenous populations don’t just make a living off their land. Their land and territories are core to their identities, their cultural landscape and their source of well-being. In the words of Indigenous farmer, Vena A-dae Romero, “We cultivate the land while the land cultivates us. This relationship that has supported my people since time immemorial is remembered daily when we place our fingers in the dirt, pull the weeds from our fields, or plant our seeds with water, prayer, and hope, cook the food which we grow, and ingest the world with each bite of food we eat.”
“We cultivate the land while the land cultivates us. This relationship that has supported my people since time immemorial is remembered daily when we place our fingers in the dirt, pull the weeds from our fields, or plant our seeds with water, prayer, and hope, cook the food which we grow, and ingest the world with each bite of food we eat.”
Vena A-dae Romero
Understanding indigenous farming systems reveals important ecological clues for the development of regenerative agriculture. Because this knowledge is tied and adapted to specific environments, these systems work with, as opposed to against, natural processes. This relationship endured for thousands of years until it was disrupted by colonial conquest and settlement. While Indigneous food and culture were co-opted by colonies around the world, indigenous farming practices were typically shunned by dominant structures. It is important to note that many societies have collapsed due to resource and/or agricultural mismanagement without the interference of colonialism. However, by and large, current industrial systems are built upon the erosion of traditional knowledge through the displacement of Indigenous peoples via seizure of land and introduction of harmful practices and technology.
Faced with environmental and social pressures created by modern food systems, Indigenous people and allies are increasingly entering discourse by reclaiming and revitalizing traditional practices. Read more about food sovereignty here.
First and foremost, we need to recognize the issue of feeding the world is not a question of “is there enough food?” Rather, it is a matter of unequal distribution of food. Roughly 20% of the world’s population consumes 86% of total food production, with the remaining 80% consuming only 14% of total production. The enablers of this inequity are covered here. Economic policy that safeguards against surplus dumping and invests in ecological restoration is needed to bolster farming communities and alleviate the pressure to maximize profit.
This list is just a start. It is becoming evidently clear that reliance on modernization and intensification of land productivity is not in our favor. Sometimes, the simpler solutions are the most impactful. It won’t be simple to scale, but consideration is the critical first step.
LaCanne, Claire E., and Jonathan G. Lundgren. “Regenerative Agriculture: Merging Farming and Natural Resource Conservation Profitably.” PeerJ 6 (February 26, 2018): e4428. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4428.
Upreti , Yamuna , and Bishnu Upreti . “Indigenous Knowledge, Agricultural Practices and Food Security in Developing Countries: Opportunities and Challenges.” Academia.edu, n.d.
Wang, Tong, W. Teague, Seong Park, and Stan Bevers. “GHG Mitigation Potential of Different Grazing Strategies in the United States Southern Great Plains.” Sustainability, MDPI, September 2015. https://doi.org/10.3390/su71013500.