Regenerative Agriculture

13 minute read (2261 words)
Regenerative agriculture often combines crops, livestock, and forestry

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 permaculture and holistic management 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:

  1. No tillage: plowing and tillage 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. Water retention: greater organic matter increases soil water-holding capacities, nurturing drought-resistance.
  5. 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. 
Regenerative agriculture seeks to reverse the effects of degenerative (industrial) agriculture while going beyond sustainable agriculture by restoring ecosystems. 

Regenerative agriculture departs from broad, mainstream definitions of sustainable agriculture. Sustainable seeks to maintain what already exists. Regenerative seeks to restore. RA’s intention is to restore soil health, which symbiotically enhances water quality, plant and animal diversity, land productivity, and ecosystem resilience. To protect against erosion, desertification, salinisation and loss of carbon from the soil, RA builds/restores organic matter through a variety of practices:

No-till Farming
Pasture cropping & Organic Annual Cropping
Compost & Compost Tea
Biochar & Terra Preta
Holistically Managed Grazing
Animal Integration
Aquaculture
Perennial Crops
Silvopasture
Agroforestry

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. 
Restore grasslands: ⅓ of the earth’s surface is grasslands, 70% of which have been degraded. Restoration can begin through practices like holistically managed grazing or perennial cropping.
Improve yields and profits: in extreme weather cases exacerbated by climate change, yields on organic farms are significantly higher than conventional farms and if not higher yield for certain crops, can provide greater returns for farmers through more productive soils and combined revenue streams from a diversified food portfolio. 

Cultural Relevance of Regenerative Agriculture

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. 

Urban development encroaching on farmland outside Shenzen, China. How much more food could be produced if farmers weren’t under siege? Photo: Robert Ng.

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

Centering regenerative agriculture transitions on Indigenous and small-holder farmers is critical. Corporate messaging increasingly tells us that they’re empowering smallholder farms in their supply chain and working with Indigenous communities; yet, small farms (on average ~2 hectares/~5 acres) which account for over 90% of all farms today, are providing more than half of the world’s food on less than a quarter of global farmland, while housing 80% of the world’s hungry people. If the majority of arable land is in smallholders’ hands, why is there a clamor for land distribution reform? Whether it’s through corporate land grabbing in Africa or the agribusiness-driven coup d’état in Paraguay, people worldwide are being dislodged from their land. Those who resist are jailed or killed. Widespread agrarian strikes in Colombia, protests by community leaders in Madagascar, nationwide marches by landless folk in India, occupations in Andalusia—the list of actions goes on to combat the attack on communities and culture.  

So what can be done? 

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. 

Second, we must acknowledge that women are valuable but vulnerable stewards of Indigenous agricultural knowledge. Women constitute 50-80% of the agricultural labour force, however, their knowledge and role in the economy are consistently underestimated or unrecognized. Removing financial and capital barriers to access for women in agriculture enlarges the circle of enterprise, and can lead to positive ripples throughout their communities including increased literacy, better healthcare, and preservation of culture. 

Third, we have to support family farmers, as they can revitalize local economies, giving us a stepping stone towards relocalization. Surplus income generated by family farming is spent in the local non-farm economy (housing, services, etc.), strengthening community self-sufficiency. Smaller scale farming is more manageable (read: more agency and less corporate bullying), and less likely to engage in destructive monoculture, avoiding ecological depletion while boosting agricultural output. 

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. 

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