Key Questions About Regenerative Agriculture Answered
Agriculture is the world’s oldest industry, and has gone through many changes over the millenia: from hunting and gathering, to the start of row cropping, to the industrial revolution of agriculture with the invention of the plow, to the organic movement of the 1970s. Today, regenerative agriculture presents the newest paradigm in agricultural production, one that focuses on soil health, minimizing inputs, and working within natural systems.
There's a lot of buzz right now about regenerative agriculture, and also a lot of unknowns. Is regenerative agriculture just another agricultural trend, or is it here to stay? Let's dive into it.
How does regenerative ag differ from sustainable agriculture or organic farming?
Sustainable agriculture is a broad term identifying a mindset of farmland management that focuses on long-term economic, social, and environmental well-being rather than short term profit maximization. Sustainable agriculture is more of a mindset or business strategy, rather than a set of quantifiable farming practices.
Organic farming, on the other hand, began as a mindset of few select farmers and evolved to a comprehensive set of chemical-free farming practices through much of the 20th century. In 2002, after nearly 60 years of farmers working both individually and collaboratively on what organic means, the final rules and standards were established by the USDA under the Organic Foods Production Act.
The USDA now has organic standards for the production of nearly any agricultural product possible - everything from commodities like corn or beef to produce like apples and lettuce. These standards differ slightly depending on the product, but the theme amongst them all is to use no chemical inputs (such as artificial fertilizers or weed control) in the production of food. Today, organic farming is widely adopted in both small and large agricultural production systems.
Ok, now that we know a little more about sustainable and organic agriculture, how is regenerative agriculture different? Similar to the organic movement in its early stages, regenerative agriculture is somewhat undefined and lacking a clear set of ubiquitous standards. In the present iteration, regenerative ag somewhat resembles sustainable agriculture, as it takes a holistic approach to the farmer, focusing on land, human, and financial health. It is, however, also similar to the organic movement as it is structured around particular agricultural practices. While the theme of organic practices was to rid the industry of chemical inputs, regenerative practices focus on soil health as the foundation of any agricultural system, be it permanent crops, row crops, or livestock.
What are some of the methods used by farmers who practice regenerative agriculture?
The regenerative movement is one based in the dirt. It’s all comes down to the soil and associated soil health; there is a common set of soil health principles that are the foundation to the implementation of regenerative agriculture.
This principle is focused on minimizing bare ground in a field. Bare soil is much more likely to erode from wind and water, taking with it important nutrients and soil composition to support plant growth. Practices associated with this principle include planting cover crops during fallow periods and leaving residual cover after grazing.
This principle is all about leaving the soil be. Every time a tractor makes a pass over the land, it can compact soil, making it harder for plant roots to penetrate soil surface. Tillage is part of weed control in many farming systems. This principle focuses on minimizing tillage through strategic low-till or no-till farming systems.
Soil thrives when there are many species taking and giving nutrients to the soil, with different root systems. This principle is all about ensuring that fields have as many species in them as possible given a particular crop's needs for productivity and harvest. This principle often is implemented through diverse cover crop plantings.
Continual Live Plant/Root
Roots are the thing that hold the soil’s structure together, and when they die, so do many of the microbes and air pockets that are key to soil health. Maintaining living roots, even if the above ground plant is harvested, is often implemented through permanent cropping systems or perennial systems.
This principle focuses on letting animals harvest and fertilize the land, rather than a tractor. Livestock can cycle nutrients through the soil through manure and provide a whole slew of other benefits to a field, if managed properly.
What are the benefits and costs of transitions to a regenerative system?
Similar to the transition to organic farming, transitioning a conventional agricultural system to a regenerative system can be difficult to implement. Often, it involves changing the crop mix of the farm, which may mean finding different marketing channels and a new production system.
Anytime a transition happens on farmland, it can present risk. A farmer who has been working within a particular mindset and system for years (or often decades), is more likely to be aware of factors of risk that they need to navigate within that system. When the farm transitions, this introduces new risk; the farmer must then learn how these new practices and principles can be manifested on his/her property.
This transition can be a tricky thing to do on the slim margins of farming, and often capital infusion from outside groups can help make it possible, and profitable.
The benefits, however, of changing to a regenerative system include access to new product markets that are focused on regenerative, improved long-term agricultural land values, and increased ecosystem services, to name a few.
Can regenerative agriculture reverse climate change?
Agriculture, like any industry, extracts resources from the planet for consumption by humans. It does, however, differ from many other industries in that it does have the potential to be a net-carbon sink, rather than emitter.
Popular regenerative figure heads such as Allan Savory have claimed that cows and regenerative systems can save the planet. This headline drew the attention of many, but is likely is a bit of an overstep in the benefits from regenerative practices. There is, however, growing evidence that agriculture has the potential to sequester more carbon than it emits. This does not mean that we can keep other industries operating under a business-as-usual paradigm and expect agriculture to sequester the remaining emissions.
What are the next steps for Regenerative?
Similar to the organic movement experienced in the 1990s, the regenerative movement is seeing a rise in popularity that is likely to lead to growing markets and regulatory policy. Currently, there are no mainstream adopted standards for what regenerative agriculture means. Rather, it’s formed as a mindset and set of ideas that farmers and ranchers are implementing in multitudes of ways.
Because of the plurality of regenerative systems, there is no one certification that exists to certify products as regenerative, like the USDA organic certification. Carbon markets through companies such as Regen Network and Indigo Ag Inc have developed their protocols and measurements of regenerative protocols, and the USDA is currently working on how to regulate and be a part of this growing market.
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