Regenerative Agriculture: A Real Solution to Climate Change
Farmers and ranchers who cultivate regenerative practices are key assets and allies to fighting climate change and healing the planet.
What did you eat for your last meal?
You can probably recreate a simple list pretty quickly.
Now, ask yourself “Where did each individual food item in that meal come from?”
Here is where it gets tricky. Most food items, I’m guessing, probably came from the supermarket (if you went shopping), or a restaurant kitchen (if you dined out). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but here’s the next question for you.
“Was that food produced in a way that helped or harmed the land?”
Crickets? Deer-in-the-headlights? Those are the most common responses to this question, so don’t feel bad if yours was similar. But let’s talk about our food; specifically how it’s grown, and why it matters.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
The term “regenerative agriculture” is new to many people but is more commonly being used in the organic food/small farming community. The term implies specific agricultural practices that were once intended to be conveyed by the word “organic.” However, that term has become muddled over the years and doesn’t hold as much value as it once did.
Most shoppers have come to associate the word “organic” with better or higher quality; and an increasing number are seeking out organically-labeled foods. But sadly, most could not explain the real differences between foods produced conventionally or organically — save, perhaps, the difference in pesticide application. Then, to make matters worse, many companies (seeing rising demand for these foods) have taken advantage of both the consumer’s lack of education and their positive association with the word to exploit them into paying higher prices — and sometimes for products that, in reality, may not be much different from their conventional shelf mates.
Now, I DO eagerly support seeing more organic foods in the stores and in the homes of people across the globe. Don’t get me wrong. However, many consumers are switching to organic foods without really understanding why they should. Yes, the harmful effects of pesticide usage and glyphosate residues is certainly an important reason to upgrade your food choices, but my plea is for people to become more aware of the fact that sustainable food production goes well beyond the simple absence of pesticides. This is where regenerative agriculture comes into play.
“Regenerative Agriculture” incorporates farming practices that regenerate and rebuild organic soil matter and biodiversity. In other words, it’s farming that GIVES back to the land; not just takes from it.
Problems with Conventional Farming and Soil Health
Nature is both interdependent and interconnected. Each element plays an important role and provides specific functions in order for each lifeform to thrive. It should not be a shock to anyone when I say that we humans are dependent on nature to survive. But nature is not some single, isolated entity. It’s a beautiful and delicate tapestry of interconnected species and systems. So, while we humans depend on the fruits nature offers us, other parts of nature rely on US to give back in order for their needs to be met.
A key ingredient of any thriving ecosystem is what’s beneath the soil. Healthy soils are a universe under the earth! Most people don’t realize this. As kids, we’re simply taught that dirt is just the brown stuff plants grow in. But why do plants grow in it? That’s the piece we’re never taught, so here’s a short version of the story.
Plants grow in soil because they need nutrients (obviously!), but those nutrients don’t just magically appear or exist in the soil. They are bi-products of an entire life system that lives beneath the ground. Millions of bacteria and other organisms thrive together and create favorable conditions for plant life to thrive. Then, the resulting plant life creates shelter, food, pollen, etc., for many other species to then use. Healthy soil provides a host of other important elements for nature, but I’ll get to those later. For now, let’s focus on the aforementioned universe that lives beneath the surface.
Healthy soil requires organic matter and sequestered carbon in order for its microbiology to thrive (i.e. continue creating nutrients for plant life). Think of soil health like you would your bank account. When we plant a crop in a piece of soil, that crop will take nutrients (i.e. take a withdrawal). At some point, that crop will be harvested, and in conventional farming following a harvest, soils are often left exposed and untouched until the next growing season. Then, it’s tilled up, replanted, and the process starts over — plants grow and we harvest (more withdraws).
Now, notice we’re missing something in the equation? That’s right. DEPOSITS! If you just withdraw money from your bank account, eventually, you’ll overdraft and you’ll get a nasty letter/email from your bank — along with a penalty fee. In farming, the same logic applies. If we withdraw too much from the soil without allowing it to regenerate, eventually it is no longer suitable to farm! This was one of the causes of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Millions of farmed acreage went WAY overdrawn and were not able to resist a severe drought. However, instead of revisiting and questioning the broader farming practices of the day, chemical fertilizers came to the rescue (or so we thought…).
Chemical fertilizers seemed like a God-send, but in reality, they were just a band-aid. Instead of replenishing the metaphoric bank account with real cash, they were, instead, a line of credit, and American agriculture largely began to live off this credit and continue to withdraw from the land season, after season, after season. Instead of depositing material back into the earth in a way that was beneficial for the other interdependent lifeforms, we continued to pump food (and profits) from soil that was on life-support.
Now, here we are today facing both climate and ecological crises — both of which are being contributed to by damaged and depleted soils. Today our soils are very weak and non-drought resistant, erosion has increased ten-fold, and biodiversity is constantly shrinking. All of these conditions lead to the desertification of our lands, which not only robs animal life of vegetation, pollinators of food, etc. but also causes increased carbon levels in the atmosphere (fewer plants sequestering carbon = more carbon in the atmosphere). This ultimately affects our delicate climate.
How Regenerative Agriculture Works
Moving back to our bank account metaphor, if we want to increase our soil health, we must deposit more than we withdraw. But this involves more than simple chemical fertilizers or basic mineral applications. Those will only help the CROPS we’re growing! They do not build soil, nor do they support microbiology or interdependent lifeforms and systems.
Instead, building soil requires specific practices that “deposit” to create and support life. Here are a few such agricultural practices that are regenerative in their nature (P.S., each of these topics deserves their own in-depth article, but here’s a Reader’s Digest summary):
- No pesticide or herbicide usage: Organic farming is largely defined by its aversion to pesticides and herbicides, and in regenerative agriculture, it’s also a foundational practice. Pesticides and herbicides, while they are meant to enhance crop yield by warding off specific pests and weeds, do far more harm than good. Although the intention is to kill off a small number of “pests”, in the end, they end up killing ALL of the good bacteria and organisms in the soil, which destroys the microbiology needed to replenish soil nutrients naturally and aid in building more soil. And then ON TOP OF THAT, there are the deadly and harmful effects of the glyphosate residues that make their way into many of our grains, produce, and livestock feed! But that’s a whole other topic…
- No (or minimal) tillage: Deep plowing of the soil disrupts all the root systems underneath the surface. Deep, healthy root systems hold soil intact, which holds more moisture — and thus renders the soil more drought-resistant and prevents erosion. European cultures are the primary ones who brought deep soil tillage and plowing into the “traditional” farming space. This was done because it was easier to plant seeds. However, many other cultures around the world (like Native Americans) farmed and grew crops just fine without tilling the soil. Today, modern farming equipment is available for farmers to plant entire fields of seeds without plowing.
- Cover Crops: It is common to see farmers plowing their fields in the fall and early winter months. This is done to get a “head start” on the next season come spring. However, when fields are plowed and left fallow, wind, rain, animals, and other natural forces deplete topsoil levels. Soil washes into streams and rivers, blows away, or is displaced elsewhere. This topsoil is precious to ecosystems. And yet, for centuries, many fields have been left to winter in a completely exposed state. Instead, a way to protect soils is to make sure that after a crop is harvested, a cool-weather cover crop is planted (there are many varieties). These cover crops generally grow in the cooler fall/early winter months so that the soil is literally “covered” and protected from natural elements.
- Organic Matter: In the spring, the planted cover crop may have died through the colder winter months. Now, however, the soil is covered in organic matter that can then break down and provide added nutrients for microorganisms and forthcoming planted crops. Some cover crops actually regenerate in the spring and provide extra greenery and weed protection for the field at large.
- Rotational Grazing: Much of the farmland in the U.S. is used for grazing. These are grass-based fields and ranges where cattle, sheep, and other livestock are grazed. They are not tilled and farmed yearly with annual crops. Rotational grazing (or Mob Grazing) is a specific way livestock are managed in order to mimic the migration patterns of ancient herbivore herds (like bison) that once roamed across much of North America. These herds were largely responsible for the development of the fertile soils early settlers found in much of the U.S. and Canada. Today, however, many farmers simply turn a herd of cattle into a pasture and let them graze until they have eaten every last morsel of grass. Generally, this results in grasses being eaten down to the bare roots! This results in shallow root systems, which inhibits the plants’ abilities to sequester carbon, build more soil, and supply nutrients for microorganisms. Plus, plants can only grow as large and nutritious as their root systems allow. Hence, most pastures today do not have the ability to really grow very tall (taller grasses supply more feed on less acreage) and are nutritionally inferior to ancient prairie grasses.
Rotational grazing is a method where herds of livestock are allowed to graze in a small space for a short and monitored period of time. They eat a certain percentage of the grass, aerate the soil with their cloven hoofs, and deposit their fertilizing “goodies”, which then breakdown and add nutrients to the soil. This mitigates greenhouse gas emissions and keeps soils healthy by developing deeper root systems, pastures that are drought-resistant and that yield more forage per acre! Rotational/Mob grazing is an amazing and ingenious practice that many farmers and ranchers are beginning to adopt around the world. It reinserts livestock back into the ecosystem in a beautiful and natural way!
Why it Matters
Healthy pastures and fields have the ability to dramatically reduce atmospheric carbon through sequestration.
One of the biggest reasons regenerative agriculture is important for our planet’s future is because of the potential it has to combat climate change caused by increased carbon levels.
Healthy pastures and fields have the ability to dramatically reduce atmospheric carbon through sequestration. Sequestration is when plants pull CO2 from the air into their root systems, deposit the carbon into the soil, and release the oxygen back into the atmosphere. That carbon, now in the soil, helps feed microorganisms, the interconnected root systems within the soil (added “account deposits”), and ultimately, results in the creation of more topsoil! More topsoil equals healthier plants and crops, healthier animals, healthier ecosystems, drought-resistant soils and plants, and so on! In the end, all of these elements add up to a healthier planet with much more sustainable food-growing capabilities!
On top of that, regenerative agriculture is most easily adopted and implemented by small farmers and ranchers. The more demand we can build for food grown with these practices, the more small farmers can thrive and prosper. This, then, has the power to boost small, local economies across the globe in a way that actually heals our planet and feeds our people nutritious food at the same time!
Two of my favorite organizations that promote regenerative agriculture are Regeneration International and the Savory Institute. Their websites are full of amazing resources about the topic and why it is so very important. I encourage you to visit their sites to learn more!
Now, in recent years, many climate and environmental activists have attacked farming and ranching as contributors to the problems. They’re not wrong. I believe large industrial farming with conventional practices DOES contribute to the problem. But I wish to strongly emphasize here that farming and ranching, in and of themselves, are NOT enemies! Instead, with regenerative farmers cultivating the proper livestock management and farming practices, farms and ranches become ENORMOUS ASSETS and ALLIES to the cause! Helping to champion regenerative agriculture and support small farmers and ranchers striving to apply and/or transition to these practices is crucial if we want to see conventional farming practices convert to more sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternatives.
In summary, healthy soils provide a crucial role in the health of our food, our families, and our planet. The large-scale and conventional farming practices promoted in western culture have caused a great deal of ecological damage, that has, in turn, created other serious challenges. It’s time to shift gears. It’s time to return to natural farming practices that beautifully work WITH nature by giving back more than we take. In the end, this results in more abundance for all lifeforms, including us as a human family; and regenerative agriculture provides us the tools and knowledge needed to accomplish this.