“Some terms defy definition. ‘Sustainable agriculture’ has become one of them,” writes the USDA National Agricultural Library. “In such a quickly changing world, can anything be sustainable? What do we want to sustain?”
Amid increasing consumer demand for transparency and a multitude of labels and initiatives, it can be hard to define what’s truly sustainable in the global agricultural system. By basic definition, sustainable food systems do not take away from the soil or environment. They seek to maintain Earth’s natural resources.
But about one-third of the world’s topsoil is already acutely degraded, and the United Nations estimates a complete degradation within 60 years if current practices continue. According to a 2019 UN report, nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, with the pace of species extinctions accelerating. Given this current state, are sustainable agriculture activists limiting themselves by merely maintaining?
Enter regenerative agriculture. Dubbed “beyond sustainable,” regenerative agricultural methodologies seek to add to the soil through a self-nourishing ecological system that benefits the environment in the process. A closed-loop system that doesn’t halt humans’ impact on the environment, but reverses it. Is it too good to be true?
How regenerative agriculture works
The regenerative farming approach focuses on restoring soils that have been degraded by the industrial, agricultural system. Its methods promote healthier ecosystems by rebuilding soil organic matter through holistic farming and grazing techniques. In short, regenerative agriculture practitioners let nature do the work.
Soil organic matter is plant or animal tissue in the process of decay. While most soils are only 2% to 10% soil organic matter, this plays a vital role in soil health.
Each one-percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre. And heightened water holding capacity means crops are more resilient through times of drought or heavy rain. By maintaining surface residues, roots, and soil structure with better aggregation and pores, soil organic matter reduces nutrient runoff and erosion, as well.
And the healthier the soil, the healthier the crop. When plants have the nutrients and roots systems they need to thrive, they build compounds to help protect against insects and disease. There is also growing evidence that a healthy soil microbiome full of necessary bacteria, fungi, and nematodes is more likely to produce nutrient-dense food, promoting better human health.
Regenerative farming practices boost soil health through a variety of techniques:
As animals move, their hooves break up the soil, compacting inedible plants and allowing nutrients and sunlight to new plants—essentially speeding up the building of soil organic matter, with crushed leaves and stalks creating a natural mulch. This better equips the soil for germinating seeds. And the livestock’s excrement adds nutrients to the ground, further improving water retention.
One of the key principles of regenerative agriculture techniques is to keep the soil covered at all times. This can be achieved through both plant residues and cover crops, which protect the soil from wind and water erosion, lower the temperature of the soil, and feed the microorganisms within it.
One teaspoon of healthy soil has more living organisms than there are people on Earth—vitally important building structure and overall soil health. Mechanical, physical, and chemical (synthetic fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide) disturbances all have a negative on the soil microbiome, putting soil nutrient cycling and environmental resilience at risk. Limiting the disturbance of the soil maintains the soil structure and prevents erosion.
“Nature is more collaborative than competitive,” regenerative agriculture pioneer Gabe Brown writes in Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture. Diverse ecosystems—whether it’s through plant or animal species—mean healthier and more resilient soil.
The importance of soil health is no news—many have argued this for years. But the Rodale Institute is often credited with popularizing the term regenerative organic. “Regenerative prioritizes soil health while simultaneously encompassing high standards for animal welfare and worker fairness. The idea is to create farm systems that work in harmony with nature to improve quality of life for every creature involved,” the Rodale Institute writes. The main difference is the systems-based approach.
“There is no silver bullet,” Brown notes. Every farmer practicing regenerative agriculture will adapt it to his or her individual crop type, soil type, and property needs. What’s important, proponents say, is that measures are being taken to build soil organic matter and add to the overall system’s biodiversity.
“I could stop the flooding the Mississippi, I could cure the drought in the West, and I could cure human obesity. You only have to give me the three states of Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. And a big herd of cattle,” says Ridge Shinn, grass-fed beef expert, and Founder of Big Picture Beef in Massachusetts. “It’s a big job. But I know for a fact that I could do that.” No one has taken him up on it yet, he jokes.
But there are ample stories to suggest the relatively fast, transformative impact of regenerative agricultural techniques—so far, on a much smaller scale.
After Gabe Brown introduced regenerative practices on his ranch in Bismark, North Dakota, organic matter and rainwater uptake tripled while he was able to handle five-times the number of cattle he used to. The ranch is also home to sheep, chickens, and dozens of crops. While he noticed a dramatic change in the landscape of the ranch itself, his previously indebted operation began turning a profit.
A 2013 study published in Agricultural Systems showed that, compared to conventionally managed farms, regenerative farms could accommodate more cattle per acre, had lower cow and calf mortality, purchased less feed, and used fewer herbicides. Researchers also found that topsoil was deeper, more aerated, and densely covered with plants.
The Biggest Little Farm, a film releasing in Spring 2019, follows first-time farmers John and Molly Chester as they regenerate depleted, seemingly hopeless land outside Los Angeles to a thriving regenerative operation. And there’s an ongoing map of documentaries on regenerative projects throughout the globe, currently listing more than 250.
Scientific studies focusing solely on regenerative agriculture as its own methodology are harder to come by. Often, studies overlap heavily with organic farming, as is the case with the Rodale Institute’s work (since regenerative practices are inherently organic), or focus on just one aspect of regenerative techniques. The most significant debates on regenerative agriculture, for example, surround the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere—and this debate focuses almost entirely on livestock management.
The great carbon debate
“A rule of thumb: for every percent of organic matter, you put down about five tons of carbon per acre. Not using technology, using photosynthesis,” Shinn says.
Among the most prominent players in this field, Allan Savory is dubbed the “pioneer of regenerative agriculture” by many. According to Savory—whose 2013 TED Talk on the subject, “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change,” has more than 5.5 million views—the only way to combat climate change is through raising livestock. And his proponents are passionate believers.
Nonprofit Regeneration International claims that transitioning 10% to 20% of agricultural production to best practice regenerative systems will sequester enough carbon dioxide to reverse climate change. And studies have found that applying this intensive grazing management increased soil carbon sequestration and reduced the lifetime GHG impact of grassfed beef by 24%.
A 2016 study led by Dr. Richard Teague, range ecologist and professor at Texas A&M University, supports the claim that appropriate grazing management can sequester enough carbon to offset GHG emissions. “Incorporating forages and ruminants into regeneratively managed agroecosystems can elevate soil organic C, improve soil ecological function by minimizing the damage of tillage and inorganic fertilizers and biocides, and enhance biodiversity and wildlife habitat,” the authors write.
According to the study, moderately stocked cattle on continuously grazed native rangeland in the Northern Great Plains had a net margin of carbon sequestered over emissions of 0.607 metric ton per hectare, per year. And when grazing management practices have improved ecosystem function and productivity (as in a regeneratively managed system), a net sink of up to 2.0 metric tons of carbon have been found in using high livestock densities for short durations (Savory’s grazing methodology).
The net carbon sink potential
It’s been estimated that meat production is responsible for 14.5% of total global GHG emissions, so achieving a net carbon sink in the global meat industry would make a significant impact. But no studies have investigated the claim that regeneratively-managed systems can produce a net carbon sink worldwide—and given the complexity of the overall food system, nevermind other industries, this would be incredibly difficult to determine with accuracy.
“Even if exaggerated claims about carbon sequestration were true, it is simply not possible to carry on eating as much meat, and dairy as trends indicate and obtain it through grass-fed systems alone,” according to authors of a 2017 report out of the University of Oxford, citing devastating land use change. Because of its highly efficient production, some even argue that intensively reared livestock is actually the most eco-friendly of all methods of raising the world’s meat, given the global appetite. Many of these claims, however, neglect to analyze the entire systems, disregarding important variables such as quality of meat and types of animal feed. Authors of recent research at the World Resources Institute said they did not include any sequestration from grazing practices in their estimates because the data were still piecemeal and vague.
“I have studiously stayed away from trying to make global predictions from these figures because it’s such a variable place,” Dr. Teague says about the claim that regenerative agriculture practices could reverse climate change. “But all the data we’ve collected suggest that the more people that manage their soil better, either in grazing or cropping systems, the more carbon will be in the ground. And that is a really significant factor.”
As Brown notes, there’s no silver bullet—for both climate change solutions and food system fixes. Regenerative principles have proven to sequester significant amounts of carbon into the ground. But achieving enough to reverse the course of climate change would require cooperation across the entire system.
“Since Galileo, it has been the fate of every scientist who discovered something that involved a major shift in scientific belief to be shunned or considered insane,” Savory tells Successful Farming in 2018. “Thankfully, I was already insane and had survived years of official, expert opposition.”
Today, more and more institutions, corporations, and growers are becoming interested in regenerative agriculture—particularly in the past year alone.
With partners like Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s, The Rodale Institute launched a Regenerative Organic Certification structure in 2018, aiming to build the movement off of existing organic standards. And nonprofit coalition Regeneration International has 250 global partners, consisting mostly of sustainably driven organizations and companies. Meanwhile, a regenerative agriculture Facebook discussion group has more than 21,500 members who actively discuss on the platform.
Brown recently joined with fellow pioneers Ray Archuleta and Dr. Allen Williams to form Understanding Ag, LLC, a regenerative agriculture consultation service. The group partnered with General Mills to help oat producers implement regenerative practices like no-till, crop rotation, and diversification, integrating cover crops, and integrating livestock when possible. Creating much buzz, General Mills announced a commitment to bring regenerative agriculture practices to 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.
And in 2018, the government of Andhra Pradesh, India, launched a plan to transition 8 million hectares of land from conventional agriculture methodology to Zero-Budget Natural Farming by 2024—India’s first 100% natural farming state, meaning they will eliminate the use of synthetic chemical agriculture. Organizers highlight the positive externalities of regenerative agriculture methodologies: climate-resilient systems which will help transform and protect local food systems and long-term well-being of farmers.
Regenerative agriculture has even broken into the online grocery business. Blue Apron’s Founder and Former COO Matthew Wadiak recently launched Cooks Venture, an online grocer to offer poultry the company says is raised using regenerative practices.
Investors are getting in on the action too: more and more investment opportunities are becoming available for regenerative agriculture operations, specifically. Farmland LP invests primarily in converting conventional farmland to regenerative and organic. Delta Institute, a nonprofit focusing on market-based solutions to environmental problems, is working to develop “a disruptive infrastructure that positions us to unlock substantial capital flows into the regenerative agriculture sector.” And Belgium-based Soil Capital offers advisory, management, and investment for farmers and organizations looking to develop regenerative agriculture.
Bridging with agtech
Regenerative agriculture, with its ideology based on returning to natural processes, is inherently low-tech. But many say that agtech innovations will play a vital role in both increasing the efficiency of the operation and facilitating communication. “But you’re going to need smart people operating the system,” Shinn says, “because it is an art, not a science.”
Shinn uses United Kingdom-based FarmWizard livestock management software on his farms. Others use technology to put gates on a timer—reducing the additional labor necessary to increase livestock rotation. And digital livestock tech startup Antelliq was recently acquired by Merck for $2.4 billion, the biggest agtech acquisition on record.
Technology can also bolster supply chain traceability. With a cloud-based tracking system for their livestock, Shinn’s farmers hope to communicate to the customer where the animal was born, how it grew up, and how it got to their plates.
“We need to develop technology that is derived from the underlying principles of regenerative agriculture that address the root cause of problems, such as weeds or pests, for instance. Stuff we can’t see sensors will notice, making regenerative processes even more regenerative or making the processes work for each farmer,” says Benedikt Bösel, Chair of Soil Alliance and Managing Director of Schlossgut Alt Madlitz, an ecological farm and forestry in East Germany where different forms of regenerative agriculture are implemented and made comparable.
Soil sensors from Teralytic, for example, can measure aeration and respiration—key soil health indicators—as well as nutrient levels throughout the season, so a farmer newly taking up regenerative practices can quantify the results with data. Satellite crop health imagery software from Trimble can allow growers to compare crop health at each growing stage as well as from season to season—a visual representation of the impact of regenerative techniques.
And sharing this insight will be key to spreading the practice. “You have the opportunity to connect with people all over the world, see how they’re doing it, how they solve problems, and so forth,” Bösel adds.
Can it scale?
Large companies have the funding for sustainability initiatives to back these efforts—and the tech to support it even further. But for smaller-scale, family farmers looking to transition, it does come with a cost. “It takes a little while. It’s a biological system; it’s not like a spray with immediate results,” Shinn says. “The transition is a challenge—but we do have techniques.”
Many agree that connecting soil health to consumer health will be one of the biggest drivers of consumer demand. “We have to change our approach to raising our food,” and that will take having consumers think, “this directly affects me, not just the long horizon of balance and stability of the planet, but it’s affecting my kids,” says Aaron Niederhelman, CEO & co-founder of OneHealthAg and host of regenerative agriculture podcast Sourcing Matters.
And increased consumer demand will make it easier for more farmers to justify and invest in the transition. “It’s gotta be market-driven,” Shinn says. “So we’re working as fast as we can on that.”
Right now, regenerative agriculture is primarily a grassroots movement happening across the globe. Whether they’re labeling it as regenerative, sustainable, or organic, many first-time farmers are embracing the regenerative promise of restoring a broken agricultural system. With more young people entering the field and more farmland rental options for those unable to buy, the opportunity to collaborate for collective change stronger than ever. Meanwhile, more politicians (like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) are bringing regenerative solutions into the conversation, and more mainstream news outlets are defining the practices for wider audiences.
“The only way we’re going to change our food system is getting the big players to have a seat at the table with us,” Niederhelman continues. This means working together with the nonprofit coalitions, large corporations, small-scale farmers, investors, and activists. It also means helping consumers understand the meaning and implications of these practices.
“We have to stop saying conventional is bad, ecological is good. That makes it so hard to find solutions and common ground between different ways of doing things,” says Bösel. “There’s only one agriculture.”