As we face an ever-growing need to combat climate change, many people around the world are looking at how we produce our food. Agriculture has a strong effect on climate change (and vice versa). While some methods contribute to higher pollution and environmental degradation, others actually have the potential to reverse climate change. And one of those practices is regenerative agriculture.
Defining regenerative agriculture
The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative of California State University, Chico and The Carbon Underground — in conjunction with several other companies and organizations — worked together to create a definition for regenerative agriculture. The goal was to give a basic meaning to the relatively new term and to prevent it from being “watered down,” according to The Carbon Underground.
“‘Regenerative Agriculture’ describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity — resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle,” the definition reads. “Specifically, Regenerative Agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.”
According to Regeneration International, the objective is to continuously improve the land, “using technologies that regenerate and revitalize the soil and the environment.” The practice also helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — a key factor in battling climate change. In a nutshell, farmers aim to leave the environment better than when they found it.
Although many of regenerative agriculture’s core tenets are similar to organic farming, the practices are not synonymous. Both farming methods do discourage the use of synthetic chemicals, though regenerative farmers might not necessarily be certified organic. And organic agriculture doesn’t guarantee a carbon drawdown, according to The Carbon Underground. Plus, unlike organic food, there’s no certification yet for regenerative products — though a pilot program is in the works for farmers who practice regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture practices
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So what exactly do regenerative farmers do? The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative-The Carbon Underground definition lays out four main practices.
1. Contribute to soil building and fertility.
Regenerative agriculture discourages soil tillage. “Tillage breaks up (pulverizes) soil aggregation and fungal communities while adding excess O2 to the soil for increased respiration and CO2 emission,” the definition document says. Besides carbon loss, it can lead to soil erosion and increased water runoff. Furthermore, farmers increase soil fertility through biological methods, including the use of cover crops, crop rotation, compost and manure. They avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which can create an imbalance in the soil’s microbiome, diminish nutrients and lead to weaker plants.
2. Improve water cleanliness and retention.
Avoiding synthetic chemicals also makes for less water pollution — another core tenet of regenerative agriculture. Farmers have efficient irrigation systems to optimize water use and prevent contamination. Plus, as farmers work to improve the soil, this increases its ability for water retention. Among many other factors, limiting tillage is one practice that enhances water infiltration and retention.
3. Increase biodiversity, and boost the health of the ecosystem.
Regenerative farmers aim to protect natural ecosystems. “Building biological ecosystem diversity begins with inoculation of soils with composts or compost extracts to restore soil microbial community population, structure and functionality,” according to the definition document. Again, farmers avoid synthetic chemicals on which plants can become dependent and fail to thrive naturally. They take soil samples to guide them in finding the right nutrient balance. And they use plants to attract beneficial insects.
4. Lessen CO2 emissions by diverting carbon back into the soil.
As regenerative farmers carefully manage their land and promote a healthy, natural ecosystem, it helps to increase carbon in the soil and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Plus, the farmers’ avoidance of synthetic chemicals also helps to combat climate change, as they’re often produced using high levels of fossil fuels. As for livestock, regenerative agriculture involves well-managed grazing practices that lead to better land, healthier animals and lower carbon dioxide and methane emissions.
What’s in it for us?
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Regenerative agriculture offers several benefits to the global population — and even noticeable ones to us as individuals. These are just a few, according to Regeneration International.
Boosts food’s nutrition
Regenerative agriculture tends to produce healthy, resilient plants. And as consumers, we benefit from this with more nutritious food. The nutrient-dense soil passes on that nourishment to the crops — and our bodies. Plus, thanks to farmers nurturing the natural ecosystem, it’s better able to filter out pollution and chemicals from our food.
Regenerative agriculture is just that — regenerative. Its methods help to improve biodiversity, which “is fundamental to agricultural production and food security, as well as a valuable ingredient of environmental conservation,” according to Regeneration International. Plus, the farmers’ grazing strategies work to restore grasslands that have been degraded.
Benefits local economics
Family farmers have taken a key role in regenerative agriculture. These are people who have a strong working knowledge of their local land and how best to sustainably manage it. So support of regenerative agriculture benefits these farmers and their local economies. Plus, keeping them in business means preserving the more traditional, environmentally friendly farming practices that go back generations.
Combats climate change
Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change around the world. “The current industrial food system is responsible for 44 to 57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions,” Regeneration International says. But regenerative agriculture has the potential to reverse this damage. Not only does it contribute lower emissions than conventional farming, but it has the ability to sequester more carbon in the soil, rather than in our atmosphere.
Feeds the global population
As the global population grows, food production will have to adjust one way or another. Continuing to use conventional farming methods likely would mean more deforestation — and higher greenhouse gas emissions. But shifting to more widespread use of regenerative agriculture could lessen that blow. Regenerative farming conditions work to naturally protect crops from disease, pests, drought and more. This improves yields without having to add chemicals or other factors that can harm the environment. Thus, it could be a way to sustainably feed the global population for generations to come.
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