The Promises and Pitfalls of Regenerative Agriculture

regenerative agriculture

The United Nations describes food, energy, and water as making up the nexus of sustainable development. The conventional ways humanity produces food also require a lot of water and energy, and so the three systems are interlinked. Agriculture, as it is now practiced, has an immense impact on the environment, and a largely negative one at that.

At least one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector, and half of all the habitable land on the planet is used for this purpose. Of that half, 77 percent is utilized for animal agriculture, either for grazing food animals or growing the crops needed to feed them. Agriculture is also one of the leading causes of deforestation and leading causes of water pollution; 24,000 of 28,000 animals threatened with extinction are at risk from agriculture and aquaculture. 

These troubling statistics reinforce the growing scientific consensus that a new, sustainable agricultural paradigm is required. Regenerative agriculture is an attempt to reconcile agriculture with a healthy environment, and therefore address the destructive nature of farming as it currently exists.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture describes systems of agriculture that try to restore the habitat they occupy, reversing climate change through developing soil’s organic matter and restoring degraded soil’s biodiversity, which aids the water cycle and carbon sequestration. Proponents of regenerative agriculture seek to apply a holistic approach that incorporates the needs of surrounding ecosystems and soil into food production.

What are the 5 principles of regenerative agriculture?

The five principles of regenerative agriculture are as follows:

  1. Don’t disturb the soil. Soils are rich with micro-organism and tiny habitats and ecosystems. For instance, there are more micro-organisms in a single teaspoon of soil than humans there are on the planet. Tilling the soil or treating it with pesticides and other chemicals can destroy these habitats and therefore destroy the health of the soil.
  2. Cover the soil surface. Rain, wind, and sun can all damage the soil and its valuable ecosystems. Farmers should endeavor to keep it covered with a canopy of growing crops or the stubble, meaning the remaining debris, from harvested crops.
  3. Sustain living roots in the soil. Roots are essential to the food webs that thrive in soil and are a food source for bacteria and fungi. The bacteria and fungi in turn feed single-cell organisms, which are eaten by earthworms and higher organisms.
  4. Grow a diversity of crops. Monocultures do not exist in nature which tends to favor high amounts of diversity in an ecosystem. As such, companion cropping which is growing two crops at once in the same patch of soil, and separating them after harvest, can work.
  5. Grazing animals on the land. Animal grazing creates pastures and can help restore fields left to fallow, improving soil health more rapidly over a few years.

Is regenerative agriculture sustainable?

Carbon capture

Regenerative agriculture practices supposedly sequester more carbon from the atmosphere, which is stored in the healthy soil. It has been suggested that the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices alone could provide nearly 10 percent of the carbon reduction needed for Earth to avoid a two-degree temperature rise. However, although most scientists agree that regenerative agriculture does facilitate carbon capture to some extent, its level of effectiveness is a matter of debate.

Most studies that have looked into the effect of no-till practices on carbon sequestration in soils have only measured the carbon rates in topsoil. Deeper layers of soil have registered low levels of carbon, implying that no-till may just move the carbon around rather than resulting in more being sequestered. Seeing as the vast majority of farmers who use no-till do actually till their land every few years, all that previously sequestered carbon could be released.

On the other hand, cover crops seem to be more effective at capture. However, the fact that carbon will only sit in the soil, and can be released if later disturbed, has put question marks over the long-term efficacy of regenerative agriculture as a carbon capture strategy.

Increase vegetation

Regenerative agriculture incorporates practices like agroforestry and growing border plants. These additional patches of vegetation can help sequester carbon through photosynthesis and otherwise create ecosystems and biodiversity.

Lower pesticide use

Polycultures and increased biodiversity should act against the preponderance of pests, and therefore regenerative farmers should theoretically use fewer pesticides than conventional farmers. This is beneficial for the farmer, who doesn’t have to buy large amounts of pesticide, and for the ecosystem and public, who will have to deal with less carcinogenic chemicals pesticides leaching into the wider environment. 

However, not all advocates for regenerative agriculture avoid the use of pesticides, and large agribusiness firms are already trying to rebrand their pesticides as “regenerative.” As these chemicals kill micro-organisms in the soil, the same micro-organisms that sequester carbon, it is unclear that regenerative agriculture, at least if not fully implemented, can address the overuse of pesticide chemicals.

Protect water sources

Healthy soils store more water, so instead of running off water stays in the earth and plant roots and is recycled into shallow groundwater. As a result, these water sources are more resilient and used more sustainably.

Reduce water pollution   

Healthier soils tend to be more porous and can store larger amounts of water. This means that more water will stay in the soil after rain and be absorbed by the crops rather than running off through the soil and leaching into waterways, carrying nutrients that are potentially harmful to the environment with them.  

Reduces soil erosion

Cover crops and agroforestry lead to greater amounts of roots in the soil. These roots bind the soil together, making water or wind erosion much harder, as the roots keep the soil compact.

What are regenerative agriculture practices?

Agroecology   

Agroecology is a name for the general attempt to reconcile farming with natural processes and wildlife. Examples of practices that fall under agroecology might be agroforestry, getting insects like bees to pollinate one’s crops, or engaging in preventative pest control by developing habitats for rival species.

Agroforestry   

Agroforestry is the incorporation of trees into agriculture. Tree roots burrow deep into the soil and release carbon into it, improving soil health. Roots also help bind the soil together and protect it from wind and rain erosion, which can otherwise lead to pollution of waterways. Trees also provide vital habitats for wildlife, improving biodiversity. 

Alternative Food Networks (AFNs)

Alternative food networks have been on the rise since the 1990s, often in opposition to the perceived industrialization, standardization, and unethical practice of the food industry. Alternative food networks are often defined by the proximity between producers and consumers, retail venues like farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture such as cooperatives, and a broad commitment to sustainability.

Aquaculture   

Regenerative aquaculture relies on similar principles to regenerative agriculture and also emphasizes the growth of polycultures and the building of biodiversity from the ground up. Growing kelp and constructing artificial reefs adjacent to farms can help sequester CO2 and encourage biodiversity.

Biochar/terra preta   

Biochar is a general term of biomass that has been carbonized at a very high temperature in a low oxygen environment. Biochar has around an 80 percent pure carbon rating and can be added to soil to increase soil health, productivity, and carbon sequestration. It has its origins in the terra preta of the Amazon, a rich and highly fertile dark soil filled with charred animal bones and tiny fragments of pottery, left by pre-Columbian populations of Amazonians before the region was wiped out by disease.

Border plants for pollinator habitat

Farmers can plant an array of flowers, plants, and hedgerows as borders to their fields which attract pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. These insects are essential to pollinating crops, particularly the most nutritious varieties of green-leafed vegetables such as spinach, and beans. Scientists believe that the global decline of pollinating insects could correspond to a decline in nutritionally adequate diets and further reliance on wind-pollinated crops like corn, potatoes, wheat, and rice.

Compost, compost tea, animal manures, and thermal compost   

Compost is a material made from degraded food scraps, farm and crop residues, manure, and garden waste. When applied to fields compost can fill the soil with vital nutrients and provide food for soil microbes. Compost tea is water steeped in compost filled with nutrients and microorganisms, which improve soil structure and aeration and help combat root diseases. Manures are animal excrements that also supply rich nutrients to the soil, although different manures vary greatly in mineral content.

However, manure can also be a pollution hazard if too much is applied and it runs into waterways, where nitrates and phosphates can kill animals and plants and poison people. Thermal composting is a way of accelerating the composting process by keeping it at high temperatures, which can kill diseases, ward off pests, kill weed seeds, and neutralize antibiotics in manure.

Conservation farming

Conservation farming is a form of regenerative agriculture that seeks to prevent soil degradation, improve its quality and the biodiversity it sustains, and preserve natural resources while improving yields. It operates on the principles of permanent crop cover, crop rotation of various species, and minimum soil disturbance.

Cover crops & multi-species cover crops

Cover crops are plants used to cover and restore soil during periods where a farmer’s commercial crops are not being grown there. They are known to prevent soil erosion and sun damage and can enrich the soil with nutrients. They can also be more profitable for farmers, but this depends on the cover crop and often does not apply in the short term.

Ecological aquaculture

Ecological aquaculture’s goal is to maintain ecological balance and biodiversity in marine and freshwater environments, as well as for all human stakeholders involved. A successful example of such a practice might be rice-fish aquaculture in China, where keeping fish in the same ponds as rice helps the growth of both.

Grass-fed livestock

Turning exhausted cropland over to pasture where animals are grazed is believed to have several benefits. Some scientists believe that grazing animals restore the nutrient content of the soil and increasing overall soil health, therefore increasing its ability to store carbon. 

However, though this may be the case, grazing livestock is a fundamentally untenable method of reaching sustainability. Grass-fed livestock still produce a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and the destruction of vital ecologies for pastures is a serious accelerator of climate change. Grazing livestock may be better from an environmental and animal welfare standpoint than factory farming, but it still falls short of being beneficial to the environment.

Home gardens

All of the principles of regenerative agriculture can be applied to a personal garden, especially if one is growing vegetables there. Growing your own vegetables can reduce food waste, plastic waste, and transportation emissions.

Keyline subsoiling

Keyline subsoiling is a plowing technique that can lead to better water retention in soil, and subsequently better protection from drought, flood, and unstable weather patterns.

Livestock

There is evidence that better livestock management can sequester carbon and improve soil health, but there is also much evidence to the contrary. The state of the science on this topic remains unsettled, but there is a concern that agribusiness tends to leap onto ideas of “better livestock management” that distract from the fact that animal agriculture at its core is a major driver of climate destruction. If better livestock management acts as a cover or disguise for further agricultural expansion, pollution, and deforestation, then its so-called contributions to sustainability must be reevaluated.

Natural sequence farming

Invented in Australia in the 1970s, natural sequence farming utilizes major earthworks to simulate natural watercourses, which manage floods, prevent erosion and increase fertility. It is primarily a suitable technique for desert farming.

Organic annual cropping and crop rotations   

Organic annual cropping is simply any annual cropping system that does not use pesticides and seeks to adopt some regenerative practices like using green manure, composting, or reducing tillage. Crop rotation is a practice whereby different crops are grown on a plot in different parts of the years to prevent the build-up of pest and weed species and reduces pressure on specific nutrients which would be quickly depleted by the unmitigated growth of a single crop.

Perennial crops

Perennial crops are crops that do not require re-planting each year and grow back automatically. They can improve carbon sequestration, conserve more water and nutrients, and reduce soil erosion, especially as they make tilling unnecessary.

Permaculture design

Permaculture is a system designed for permanent existence and sustainability across numerous dimensions including architecture, hydrology, and agriculture. Permaculture designers look to ecosystems and seek to incorporate their self-sustaining nature into human environments.

Polyculture and full-time succession planting

Polyculture is when two or more vegetables or animals are raised in the same space at the same time, imitating the diversity of nature and increasing pest-resistance, soil health, and sometimes greater crop yields. Full-time succession planting occurs when crops are planted one after the other so that the soil can benefit from constant cover.

Regrowing vegetables

Numerous species of vegetables, like onions, cabbages, or garlic, can be regrown from food scraps, a sustainable option that is more affordable than buying seed each year.

Silvopasture   

Silvopasture is a system in which tree cover is provided for livestock animals. Livestock benefit from shelter and forage at the expense of native species.

Soil food web

Soil food webs represent the chain of consumption in a soil ecosystem, from organic matter to bacteria, plants, worms, arthropods, and burrowing mammals. A healthy soil food web means a healthy ecosystem, richer soil, higher carbon sequestration, and bigger crop yields.

Is regenerative agriculture profitable?

Regenerative agriculture certainly can be profitable and indeed often is. Research comparing regenerative and conventional corn farms on the Northern Plains of the United States discovered that despite regenerative farms on average having a 29 percent smaller yield than convention farms, they made 78 percent more profit. This is because, despite the lower yields, regenerative farmers save a large amount of money on seed and pesticide and tend to sell their crops at higher prices due to beneficial labeling. 

While it is true that regenerative practices can decrease yields in certain environments, they are known to sustain the same or even greater yields on other farms, depending on their soil type. Altogether it requires careful management, regenerative agriculture can be highly productive, profitable, beneficial to the environment.

Experts remain skeptical

Global agriculture is a huge driver of climate change and is, at present, radically unsustainable. Regenerative agriculture emphasizes harmony with nature and relies on good soil health and the development of adjacent ecosystems. These traits are undoubtedly an appealing way of addressing climate change. However, it remains to be seen if regenerative agriculture alone can reverse climate change. There is much cause to be skeptical, particularly if the name “regenerative” masks continued agricultural expansion and the rearing of animals, who contribute to greenhouse gas emissions more than a well-managed grazing pasture can offset.

Regenerative agriculture alone is insufficient in avoiding ecological collapse. If corporate agriculture and opportunistic farmers adopt sustainable farming practices without introducing a comprehensive plan to overhaul the farming system, animal agriculture’s contribution to the climate crisis will continue to accelerate. That being said, the ecological compatibility that regenerative agriculture emphasizes could be a vital component in the fight against climate change.