Explainer

The Promises and Pitfalls of Regenerative Agriculture, Explained

Despite the massive amount of public and private funding flowing into regenerative agriculture, research shows it doesn't live up to the climate hype. 

image of beef cattle on pasture, regenerative agriculture explainer

Explainer Food Sustainable Farming

The United Nations puts food, energy and water at the “at the heart of sustainable development” — yet pressure on all three are skyrocketing as the global population is expected to hit 9.7 billion by the year 2050. Proponents of regenerative agriculture say a switch to this method of farming could reduce the food system’s immense impact on the environment, but does it live up to the hype?

More than one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector, with half of all habitable land on the planet used for farming. Of that half, 77 percent ends up as land devoted to raising animals for food — an industry that is a leading cause of deforestation and water pollution, and a contributor to the mass extinction crisis faced by thousands of wild species.

Given these troubling statistics, there is a growing scientific consensus that a new, sustainable food system is required. Regenerative agriculture promises to reconcile food production with a healthy environment — and it’s now attracted billions in private funding and government investment under the guise of “climate-smart agriculture.” In this explainer, we’ll take a closer look at what regenerative agriculture can and can’t do for the food system, according to the evidence.

What Is Regenerative Agriculture?

Though there is no single definition of regenerative agriculture, this method of farming aims to work with nature and reduce climate impacts by developing the organic matter in soil, usually with cover crops, a crop rotation and by raising some type of livestock, usually cattle.

Who Benefits From Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture offers some benefits, even if it falls short on many of its claims. Research shows that it can boost soil health and in some cases can be profitable for farmers. Communities surrounding farms employing regenerative practices may benefit from reduced water and air pollution, especially as compared to factory farms. Yet proponents of this sustainability movement often promise far more than this type of farming can deliver.

Though it is often framed as a new effort by corporations to change food production, the reality is that Indigenous communities have used regenerative agriculture practices for hundreds of years. In North America, colonization disrupted many of these sustainable practices and brought about the factory farm-dominated system we see today. Many critics and scholars see the current regenerative movement as cultural appropriation that excludes BIPOC farmers and disregards their longtime contributions to sustainable farming. 

What’s more, consumers may be misled by food labeling that claims something like regenerative beef is “sustainable” or “climate-friendly,” when the evidence suggests cattle grazing is environmentally harmful, requires a lot more land to produce the same amount of meat and does not store carbon in the ground or significantly reduce emissions.

The 5 Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

While there isn’t consensus on the definition of regenerative agriculture, some proponents point to these five principles:

  1. Don’t disturb the soil. Soils are rich with micro-organisms as well as tiny habitats and ecosystems. For instance, there are more micro-organisms in a single teaspoon of soil than there are humans on the planet. Tilling the soil or overusing herbicides can destroy these habitats and the health of the soil.
  2. Cover the soil surface. Rain, wind and sun can all damage soil and its valuable ecosystems. But farmers can keep it covered with a canopy of growing crops, or the “stubble” (remaining debris), from harvested crops. Soil damage exacerbates the impacts of climate change, which means it could lead to more extreme weather that, in turn, could further damage soil.
  3. Sustain living roots in the soil. Plant roots are essential to 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. Proponents of regenerative farming point out that monocultures do not exist in nature, which tends to favor high amounts of diversity in an ecosystem. Farmers who want to coexist with nature then often try companion cropping, or planting different types of crops on the same plot of soil. Some larger farms opt to achieve this diversity by rotating cash crops, like soy, wheat and corn. Any of these approaches can be beneficial for soil health.
  5. Grazing animals on the land. Animal grazing creates pastures by trampling grasses and other organic matter into the ground, which boosts carbon in the short term and improves soil fertility. 

Can Regenerative Agriculture Reverse Climate Change?

There’s no dispute that an intentional shift aimed at reducing our food system’s carbon footprint is necessary to limit global warming, yet there is no evidence that regenerative agriculture can reverse climate change — and in fact, efforts to greenwash food by labeling it “regenerative” may be doing harm. The regenerative movement gives consumers the false impression that they can continue eating the same amount of meat rather than shift to a plant-rich diet, which is recommended by a consensus of climate scientists.

“Regenerative grazing” of cattle has been marketed to consumers as a way to fix our food system and address its outsize role in the climate crisis. However, research shows that cattle grazing in any form is a major source of climate pollution that contributes to biodiversity loss, and regenerative ranching requires up to 2.5 times more land than conventional beef production.

Though earlier studies of no-till farming suggested the practice showed great promise as a climate fix, researchers later learned these studies were mostly irrelevant because they only measured the top part of the soil. It turns out that carbon in the upper layers of soil doesn’t actually stay put at all, which more or less makes it useless as a climate solution. 

What’s more, the vast majority of farmers who use “no-till” (a seemingly more- environmentally-friendly method where soil is tilled less often) actually do till their land every few years, which means any modest amount of carbon that was sequestered is mostly released then anyway. 

The massive land requirements of regenerative agriculture also means that the global food system could not switch to regenerative systems and produce the same amounts of dairy and meat. A 2022 report concluded that the amount of land being used for regenerative agriculture would have to triple and reach 40 percent of global farmland by 2030. Research shows there is not enough farmland on the planet to make that work, and farmers would end up deforesting and destroying the wild landscapes that actually do sequester carbon if they tried.

Is Regenerative Agriculture Sustainable?

Regenerative agriculture promises to reduce our food system’s contribution to climate change, but it comes with many shortcomings. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

Carbon Capture

Proponents of regenerative agriculture say 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. But there is fierce debate over this claim, and little viable evidence to support it.

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. 

Some studies show cover crops seem to be more effective at carbon capture. However, additional studies have cast doubt on that claim, and the fact that carbon will only sit in the soil, and be released if later disturbed, also raises questions about the efficacy of regenerative agriculture as a carbon capture strategy.

Increasing Vegetation

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

Lower Pesticide Use

Many regenerative farmers opt for natural pest prevention methods to help them use fewer synthetic pesticides than conventional farmers. This can be beneficial for the farmer, who doesn’t have to buy large amounts of pesticide (though the alternatives can be more labor-intensive or pose other environmental threats), and for the ecosystem and public, who will have to deal with fewer chemicals leaching into the wider environment. 

However, not all advocates for regenerative agriculture avoid the use of pesticides, and large agribusiness firms are trying to rebrand pesticides as regenerative. Since some chemicals kill microorganisms in the soil — the same microorganisms that sequester carbon — it is unclear whether or not regenerative agriculture can lower pesticide use if practiced on an industrial farm. 

Protecting Water Sources

Healthy soil stores more water because it is more porous; instead of running off, the water stays in the earth and in plant roots, reducing the need for farmers to irrigate. It is then recycled into shallow groundwater. As a result, these water sources are more resilient and used more sustainably.

Reducing Water Pollution  

Another benefit of healthy soils that tend to store more water is that more water can be absorbed by the crops rather than running off through the soil where it can deliver potentially harmful nutrients into waterways. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways have been shown to cause toxic algal blooms, harming wildlife and water quality.

Reducing 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.

A Closer Look at the Practices of Regenerative Agriculture

These are just a few of the practices that fall under the broad category of regenerative agriculture.

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. While agroforestry — including a particular type called silvopasture — can have incredible soil benefits, it also tends to require a lot of land, which means this type of farming could only replace industrial agriculture if consumers were willing to eat a lot less meat — even less than is already recommended based on factory farm output. However, it could make sense for small farms, especially those close to forest.

Regenerative Aquaculture

Regenerative aquaculture aims to adapt the principles of regenerative farming on land for raising fish. It emphasizes the growth of polycultures, and the building of biodiversity from the ground up. Growing kelp and constructing artificial reefs adjacent to farms might help sequester some CO2 and encourage biodiversity. 

However, just like regenerative farming on land, there are no universal standards nor is there any government oversight, which makes this practice ripe for greenwashing. This is a particular problem as the seafood industry touts aquaculture as a sustainable food solution into the future.

Border Plants for Pollinator Habitats

Farmers can plant an array of flowers, plants and hedgerows as borders to their fields. These border plants attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies, insects that 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. Conventional and regenerative farmers alike can use borders of wild plants to provide safe havens for these insects to flourish.

Compost and Manure

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. 

Manures are animal excrements that also supply rich nutrients to the soil, although different manures vary greatly in mineral content. Despite its many benefits, manure becomes a pollution hazard if too much is applied, causing the manure to run off into waterways and add to poor air quality. The manure introduces nitrates and phosphates that can kill animals and plants, and harmful toxins into the water used by people. 

Conservation Farming

Conservation farming is a method available to many food producers, including conventional farmers. The practice seeks to prevent soil degradation, improve soil quality and biodiversity. Some common approaches include using permanent crop cover, crop rotation of various species and allowing farmland to rewild and sequester carbon.

Cover Crops & Multi-Species Cover Crops

Cover crops are plants used to shield and restore soil at times when a farmer’s commercial crops are not grown there. They can prevent soil erosion and sun damage and can enrich the soil with nutrients. Cover crops can even be profitable for farmers in some cases. 

Grass-fed Livestock

Regenerative proponents often argue that livestock grazing restores the nutrient content of soil and increases overall soil health. Yet grazing is a fundamentally untenable method of reaching sustainability in our food system. A huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by grass-fed livestock, which require significantly more land to raise, and are often responsible for the destruction of vital ecologies for pastures. Grazing livestock may be better for animal welfare than factory farming, but it is worse for climate change and wildlife.

Crop Rotations
   

Crop rotation is the practice of growing different crops on a plot at different times of the year in order to prevent the build-up of pest and weed species. This practice also 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, and conserve more water and nutrients. Because they make tilling unnecessary, perennial crops can also reduce soil erosion. However, some perennial crops, like Kernza grain, offer only modest yields in comparison to wheat, which makes them of limited value as a climate solution.

Permaculture and Polyculture

Permaculture is 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 is when two or more vegetables or animals are raised in the same space at the same time, imitating the biodiversity of nature and increasing pest resistance, as well as soil health. The drawback of both permaculture and polyculture is the yields for large cash crops are much lower than conventional food systems, which means they are only viable with a massive change to the way people eat.

Silvopasture  

A system in which tree cover is provided for livestock animals is called silvopasture. Farmed animals benefit from shelter and forage, often at the expense of native species that depend on the forestland and face damaged trees or habitat.

Is Regenerative Agriculture Profitable?

Regenerative agriculture certainly can be profitable, and indeed often is. According to a 2023 report, farmers may face a short-term investment of almost $40 per acre of land to implement regenerative practices, but could see their profits boosted by up to 120 percent in the long run. However, these figures are highly speculative given the many variables at play in the business of agriculture. 

One study from 2018 comparing regenerative and conventional corn farms on the Northern Plains of the United States revealed that regenerative farms made 78 percent more profit, despite having a 29 percent smaller yield than conventional farms on average. This is because regenerative farmers tend to sell their crops at higher prices and also benefit from public and private investment in the regenerative label.

Why Experts Remain Skeptical About Regenerative Agriculture

Global agriculture is a major driver of climate change, and currently, it is simply unsustainable. Regenerative agriculture sounds like a solution because it emphasizes harmony with nature, and promises to improve the environment. 

However, regenerative agriculture’s potential to reverse climate change remains in question. There are many reasons to be skeptical, particularly if the term “regenerative” is used by industry as a buzzword. The phrase can be used to mask the reality of continued agricultural expansion and the large-scale farming of animals, which contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any well-managed grazing pasture can offset. 

If corporate agriculture adopts sustainable farming practices without introducing a comprehensive plan to overhaul the farming system and reduce meat consumption, factory farming’s contribution to the climate crisis will continue at the same dangerous pace. 

Some farmers are choosing to transition from raising livestock to growing plants to make their operations more sustainable. But the bottom line: regenerative agriculture alone — that is, without major changes to the way we eat — does not offer up a way out of the climate crisis.

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

$
Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »

Most Read Today