Climate change is affecting all our favorite foods—from avocado toast to acai bowls—and how farmers grow food matters more now than ever. One way farmers are improving their food-growing game is regenerative agriculture, or “regenerative ag,” a farming practice with the lofty goal of not just slowing, but actually reversing, climate change. Less than a quarter of participants in the International Food Information Council’s 2019 Food and Health Survey stated they were familiar with this term, so let’s dig in to some more details about regenerative ag practices and their farming impacts!
Regenerative ag is all about “holistic land management,” meaning farmers employ techniques that give back to the land rather than take away. Practices are focused on building up high-quality soil, retaining rainwater, improving the water cycle, increasing biodiversity, and promoting both human and animal welfare.
One way farmers can accomplish much of this effort is by working in sync with carbon, one of life’s most important elements. This fundamental element makes up all living things, including the building blocks of our food—carbohydrates, protein, and fat wouldn’t exist without carbon. Plants especially love carbon; they take it from the atmosphere and the soil to grow and produce nutrients. Carbon-rich soil not only nourishes plants, but also creates resilient soil that can retain water during a drought, doesn’t erode as quickly, and provides ample nutrition to growing plants.
Carbon is important since it sustains all life, but when released into the atmosphere it can form the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and directly contribute to atmospheric warming and climate change. Capturing carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, a process called carbon sequestration, simultaneously pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and transfers it to the soil for nourishing. Many farmers are adopting carbon sequestering techniques because of this dual positive: help the environment, feed the soil.
Regenerative Ag Techniques
Many techniques of regenerative ag involve carbon sequestration, although this is only one tool among many regenerative ag solutions. Farmers are also focused on building up soil health in general, expanding the biodiversity of both flora and fauna, efficiently using rainwater for land to survive through droughts and storms, and treating both animals and humans with dignity. The following are just a few ways to accomplish these goals.
Tilling is a way of manipulating soil, typically used prior to planting new crops, in order to mix organic material back into the soil and break down weeds. However, tilling releases carbon from the soil into the atmosphere. By practicing minimal or no-till techniques, carbon is left underground, enriching the soil and reducing greenhouse gas production.
Animal, plant and food waste can all be used to make nutrient-rich compost that plants—and the soil microbiome—love. It can be manufactured at home too! Many folks use composting bags in their backyard gardens. However, some compost, like animal manure and tree fall, is already naturally occurring on farms and can replenish organic material in the soil without much manipulation. Compost can be added on top of fields or mixed with soil to support crop growth. It reduces the need for other fertilizers on farms, thus enriching soil without an additional release of greenhouse gases that can be associated with the manufacturing of alternative fertilizers.
This 2,000-year-old practice originated in the Amazon rain forest region. In a process called pyrolysis, organic material like leaves and sticks burn in an oxygen-free environment and form a dark black fertile substance rich in carbon and highly porous—meaning soil can more easily retain nutrients and water. Biochar is then used in the same way compost is, added to existing soil to create nutrient-rich soil without fertilizer application, manipulation of soil, or carbon dioxide production.
These crops survive year-round and develop intricate, thick root systems that hold in rainwater and easily adapt to changes in nutrients in the soil. They require less input for long-term survival, and they help cultivate nutrient-rich soil. Many farmers will use them as cover crops between growing seasons. Cover crops instantly create biodiversity on a farm, as well as maintain soil integrity (including water usage and nutrient content) between growing seasons.
Simply put: farming in a forest. There are a few ways to practice agroforestry, including planting rows of trees between crops, planting trees in pastures for livestock, and creating tree or plant canopies over cropland or pastures. Tree cover has multiple benefits, including carbon sequestration, protecting plants from extreme weather, and improving water quality.
Farmers practicing managed grazing consider the longevity of the land, the needs of surrounding wildlife, and protection of both land and livestock from dangers like drought or fire. Livestock rotate through different portions of the pasture according to the growth rate and stage of the forage they are feasting on. This provides both a consistent fuel source for livestock and a chance for crops to develop strong root systems. These root systems in turn enrich the soil and allow for improved water retention.
Environmental and Nutritional Advantages
The case for regenerative ag’s effect on the environment is simple. By focusing on the soil, regenerative ag techniques pull carbon dioxide, one of the most prevalent greenhouse gases, out of the atmosphere. This is a positive impact on the prevalence of climate change. While many operations may boast decreased greenhouse gas production, regenerative ag takes it a step further with greenhouse gas elimination by the farmland itself.
Regenerative ag has the potential to feed the world an increased amount of nutrient-rich foods—an important benefit, as the population is expected to grow up to 9 billion by the year 2050. By investing in the soil, regenerative ag farmers are helping to make more food on less land to feed more people.
Although you might not know that your food was produced with regenerative ag techniques simply by looking at it in a store, that may change soon. Farmers and ranchers are hoping to have regenerative organic certification approved by the United States Department of Agriculture. Although regenerative ag isn’t a completely new way of farming more of these practices must be put into play and we look forward to seeing what the future brings.
This blog post was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD, our 2019 Sylvia Rowe Fellow.