What is Regenerative Agriculture? Consumer Edition.
There are already a variety of explanations and definitions for what Regenerative Agriculture is, but I haven’t yet come across one for the people who eat food, not farm it.
One-Liner: Regenerative Agriculture is a form of farming that works with all of nature to produce food that is both healthy and nutritious, and restorative to the environment.
The Short Version:
What Regenerative Agriculture is is in the name — it’s agriculture that is regenerative to the environment, the fields, the soil, and also to our bodies. It’s a system of farming that works with all of the amazing complexity and synergies that nature has worked out of hundreds of thousands of years.
Regenerative Agriculture does not use artificial inputs: no chemicals, no fertilizer, no pesticide or herbicide, no hormones or antibiotics. Any food — meat, grain, fruit or vegetables produced this way are definitely going to be good for you!
Since using no ‘artificial stimulants’ and doing nothing else would result in fields of weeds and pests, Regenerative Agriculture replaces the artificial with the natural. Soil needs to be fertile to grow forage or crops — so ‘cover crops’ that naturally add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil are planted in off-seasons, cattle graze tall grasses and often the cover crops, and move regularly to never over-graze and damage a pasture. Bugs and ‘pests’ are not just tolerated, but encouraged, because each part of the natural ecosystem actually has a beneficial effect on the whole farm — nature has had a long time to figure out how to do this harmoniously!
Regenerative Agriculture embraces and harnesses the millennia of natural evolution that created stable and productive ecosystems. Using nature as a co-farmer rather than trying to control nature results in creating better soil, which produces more nutrient dense food, and great natural flavors. It also helps farmers make more money, since unlike the chemical and feed companies, nature doesn’t charge them any fees!
The Longer Version:
Regenerative Agriculture, as the name suggests, is a form of farming that works to continually improve the land (“regenerate it”) while producing high quality foods.
The way we farm today is extractive and destructive.
We grow the same crops year after year, in the same places, and when they are harvested all the nutrients they have taken in from the soil get extracted. Soil fertility, like anything else that gets continually extracted, is a finite resource and we have gradually been depleting it, to the point that within 50 years we will not have enough fertile soil left to produce the food we need.
To combat the problems mono-cropping (growing a single crop over and over again in the same soil) has created, the industrial agriculture machine supplies chemical fertilizers that add synthetic nutrients into the soil to help the crops grow (and then extract that again at harvest time, creating a vicious cycle).
We spray more chemicals to kill weeds and kill crop eating pests. The result of this is we also kill all the good creatures and soil bacteria that helped create resilient crops. We’ve lost an alarming percent of our wildlife — from birds, to bees, to critters and bacteria.
The way we do livestock (cows, chicken, pigs) is equally as bad, stuck cooped up in sheds, crammed together, and forced to eat masses of food they wouldn’t eat in nature. The conditions create and spread disease so we pump them full of antibiotics, and hormones to grow faster. Instead of their excrement going on pastures where it’s a super fuel for soil and attracts all sorts of soil enriching bugs, it goes into effluent lagoons that ultimately poison the land, waterways and aquifers. You can’t store mini seas of chemical rich concentrated animal excrement without expecting some problems!
This all boils down to a system of farming that is destructive and cannot continue. Regardless of any environmental conscience, this way of farming has an end point when we have destroyed soil to the point where even chemicals won’t work.
For consumers, aside from putting our food security at risk, the tangible ‘now’ problem is that the food produced in this way just isn’t good for us. Countless studies show the negative health consequences from humans ingesting toxic chemicals that are sprayed on our food and eaten by our animals. It’s pretty obvious that toxic chemicals aren’t something we should eat, right?
What about organic and fake meat?
A quick side-bar on the inevitable comment about the solution being plant-based meat. First of all — meat isn’t the only problem in industrial agriculture. The biggest problem is soil destruction — from the way we produce grains for ourselves, as feed for confined animals, and as a core ingredient of plant-based meats. Plant-based meat has no impact on soil improvement, it uses the same farming practices that got us here, and instead of stuffing animals full of chemicals, corn, soy, and others are chemically transformed into fake-beef, fake-chicken, fake-shrimp. The core problem is soil destruction caused by artificial chemical use. Fake meat is a champion of the industrial chemical complex.
What about organic? It’s better! But organic is still an generally extractive process and allows the land to be tilled (releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere), and while it reduces chemical use, many are still allowed.
What about grass-fed? Potentially great! But because it’s not certified or graded, grass-fed might not mean what you think it means. It could mean the animal started life on grass (they all do) and spent the last 12 months in a feedlot. It could mean they had access to a paltry little pasture for an hour a day. It could even mean they were fed grass-pellets while in the feedlot, mixed into their grain and hormone soup!
Regenerative Agriculture: The solution is to use an incredibly complex system, with many participants, that has been developed over thousands of years: NATURE.
We should be careful not to underestimate the power, complexity and maturity of nature. Nature has quite the head start on us and has figured out how to make symbiotic ecosystems that produce great food while maintaining and enhancing the environment.
Regenerative Agriculture is a natural method of farming that works with all of nature. The ‘all’ is a key word — all includes things typically farmers would see as harmful to their food production: weeds, pests, flies, crop eating bugs and small wild animals. It turns out that all these things have evolved with nature to form a balanced ecosystem.
Ultimately the single goal and measurement of success for a Regenerative farmer is the quality of their soil. It all starts with the soil: good soil = good food. There’s no way to repeat this too often — Regenerative Agriculture, in fact all food production, is all about the soil. Regenerative Agriculture is about restoring and maintaining rich soil, whereas industrial agriculture is about loading it up with chemicals and killing anything unwanted to try and extract as much as possible.
In a balanced and natural ecosystem, nature works to create produce and life — from the microbes in the soil, to the bees pollinating the plants, to what used to be millions of Bison roaming the land. That’s what nature is all about — restorative, repeatable, ongoing growth. We don’t need a hundred years of human engineering to replace and destroy what nature has been doing since the beginning!
So how does a regenerative farmer improve their soil (and as a result, the quality of their produce)?
Plants (grasses, ‘weeds’, vegetables, grains) all have benefits for the soil. Some are nitrogen rich, some ammonia, and all have root systems that attract and feed bacteria, bugs, and worms. Instead of adding chemicals to the soil, Regenerative Agriculture uses a mix of crops to add nutrients to the soil. Instead of extracting these nutrients, many of the crops are grazed or cut down but left on the soil, think of it like a mulch, as they decompose they add their nutrition back into the soil, and have the added benefit of helping protect the soil from heavy rain. The soil is never ploughed or tilled, new crops are sown with ‘no till drills’ on the remnants of cover crops. Plants root systems also help the soil store rain water — so no soil ‘runs off’ as you see on typical industrial farm fields, and water rich soil is drought resistant and produces high yields.
Grazing is also a huge part of this — grazing animals is the oldest form of soil management. Before farming even existed, herds of animals (like the 30 million bison that used to roam the US) grazed open prairies. They would never linger or over eat grasses down to the ground — after all the best grass is the top of a long grass. Regenerative Agriculture replicates this with rotational grazing — moving animals regularly onto lush pastures, where they eat a little and trample a lot before moving on, which helps grasses grow back stronger and roots go deeper — improving soil life and actually removing carbon from the atmosphere. This process and their dung attracts a mass of insect activity which further promotes soil health and ecosystem diversity.
There’s so much more to this exciting approach to agriculture, my goal with this article was to give socially conscious eaters and food buyers a non-technical explanation of what Regenerative Agriculture is so you can spread the word. As we transition farming to this method, we can restore the land, turn farming into a climate-solution, and ensure a long-term supply of nutrient dense, healthy and natural food for everyone.
If you would like to learn more, here’s some great resources:
- The Third Plate (Book by Chef Dan Barber, his Ted Talks are also great).
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
- Joel Salatin’s Ted Talk and many others he has done, on YouTube.
- Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown (he has also done a lot of Podcast interviews)
- Biggest Little Farm film about a family restoring land into a productive farm.
- Kiss The Ground film about soil and regenerative farming.
- Wilding by Isabella Tree about harnessing nature to ‘rewild’ a farm in England.
- The Regeneration (Soilworks weekly newsletter summarizing regenerative news and developments)