Its enemies call it a dangerous experiment. Its champions call it a silver bullet. What exactly is Regenerative Agriculture – and will it ever see the light of day?
In a time of climate crisis where businesses and politicians prefer to drift unproven carbon capture technologies or space-based geoengineering solutions that would blot out the sun, doing anything less complicated runs the risk of sounding naïve. But could the solution to many of our environmental challenges in fact be down-to-earth, low-tech, and proven beyond a shadow of a doubt?
That is precisely the claim advocates of regenerative agriculture have been making. But why are so few listening?
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
To understand regenerative agriculture, a little background is useful to provide context and place it within the greater historical developments of agriculture.
Essentially, regenerative agriculture proposes a return to an approach that was once commonplace. In fact, prior to the development of synthetic additives, one could scarcely expect a field to produce a yield for more than a decade – let alone centuries – without regenerative practices that carefully maintained or improved the soil’s carbon and nutrient content.
The development of new technologies and methods would be a game-changer, however, where fertilizers, pesticides, tillage and monocropping have created the “conventional” agriculture industry we know today. While this resulted in considerable labor savings, the environmental trade-offs have been grave: Between 30-75% of most agricultural soil organic carbon content has been lost to the atmosphere, for example, and some experts have warned that current rates of soil erosion will only leave us with another 60 years of viable soil. Add to this conventional agriculture’s impacts on biodiversity loss, freshwater contamination and human health – the need for change became clear and was voiced most poignantly in 1962 by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
In response, a countermovement arose with the aim to reduce the worst impacts of conventional agriculture by focusing on “organic” practices that would restrict harmful inputs and reduce soil erosion. But even as organic has grown to become relatively mainstream, it still only represents a mere fraction of total agriculture output. And in this context, just stopping the worst practices would never be enough – a new paradigm was needed. Enter regenerative agriculture.
Sustainable past meets present
Regenerative agriculture is an approach that focuses on enhancing the ecosystem services of food and farming systems by mimicking natural processes. Among other things, this means ensuring topsoil health by using no-till methods (not disturbing the soil) and no harmful synthetic additives like fertilizers or biocides. It also involves increasing biodiversity to aid in creating a healthy, balanced ecosystem that is more resilient to pest and disease outbreaks.
Finally, and this is what all the rage is about, regenerative practices have the potential to mitigate global warming by sequestering massive amounts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into the soil.
Though this approach is ancient, it is not stuck in the past. Instead, new methods are being devised and tested all the time and are implemented if they are able to promote healthy cycles of regeneration.
One of the actors leading this research is the Colorado-based non-profit Savory Institute, whose mission is to “facilitate the large-scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands and the livelihoods of their inhabitants, through holistic management.”
To help ranchers implement regenerative practices and communicate these outwardly, the Savory Institute’s Land to Market program uses the EOV (Ecological Outcome Verified) scientific protocol to measure land health and is already in use by hundreds of farms globally. Also, several well-known brands are currently Land to Market members and are actively sourcing raw materials from these verified farms, including Timberland.
Where farmers choose their own methods
Land to Market is a rigorous verification, which mixes quantitative and qualitative data with photographic records to verify changes to various indicators in the ecosystem. It is also “outcomes” based, meaning that it is primarily concerned with results – how ranchers accomplish these changes is up to them.
Megan Meiklejohn, Supply Chain Innovation manager at Savory Institute’s Land to Market program, explains how an outcome-based verification works:
“We’re essentially practice agnostic, meaning ranchers can have the freedom to operate as they like, as long as the ecological indicators are going in the right direction. As conditions can change so much from one context to the next, this provides much more flexibility.”
Megan Meiklejohn describes this as a “farmers first” approach, and from her standpoint believes that farmers are both interested and motivated for change:
“Many ranchers and farmers are seeing that conventional practices simply aren’t working and that their land is degrading. This results in reduced yields and carrying capacity, which ultimately affects their bottom line,” says Megan Meiklejohn, who continues to argue that regenerative practices have the potential to reduce the need for expensive inputs and can increase the land’s carrying capacity to support more livestock.
Criticism from conventional agriculture
Yet it is precisely yields – or lack of them – that are often cited by critics as the reason we must not replace conventional practices with regenerative ones. We are, after all, already struggling to feed a growing population as it is, and lower yields will require even greater encroachment on the few remaining wild ecosystems as we are forced to turn them into agriculture land.
Sustainability consultant Charles Ross is not foreign to this argument, and believes that the outdoor industry should not brazenly charge forward with regenerative agriculture without due consideration:
“I for one am concerned about growing more fiber crops – we must focus on feeding the planet rather than increasing the number of t-shirts,” shares Charles Ross, before continuing:
“But swapping existing agriculture to regenerative agriculture – be it food, cattle or fiber – should be a no-brainer.”
Charles Ross would point critics to a bounty of research, which demonstrates that effectively managed regenerative agriculture can even outcompete conventional agriculture – especially over the long term – as savings from reduced inputs and improved yields in times of drought or other environmental stress can add up.
Is ReGen Ag too good to be true?
So, if this is true, the question arises why there are so few actors embracing it. While there’s likely a number of reasons at play, such as an immature supply chain and low consumer demand, ultimately Charles Ross suspects that a more intangible issue might be the cause: Sustainability claims fatigue.
“There is so much marketing today about the latest sustainable wonder fiber that many have simply grown skeptical to these types of claims,” he shares.
“And when it comes to making claims, regenerative agriculture sounds far too good to be true – especially for what is essentially just the restoration of an old methodology. Many receive this message as something the snake oil salesperson would try to peddle.”
Indeed, such skepticism is not limited to regenerative agriculture in sustainability discussions, and the only way to truly overcome it is to demonstrate that these extraordinary claims are backed by extraordinary evidence. It needs to work, not just in theory but also in practice and at scale.
“The majority tends to follow once the early adopters have sorted out the hassles of creating the early supply lines,” shares Charles Ross.
“But having said this, there’s no major sticking points in the way of widespread adoption as long as both brands and producers take their share of the responsibility.”
Are we ready to regenerate?
With a growing body of evidence, certifying bodies and producers, is regenerative agriculture finally ready to live up the hype?
“Regenerative agriculture has always been ready – the question is really if we are ready to re-embrace this old technology?’” says Charles Ross.
Here, he draws a parallel to the development of organic cotton and the GOTS standard, where Patagonia was one of the early adopters. Today, it appears to have gone from obscurity to mainstream. But it is important to remember that this transition has taken decades and while organic seems to be all the talk, organic cotton still just represents roughly 2% of the world’s cotton crop.
“I believe that compared to GOTS cotton, that this will be adopted much faster as we are in a new world of better communication and more knowledge of the supply chain issues,” shares Charles Ross, before concluding:
“But above all, we all now know of the reputation of the apparel industry as the second most polluting activity on the planet! Regenerative agriculture can turn this reputation upside-down, enabling it to become part of the solution.”
Lead image: Christopher Michel