What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Within the world of agriculture, there is a new and upcoming terminology: regenerative agriculture. Currently, many companies follow principles of sustainability, but as the climate crisis has made clear, sustainability simply isn’t enough anymore. We need to go beyond sustainability to actively try to rebuild our ecosystems. This is where we get the term regenerative, which aims to repair what has been lost. But when food brands promise their products are made through regenerative practices, what does that mean? 

Is it just a buzzword or does it have a legitimate claim to the ecological benefits it promotes?

Exploring the Nuance 

Before we can dive into regenerative agriculture, it’s important to first discuss why there’s so much confusion. Let’s look at two companies that define themselves as regenerative, Alter Eco Chocolate and Annie’s Homegrown. 

Alter Eco Chocolate has teamed up with cacao bean growers in Ecuador in their regenerative farming efforts. They describe their farming practice as one that “respects our incredibly valuable soil and respects the human beings who grow our food.” They practice fair trade, agroforestry and also have zero-waste truffle wrappers. 

On the other hand, Annie’s Homegrown defines their regenerative agriculture practices as an “effort to build soil health, foster biodiversity, steward healthy watersheds, and promote resilient farm communities.” While both business models make commitments to environmental and social justice and we applaud these efforts, these definitions are not the same. If you are looking for a single, clear-cut definition for regenerative agriculture, you may struggle in your search. A study conducted by the University of Colorado found that almost half of scholarly sources and practitioners provided no single definition for the term regenerative agriculture and while 86% of studied practitioners provided their own definitions, these varied widely. Why would they be so different? There are a few reasons:

  • Different Geographic Circumstances Require Different Farming Solutions: Agriculture is as much an art as a science, and it requires you to adapt and account for context like climate, region and crop type. If Alter Eco is farming cacao beans in Ecuador, their approach to regenerative farming will look different from Annie’s Homegrown, whose ingredients come from both North and South America. 
  • Different Perspectives are a Healthy Aspect of a Growing Movement: Regenerative agriculture as a whole is spurred on by the desire to improve soil, water, biodiversity and nutrient cycles. The majority of our food production systems are currently having harmful repercussions on the environment, people and animals. Such a significant problem that affects so many people globally requires myriad perspectives and approaches. Picking a single definition for what regenerative agriculture is may easily exclude whole subsections of equally valid approaches. It may also include approaches which are regenerative only in name but in actuality do little to improve the ecological outcomes that the most environmentally centred definitions of regenerative agriculture outline. This is not to say this is what regenerative farming will be like forever. The term has only recently gained momentum compared to the term organic. Therefore, regenerative agriculture may simply be experiencing growing pains as members of the community continue to iron out the finer details for what the word represents.
  • Is a Definition Even Necessary?: Not only is there debate about how regenerative farming should be defined, there is also debate around whether it needs a definition at all. On the one hand, a clear definition would protect the term from greenwashing and create more accountability to ensure those practicing regenerative agriculture are actually upholding the values they proclaim. It would also create a more informed consumer who would understand the efforts that go into regeneratively farmed products. However, those opposed are worried that a definition would set a minimum bar for regenerative farming, which could limit farmer’s ambitions and stifle innovation. As it currently stands, members of the regenerative farming community pride themselves on their innovation and their dedication to constant improvement and therefore some see a definition as something that could only hold them back.

Priorities of Regenerative Agriculture 

With all these different opinions and approaches, it makes discussing regenerative agriculture challenging. However, there is still some consensus about what regenerative agriculture values. Going back to that University of Colorado study, four topics proved to be the most popular talking points of regenerative agriculture. These are, by far, not the only topics of interest and a single regenerative farmer may prioritize one value over another. These are just the most common things regenerative agriculture prioritizes and should be viewed not as rules but as principles.

Soil Health and Carbon Sequestering

In the world of regenerative agriculture, the most popular topic of discussion is this farming technique’s ability to help sequester carbon and improve soil health. Soil has the potential to store carbon; plants and microorganisms living in the soil participate in a delicate cycle of drawing carbon down into the soil from the air, using it as a source of nutrients and converting dead plant material into carbon. Soil that is rich in carbon stores and organic microorganisms offers a lot of benefits to the surrounding environment, including:

  • Improving the soil’s water retention and infiltration
  • Providing nutrients for plants
  • Reducing soil erosion and compaction 
  • Filtering ground pollution 

Conventional farming practices do draw down some carbon. With current practices, Canadian agriculture and its associated land usage can sequester 18 Mt of CO2eq per year through to 2030. However, this sequestering potential could be increased to 81 Mt of CO2eq per year using the “4 per mille” initiative. Within this model this impressive amount of carbon sequestration would completely offset the emissions produced by the agriculture industry and effectively offset 11% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, representing roughly a third of Canada’s committed reduction targets made in the Paris agreement.

By those calculations, shifting both crop and pasture management globally to regenerative systems is a powerful combination that could drawdown more than 100% of annual CO2 emissions…pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil.

-The Rodale Institute

This is exciting news, the idea that our ability to mitigate the climate crisis may be right under our feet.  

Regenerative agriculture aims to tap into that potential by restoring soil health as not only a way to improve the overall health of farmland but also as a way to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Optimal soil health is achieved through a variety of different tactics that involve keeping the soil covered and undisturbed as much as possible by employing practices such as conservation tillage, mulching, cover cropping and intercropping.

Increasing Biodiversity 

Monocultures have come to be a staple image when you think of farming: rolling fields of a single crop as far as the eye can see. This system of farming has proven useful over the years in producing one type of food en masse. However limited crop diversity has minimal benefits to the surrounding environment. These types of farms are often vulnerable to pests, do not optimize carbon sequestration, deplete soil health, and provide limited habitat for wild animals and pollinators.

Regenerative farming wishes to change up this system by planting a wider variety of plant species, rotating crops, limiting the use of chemical inputs, and even incorporating forests into the farm’s design. As a result, regenerative farms are often more biodiverse. These practices have proven to be incredibly beneficial for farmers. A recent study found that diversifying crops offered a win-win scenario for crop yield. Regenerative agriculture seeks to tap into the local landscape’s natural ecosystem, one that has been around for thousands of years and knows how to repair, replenish and multiply. It is all about finding new ways to work with nature rather than against it.

Water Health

Clean water is an incredibly valuable resource that impacts human health and biodiversity. 700 million people worldwide feel the impacts of water scarcity and that number is only expected to increase as the climate crisis exacerbates the issue. After a heavy rain event, conventional agriculture creates a significant amount of runoff containing synthetic fertilizers and topsoil, which end up in surrounding creeks, rivers, and lakes. This leads to an unhealthy nutrient overload, resulting in algae blooms and subsequent dead zones. At the same time, conventional agriculture is also an extremely water-intensive practice, taking up 70% of the world’s freshwater supply

Water and soil are deeply interconnected, prioritizing soil health will promote healthy water systems as well. Healthy soil can better store and clean water from heavy rainfall, creating stronger and cleaner water reserves in the surrounding landscape. This water absorbent soil will also support plant life through even dry seasons. As more people face water scarcity around the world, regenerative agriculture offers a practical solution to improve our water systems.

The demand for products which are part of the climate change solution greatly outpaces the current supply as people are becoming more concerned about where their food comes from and under what conditions it was produced. People worldwide are developing a craving for quality food that can be beneficial to themselves, their families and the environment. Regenerative agriculture and organic agriculture together are working towards the same goal of producing quality products that improve our food production systems. Organic and regenerative agriculture have many similarities, in fact in our next blog we will discuss exactly how similar the two concepts are in reality. But regenerative agriculture is a concept that still deserves attention and excitement, even if professional opinions vary on the details of practical application.

It represents an opportunity to provide a lot of benefits: sequester carbon, improve biodiversity, empower communities and to propel ourselves into the future. 

See how regenerative and organic agriculture compare to each other in our next article: Organic and Regenerative Agriculture: Difference and Similarities Explained (Coming Soon)

Want to know more about regenerative agriculture? Watch these panel discussions featured at the 2022 Guelph Organic Conference and COTA’s 2021 Organic Week that explore the benefits of regenerative organic agriculture and its potential to address today’s climate issues.

Check out OCO’s Organic Climate Solutions campaign, funded in part by the Government of Canada, to learn more about how farmers can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and be part of the climate solution.

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