Reaping the Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture

by | Updated: September 25th, 2017 | Read time: 4 minutes

Have you heard of regenerative agriculture? Chances are, you probably haven’t. And we wouldn’t scold you for that. After all, one survey shows only about one-fourth of old-school farmers are aware of the term.

Hands Cupping Sprouting Plant in Soil Improved by Regenerative Agriculture | Vitacost.com/blog

The phrase “regenerative agriculture” soon might become a regular part of your vocabulary, though. Food Dive, a website that covers the food industry, lists regenerative agriculture as one of the top natural-food trends among consumers.

Simply put, the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that promotes organic farming, summarizes regenerative agriculture as “a down-to-earth solution to global warming.” The institute estimates 108 million acres of farmland around the world currently adhere to regenerative farming practices. That figure is projected to soar 1 billion acres by 2050, with an accompanying reduction of 23.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

Today, regenerative agriculture remains a niche in food production, says Eric Pierce, director of business insights at the New Hope Network, a digital marketplace for the healthy lifestyle industry. However, he adds, rising interest in organic and grass-fed production suggests regenerative agriculture is quickly moving in the right direction.

“That being said, barring a massive shock that forces us to change our farming system rapidly, we are probably still at least a decade away from it being mainstream,” Pierce says.

So, what is this someday-mainstream farming philosophy?

Kevin Boyer, founder and director of the nonprofit Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, says the overarching goal of regenerative agriculture is to “heal land and communities while producing food, fiber, fuel and fun.”

“We seek to move from an exploitative and destructive farming system to one that is constantly improving the land and people involved,” Boyer adds.

What are some of the ways that regenerative agriculture can be beneficial? Among those cited by Boyer are:

  • Storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide in stable forms in the soil.
  • Stepped-up biodiversity through habitat improvements.
  • Better storage of water in the soil to alleviate drought.
  • Creation of more reliable sources of clean water for human and wild creatures.
  • Increased profits for farmers.

From a consumer standpoint, regenerative agriculture will lead to greater nutrient density, better-tasting food and less exposure to harmful substances, according to Pierce.

For now, though, it’s unclear whether regenerative-grown food provides more nutritional value than conventionally grown food, Boyer says. But promising research is underway on the health differences between the two types of food, he says.

Even if today’s food has been produced using regenerative practices, it’s hard to tell, Boyer adds, since there’s no official “regenerative” labeling — unlike the labeling available for, say, organic or GMO-free products.

“The best way to know if your food is regenerative at this point is to speak to the person who grows it,” Boyer says. “If you ask them about their operation and they lead with price or volume, you may need to dig a little deeper before you decide they are regenerative.

“However, if they lead the discussion by talking about the soil, the wild habitat they are creating or how well they treat their labor or livestock, you can be fairly sure they are on the right path.”

Boyer points out that the path toward regenerative agriculture is imperfect, as no two farmers and no two farming cycles are alike. Regenerative agriculture, he says, is a process, not a destination or a set of rules.

But will that process result in true adoption of regenerative agriculture, or will it be just another food fad?

“To be totally honest with you, it may end up being just another buzzword,” Boyer says. “The regenerative movement is at a critical inflection point right now. While we are trying to blend millennia of indigenous knowledge with the latest scientific understanding of human and environmental health to create a farming system that is ‘all good,’ it currently feels a little vulnerable.”

Pierce agrees with that sentiment, saying that if advocates aren’t careful, “regenerative agriculture” could turn into just another empty marketing ploy.

“At this point, I don’t think that the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ has strong enough consumer awareness for this to happen,” Pierce adds, “but there is a risk as we build the market that this could happen.”

Boyer says supporters of regenerative agriculture must be wary of the concept being co-opted or watered down. He worries, for instance, that many — if not all — of the groups working toward regenerative certification of food products will establish a laundry list of stifling rules.

“A set of rules encourages the application of human creativity toward bending or skirting the rules; a regenerative goal encourages the application of human creativity to constant improvement,” Boyer says.

For his part, Pierce is encouraged by a consumer survey that signifies a positive outlook for regenerative agriculture. In that survey, sponsored by the New Hope Network, Penton Agriculture and Kiss the Ground, 60 percent of consumers indicated they’d at least consider changing their food purchasing habits if regenerative agriculture were proven to pull carbon from the air and help reverse climate change.

A separate survey of conventional farmers found they’re also open to the notion of regenerative agriculture, according to Pierce. In fact, the survey indicates farmers already have welcomed some components of regenerative agriculture, such as crop rotation (66 percent), no-till or conservation-tillage farming (57 percent) and manure application (44 percent).

“My hope is that while there is a long way to go from using one of these methods to using them in a way that achieves the key goals of increasing soil carbon, water-holding capacity and soil biodiversity, that maybe there is a way to build upon methods farmers are already finding useful to a more comprehensive approach to regenerative agriculture,” Pierce says.