Land use—agriculture, forestry, and more—accounts for almost 25% of all human-created emissions of greenhouse gases. Regenerative agriculture can help reverse this trend. It can actually begin to reduce agricultural emissions.
Before widespread adoption of monocultures and factory farming, crops would take carbon dioxide from the air and deposit whatever they didn’t need for growth back into the soil. That is, agriculture did not emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Instead, it sucked them out of the air and deposited them in the soil.
Organic matter in the soil means plant or animal tissue decaying there. Soil can contain as little as 2% organic matter. Soil organic matter probably will not be more than 10%.
Each increase of one percent in organic matter means the soil can hold about 20,000 gallons more water per acre. In times of heavy rain, the soil can soak up that much more rainwater and reduce flooding risk. In times of drought, it has enough moisture to keep crops alive with less need for irrigation.
That same increase in soil organic matter puts about five tons of carbon back into the soil per acre. It uses photosynthesis, not innovative technology.
A summary of George Washington Carver’s views on regenerative agriculture
I recently wrote a post about George Washington Carver. That’s because I noticed a page in the January/February 2021 issue of Smithsonian saying that he pioneered many of the practices of sustainable agriculture.
Since then, I came across another article that describes regenerative agriculture. It looks like farming is finally catching up to what Carver tried to tell us.
He published his very first scientific paper while still an undergraduate at the Iowa Agricultural College (IAC). It showed his interest in plants that many would have considered waste.
It is the first written statement of his lifelong abhorrence not only of waste, but the whole idea of waste. He also studied ecology, the science of the interrelationship of everything in an ecosystem.
At every chance he got, he proclaimed that God wasted nothing when he created nature. Everything has a valuable use, and so farmers have a moral obligation not to consider anything as a waste.
At IAC (now Iowa State University), Carver had been taught to use organic fertilizers only under certain condition. And much of his duties at Tuskegee involved testing chemical fertilizer and advocating its use. At first, he did so with enthusiasm, but he eventually soured on it.
For one thing poor black farmers often couldn’t afford it. Carver turned to the past for inspiration.
Only a few decades of cotton monoculture in Alabama had ruined the soil. Many planters found it cheaper to buy new land than apply manure to old land. It followed a pattern that Eastern plantations had already experienced. Besides crop rotation, an earlier generation of agricultural reformers had advocated using manure to revitalize ruined land.
So they recommended keeping farm animals in pens at night, lining the ground with straw or sawdust, and then composting it. Poor farmers could afford the labor involved more than the money commercial fertilizer would cost.
But they often didn’t have enough animals to provide enough manure. So Carver also started experimenting with other free sources of fertilizer: leaves, pine needles, swamp muck and other debris. Yet another example of his insistence on using what seemed to most people like waste material.
His disapproval of synthetic fertilizer only grew from there. Late in life, he discovered that tomatoes grown with synthetic fertilizers were “only a hull or shadow” of what they ought to be.
Immediately after beginning his work at Tuskegee, Carver and his students planted legumes on the ruined soil to return nitrogen to it.
Black tenant farmers had the additional handicap that they had to plant what the landlords told them to: cotton. And cotton, being inedible, couldn’t provide subsistence.
Landowners generally ignored Carver’s plea to let tenants grow their own food. So he began to focus his recommendations for crop rotation on sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and peanuts. They were fairly minor crops at the time, but they had the advantage of being both edible and marketable.
By the time Carver died in 1943, he had accomplished little of what he set out to do. In part, he had to fight a losing battle with the racial climate of his day. In part, his vision failed to influence the general direction of agricultural thought.
All the trends headed toward mechanization, consolidation, and maximizing productivity at the expense of caring for the soil. But the weaknesses of industrial farming are becoming apparent. So is the fact that Carver anticipated most of the ideas and practices of regenerative farming.
What is regenerative agriculture?
The regenerative farming movement is comparatively new and overlaps with organic farming a great deal.
Organic farming has been around long enough that it has a standard definition and official certification.
Products that carry the USDA Organic label have been grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Producers must meet stringent standards to earn and keep the right to use the label.
But organic certification doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the farm has rotated crops, worked to improve soil biology, or created healthy habitats for pollinators. And even organic farmers can overuse or misuse their fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers who go the extra mile for these practices often call themselves sustainable farmers.
There is, however, no national standard that defines what sustainable agriculture means. Conventional factory farmers who reduce their use of chemicals by precise targeting also call themselves sustainable. The term, therefore, can cover a spectrum of practices and philosophies that don’t comfortably coexist.
No definition or standard yet exists for regenerative agriculture, either. But the word has the advantage of implying practices that improve soil health instead of simply maintaining soil. A new standard, called Regenerative Organic Certification is in the works. It will be necessary. Otherwise, the agricultural chemistry industry will develop and advocate a definition of regenerative agriculture that supports its business model.
Few if any scientific studies exist to make it possible to predict how much impact regenerative farming can have on climate change. It will require plenty of peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals to get past hype and find out just how much it can actually accomplish.
How is regenerative agriculture different from conventional agriculture?
Each kind of plant takes nutrients from the soil and release nutrients back. Just not the same ones as other species. Microbes in the soil, including certain fungi, feed on the released nutrients.
The greater variety of nutrients, the greater variety of beneficial microbes. Monocultures are bad for soil. Therefore, regenerative agriculture depends on crop diversity.
Plowing, and especially plowing to the depth tractors and other modern machinery can achieve, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The machinery can also compact the soil and keep soil microbes from thriving. Therefore, regenerative agriculture uses low-till or even no-till techniques to keep both carbon dioxide and beneficial microbes in the soil.
With a monoculture, it is necessary to leave the land fallow from time to time. Leaving a plowed field bare leads to soil erosion. Nutrients in the soil either dry out, blow away, or run off with rainwater. Yet planting the same crops in the same field year after year results in unbalanced soil. It begins to lack the nutrients the crop needs and build up excess of what it releases. Therefore, regenerative agriculture depends on crop rotation.
It also depends on cover crops, that is, crops planted not to be harvested but simply to hold and nourish the soil. Cover crops leave no bare soil between rows. They amount to a living mulch that helps retain moisture. Then when it becomes time to plant something in that field for harvest, the cover crop simply gets plowed under to compost in place. Or even left standing.
Cattle and other farm animals graze on the cover crops. Their manure likewise enriches the soil and adds nutrients, which benefit the next harvestable crop. Grass-fed meat has its own nutritional and environmental benefits over more modern practices.
Regenerative farming and animals
Farm machinery can compact soil. Animal hooves break it up. What’s more, they crush the plants the animals can’t eat and push them down into the soil, where they will decay and nourish it. In fact, regenerative farming techniques can dramatically increase the number of farm animals that can occupy a field.
And, of course, more cattle on the same plot of ground can go a long way to get farmers out of debt and into profitability. Especially considering that these animals require less feed and have lower mortality.
Many environmentalists complain about how much methane farm animals release into the atmosphere. But it turns out that appropriate grazing management can sequester enough carbon dioxide to offset it.
I reject claims that meat is inherently bad for the environment and meat eaters are enemies of sustainability. But it is clear that the world can’t sustain American meat consumption. Especially not if third world countries aspire to the same level of consumption. And that’s even if the most exaggerated claims for the environmental benefits of regenerative animal husbandry turn out to be true.
How big can regenerative agriculture get?
If only small family farms try to practice regenerative agriculture, it won’t scale up to where it can achieve its full potential.
Only large companies have the financial muscle to fund the transition from conventional farming to regenerative farming. The only way it can improve our food system is to make common cause with industrial agriculture.
The sustainability movement must outgrow its mindlessly anticorporate prejudice.
Large corporations, such as General Mills, have come to realize that factory farming techniques deplete the soil and make the land suffer more from flooding and droughts than it otherwise would. And so far from resisting regenerative agriculture, they actively promote it and work in partnership to teach farmers how to do it.
More small farmers are turning to organic farming because it brings them higher prices. Many large food companies have started to practice organic farming on a large scale for much the same reason. Plus, more and more consumers have started to demand more organic choices. If Regenerative Organic Certification becomes a standard for which USDA Organic is a basic requirement, look for large corporations to seek certification and advertise it.
According to a common criticism of organic agriculture, it has a lower crop yield than conventional agriculture. Therefore, it requires more land to produce the same amount of food.
The Rodale Institute claims that this is true only when organic farms merely avoid synthetic chemicals but otherwise retain conventional practices.
That said, non-organic farms can incorporate many regenerative practices into their operations. Healthier soil results in either case.
My work is that of conservation: an environmental biography of George Washington Carver / Mark D. Hersey. University of Georgia Press, 2011
Organic vs. sustainable vs. regenerative agriculture: what’s the difference? / Farmland LP
Regenerative agriculture is getting more mainstream. But how scalable is it? / Emily Payne, AgFunder News. May 28, 2019
Regenerative organic agriculture and climate change / Rodale Institute
What is regenerative agriculture? / Climate Reality Project. July 2, 2019