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It’s being billed as the “new organic.” But it could be much, much bigger.

By Chris Malloy
March 29, 2021
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For the last hundred years or so, we've been farming the land differently than before. We've been using synthetic fertilizers and monocultures, meaning chemically treated fields of just one crop. The priority has been producing as much food as possible from the earth, a noble goal, but one that has taxed soil and left farmland less diverse, less healthy, and less resilient. As its name hints, regenerative agriculture aims to restore farmland back to good health.

Many farmers from coast to coast (and beyond) have started to move toward methods that take the natural cycles of the land into greater account.

"Regenerative agriculture" is more of a school of thought and broad-based approach than a phrase that can be neatly defined. In essence, regenerative agriculture treats the farm not as an outdoor crop factory, but as a sustainable ecosystem. Instead of seeking to fully control nature, the farmer backs off some, giving nature the pilot's seat. Though the movement has been around in the U.S. for a while, it has only burst onto the national food conversation in recent years.

These days, the movement has started to really blossom. You can expect to hear more about regenerative agriculture this new decade, as the ball continues to get rolling and more farmers and food titans like General Mills (whose goal is to use regenerative agricultural practices on a million acres of farmland by 2030) come aboard. 

What is regenerative agriculture more specifically? And what does it mean for your food?

The core focus of the farming philosophy is developing a healthy, robust soil. To do this, farmers use minimal or zero tilling techniques, smart crop rotation, and abstain from using pesticides. Less tilling means a more undisturbed soil, where tiny life can thrive. Rotating crops allows various plants to imbue soil with a diverse spread of nutrients, one calculated by the farmer. Skipping pesticides also benefits the millions of soil microbes, making soil better.

Practitioners of regenerative agriculture also use cover cropping, an ancient method that sees farmers raise plants not to sell or eat them, but for the purpose of improving the health of the soil they grow in. In the future, crops can then be grown on that healthier soil.

Together, these regenerative methods and many others can result in a rich, vibrant soil packed with carbon. The last bit is important, because carbon is one of the vital elements that plants need to grow. 

It is also significant for another reason. One of the things that regenerative agriculture does is position plants to better draw carbon from the atmosphere and contain it in the soil. You may have heard of this process, called carbon sequestering. 

The fact that regenerative agriculture can productively transfer carbon from atmosphere to soil is huge. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—caused by carbon emissions—is what drives the long-run trend of warming temperatures. 

On a more local level, regenerative agriculture has the potential to help our farms with depleted soil return to health. Given the right mix of livestock and plants, it can even make land that has turned to desert lush again. On another level, it opens a new door to combating some of the big environmental challenges of our day. In fact, according to a white paper from the Rodale Institute, "recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term 'regenerative organic agriculture.' These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect."

How does regenerative agriculture ripple to you, the cook and eater?

Beyond big-picture environmental potential, regenerative agriculture gives farmers the opportunity to produce better yields over a longer period of time. It has the potential to make agriculture more sustainable in the long run, and to make taking over the family farm that much more appealing to the next generation. Having a robust farm culture is key to cooking and eating well, because what we cook and eat comes from the land.