The headlines keep hitting, connecting the climate crisis to agriculture. Thank goodness. How we use our land, soil and water plays such a key role in how healthy our planet is.
The United Nations published a report last week that stated that humans will not be able to escape the impact of climate change without making important changes to how we grow food and use land. But what exactly is regenerative agriculture? And why does everyone suddenly seem to be talking about it?
Let’s start with the opposite: Let’s talk about degenerative agriculture.
Degenerative agriculture is an operating system introduced in the mid 1990s that destroyed the economic livelihood of farmers, polluted our soil and exposed the food industry and CPG brands to glyphosate lawsuits, GMO labeling issues and so much more.
This operating system was introduced by Monsanto in the mid 1990s, a recurring revenue model not only for their signature product, Roundup, but also for their Roundup Ready seeds that had been genetically engineered to withstand increasing doses of Roundup. But this operating system had externalized costs that landed on farmers and the food industry. This fundamental change in agriculture required that farmers take on record debt levels to purchase genetically engineered seeds and the suite of chemical products, insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, required to grow them. These newly traited and genetically engineered seeds also meant that farmers had to finance the royalty fees, trait fees and licensing fees required to use them.
Almost overnight, our farmers went from polyculture farming and planting many different crops, to planting just a few. We lost our diversity, and our farmers ended up fighting bankruptcies, suicides and opioid epidemics. In other words, this operating system, with all of its chemical inputs, degenerated the land, the soil and our farm economy.
And the food industry was left scrambling as thousands of lawsuits mount, targeting Monsanto’s products, and consumers kept asking for more and more transparency around how their food is made.
So why pay attention to regenerative agriculture?
There is a need for a new operating system when it comes to our food, recognizing that our most valuable inputs are human capital (our farmers and growers), soil and water.
Regenerative agriculture focuses on reinvigorating a food economy that is diverse and polycultural, supporting the regeneration of specialty crops and produce, not only healing the soil, but also serving as a powerful carbon sink that can help tackle our climate crisis. And no one recognizes that more than our farmers who are in crisis – with mounting debt, bankruptcies, suicides and opioid epidemics – as climate disruption, droughts and floods impact their livelihoods. It is fascinating but not suprising that farmers are some of the first into the regenerative movement, embracing the change from a chemically intensive operating system to one that is better for the health of the soil and the health of their farms. It is their family legacies they are fighting to regenerate.
“Rodale Institute and others have concluded that if we converted all global cropland and pastures to regenerative organic systems, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions. As the UN report states, we don’t have time to wait.
Regenerative organic agriculture utilizes strategies like organic no-till, which uses cover crops to return nutrients to the soil while absorbing carbon dioxide, reducing GHG emissions. Because the soil is not disturbed in organic no-till systems, the carbon dioxide absorbed by the cover crop is sequestered in the soil instead of released into the atmosphere.”
By switching to regenerative, organic operating systems, not only is the food industry addressing the needs of the 21st century consumer, but it also rebuilding the soil’s vitality, allowing it to serve as a more effective tool to capture carbon. To manage this transition successfully will require metrics and definitions around “regenerative” for it to merit the value it serves and deserves.
But it’s not just about valuing this regenerative farming system, it’s also about valuing the billions of lives that benefit from regenerative agriculture and its powerful role in addressing our climate crisis.