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Regenerative agriculture is the newest buzzphrase for growing healthy food. We went from conversations around “organic agriculture” to “sustainable agriculture” to “regenerative agriculture.”
The idea behind “sustainable” growing is that farming sustains itself—and we can preserve the quality of our soils for years to come. Because of modern farming practices (like planting the same crops over and over), our soil has become depleted. Crops we grow now don’t have the nutrient levels they had 60 years ago. We not only need to sustain the soil’s health but regenerate it, bringing back its nutrients and vitality. That’s where regenerative agriculture comes in.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture goes beyond organic farming. This method focuses on growing food while building soil health. It strives to pull carbon from the atmosphere, depositing it back into the ground to provide nutrition to crops. It’s also possible to do this as we raise animals for grass-fed meats.
Let’s think about it from an ecological perspective. Regenerative agriculture takes existing functions of soil and ecosystems and uses them to our benefit.
Basically, it pulls the carbon from the area where it’s doing damage (potentially causing climate change). Then it puts it where it can do good—in whole foods, including plants and meats.
Conventional agriculture, on the other hand, uses monocropping. They plant the same things over and over again, whether that’s wheat, corn, soybeans, beets, or alfalfa. Even if they’re rotating between soybeans and corn each year, it still depletes the soil. These agro-ecosystems rely heavily on pesticides and chemicals to function.
These plants need the same small range of nutrients from the soil each growing season. As a result, nutrients get depleted from the soil and aren’t replenished. Switching to regenerative agriculture restores healthy soil so it’s ready to nourish the next crop.
What Are the Principles of Regenerative Agriculture?
There are a few principles of regenerative farming systems. These are all practices that help rebuild and replenish the soil:
1. Reduce Soil Disturbance
This means reducing (or better yet eliminating) ground tillage. It may seem counterintuitive because we’ve been tilling for generations. Unfortunately, tillage disturbs important soil microbes like nematodes and fungi. These microbes live below the ground and help give soil its structure and health.
Tilling also releases soil carbon into the atmosphere, which is what we’re trying to avoid. Aerating is fine as long as we’re not turning the soil. A tool called a broad fork is one good way to aerate the soil.
2. Cover the Soil
Soil shouldn’t be left exposed to the elements. It needs its natural green armor to protect it from the sun’s heat, rain, gusts of wind, and frost. Ensuring there are always plants rooted in the soil helps keep moisture and nutrients for next year’s planting. Mulching and planting cover crops between food crops also help maintain soil cover.
3. Ensure Live Roots in the Soil Year-Round
Most people are used to preparing a garden or farmland for the winter by removing all the roots. With regenerative agriculture, at least some roots are left in the soil through the winter. These roots provide food for the soil microbes and help fight soil erosion.
It’s important to keep these microbes alive since they have a symbiotic relationship with the plants. The plants deliver nutrition to the microbes, and the microbes provide nutrients to the plants. Removing the roots lowers the nutrients in the soil for the next crop.
4. Practice Crop Diversity
Monoculture not only strips the soil of certain nutrients but may also lead to erosion. Here are some ways to keep nourishing microbes, and replenish minerals and other nutrients. These holistic ways of growing food are also good for pollinators, like bees.
- Encourage biodiversity with crop rotations
- Plant companion plants
- Use a cover crop to nourish topsoil
5. Integrating Livestock
Adding animals into the mix is another part of regenerative agriculture. Just like nature—plants and animals have a symbiotic relationship that makes for a balanced ecosystem. Grazing animals help to aerate the soil and disperse seeds as they fertilize the land. Because animals break up the dirt, they can help incorporate carbon dioxide into the soil and plants.
Rotational grazing ensures the livestock always have fresh pastures, and allows the ungrazed land to rest.
Natural ecosystems include trees and bushes along with other plants and animals. Agroforestry management practices try to recreate this in our food system. By planting trees (or allowing them to grow) in agricultural spaces this supports food security and healthy soil.
How Does Regenerative Agriculture Improve Our Health?
Practicing regenerative agriculture helps improve our health in a few different ways:
Improves The Nutrient Value of Food
Food grown with regenerative agriculture has lots more nutrition than food from depleted soil.
Minerals in soil have gone down significantly within just 80 years, affecting the food grown in it. In 1914, the calcium content of an apple was 13.5 mg. In 1992, it was 7 mg. That’s nearly half the amount. The iron content of an apple in 1914 was 4.6 mg, and in 1992, it was 0.18. It decreased by more than 96%.
That’s just looking at apples. What about other foods? It’s no wonder so many people have nutrient deficiencies and need supplements to stay healthy.
Reduces the Toxic Load in Food
When farmers use regenerative agriculture practices, like not tilling and allowing grazing livestock, there aren’t as many weeds. This lessens or eliminates the need for herbicides. When chickens have free rein in the garden to eat slugs and parasites, it lessens or eliminates the need for pesticides. When natural manure and compost are used, we’re eliminating toxic chemical fertilizers, too.
Soon, we’re automatically growing foods organically. That’s a big deal for staying healthy. Overburdening our livers with toxic food is the path to chronic disease.
Makes a Healthier Environment to Live in
Fewer pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides also make a healthier environment for us. The chemicals used in conventional farming tend to be neurotoxins and carcinogens. The pesticide and fertilizer runoff also contribute to the pollution of the planet.
The farm chemicals end up in our lakes, streams, and the water we use to drink or shower. They also contaminate the air we breathe and the dust in our homes. Turning to regenerative agriculture helps keep our water supply and air free of chemical pollutants. And who doesn’t want to live in a healthy environment?
How Does Regenerative Agriculture Help the Planet?
Supporting regenerative practices can help the planet in a few ways:
Reduces Deforestation by Improving Yields
By improving crop yields, regenerative agriculture helps farmland be more efficient. We get better food production from the land we already use so we don’t need to cut down more trees to make farmland or pastures. This helps preserve our natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Helps Reverse Climate Change
According to a Quantis study, converting just 20-25% of agricultural land to regenerative methods could reverse climate change. All we need is to move away from industrial agriculture with its chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Farming practices like tilling and deforestation release lots of carbon into the atmosphere. Healthy plants however sequester carbon in the soil where it’s needed. This simple act alone can help mitigate climate change.
Leads to a Cleaner Planet
Conventional agriculture uses all kinds of toxic materials and synthetic chemicals. These chemicals end up in waterways and watersheds, creating dead zones in places like the Gulf of Mexico. They also end up in our food supply chain, making us sick. Then we’re put on pharmaceutical drugs… which also end up in our water supply and affect water quality. It’s a never-ending battle.
Regenerative agriculture focuses instead on restoring the soil and replenishing life.
Promotes Thriving Wildlife
The idea behind regenerative agriculture is to improve the land as we raise food. So, rather than just taking from it, we’re enhancing the soil, promoting life, and providing a rich habitat for wildlife. Everything works synergistically to provide an abundance of pure, nutritious food for the well-being of everyone.
You can even let the wildlife come in to graze after the land has been harvested. They clean up the fields, and farmers get free fertilizer. Grazing animals help fix nitrogen in the soil better than cover crops alone and contribute to natural nutrient cycling.
How to Incorporate Regenerative Principle at Home
Regenerative agriculture is good for you and good for the planet. While it might not be wide-scale (yet!), you can start right where you’re at. Here are some ideas for incorporating regenerative principles at home:
- Don’t till soil! Just aerate, and let it be. The best soil is hydrated, aerated, and replete with worms and microbes. Although low till farming is gaining popularity, no-till farming is even better.
- Keep your soil covered. You can use mulch (including compost, dried leaves, straw, or hay), cardboard, or cover crops. Make sure mulches are not sprayed with an herbicide, as these can live in your soil for up to three years. You can also use “living mulches,” like planting clover under tomatoes to enhance soil fertility. Be sure to trim the living mulch though!
- Leave the roots in the garden over the winter. You can even plant daikon radishes, borage, or comfrey as cover crops. These plants grow deep roots that help replenish minerals and can be left through the winter.
- Rotate where you plant your vegetables. Switch up where you plant different vegetable families. Rotate nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant), with umbels (carrots, parsnips, fennel), and then legumes (green beans and peas). This also helps stave off pests that are inclined toward tomatoes, for example.
- Let the chickens roam in the garden. They’ll eat the grubs, aerate the soil, and fertilize your plants as they go.
You can also support the larger regenerative agriculture movement.
How to Support Regenerative Agriculture (and Ranching)
Buy From Like-Minded Farmers and Ranchers
You can support regenerative farmers and ranchers with your dollars. Opt for regenerative foods at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. Kettle and Fire Bone Broth is one company that’s leading the way in regenerative ranching. So far, they’ve released a Regenerative Beef Bone Broth and a Regenerative Chicken Bone Broth.
Invest in Regenerative Agriculture By Being a Steward
One way you can support regenerative agriculture is through the organization Go Steward. On their website, you can loan money to a small regenerative ranch in Texas or Wyoming. These funds help them transition their small plot of land to regenerative agriculture. You lend them the money, get a 6-8% return, and help support the regenerative agriculture movement. It’s a win-win for everyone, including the planet.
Buy “Regenerative Organic” Certified Foods When Available
Did you know there’s now a certification for regenerative organic foods? A group of like-minded people established the non-profit, Regenerative Organic Alliance in 2017. This organization includes farmers, scientists, business leaders, and advocates. Their mission is to repair the planet by empowering us all to create a better future with regenerative organic agriculture.
The “Regenerative Organic Certified label” is still in its beginnings. But soon you’ll find RO certified food, textiles, and personal care ingredients on local store shelves. In the meantime, support your local farmers and ranchers, and do what you can in your home garden.
Spread the Word
A big part of creating change is also educating people. Talk to people about why pastured meat is healthy for the environment. Tell them about the benefits of a regenerative agricultural system. Both from an environmental standpoint and a nutritional standpoint. One conversation at a time, you can change people’s minds.
Become more informed and have friendly conversations with your friends or family. Many of them are simply trying to do the right thing, both for themselves and for the planet.
The Final Word on Regenerative Ag
The most important reason for supporting regenerative agriculture is to make sure our planet is clean and healthy for the generations to come. Start small. Start with your own family and your own dinner table. Little by little, a little becomes a lot!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you looked into regenerative agriculture? Do you use some of its principles in your home garden? Share with us below!
Discussion (4 Comments)
This is a whole new concept to me. How do you plant without tilling? Just poke some holes in the soil and plant some seeds? What about all the grass — will plants do OK with grass all around them? Sorry if this question is silly — I’m just trying to grasp the concept. Thanks.
There are several different ways to do it, but one is to lay cardboard down over the grass and then heap mulch on top of it. You can then make a pocket in the mulch to put soil or compost and put the seed in that. The mulch helps keep the weeds down and the cardboard breaks down into carbon in the soil. Farmers with large fields have equipment that creates a groove in the soil to plant in.
Thank you SO much for writing an article on this! I became aware of the importance of soil through the Save Soil movement. Wow – I never knew how diverse and important our soil is! Save Soil is an amazing movement that has approached all governments with concrete suggestions of how to help encourage farmers (through financial bonuses, not more restrictions!) to start increasing the organic content in their soils. It is really gaining major traction (I believe they have a documentary on the discovery channel now, too) and is a wonderful thing!
If anyone needs resources, inspiration or more information about soil and regenerative agriculture, or also a practical way to help encourage looking after our soil, please go to the website above! It’s great!
Thanks again, Katie, and all the best from Switzerland,
im all for regenerative farming… why not put the carbon back into the ground where the plants need it most! I also like the idea of keeping the roots of the dead plants in the soil to keep then nutrients strong. Also using a pitchfork to areate the soil instead of tilling.
I do that already in my herb garden at the back of our yard, and noticed plenty of earthworms in our soil– 🙂