The Roots of Regenerative Agriculture

Foodways — December 29, 2020

The Roots of Regenerative Agriculture

Founded on practices of Indigenous and Black farmers, a promise for the future of farming.

Words by Julie Kunen

Editor’s Note: This story is published in The Reboot Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.

Shiloh Maples, an educator and community organizer of Ojibwe and Oglala descent, works with Anishinaabe peoples in Detroit to strengthen urban food sovereignty. Maples’ growers asked for access to culturally appropriate foods they could grow in the city. In Detroit, they didn’t just want grocery store varieties. They wanted access to heritage varieties with which they had an ancestral connection and were native to the Americas, such as the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash.

For Maples, this connection is an essential element of what is now called regenerative agriculture. She explains, “I’ve come to see that regenerative agriculture and permaculture is in many ways a rebranding of generations of ancestral knowledge.” Maples continues, “it can’t really be a holistic approach without the inclusion of land-based peoples and the cultures they come from. People are focused on specific practices, but that’s only a piece of it.” 

Of growing interest to farmers, researchers and food companies, the regenerative agriculture movement introduces new scientific understandings to agricultural traditions as ancient as farming itself.  

What Is Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture refers to an agricultural system that actually improves the natural resource base, leveraging practices that go beyond the current standard of sustainable agriculture. The distinction is subtle, yet important: sustainability means not depleting natural resources, while regenerative practices strive to improve the condition of those resources. In a video about regenerative agriculture on Patagonia Provisions’ website, Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber explains that agriculture is responsible for 30% of global carbon emissions, 70% of water use, and 60% of global biodiversity loss. 

Given these statistics, it is no longer enough to strive for neutral impact. Agriculture must generate positive impact—for people, for the planet, and for food itself. And the key is soil. 

In the video, Faber is pithy, saying, “we have now sucked all the life out of the soil.” Modern agriculture destroys soil both mechanically (through tilling that causes erosion) and chemically (through pesticide and herbicide use). Scientists estimate that 30% of the world’s arable land has now become unproductive due to soil erosion. Meanwhile, farmers use chemicals that kill off the biological life in soils and then attempt to replace what crops need with synthetic fertilizers. But the interactions that link soil carbon to planetary health, the soil microbiome to plant health, and crop nutritional content to human health are more complex. 

The goal of regenerative agriculture, according to a 2019 Agfunder report, is “to rebuild soil organic matter, which consists of carbon in the form of decaying roots, micro and macro organisms, through holistic, closed loop practices.” Soil rich in organic matter retains more water, making crops more resilient in the face of drought. Well-structured soils reduce erosion and prevent nutrient runoff. And soils with healthy microbial populations are better able to break down decaying plant matter, which is how new topsoil is created. 

Critically, healthy soils sequester carbon, an important drawdown strategy to combat climate change. Through photosynthesis, plants take in carbon dioxide using the carbon as fuel and respiring the oxygen. Scientists estimate that plants store about 40% of that carbon in their roots, where it can be ingested by soil microorganisms, which store it below ground. 

If this isn’t enough to convince consumers of the importance of regenerative agriculture, we can appeal to their hunger for flavor and health. Recent research shows that crops grown in healthier soils are more nutritious and tasty. Over decades, our modern agricultural system has bred or engineered so-called improved crop varieties that maximize qualities like uniformity and yield at the expense of nutritional quality, contributing to what the Rodale Institute calls “hidden hunger”—plenty of calories, but not enough nutrients. Crops grown in dead soil that are fed a diet of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides don’t require a plant to engage its own antioxidant response to stresses, yielding less nutrient-dense and less flavorful food. 

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Regenerative Agricultural Practices: A Glossary

Regenerative agriculture encompasses about a half-dozen farming practices. The first is no-till agriculture. This means avoiding the mechanical breaking up of soil to prepare it for planting in order to reduce soil erosion and maintain soil structure. 

The second practice is the use of compost, mulch or green manure. Composting recycles organic waste back into the soil, and green manuring incorporates plant material, such as the stalks of harvested crops or cover crops. Both of these practices enrich the soil while mulch tamps down weeds. 

Cover cropping is the practice of continuously covering the soil to avoid erosion and runoff from bare ground. Often, leguminous plants such as alfalfa are planted, that when turned into the soil, serve as natural fertilizers that add nitrogen back into the soil. 

 A fourth practice is intercropping (combining multiple crops in a single plot), or crop rotation (the sequential planting of complementary crops in a single plot). The benefits of both of these practices include increasing on-farm biodiversity, breaking up pest cycles, and balancing out nutrient demands on soil. A diversity of crops also feeds a diversity of soil organisms, contributing to soil health. 

An example of intercropping is the Three Sisters. Corn stalks provide a sturdy structure for bean plants to twine themselves around, while squash plants sprawl across the ground below, their leaves suppressing weeds and helping soil stay cool and retain moisture. Leguminous beans fertilize the soil by fixing nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants. Corn supplies carbohydrates to the diet, while beans provide protein, and squash provides diverse vitamins and minerals. When eaten together, corn and beans provide the complete set of amino acids needed to manufacture protein. Maples explains, “Indigenous peoples have knowledge that varies by place, but they have engaged in agroforestry and polyculture planting for millennia, including both perennial and annual plants, because they know the symbiotic relationship the plants have with each other.” 

Agroforestry (tree cropping) and perennial crops are another important regenerative element. These plants have deep and permanent root systems that hold soil—and therefore soil carbon—in place. Perennial cropping lends itself to no-till practices since the beds do not have to be prepared each year for planting, while trees increase plant diversity, create habitat for animals, and provide shade. 

The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, is working in partnership with researchers around the world to breed perennial grain crops, such as kernza and rice, that are adapted to diverse agricultural environments. As acting president Rachel Stroer explains, their focus is on grains since these staple crops account for more than 70% of global calorie production and more than 70% of global agricultural lands. 

Just as Maples sees regenerative agriculture as working with nature to improve it rather than extracting or degrading it, Stroer says, “a regenerative agricultural system should function ecologically more like a natural system than our current agricultural system does.” It should do things like build soil and soil organic matter, steward water and filter it of toxins, and incorporate greater biological diversity to help ecosystems be more resilient in the face of drought or disease. It should also lock in soil carbon. 

The final element is the incorporation of animals, especially grazing livestock, into farming systems. This might seem counterintuitive given that meat production worldwide is responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, or up to one-third of the global total when feed production is factored in. Yet, holistic grazing advocate Allan Savory promotes the potential of pasture-grazed livestock as a carbon drawdown solution. In another example of framing regenerative agriculture as working with nature, Savory thinks well-managed livestock systems can mimic the natural ecological processes associated in the past with large mobile herds of grazing wildlife, helping to improve soil structure and plant health.  

Roots of Regenerative Agriculture

The regenerative agriculture movement has been taken up by well-known companies, such as Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s, who have joined forces with the Rodale Institute to launch the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) program, a new environmental benchmark for food and fiber products that also incorporates standards for animal welfare and farmworker fairness. 

That regenerative agriculture is going mainstream is evidenced by the commitments made by huge corporations like Walmart and General Mills, which has said it will invest in supporting one million acres of regenerative agriculture production by 2030 to supply brands such as Cascadian Farms and Annie’s Organic. Yet much of the philosophy that undergirds regenerative agriculture is rooted in the traditional farming practices of smallholder BIPOC communities worldwide. More BIPOC organizations, like Maples’, are building their own regenerative agriculture programs.

According to their website, Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, practices “Afro-Indigenous agroforestry, silvopasture, wildcrafting, polyculture, and spiritual farming practices to regenerate eighty acres of mountainside land … with the majority of the harvest provided to people living under food apartheid or impacted by state violence.” The farm’s practices honor the land and the wisdom of ancestors. As Kiani Conley-Wilson, Soul Fire’s assistant program manager explains, regenerative agriculture “doesn’t come from a single place. It’s in a lot of different cultures, including Indigenous, African, and African-American cultures. It was in the U.S. before it was the U.S.”  

After working with farmers in South Africa and the Caribbean, Tracy Knapp became the farm manager of Common Good, a half-acre urban farm in Washington, D.C., serving a community of largely Black and Brown residents. Knapp has found success translating regenerative techniques to small spaces, incorporating no till, cover cropping, perennials, mulch and compost. She explains, “the general principles of how to keep carbon in the soil and keep it from eroding—it doesn’t matter how small we are; we can do that here.” 

Knapp has even managed to include an orchard, its trees and shrubs adding a spatial layer to the farm as well as shade, biodiversity and fruit crops. Decisions about her crop mix are guided not just by ecological goals, but also by cultural relevance and culinary interest to her community. For Common Ground, Knapp says this means including okra “even though it hogs space,” the Three Sisters, and callaloo, or green amaranth, which is popular among Caribbean families in the neighborhood. 

In the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, Navajo farmer and community activist James Skeet thinks, “agriculture has become so linear it can’t even process its accountability to climate, to environment, to the damage of resource extraction. We are bleeding carbon. It’s the blood of mother nature.” Taking a regenerative approach on his demonstration farm, Spirit Farm, Skeet “wanted to incorporate science and cosmology, and meet between them.” He sees farming as an extension of his work on Indigenous reconciliation and healing. 

“Spirit Farm was developed using Indigenous regenerative intelligence—of how we can recover and establish resiliency in our Navajo way of life,” he says. “It combines traditional Native American farming practices and spirituality with organic microbiological composting as a way of growing nutritionally-dense foods.” 

Like Skeet, Dr. Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor at Ohio State University, melds tradition with technology. Lal won this year’s prestigious World Food Prize for his work on soil-centric techniques that increase food security and mitigate climate change. A native of India and the son of smallholder farmers, Lal spent decades at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria trialling agricultural practices that improve soil health. He pioneered many of the techniques that today characterize regenerative agriculture, including no-tillage, cover cropping, mulching, and tree cropping. He was also co-author of the first scientific report, in 2004, documenting not only that increasing organic matter and soil carbon could restore the health of degraded soils, but that healthy soils also held the potential to serve as enormous carbon sinks. 

While Lal could likely describe the closed-loop philosophy of regenerative agriculture in technical terms, he instead offers this reflection: “The health of soil, plants, animals, people, environment and planet is one and indivisible. It’s one continuum. When people are poverty-stricken, they pass on their misery to the land, and the land reciprocates. The way to break this cycle is restoration of soil health.”

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