What is Regenerative Agriculture and Why Should You Care?
Regenerative Agriculture Can Restore Our Health and Our Planet!
Sometimes it can feel like we’re fighting a losing battle against the epidemics of our time. Environmental devastation and the climate crisis grow more dire every day; and even in the wealthiest countries, human health is declining due to mass processed foods that feed corporations better than they feed our bodies. What if we told you there’s a saving grace that can help reverse the catastrophic state of our environment and our health? And what if we told you that the solution doesn’t mean everyone has to become a vegetarian? Cue the angelic trumpets: get ready for Regenerative Agriculture!
Regenerative agriculture is a “new” movement that was also the way of the past, before food systems were commercialized and commoditized, agriculture industrialized, and profits prioritized over the health of the planet and all living things.
Here are some hard facts: all life on Earth depends on healthy topsoil. Most topsoil is at most 6 inches deep. And over the last 150 years, more than half of the topsoil on Earth has been depleted. Aside from soil erosion, industrial agriculture also caused soil compaction, soil salinity, nutrient degradation, and an overall death of the soil, as we have lost many of our beneficial microbes and other necessary soil life.
This chain of events goes far beyond the loss of fertile land. Erosion leads to pollution, including excess sedimentation and industrial chemicals in waterways. These in turn disrupt life for fish and other species, decimating their populations as their environments become unlivable. Furthermore, degraded land is unable to hold as much water, leading to flooding and the loss of topsoil, crops and habitat.
So: if all life depends on the very precarious state of precious, living topsoil, why do we continue to suffocate it and degrade it with outdated and foolish means of food cultivation? The main motive, especially since WWII, has been to produce abundant amounts of cheap food—and put a lot of money in the pockets of corporations. Unfortunately, this abundant, cheap food is lacking in nutrients and has toxic levels of chemicals—resulting in illness for both people and the environment.
And as the unintended and extreme consequences of these practices spin out of control, we must find alternative ways to treat our land and ourselves. That’s where regenerative agriculture comes in. Here are some of its main components:
Holistic land management
Planned grazing of animals
Promotion of biodiversity
Carbon sequestration (versus emission)
Reintroducing local food systems and practices that mimic the way nature is intended to perform
From Soil to our Cells
When you think about health and nutrition, grazing animals might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but they’re directly connected! Stay with us as we get science-y.
Ruminants are grazing mammals with multi-chambered stomachs for digesting plant material, like grass. They include species that humans eat, like cattle and deer, but they’re more than a food commodity. They’re essential to the success of the entire ecosystem. Grazing ruminants coevolved with native grasses: their hooves gently ‘till’ the soil and their excretions (poop and urine) supply vital nutrients to the billions of organisms and microbes living below the earth’s surface.
These animals were never meant to eat corn or soy, but that’s what we feed them in typical industrial agriculture—to devastating effect. Industrial animal agriculture has destroyed millions of acres of land as we grow corn and soy on the same land year after year, simply for feed, a practice known as monocropping. And because we’re force feeding animals a diet they can’t even properly digest and provides only minimal nutrients, we’re making them sick and then overusing antibiotics as a band-aid for the illnesses we’re creating.
In regenerative agriculture, we feed animals in a way that makes sense for them, for the environment, and for humans. Holistic planned grazing is when we rotate ruminants on alternating pastures, allowing them to roam freely within specific parameters set up with movable electric fencing. Ultimately, we are mimicking the way herds of bison and other large mammals used to move throughout the land. Given the chance, ruminants will seek out the best grasses, which happen to also be the most nutrient-dense, supplying them with the highest level of health and welfare. These nutrients are then passed on to humans when we consume these animals.
This style of grazing, along with no-till farming, is largely how regenerative agriculture achieves holistic land management and helps rebuild healthier soil and in turn supports healthier populations—from tiny organisms to humans. This is how the food chain is intended to perform.
Wait, What’s No-till Farming?
Modern, industrial farming is characterized by human interference in the earth’s natural cycles. Through the use of heavy machinery, monocrops, and the addition of chemicals to her natural cycles, we’ve weakened Earth’s ability to defend herself and have destroyed the nutrients she naturally provides. Monocropping strips the soil of its living organisms and its ability to defend itself from the elements and pests.
Instead of chemicals and monocrops, regenerative agriculture relies on the power of photosynthesis and biodiversity. By reintroducing cover crops and a diversity of plants and trees to farmland, we help biodiversity flourish. Plant and animal species banished from farmland can return, allowing symbiotic relationships to once again thrive. Put simply, we’re letting nature teach us what she has always known.
Take the American Midwest as an example. This region used to be some of the most bountiful and productive farmland in the world, and even today the term “Midwest” probably conjures images of family farms. But what you might not know is that the region’s historical productivity wasn’t due to large plows and endless fields of corn. It was actually due in large part to the presence and migration patterns of the bison and other ruminants.
Massive herds of bison were crucial to the amazing fertility of the plains as their hooves positively impacted the land and their excretions benefited soil microbes that directly improved the soil health and, in turn, human health. Regenerative agriculture and holistic land management are simply biomimicry (mimicking the biological processes of nature), replicating the Earth’s cycles that have evolved over millennia.
No Meat Versus Healthy Meat
It’s increasingly common to hear that meat is responsible for exacerbating climate change and the decline in human health. This statement is true—but only when it comes to industrialized, mass-produced meat. As we talked about above, this type of meat, coming from big agribusiness, is definitely responsible for land degradation, heightened carbon emissions, sick and unfairly treated animals, and sick humans.
However, regenerative, local meat actually reverses the effects of climate change by drawing down large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, creates biodiversity, and provides vital nutrients to the soil, humans, and animals alike. We understand that not everyone wants to eat meat, and that’s okay! People should make choices based on their own beliefs and needs.
From a regenerative agriculture perspective, however, what’s essential is that if you do choose to eat meat, you do so in a manner that is beneficial to our planet, animal welfare, your health, and the health of the human race. So seeking out your local, regenerative farms and ranches is a must! This is true for vegans and vegetarians as well, as the only true way to source nutrient-dense, non-toxic, and planet-beneficial food is to source from your regenerative, local farms.
The Harmony of Regenerative Agriculture
In reverting to a more sustainable (regenerative!), healthy way of life, we are able to build commUNITY and vitality, and bring transparency to our food systems that’s been lost for far too long. And as we’ve laid out above, the “regeneration” that we’re speaking of refers not only to the earth’s ecosystems, but also to our own.
Let’s discuss the parallels: both Earth and the human body contain microbiomes, the combined genetic material of microorganisms in a particular environment. They are the focal point of health.
When we talk about our human microbiomes, we’re referring to the digestive tract. A healthy gut microbiome consists of trillions of beneficial bacteria, microbes, and microorganisms. The makeup of these microbes helps us to control our weight, fight infection and illness, regulate our sleep, and much more.
Similarly, healthy soils rely on the makeup of their microbiomes as well, which are flourishing with beneficial microorganisms, bacteria, and fungi. As microbes in the human body aid digestion and maintain our immune system, soil microorganisms (and other healthy soil teammates) digest nutrients, protect plants against pathogens, and create healthy, nutrient-dense food! Nutrient-density in food can only come from healthy, robust, carbon-rich soil. Fun fact: in a handful of healthy soil, there are more microbes than there have ever been humans on the face of the Earth in all of history!
A Regenerative Conclusion
With nature as our teacher, everything becomes so simple. If we allow animals to behave naturally in their proper environments, reintroduce biodiversity to crops to form ecosystems for insects and wildlife, and stop the use of pesticides altogether as regenerative practices don’t need pesticides at all... our soil health will skyrocket, along with healthy food production—and the amount of damaging carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will plummet.
Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People = Healthy Planet. Who knew that so many positives could come from the reintroduction of a forgotten method of superior agricultural cultivation?
*This post was co-authored by Caroline Olert, Social Media Manager of Tribe Green Rising and Mandy Magill, founder of Tribe Green Rising, and primarily edited by Hayley Roberts of She's Independent.
*This blog was originally published in April 2020 on the women's empowerment site: www.shesindependent.com
This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic consumed the world...and it doesn’t change the message at all. If anything, it simply makes awareness and understanding of regenerative agriculture that much more important. To that end, we would like to point out a few key things regarding the relationship between this pandemic and the benefits of living a regenerative lifestyle.
Firstly, we are seeing the necessity of understanding and working with earth’s natural systems. Nature operates regeneratively by default which is why Mother Nature is the best teacher.
Secondly, the need for humans to respect earth’s boundaries. Diseases have always found their way into the human population; but in the last half century, the occurrence of these diseases has quadrupled, largely due to increased human encroachment into wildlife habitats, air travel, wildlife trafficking, and conventional animal agriculture. Our failure to understand and work symbiotically with the natural world causes a breakdown of the Earth’s systems which wreaks havoc on the environment and humanity.
Lastly, since the novel coronavirus started spreading, we have seen (for possibly the first time in our lives) true strain on our societal systems. Super markets running out of food. Businesses closing their doors. The production of commercial goods halting. Our health care systems reaching their capacity. These major changes in our daily lives have left many of us pondering subjects we may have seldom given much thought to: self-sufficiency and food security. We are really seeing more, now than ever, how incredibly important local food production is...and that comes in a couple of main forms: having relationships/connections with local, regenerative farms in your area where you can access honestly healthy food, and also growing your own food as much as possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic is truly giving us all pause...in whatever form that may take. Let us move forward in a way that regenerates the earth and connects us all on this positive path to a beautiful, regenerative future.