In all the hoopla on how to save the planet what often gets overlooked is soil health. But did you know that healthy soil sequesters carbon, a key part of helping to put the brakes on climate change? That makes regenerative agriculture a major player in how we are going to heal our plant.
The Not-So Great News About Depleted Soil
Conventional agricultural practices including chemical-intensive monocrops, overgrazing and aggressive tilling have been eroding carbon-rich soils for decades to the point where long-term food production is in serious jeopardy. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science discovered that one-third of the uppermost soil layer which contains carbon-rich matter and microbial biomass in the Midwestern Corn Belt has been severely degraded. This is an area that was once exceptionally fertile ground. It’s estimated that unsustainable human practices including intensive agriculture and deforestation have already degraded 33% of the earth’s soil. And that number could rocket to 90% by 2050 if appropriate measures aren’t taken.
In the process of living, fertile soil becoming little more than dirt there is a release of carbon into our warming atmosphere. (Soil is believed to hold up to 4 times as much carbon as trees.) Because it is depleted of its biomass, dirt doesn’t efficiently absorb and hold water. That means the land floods easily, loses biodiversity, contributes to excessive runoff of fertilizers and other chemicals into waterways. This in turn means that it produces lesser-quality food—or in the not distant future no food at all. Plus, soil loss has and will continue to cost US farmers and the economy billions of dollars.
Better News About Farmers Doing Something About It
That’s the bad news. The more cheery side of things is that a rising number of forward-thinking farmers are practicing regenerative agriculture. Regenerative farming is a newly codified approach to agriculture that emphasizes reducing reliance on chemical inputs and rebuilding soil organic matter and biodiversity. This results in a carbon drawdown and less polluted water systems. Binding up carbon in healthy soil is one of our biggest opportunities to stop the planet from overheating. The key to regenerative agriculture is that it’s not only more gentle on the land it aims to improve it, using various methods including planting cover crops, smartly managing grazing of livestock and no-tilling. All of this regenerates and revitalizes the soil that is now capable of producing nutrient-dense food and being more weather-resistant. One report estimated that if 25 percent of food producers switched to no-till farming practices, there could be a 25 percent reduction in agriculture generated greenhouse gas emissions. Formerly barren land can be transformed into fertile land filled with a diversity of vegetation, microorganisms and wildlife.
Regenerative Agriculture Is Better Than Organic
Regenerative agriculture goes beyond organic because, without feed-the-soil regenerative practices, organic soil can become depleted as well. While buying organic food is your assurance that the land on which it was grown was managed without the use of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or genetically modified plants, the label itself cannot tell you whether the health of the soil is improving to efficiently absorb both carbon and water. Soil quality is not among the criteria needed to receive organic certification.
What may ruffle feathers among the growing legion of plant-only eaters is that thoughtfully managed livestock can be a major contributor to building healthy soil. And in turn, healthy food and improved environmental outcomes. A study in the journal Agricultural Systems discovered that cattle raised using a method known as multi-paddock grazing, where the grass-fed animals are moved often to allow plants to recover and avoid the perils of overgrazing, resulted in an outcome where the greenhouse gas emissions incurred by raising the beef cattle was more than offset by the amount of carbon sequestered in the healthier soil. The same outcome was not true for feedlot beef. A separate study found that a multispecies pasture rotation system, which allows for multiple animal production enterprises (i.e., chickens, cattle, and pigs) on one landscape, where regenerative agricultural policies are put in place can sequester significantly more carbon in the soil compared to conventional livestock operations resulting in a 66% lower carbon footprint, so to speak.
Before writing off cattle and other ruminant livestock as environmental dead-ends, it’s important to remember that ground cover from forage plants is highly effective in reducing soil erosion. Manure and grazing activity adds more organic matter to soil with improved water-holding capacity and diversity of plants and microorganisms. Something especially valuable on mixed farming regenerative agricultural operations where a variety of foods are produced including meat and vegetables. So, yes, properly managed cattle and free-roaming chickens on carbon-sequestering grazing lands can be part of a sustainable farming system. Perhaps much more so than ultra-processed beefless burgers made using intensively farmed crops and extruders.
How to Shop The Regenerative Way
But if you’re like most consumers, you may not know how to identify products produced using soil regenerative techniques. It’s common to believe, wrongfully so, that choosing products with the USDA organic label is the best way to support this style of farming. At farmers markets, you can query local food producers if they practice regenerative methods such as no-tilling, or you can do some online sleuthing to find compliant producers. You can also search for regenerative-minded food producers near you using the farm map at RegenerationInternational.org.
As the movement grows in the coming years you can expect to see various certified regenerative agriculture labels appearing on meats, vegetables and other products. Leading the charge is Regenerative Organic Certified which requires brands to not only practice organic farming but also prioritize improving soil health and animal welfare.
Products to Try From Greener Pastures
Try these 7 clean-eating approved foods come from producers who are good stewards of the land.
These meaty, wonderfully spiced energy bars are made with beef raised on verdant pasture to help soak up plant-warming carbon.
Perfect for organ meat newbies, this blend of regenerative, grass-finished steak, liver and heart will upgrade your meatballs and Bolognese.
This Regenerative Organic Certified and nutty-tasting rice is grown on family farms in Northern India with soil-enriching, less water intensive methods.
Spice up your snack routine with these strips of Regenerative Organic Certified solar-powered chili-dusted dried mango. Perfect for road trips and forays into the wilds.
Read on to learn more about regenerating our soil for a healthier planet and healthier you:
- What is regenerative farming?
- 9 ways to eat more sustainably
- 5 ways to reduce and reimagine food waste