It has taken social media by storm, as well as all manner of other discussions about food and how we produce it. But, really, what is regenerative agriculture, and why has it become such a focal point?
Skeptics may dismiss it as just another fad, something manufacturers and processors are promoting while filling web pages with claims of benefits that can be a little dubious. Others say it complicates some of the current soil health initiatives established by existing groups or organizations, yet it even suggests that farmers could eventually earn premiums for signing on — but with what management demands?
There’s no doubting the fact that the phrase is landing with a pop, but it can’t seem to shake off that sense of vagueness. A quick Google of “regenerative agriculture” yields myriad definitions and just as many theories about what it is or what it should be. And there’s the growing list of participants too. Food processors Cargill and General Mills have their own regenerative programs now, as do Wrangler, Timberland and others.
The benefits and drawbacks of joining the regenerative bandwagon are increasing for growers and the seed, chemical and traits sector, plus equipment manufacturers, the inputs trade — even the advisory side. Is regenerative ag an extension of soil health initiatives already in place? Can anyone participate, or is there a certification process? What are the dangers of having a regenerative agriculture movement appropriated by organizations or interests with differing agendas?
Country Guide spoke with three individuals familiar with the trend. All provided their thoughts on regenerative agriculture’s impact, admittedly with more focus on soil health than on commodities or prices.
Our three sources are Cedric MacLeod of MacLeod Agronomics in Fredericton, N.B.; Andrew McGuire, an irrigated cropping systems agronomist with Washington State University; and Jake Munroe, soil management specialist in field crops with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
Cedric MacLeod defines regenerative agriculture in terms of four key principles: Keep soils covered, minimize tillage, diversify cropping systems and integrate livestock.
“We’ve been talking regen ag for years,” says MacLeod, who also farms outside of the provincial capital. “The grassroots regen movement is being driven by folks who want to see soil health and the reintegration of perennial forages into the cropping mix. It’s a welcome advancement for the next generation, who are looking to build resilient cropping systems in a time of climate change uncertainty.”
The trend is also an opportunity to reintroduce livestock to many farms, something that MacLeod believes the industry has avoided in recent years, but long-term conservation cropping or regen ag success will require some progress in landscape management policy to allow for manure nutrients to be used effectively to drive soil health improvements.
As for positives and negatives, MacLeod sees mostly the upside for any cropping system. In fact, he maintains it’s the conservation agriculture concept that universities, soil and crop groups, watershed groups and government have been promoting for years. As for negatives, he sees only one, and it’s more a matter of perception among participants, not for the adoption of the system itself.
“I see a further divide, with some folks saying, ‘My system is better than yours,’” says MacLeod. “I’ve never been a fan of marketing your product on what another person isn’t doing. I’d rather we focus on what can be achieved by all, and work collectively towards continuous improvement.”
Asked if there’s a risk that growers might expect too much of regenerative ag (similar to the adoption of no till), he says the long-term implications are all good, with the only drawback being the “miracle cure” claims.
But is it possible to regenerate degraded soils to highly productive ones without external nutrients? MacLeod says no.
“Regen principles — in and of themselves — do not generate soil nutrients,” he states. “They cycle them more effectively if they are there and make them available for high-performance crop production, annual or perennial grasslands. They do not ‘create’ nutrients.”
If a grower is on highly productive soils and wants to amp them up with manure nutrients and cover crops, that’s regenerative agriculture. But farming on low-nutrient, productivity-challenged soils requires action to boost the soil to a point where it can deliver profitable yields.
Another advantage is that regenerative ag offers a leg up on direct marketing for farmers who are selling their story as much as their produce. If it’s possible to package farm practices into a marketing strategy, it’s a huge advantage.
“Just be sure to market what you are, not what others aren’t,” cautions MacLeod. “As individuals, we don’t know what limitations exist on other farms to adopt change. Just be the very best you can be on your own operation and tell that story to drive market growth, and leave others to make their own production decisions.”
Washington State University
Maybe the phrase seems new but Andrew McGuire says “regenerative agriculture” was first used more than 50 years ago by J.I. Rodale, founder of the Rodale Institute. Rodale was a pioneer in organic farm production, and the new regenerative agriculture movement began roughly 10 years ago.
“The whole suite of practices has been available to farmers for a long time, under different names, like low-input agriculture, or integrated (crop-livestock) agriculture,” says McGuire. He notes the history of farm production included livestock before the 1950s. “In the 1970s, we began with no-till methods and in the 1980s, cover crops and low-input cropping systems were added, so regenerative agriculture has been available for a long time.”
The main pillar that differentiates it from sustainable agriculture is its goal of restoring the soil, regenerating it, and not settling for just keeping it from degrading, often measured by the level of soil organic matter or soil carbon. Secondary goals vary depending on the individual: reducing inputs, increasing profits or eliminating synthetic chemicals.
“The practices are all sound — crop rotation, cover crops, no till and livestock integration,” says McGuire. “They all have benefits in terms of reducing erosion, improving nutrient-use efficiencies (and reducing inputs) and maintaining or building soil organic matter levels.”
If there is a drawback, it’s that regenerative ag is being oversold and its benefits exaggerated or assumed rather than observed. McGuire sees this with claims that regenerative ag can reverse climate change and produce healthier food or more nutrient-dense food products.
“Sometimes, the claims of what soil biology can do are beyond what science has observed,” he adds. “The same goes for how fast and how far soil building can go under these systems. These extraordinary claims could be real, but they require credible evidence to support them.”
So what type of producer could benefit most? McGuire believes the easiest fit is for livestock grazers with no annual crops. Those producers who graze and grow annual crops like wheat, corn and soybeans would be next because their farms are conducive to no-till production. But he hasn’t seen many examples of regenerative ag in fruits and vegetables — beyond garden-scale practices.
“There are always tradeoffs in agriculture and regenerative ag is no different,” says McGuire. “Livestock grazing is not as feed- and time-efficient as feedlot production but can be better for nutrient cycling. No till provides more tangible benefits in drier regions where it saves water, allowing farms to do away with fallow, which is a large economic incentive not found in wetter regions or where irrigation is used. The worse off the soil to begin with, the more regenerative agriculture will help.”
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)
Growers often find out, sometimes to their surprise, that they’ve been following certain tenets of newly labelled practices, such as no-till farming, as part of the sustainability sphere. Or that they’ve been doing more to place appropriate levels of fertilizers and inputs, in line with the 4R Stewardship guidelines. It’s much the same with regenerative agriculture, says Jake Munroe.
“There are definitely cases where growers have been enhancing the health of their soils over years or over decades without the term ‘regenerative’ being attached at all,” Munroe says. “Examples include growers who’ve been building instead of losing organic matter through the inclusion of forages, diverse crop rotations, no-till practices and those with livestock on well-managed pastures.”
On the cropping side, some growers have regenerated their soil, moving topsoil to eroded knolls and implementing conservation practices. It depends on a person’s perspective, because the retirement of unproductive or heavily degraded land is regenerating it even if it’s no longer being used for food and fibre production.
Yet regenerative ag is also a combination of soil health practices that aren’t just maintaining the status quo but regenerating or enhancing soil health. Some standard practices, like longer rotations or adding a cover crop after cereals, could do more to regenerate a seriously degraded soil.
The one pillar that’s foundational for Munroe is protecting the soil and preventing soil loss, and in Ontario, that involves erosion — literally stopping the loss of soil, whether it’s water, tillage or in some cases, wind erosion.
“If you haven’t got that down to a tolerable level or below that level of annual soil loss, you’re missing the boat, even if you are doing all kinds of good things like cover cropping,” says Munroe. “Certainly if you’re losing topsoil to erosion faster than you’re building it, you’re not sequestering carbon.”
Munroe still believes there are plenty of positives, including increasing the number of acres managed with regenerative or soil health principles in mind and improving water quality and biodiversity.
“There’s also an opportunity for improved profitability at the farm level,” he says. “With the right information and practices, it’s been proven that good soil management helps build soil organic matter and more stable returns over time.”
When it comes to “telling a story” and helping to bridge the gap between farmer and consumer, Munroe agrees that consumers are looking for ways to feel good about what they buy and want to avoid contributing to issues, either at home or in other parts of the world. Although there’s a risk of a company seizing on that opportunity to create a brand of regenerative agriculture, the key is that there’s legitimacy in numbers and outcomes that can become a standard.
Says Munroe, “That has to happen and is only going to happen incrementally.”