By Madeleine Baerg
A newly-trending concept is making big waves in both agriculture and food marketing right now: regenerative agriculture. Advocates say regenerative agriculture is the silver bullet for solving climate change, world hunger, water shortages and more. Whether that's too good to be true may not matter.
With Millennials and Gen Z'ers demanding changes via their wallets, big companies are already jumping on board. General Mills, for example, committed to advancing regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. Meanwhile, regenerative ag conferences, speaking tours and books attract a growing number of both organic and conventional farmers. All this has left us at Farming Smarter asking: just what is regenerative agriculture and how does it jive with traditional soil science?
What is regenerative ag?
Regenerative agriculture is a farming system that strives to improve topsoil health. Its goals are to improve soil's productivity, biological processes and water retention; increase its carbon holding capacity; and - over the long-term - increase farm profitability.
Most advocates subscribe to five basic principles: limit mechanical, physical and chemical soil disturbance; always maintain soil coverage (through cover crops or plant residues); mix plant species (i.e.: no monocultures); keep living roots in the ground; and integrate animals into rotation. That said, different camps place different emphasis on varying components: for example, organic regenerative ag farmers might allow limited tillage in favour of no synthetic chemicals; non-organic regenerative ag farmers might prioritize zero tillage but still use herbicides. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is significant in-fighting over the 'right' way to do regenerative ag.
Some critics accuse regenerative agriculture of being wishy-washy. Unlike organic agriculture's solid regulations, regenerative agriculture thinks in terms of improvement: positive steps towards the ideal. Some regenerative ag farmers jump in whole-hog; others make baby-step improvements.
"Regenerative agriculture looks different on every farm," says Brenda Tjaden, the founder of Sustainable Grain, a market development firm that offers regenerative agriculture education, networking and trend analysis. "It drives people crazy because there is no protocol. Our minds want this to be black and white, but it's not. It's not binary; it's not two-dimensional; it's not prescriptive. It's so much better than that. It's about harnessing nature's capital to work with you."
While Tjaden may be an advocate for regenerative agriculture's principles, she says her belief in the system comes down to hard numbers. An agriculture market economist, she has studied the dollars and cents of farming for more than 20 years.
"It's so clear in my mind that this is a more profitable way to farm," she says, pointing to farmers who have increased their land equivalency ratio to more than 1.0 by intercropping, and/or have reduced inputs over two to three years by 60-80% by integrating intercropping, composting and livestock rotation.
It's also bigger than the immediate gain, she says.
"What has gotten lost in the current thinking about success and profitability is the idea that [returns] aren't necessarily calculable on an annual basis. We need to be tabulating [returns] over a generation."In a natural system, actions take years to really play out. You can pound on the in-puts and get a high-yielding crop and a whole bunch of cash the first year, but what does that look like over decades?
Though the market does not yet pay a premium for agricultural products grown according to regenerative principles, Tjaden believes that is coming.
"Big food brands are all moving towards this because they are serving the Millennial and Gen Z consumer who wants honesty and transparency in their food. Those generations are spending 40-60% of their budget on food, which is significantly higher than previous generations. Whether you believe in [regenerative agriculture] or not, those consumers do, and they are going to make up 50% of the market for the next 50 years."
That said, Tjaden admits there isn't a lot of hard science to back up regenerative agriculture's claims.
"It's a valid concern that there isn't a lot of research and data yet, but it's really starting to come," she says. "It's early days on data, but it's absolutely true that we have to be capturing more."
Supportive Soil Science
Where do soil scientists stand on regenerative agriculture? We reached out to six, five of whom reported no knowledge of the concept. (Depending on your perspective, their lack of knowledge might lead you to condemn research for being disconnected from practice, or to condemn regenerative agriculture for putting its cart before the good science horse.)
The sixth scientist we talked to, however, was cautiously supportive.
"This is the year 2020 and, as a scientist, I'm supposed to be giving you insightful information and cutting-edge technologies," says Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada soil scientist, Dr. Benjamin Ellert. "But I can go back 100 years ago and someone sitting in my chair doing my job would have been telling people almost exactly the same as I am now: integrated crop-livestock systems benefit the soil when manure is returned to cropland.""Scientists of the day in the 1920s were saying the production system farmers were using then was an irrational production system. I'm saying that now. I think it's becoming clearer and clearer that humanity is coming up against a wall. Maybe in the past I've been too reluctant to call it like it is, but we have to make changes."
He believes that many of regenerative agriculture's priorities could help mitigate agriculture's environmental footprint, but cautions reasonable expectations.
"Farmers should be encouraged to be aware of their soil properties, to think about the erosive qualities of wind and water, to contemplate the merits of crop diversity and even integrating livestock production in with their ag systems. I'm really reluctant to dissuade people from that. I don't think we'd do anyone a service by saying regenerative agriculture is nonsense from top to bottom. But at the same token, there are some unrealistic expectations of what regenerative agriculture can do. That's the balancing act we have to work with."
Too Simplistic to Trust
Ellert sees regenerative agriculture advocates too often oversimplifying the factors that influence results.
"I think there gets to be a lot of confusion between cause and effect in some of these processes," he says. "People are overestimating what certain things actually do."
For example, one of the regenerative agriculture practices he's most dubious about is mob grazing. That's where hard science ≥ data collection and detailed analysis on pasture plant productivity, for example ≥ has an important role to play in any agricultural system, especially one so suddenly popular as regenerative agriculture.
"Farmers attribute all this value to mob grazing, but they neglect to consider that the pastures they're mob grazing on, which were under wheat fallow for half a century, are now getting fertilizer thrown at them or they're getting seeded or what-have-you. When such land is properly converted back to perennial forages (or even restored grassland), soil organic carbon tends to increase, regardless of grazing strategy employed. Mob grazing isn't bad; it's just not as good as it is often claimed to be," he says.
Ellert points out that it's almost impossible to talk regenerative agriculture without diving into big-picture, challenging topics like how we feed the world, where humans sit on the food chain, carbon and nitrous oxide emissions and climate change. He hopes the future brings increasing discussion and collaboration between farmers and soil scientists, made possible through the support, facilitation and applied research efforts of commodity groups, provincial government staff, and applied research organizations like Farming Smarter.
"What we need is respectful communication and learning from each other," he says. "Not polarized conversation on Facebook or Twitter."