Our food system is broken. Industrial agriculture is a cultural and ecological tragedy that has already resulted in the loss of one-third of the Earth’s fertile soil, the overwhelming destruction of biodiversity, and the loss of Native seeds, knowledge, and culture. This intensive way of farming is unsustainable and unnatural. But it wasn’t always this way, so how exactly did we get here? And what’s the path forward?
Since its inception in the mid-20th century, industrial agriculture has been touted as a “technological miracle” that allows food production to keep pace with the ever-growing human population. This disastrous form of modern farming requires heavy equipment, fossil fuels, vast amounts of water, and large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to produce single crops (also known as a monoculture).
While the intensive methods used in industrial agriculture can offer some short-term benefits, this harmful agricultural system treats our planet as a resource to be tapped, not maintained. As a result, these practices destroy the natural environment and heavily contribute to climate change.
According to the United Nations (U.N.), the unsustainable use of land, soil, water, and energy for food contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that cause rising temperatures. Higher temperatures in turn, affect resources to produce food. Up to 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020, as many as 161 million more than in 2019.
The techniques used in industrial agriculture, such as monocropping, chemical soil amendments, and tilling, do not exist in nature. These intensive practices gravely impact soil health and our planet’s atmosphere by depleting biodiversity, reducing organic matter, and releasing carbon. If humanity continues at the current global rates of soil degradation (i.e., erosion, chemical pollution, decarbonization) within 50 years, we will not have enough arable topsoil to feed the world.
But it’s not too late to restore what has been lost.
Regenerative agriculture comes from the ancestral and long-held holistic principles practiced by Indigenous communities worldwide. It is a farming philosophy centered around soil health and thriving ecosystems. Regenerative techniques enrich and rebuild topsoil, recharge water cycles, help curb climate change, and restore ecologies.
Studies have shown that industrial farms that transition to regenerative farming systems cut their carbon emissions in half while increasing their profits over time.
At its core, regenerative agriculture is about farming in harmony with nature. It’s about giving back to the Earth rather than taking––and it can heal what industrial agriculture has stolen from us all.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Over the past several centuries, agricultural methods have continuously intensified worldwide. As the human population grows, so too has the amount of land––and water––dedicated to feeding it.
Currently, half of the habitable land on Earth is used for agriculture. Worldwide, modern agriculture accounts for 70% of human freshwater consumption. The food system accounts for around 30% of the world’s total consumption of energy, most still produced using fossil fuels that generate emissions.
Many techniques and modifications that large-scale farmers rely on to boost output harm the environment. Modern agriculture centers around high input–high output techniques, using hybrid seeds of high-yielding variety, large amounts of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, abundant irrigation water, and medically necessary antibiotics for poultry and livestock animals.
These industrialized farming practices have devastating environmental impacts, such as soil degradation and contamination, coastline erosion, ecosystem destruction, and depletion of aquifers, river systems, and groundwater.
Most modern farming techniques are devastating to biodiversity, soil health, and, ultimately, the health of our planet. Even organic farming, while not as harmful to the environment, often still does more harm than good. Deteriorating soil health due to human activity is already gravely affecting lives and livelihoods worldwide. One way to reverse this trend and positively impact our planet––and all life on it––is a system of holistic agricultural practices called regenerative farming.
Regenerative farming (also called regenerative agriculture) is about cultivating the land to nourish people and the planet, with specific methods varying from grower to grower and region to region. There’s no strict rulebook when it comes to regenerative farming. Still, the principles behind the philosophy are meant to promote conservation, restore the soil and ecosystem health, combat the effects of climate change, address inequity, improve human health and well-being, and leave our lands, waters, and climate in better shape for future generations.
Is Regenerative Farming Profitable?
Regenerative agriculture will look different from farm to farm, but there’s no question that this holistic approach has the potential to be vastly lucrative, especially in the long term. In fact, a recent study found that regenerative practices were nearly 80% more profitable than those with only conventional industrialized production systems. The study authors noted that the “profit was positively correlated with the particulate organic matter of the soil, not yield.”
The Earth is Sick, And So Are We.
Human health and the health of our planet are inextricably connected. With all of the synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides involved in modern agriculture, the biology and health of the land and soil are depleted. Human health is also significantly impacted by these harmful mass food production practices. As we continually ingest the ultra-processed foods that come from industrialized agriculture, we are deteriorating our gut microbiome, increasing inflammation and disease. Our civilization depends on flourishing natural systems, human health, and the wise stewardship of natural resources.
The Benefits of Regenerative Farming
Regenerative agriculture is not just a farming practice; it’s a transformative approach that offers many benefits for the environment, farmers, communities, and consumers. Here are just a few of them:
Soil Health Restoration
Regenerative agriculture prioritizes soil health by employing cover cropping, crop rotation, and minimal soil disturbance. These methods promote the buildup of organic matter, improve soil structure, increase nutrient availability, and enhance water-holding capacity. The result is healthier, more fertile soil that supports robust plant growth and resilience.
Carbon Sequestration and Climate Change Mitigation
Regenerative farming is crucial in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Practices like agroforestry, rotational grazing, and no-till farming enhance carbon storage in the soil and vegetation. By restoring ecosystems and promoting sustainable land management, regenerative agriculture helps combat greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to climate resilience.
Water Conservation and Quality
Regenerative practices minimize water usage through mulching, cover cropping, and precision irrigation. By improving soil structure and organic matter content, the soil’s water-holding capacity is enhanced, reducing water runoff and increasing infiltration. This leads to improved water quality by reducing soil erosion and minimizing the leaching of pollutants into water bodies.
Biodiversity and Ecosystem Restoration
Regenerative agriculture fosters biodiversity by creating habitat diversity and reducing reliance on synthetic inputs. By incorporating native plants, hedgerows, and wildlife corridors, regenerative farms become havens for beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife. This biodiversity promotes natural pest control, enhances pollination, and restores ecological balance.
Enhanced Farm Resilience and Productivity
Regenerative practices build resilient farming systems that are better equipped to withstand climate extremes, pests, and diseases. Diverse crop rotations, agroforestry, and integrated pest management reduce reliance on external inputs and synthetic chemicals, thereby increasing farm profitability and reducing production risks.
Economic Viability and Local Communities
Regenerative agriculture creates economic opportunities for farmers by reducing input costs, improving yields, and accessing premium markets. Farmers can diversify their income streams by implementing regenerative practices, improving soil health, and building long-term agricultural resilience. Additionally, regenerative agriculture fosters local food systems, strengthens rural economies, and enhances food security.
Human Health and Well-being
Regenerative farming promotes nutritious food production by prioritizing soil health and biodiversity. Nutrient-dense crops grown in regenerative systems offer higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. By reducing reliance on synthetic pesticides and promoting ecological balance, regenerative agriculture contributes to healthier ecosystems and reduces potential harm to human health.
Social Equity and Fair Trade
Regenerative agriculture embraces principles of fairness and social justice by prioritizing fair trade practices, supporting local communities, and promoting equitable access to resources. This approach fosters collaboration, knowledge sharing, and community empowerment, ensuring that the benefits of regenerative farming are accessible to all.
The Principles of Regenerative Farming
While specific practices may vary among growers and regions, the fundamental principles of regenerative farming offer a universal framework. These principles empower producers to champion conservation, revitalize soil and ecosystem health, counteract the impacts of climate change, foster equity, enhance human well-being, and safeguard our precious lands, waters, and climate for generations to come.
Embracing traditional agricultural practices and harnessing innovative technology, regenerative farming emerges as an indispensable force for securing the future of our planet.
Some of these key principles include:
- Building Organic Matter for Increased Soil Fertility: Regenerative farming emphasizes the importance of enhancing soil health by increasing organic matter content. This involves practices such as cover cropping, and composting. By enriching the soil, farmers can improve nutrient availability, water retention, and overall soil fertility. All of this leads to improved yields.
- Increasing Biodiversity, Restoring Ecosystems, and Wildlife Habitats: Regenerative farming recognizes the importance of biodiversity in creating resilient and thriving ecosystems. Farmers adopt practices that promote biodiversity, such as planting diverse crop rotations, integrating agroforestry systems, and creating wildlife corridors. These actions help restore ecosystems, provide habitat for beneficial organisms, and enhance natural pest control.
- Cultivating Healthier, More Productive Soil that is Drought- and Flood-resilient: With climate change leading to more extreme weather events, regenerative farming aims to develop soil that can withstand droughts and floods. Practices such as agroforestry, contour plowing, and the use of cover crops help improve soil structure, reduce erosion, and enhance water infiltration and retention. By cultivating resilient soil, farmers can mitigate the impacts of climate change and maintain productivity even in challenging conditions.
- Increasing Soil Carbon Sequestration: Regenerative farming actively works towards capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the soil. By implementing practices like agroforestry, rotational grazing, and cover cropping, farmers can enhance carbon sequestration. This mitigates climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving soil health and fertility.
What Practices Does Regenerative Farming Involve?
Regenerative farming aims to restore the balance between human activities and the natural environment. It promotes sustainable agriculture that supports food production, conserves biodiversity, protects water resources, and mitigates the adverse impacts of climate change. Ultimately, regenerative farming seeks to leave a positive legacy for future generations, ensuring that our lands, waters, and climate are thriving.
Due to climate change, regenerative farming has become far more critical as we begin to see how changing our agriculture can help us save our soils––and our environment. Regenerative agriculture can take many different forms because the practices largely depend on the land being farmed. So, the variety of techniques border infinity. However, there are three common forms that regenerative agriculture can take: No-till farming, regenerative grazing, and agroforestry. Here’s a quick rundown of each:
Healthy soil is full of organisms that are beneficial to plants. Some of these organisms convert soil nitrogen into a usable plant form. Some organisms bring water to the plant that would otherwise be out of reach; Others loosen and aerate the soil, increasing water absorption and allowing plant roots to penetrate deeper into the ground. When soil is turned over by a machine, the cover matter is removed, and most of these organisms are killed, causing a vast imbalance in micro-communities, releasing carbon into the air, and causing soil erosion. Eventually, crops managed with tilling become reliant on synthetic substances, all polluting our precious soil and water.
Instead of tilling, plant cover crops whose roots break up the soil, let the worms, insects, and other organisms aerate the soil, bring nutrients, and keep the ground covered with an organic mulch which will break down over time, adding more organic matter to the earth.
From clearing forests for pastureland to releasing methane, the cattle industry is known for being very environmentally destructive. Livestock are responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gasses. However, this devastation of the natural environment is not inherent to grazing animals. If the livestock industry embraced managing pastures with livestock, not for livestock––healthy soil could be built, nutrient loss could be reduced, massive amounts of carbon could be sequestered into the ground, and even desertification could be reversed in a matter of a few short years. The practice also helps producers prepare for drought.
Agroforestry involves the intentional integration of a wide range of trees that are protected, regenerated, planted, or managed in agricultural landscapes as they interact with annual crops, livestock, wildlife, and humans. Land-use systems integrating trees and agriculture have a long history stretching back millennia. They have traditionally been essential agricultural landscape elements in tropical and temperate regions worldwide.
The practices used in agroforestry are complex. The method starts with observing a local forest and the relationships between everything in it––the plants, the animals, the geography, the soil, the fungi, the water, and then recreating these relationships in a way that’s just as ecologically resilient––but produces more food.
How Important is Regenerative Agriculture in Addressing Climate Change?
Scientists know that regenerative agricultural practices (i.e., no-till farming) have already restored tens of millions of acres on at least five continents. It’s also widely understood that the best way to draw excess carbon from the atmosphere is through healthy agriculture, regenerative plants, and regenerative systems burying carbon long-term in the soil.
So while it is widely known that regenerative agriculture can substantially mitigate climate change, one question remains: How do we collectively change how we produce our food?
With two million farmers in the U.S. alone, it will take an effort to enact change on a larger scale.
Most of the cropland in the U.S. is characterized by monoculture agriculture, which relies on reliance on destructive (and costly) tillage, large amounts of water, artificial fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. Of course, many industrial farmers have an ecological conscience. Still, they don’t connect ecology and complexity and how that relates to their business, the health of their soil and local ecosystem, and ultimately, how it impacts human health. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to lose hope. Small changes lead to big progress.
Regenerative Backyard Gardening
Backyard regenerative agriculture offers an excellent opportunity for individuals to engage in sustainable food production and contribute to the health of the planet. Regardless of the land size you’re working with, you can implement regenerative farming practices that restore soil health, promote biodiversity, conserve water, and minimize environmental impacts. Remember, every small step counts towards creating a healthier and more resilient ecosystem right in your own backyard.
Here are some tips on transforming your backyard into a thriving garden (or cultivating a community garden) using regenerative practices:
Step 1: Assessing Your Land
- Evaluate the size, soil type, sunlight exposure, and water availability of the land you’re working with.
- Identify any limitations or opportunities, such as slopes, shade, or existing vegetation.
Step 2: Designing Your Garden
- Create a garden layout based on the principles of regenerative agriculture, maximizing space utilization, and ecosystem integration.
- Plan for different zones, such as vegetable gardens, fruit trees, herbs, composting areas, and wildlife habitats.
Step 3: Soil Health and Fertility
- Conduct a soil test to determine its nutrient content and pH level.
- Amend the soil with organic matter, such as compost, leaf mulch, or aged manure, to improve fertility and structure.
- Practice no-till or minimal tillage methods to avoid soil erosion and preserve beneficial soil microorganisms.
Step 4: Water Conservation
- Install rainwater harvesting systems, such as barrels or tanks, to collect and store rainwater for irrigation.
- Utilize natural mulching techniques to retain moisture and reduce evaporation.
- Consider implementing drip irrigation systems to provide targeted water delivery to plants.
Step 5: Promote Biodiversity
- Plant a diverse range of crops, including annuals, perennials, and native plants, to promote biodiversity and attract beneficial insects.
- Create wildlife-friendly habitats, such as birdhouses, pollinator gardens, or small ponds, to support local ecosystems.
Helpful Tool for U.S. Gardeners: Find plants native to your area with the Native Plant Finder.
Step 6: Composting and Nutrient Cycling
- Set up a composting system to recycle organic waste from your kitchen and garden.
- Use compost as a natural fertilizer to enrich the soil with nutrients and improve its structure.
Step 7: Natural Pest and Weed Management
- Encourage beneficial insects and birds to control pest populations by providing habitat and diversity.
- Practice companion planting to repel pests and attract beneficial insects.
- Use natural mulching techniques to suppress weed growth; pull the weeds that make it through by hand.
Step 8: Harvesting and Preserving
- Harvest crops at their peak ripeness to maximize flavor and nutritional content.
- Utilize food preservation methods such as canning, drying, or freezing to extend the shelf life of your produce.
Keep Learning & Improving
- Stay updated on regenerative farming practices through books, online resources, workshops, or local gardening groups.
- Adapt and refine your backyard farming methods based on your experiences and observations.
Learn More About Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture is the future (and past) of food production, bringing ecology, climate science, and human well-being to the forefront of farming, ensuring healthy agriculture and a hospitable planet for generations to come. Here are just a few ways you can learn more about regenerative agriculture:
- Spend a weekend watching documentaries on soil health and regenerative farming. Some must-sees include Kiss the Ground; To Which We Belong; The Biggest Little Farm; David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet; and 2040: Join the Regeneration.
- Online Courses: Expand your knowledge through online courses dedicated to regenerative agriculture. (Rodale Institute offers a free online course, check it out here) or consider specializing in regenerative agriculture in college or university.