LocalHarvest Newsletter, April 28, 2020
Can Agriculture be Regenerative?

Editor’s Note: We thought you could use some interesting food for thought that isn’t about the coronavirus pandemic, thus the feature article below is about the growth of the Regenerative Agriculture label. However, we wanted to express our deepest sympathies to those who may have lost loved ones, whose businesses may have been shattered, and whose families may be experiencing significant hardships. We also wanted to express deep appreciation to the farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors, retailers, grocery clerks, truckers, farmworkers, and everyone in the food chain that are working long hours to ensure a safe flow of food to hungry consumers. The LocalHarvest team has also been working long hours to assist CSA farmers in onboarding new customers and expanding their delivery services. We are heartened by the growing interest in local and regional food systems and plan to be here for the long haul to strengthen those systems.

Can Agriculture be Regenerative?

There is a new word in town that is being used on all sorts of agricultural products and foods. You have probably seen the adjective and verb “regenerative” by now, perhaps you even use it to describe the food you grow. But what exactly does it mean?

Let’s start by looking at the simple dictionary definition of regenerate: to restore to a better, higher, or more worthy state; to restore to original strength or properties. So when using this word to describe an agricultural system, the intent would be to restore the natural resources and ecosystem functions in some ways so that the system can continue in a better state.

There are a number of similar terms, such as carbon farming, agroecology, conservation agriculture, holistic farm management, holistic planned grazing, ecological farming, and biological farming. Not too distant are sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture. Some of the key organizations that are working to define the term or at least its core tenets include Regeneration International, The Carbon Underground, Rodale Institute, and the Savory Institute.

From Regeneration International- regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity–resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. Other definitions don’t necessarily promise to reverse climate change (a huge promise to be sure), but they certainly focus on carbon sequestration and improving soil health. This definition has particular appeal to me: Regenerative agriculture is marked by tendencies towards closed nutrient loops, greater diversity in the biological community, fewer annuals and more perennials, and greater reliance on internal rather than external resources (aka inputs). Interestingly, when I was in graduate school 20 years ago, that is what we called “agroecology”. I don’t think that term ever gained broad appeal beyond the academic realm. So regenerative it is.

The key goals for regenerative agriculture include:

1. Soil: Contribute to building soils along with soil fertility and health.

2. Water: Increase water percolation, water retention, and clean and safe water runoff.

3. Biodiversity: Enhance and conserve biodiversity.

4. Ecosystem health: Capacity for self-renewal and resiliency.

5. Carbon: Sequester carbon.

Certain definitions exclude the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, while others embrace the judicious use, sort of akin to an integrated-pest-management (IPM) approach where they are used as last resort. Some organizations like the Rodale Institute have paired regenerative agriculture with organic certification, embracing the idea of ‘beyond organic’. Their new Regenerative Organic Certification uses organic standards as the baseline and goes above and beyond by requiring improved soil health practices, animal welfare, and social equity.

The Savory Institute has gone about this in a different way- instead of verifying practices, they are verifying the outcomes of those practices and expect to see continuous improvement (called Ecological Outcome Verified, or EOV). That just may generate the kind of data needed for scientists to actually study the benefits of regenerative agriculture. Thus far, there has been a paucity of scientific studies due in large part to the wide variability between farms and ranches and the suite of practices they use.

With the lack of consensus on a definition, there is the risk that the word regenerative will be used on foods that are grown in ways that differ little from the norm. An article I read recently said all legumes were regenerative simply because they sequester nitrogen from the air and thus don’t need nitrogen fertilization. But if they are grown with frequent tillage, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, that system is hardly restorative or more biologically-based than any other annual field crop. Without standards and third-party verification, the regenerative claim may be little more than greenwashing. Some farmers roll their eyes at more certification, not wanting to maintain the records or pay the fees. Other farmers see it as essential to protect the meaning of the word and be transparent in the marketplace. Like all label claims that have come before it, big business latches on and takes advantage immediately.

What about the science? Does any of it show these farming systems to be superior and to live up to their goals in any meaningful way?

One much-cited estimate of potential soil sequestration published to date suggests that if regenerative practices were used on all of the world’s croplands and pastures forever, the soil may be able to sequester up to 322 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. But coming up with forever models is fraught with issues and based on all sorts of assumptions that may not exist in 10 or 100 years. Other science has shown that yes, our agricultural soils can absorb a considerable amount of carbon, up to a point. Then they hit a sort of steady-state mode where more carbon cannot be absorbed. And as soon as a future farmer decides to go back to tillage, fertilization, etc. those carbon gains can be undone.

As University of Washington geologist David Montgomery put it: “Putting more carbon in the soil will buy us some time. But if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the rate we are, once we fill up the soil with the carbon, all we have done is delay things a bit.” Of course, there are other benefits to adding carbon to the soil and following the other practices of regeneration. One of the few studies I could find showed profitability rose as soil organic matter increased. There was also a 10-fold decrease in insect pests in the regenerative corn fields over the conventional ones, saving the farmers input costs and decreasing the environmental burden of pesticides. Interesting results, to be sure, but many more paired experiments are needed.

There is no neat conclusion to this story, more of an opening for inquiry. What do you think of the regenerative agricultural concept? Are you using the word to describe your practices or the foods you grow? What does it mean to you?

As always, stay healthy and stay kind.
-Rebecca Thistlethwaite

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