Regenerative agriculture: The movement dedicated to unseating intensive, ‘industrial farming’ by claiming it has comprehensive sustainability advantages

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planthand
Credit: Colourbox
For the last century, each generation has produced an alternative approach to farming that is aimed at a central challenge of its time. Today regenerative agriculture has picked up that mantle with the promise to mitigate and perhaps reverse climate change by transforming farming into an engine of carbon sequestration. The claims being made by the most fervent advocates are contentious and contested. But even skeptics see real promise if the systems can be improved and applied where they can do the most good.

Before we examine the promise and challenges of regenerative agriculture, let’s look at how it fits into the history of farming.

The reaction against industrialism and the rise of holistic farming

In 1909, German chemist Fritz Haber successfully fixed atmospheric nitrogen in a laboratory. In 1913, five years later, a research team from BASF, led by Carl Bosch, developed the first industrial-scale application of the Haber process. The Haber-Bosch process allowed the production of the first synthetic nitrogen fertilizers at a time when industrialization was driving the growth of cities, and the soils of farmlands were becoming degraded as farming became more intensive to keep pace with growing demand.

Prior to the development of the Haber-Bosch process, demand for commercial nitrogen fertilizer was so high that wars were fought internationally so that countries could secure a supply of nitrogen-rich seabird guano on islands in the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and most notably of the western coast of South America beginning in the 1840s.

Fritz Haber (left) and Carl Bosch (right)

It was a time of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ‘Scientific Management’, the rationalization of production into its discrete components, assembling standardized parts of Henry Ford’s Model T’s. Though still relying on draft animals, farming had become highly mechanized and commercial fertilizers were in wide use even before synthetic fertilizers became available. It is against this background, in 1909, American agronomist F.H. King toured China, Korea, and Japan, studying traditional fertilization, tillage, and general farming practices. He published his findings in Farmers of Forty Centuries (1911).

In 1924, the German esotericist Rudolph Steiner introduced a system of farming that exhorted the farmer to treat the farm as a holistic, biodynamic system. In a series of lectures at a farm in Poland, Steiner emphasized the farmer’s role in guiding and balancing the interaction of animals, plants and soil. Healthy animals depended upon healthy plants for food, healthy plants upon healthy soil, healthy soil upon healthy animals for their manure. Biodynamic farming would become one tributary of what would become known as ‘organic farming’. The biodynamic designation continues to this day, larded up with much of the unscientific and superstitious leanings Steiner imbued it with from the start.

Over the next few decades, others independently developed anti-industrial approaches to farming with a focus on soil health, which they felt was being damaged by treating farming as an extractive industry. In India, the British botanist Sir Albert Howard saw traditional farming as superior to the commercial farming in his home country. During his time in India, between 1905 and 1924, he and his wife Gabrielle, herself a plant physiologist, studied the traditional techniques and refined them according to scientific principles.

He memorialized their work in the book, An Agricultural Testament (1940). That publication was highly influential in the development of a farming subculture that put soil health at the center of its practice. In Great Britain, at the age of 21, Lady Evelyn Balfour and her sister Mary bought New Bells Farm in Haughley Green, Suffolk, in 1919. In 1939, she launched the Haughley Experiment, the first long-term, side-by-side scientific comparison of organic and “chemical-based” farming.

The Haughley Experiment was based on the belief that farmers were over-reliant on fertilizers, that livestock, crops, and soil should be treated as a whole system, and that “natural” farming produced food which was in some way more wholesome than food produced with more intensive methods. This philosophy was popular well into the 1980s. The central theme was an anti-industrial holistic approach to farming that centered on soil health.

soil in hands

In 1930, the industrialist J.I. Rodale [View Rodale Institute GLP Profile] founded Rodale Press, publishing marketing books and magazines. Inspired by an encounter with the ideas of Albert Howard, he developed an interest in promoting a healthy and active lifestyle that emphasized organically grown foods and established the Rodale Organic Gardening Experimental Farm in 1940. In 1942, Rodale Press started publishing Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, which promotes organic horticulture; it was later retitled Organic Gardening.

From soil health to pesticides

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her exposé of the overuse of pesticides and their potential damage to the environment. Her publication signaled a shift in the environmental movement from the conservation of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. That early conservationism focused on setting aside and protecting tracts of the environment from development to worries about the interaction between human activity and wildlife rather than their simple separation.

The modern world suffered from a hangover of chemical overreach that started with the Love Canal disaster in the 1950s, turned into a conflagration as the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 and dominated the zeitgeist of the 1970s as it seemed one after another preservative or food coloring was found to cause cancer and pulled from the market.

carson
Credit: Population Connection

This drove demand for the products of organic farming. But for the consumer, it moved the focus away from soil health and towards the prohibition of synthetic pesticides. This gave rise to organic certification schemes and industrial organic farms that operated to meet the letter of the code if not always to the spirit. Eventually, a large segment of the market was overtaken by large corporate farms in California and the Southwest that run both conventional and organic operations.

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These companies were not ideologically committed to holistic farming. They were profit-seeking corporations looking to expand their portfolios and leverage the premium prices that organic produce fetched. Organic marketing emphasized the lack of synthetic pesticide use as a benefit for consumers. In the mid-nineties, the Environmental Working Group [View EWG GLP Profile] began publishing its Dirty Dozen list, highlighting the produce that shows the highest levels of pesticide residues in testing, without providing any context as to whether the detected residues are at concerning levels.

[Click through to OWD site, then click on individual countries to compare]

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Climate change takes center stage

In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim releases the hit film An Inconvenient Truth, presenting Gore’s PowerPoint presentation on climate change to a massive audience. Climate change ascended in the environmental movement and in the public’s mind as the central environmental challenge of our time.

As that focus on the existential need to cut emissions and sequester carbon took over the zeitgeist, Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan [View Michael Pollan GLP Profile] published the bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which tells the story of four meals associated with four systems of food production, among them the industrial organic system of corporate farming, which came as a rude awakening to many. Pollan examines the goings-on at a funky holistic farm of 500 or so acres in Swoope, Virginia.

He introduced the world to Joel Salatin, a back-to-the-land libertarian farmer who’d inherited the organic cattle farm his affluent father had purchased when Salatin was three years old. While Salatin’s father was not able to make the farm produce enough income to live on, Salatin transformed the farm by borrowing from the organic philosophy of J.I. Rodale he’d picked up from his gardening grandfather.

Screen Shot at AM
Michael Pollan. Credit: PopTech/Flickr

What the lay reader will find surprising in Pollan’s tale is that Salatin forgoes organic certification by bringing in conventionally grown feed for his chickens. Nevertheless, Salatin’s Polyface Farm is a wondrous thicket of carefully cultivated interlocking systems that is much closer to a natural system than the attenuated industrial organic monocultures we’d encountered earlier in the book. At Polyface, cattle graze pasture and chickens follow, helpfully breaking up and spreading cow patties as they peck for bugs.

The chickens deposit their own supply of nitrogen and phosphorus into the pasture where grasses and soil get richer and richer. Elsewhere, scratching chickens transform rabbit bedding soaked in rabbit urine from a problem into an asset. Pigs root around in the cattle barn transforming the funky layers of bedding, cow manure, and fermenting corn feed into useful compost.

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Salatin’s low-input, value-added system turned the interactions and natural processes that had transformed the landscape of the farm into high-quality, high-value products that his fanbase drove miles and miles to purchase. In Pollan’s telling, Polyface Farm presented a viable business model and a human-scale, engaging alternative to a conveyor belt transforming commodity corn into Happy Meals and Happy Meals into diabetes and then into a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

This was undeniably inspiring to the non-farming public and to a number of aspiring farmers wanting to find a soul-satisfying and soil-friendly way to farm without selling their soul to the bank for a computerized combine the size of a barn. The world had its first celebrity regenerative farmer.

In 2013, the Zimbabwean ecologist and livestock farmer Allan Savory presented a TED Talk titled ‘How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change’, based on work he’d been doing starting in the mid-1950s. The talk made big waves and stirred up a lot of controversy. The crux of Savory’s assertion was that holistic management of grazing animals by keeping them in tighter formation and moving them on to different areas could improve soils dramatically. It could even restore deserts and sequester enough carbon to reverse climate change.

Despite the dramatic claims (and thin evidence), striking before and after photos of dry brittle pastoral land restored to lush, vital bush carried the day for a lot of people. An important new cohort of regenerative acolytes had been evangelized.

climate

Around the same time, a documentary short, Soil Carbon Cowboys, put the North Dakota rancher Gabe Brown on the map among those who pay attention to trends in sustainable agriculture. In his own TEDx Talk in 2016, Brown showed he had successfully converted his 5000-acre ranch into a showcase for conservation agriculture, using techniques of no-till, polyculture, and cover crops that integrated a holistic livestock management system. He was one of the first to demonstrate that holistic, polyculture farming, integrated with livestock management, could be economically viable on a reasonably large farm.

Brown’s profile grew by giving talks to farmers and ranchers on the use of cover crop mixes and defended the dramatic claims he was making about the high levels of soil organic matter, nitrogen, and phosphorus on his farm. As dozens of other farmers were engaged in similar transformations of their farms around the country, he was a particularly effective evangelist for regenerative farming.

Since then, interest in regenerative farming has exploded, with advocacy spreading from the no-till farming subculture to the halls of Congress, where support for regenerative farming even turned up in The Green New Deal thanks to the advocacy of representatives from rural and urban corners of the country.

In part two of this series, we’ll look at the claims being made about regenerative farming, the challenges it faces. In part three we’ll look at where and how it might hold the most promise.

Marc Brazeau is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on agricultural biotechnology. He also is the editor of Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Marc served as project editor and assistant researcher on this series. Follow him on Twitter @eatcookwrite

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