Ideological rigidity is hampering efforts to leverage the regenerative agriculture ‘revolution’. Here are two paths forward

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Credit: GreenBiz
Credit: GreenBiz
Does regenerative agriculture require a completely new economics of farming to achieve scale? Or should the focus be on the steady adoption of conservation techniques where farmers and agronomists can make them work and where companies and consumers are will to pay more them? Those are the key questions being posed to farmers, educators and policymakers.

In Part One of this series, we looked at how the progression of alternative farming has responded to the main challenges of the time and how regenerative agriculture came into vogue as climate change came to be perceived as the existential crisis of our time.

In Part Two we examined the biophysical or metabolic challenge that regenerative farming faces as well as the steep economic hill it must climb.

In Part Three, we looked at some of the overblown claims made on behalf of regenerative ag and the problems that creates, even as there is a basis of sound principles and a growing body of research undergirding support for regenerative ag.

In Part Four, we look at how regenerative agriculture can really work to deal with our planet’s biophysical and economic challenges. Adding more nutrients and soil organic matter to the farm than are taken away as product or lost to erosion is expensive, making adoption difficult, driving up the price of food on regenerative farms. Meanwhile, the hype, overblown claims, and ideological rigidity that has started to attach to what is now known as the ‘Regenerative Agriculture Movement’ has created a fog of hazy thinking.

Let’s be honest about trade-offs

Farmers, educators and policymakers who approach regenerative agriculture as both a toolbox and a movement, need an evaluative framework that is firmly rooted in reality. For this series, I’ve adopted a simple definition of regenerative agriculture: when a farm is improving soil quality and generating a net gain in soil carbon, we can say that it is engaged in regenerative farming. We’ve seen that regenerative farming is closely associated with intensively managed grazing of cows and other grazing livestock and that is an area where some of the most outrageous claims have been made. The more evangelical advocates literally claim that regenerative farming will save the planet.

On balance, research shows that regenerative practices can lead to increased soil health. These practices sequester enough carbon to offset the greenhouse gas emissions generated by production under the right circumstances. That comes with the limitation that net positive sequestration tends to happen on the most degraded land—it comes with diminishing returns as adding soil organic matter becomes harder as soil becomes healthier. It comes with the trade-off that this kind of farming takes more land to produce the same amount of food as convention systems.

For example, one of the most promising studies found that intensively managed grazing systems sequestered carbon for three years before becoming carbon neutral, while taking twice as much land. That makes the proposed solution problematic, as it comes at a time where we aren’t just trying to cut carbon emissions in food production, we are trying to produce more food on less land. We don’t have enough unused arable land to use twice as much of it to produce the same amount of beef and dairy we currently consume.

Bu the alternative presents its own nest of prickly problems; far too much of the ‘more efficient’ intensive models result in overgrazed and degraded land, and soil loss due to erosion.

There’s room for improvement, and debate about what’s the most sustainable approach, all around.

Two prominent schools of thought

How best then to approach all this? Let’s examine two of the most-discussed — and quite different — approaches. They evaluate the same evidence through very different lenses.

Washington State University agronomist Andrew McGuire counsels a much more modest approach, focusing less on climate change and regenerative agriculture as a coherent system and focusing on practices that fall under the rubric that slow down, halt, or reverse soil erosion.

In contrast, University of California-Berkeley grazing researcher Paige Stanley, the lead author of the paper referenced above, takes a very expansive view, arguing that regenerative agriculture encompasses systemic change. She laid this out in a series of Twitter threads earlier this year.

[Editor’s note: These threads have been edited lightly for clarity]

Stanley continued:

When I think of regenerative ag, I’m thinking of an entirely different food system.

  • Rewarding multi-functionality vs solely rewarding yield
  • Rethinking ownership of land & resources (cooperatives?)
  • Learning from those (largely indigenous) folks who are already doing these things.

And even bigger, like:

  • Ending perverse incentives for monocrops imposed by big trade organizations and trade deals
  • Rebuilding the land-grant university complex to stop operating so much a knowledge-deficit model, driven by corporate interests
  • Re-linking rural viability to regenerative production systems

And, smaller, farms that have:

  • A bunch of different locally adapted crop rotations
  • Integrated crop-livestock (hello nutrient cycle)
  • Cover crops + no (or low) till
  • Consistent monitoring (a girl can dream)
  • And are adaptive to both push and press stressors

It’s unsurprising that oftentimes studies don’t find big differences in experimental plots differing by only one or two practices. What good is cover cropping if you till it up at the end? Not much. But cover-cropping + no-till + diversification + livestock integration? That’s a game-changer.

Looking through the other end of the telescope, McGuire suggested that regenerative agriculture advocates would be better served if it did not reject all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. He argued for less pop ecology and “Save the Planet” hyperbole; stick to science and what works, not ideology. He counseled adhering to a well-established, evidence-based focus on “no-till crops and cover crops in a decent rotation with livestock grazing perennials to ‘stop erosion’.”

In addressing the current push for carbon credits for farmers, McGuire asks,

McGuire continued:

Yes, regenerative will also control erosion. However, not every farmer is going to manage for carbon sequestration, but every farmer should manage to minimize erosion.

Erosion is the problem we have been working on for a long time – we should not let up nor change the focus. You cannot manage for carbon sequestration without first minimizing erosion. You cannot store carbon while also losing topsoil. However, you can control erosion and not store carbon (on-net).

Who is right?

Both perspectives are correct… because they are answering different questions.

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As an agronomist for a land grant university, McGuire puts together advice and agronomic plans for individual farms. That is a hyper-local task. Not every farm is in a position to organize around carbon sequestration. Too many have serious erosion issues. Even when they don’t, erosion is always trying to work its way back into the picture. It’s putting the cart ahead of the horse to start trying to improve carbon capture while soil is washing away.

Likewise, he isn’t in a position to change the markets and the financial incentives that the farmers he serves operate in. They have to respond to the markets and the subsidy regimes that exist, not the ones they’d like to see, in an agronomically sustainable way.

In that context, you apply the principles and practices of conservation agriculture as best you can. That will definitely slow down or reverse erosion. If it ends up sequestering carbon, all the better.

How carbon sequestering works. Credit: CalRecycle

It’s a question of what you take to be furniture and what you take to be architecture. As a working agronomist, McGuire has some opinions about how the architecture should change, but he more or less has to take the architecture as fixed with work with farmers on how which furniture they should have and how to arrange it. He answers the question of how most farms can improve their soil quality in the current regime of markets and policy.

As for Stanley, she is starting to answer the question of what it would take to achieve widespread regenerative farming — if we take an outcome-based definition of regenerative farming. These are farms that are sequestering carbon on net. As laid out earlier, a regenerative farm that is sequestering carbon in a low-input system is one where the soil is the product and the food it sells is the by-product.

Need for structural change

On the margins, regenerative farms can subsidize the product if the by-product is a niche good that can be sold at a premium. That doesn’t work if everyone is trying to do that (hint: they won’t be niche anymore). As they say, everything that’s taken off the farm must be replaced. Carbon, water, and nutrients like nitrogen all leave the farm as food. That all needs to be put back in some way. For farms to be sequestering carbon, they need to be net importers rather than net exporters. In order for that to work on a mass scale, that ‘trade imbalance’ needs to be paid for in some way.

To address that you are going to want to change incentives — for instance, too much farmland is rented, centering short-term returns for working farmers over the long-term health of the land. The industrial processing engine in the middle of our food system prizes corn and soybeans over other crops for a number of reasons, making it difficult for farmers to justify more diverse crop rotations on a much larger scale than can happen right now.

Cover crops are widely seen as a central practice for soil conservation and health but it is tricky to get them to pencil out for a farm’s bottom line, they require very specific local knowledge to make work, and there aren’t any major industry players to fund research (they tend to reduce the need for expensive inputs over time). Despite nearly universal recognition of the virtues of cover crops, they are only used on about 2% of cropland. Greater adoption is going to require public funding for seeds and planting, as well as more public investment research to close local knowledge gaps.

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Changing how we raise cattle is critical if we hope to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. The world imagined by advocates of regenerative agriculture—one that requires more intensively grazed, grass-finished beef—will necessarily be a world with fewer cattle and more expensive beef, most likely offset by more plant-based meats. We might best be served by a hybrid system that maximizes soil health while minimizing land use and methane emissions.

Could intensive grazing operations be deployed to the most degraded soils, grazed back to health over a few years and then moved on to the next area in need? That would be easier on the larger, more numerous co-ops many would like to see. But it would also be easier on much larger farms managing tens of thousands of acres.

If we zoom out to the greater ambitions that Stanley points toward, calculating how to pay for more on-farm pollinator habitat is critical. Zooming out even further, to envision an agriculture system that regenerates depopulated rural communities, we are going to need different economic arrangements, including getting economic incentives right and restructuring markets, especially in regards to land ownership and leasing.

Changes will require substantially decommodifying aspects of farm and food production with some increased commitment to cover cropping, pollinator habitat, riparian buffers and prairie strips, research into non-commodifiable conservation techniques, and co-ops and supply management.

To have those conversations in a productive way, it’s crucial to be clear about what is critical and central to our goal and what is nice but not necessary. What are the variables? That’s the never-ending balancing act of all successful reform movements—the push and pull between visionaries and pragmatists. Not enough pragmatism and nothing gets done. Not enough vision and all the effort won’t amount to much.

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

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