By Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN
Vol. 25 No. 6 P. 28
Can the right farming practices improve the environment?
Dietitians generally are concerned with whether their clients, patients, and communities are getting enough food—especially nutritious food—to eat. But beyond that—and arguably, as part of that—are concerns about the broader food system, of which agriculture plays the most important role. Every food that’s eaten, whether still recognizable in its whole form or processed beyond easy identification, comes from the land. And how humans manage that land impacts the environment, our ability to continue to produce enough food to eat, and the nutrition of that food.
This isn’t a matter of organic vs conventional agriculture. This is about whether we’re leaving the land and the environment better or worse than we found it, which is why regenerative agriculture is a growing movement.
“Sustainable food systems are really essential if we want to meet the needs of both people and the planet, and right now we aren’t doing either,” says Chris Vogliano, PhD, RDN, the Cleveland-based cofounder and director of research of Food + Planet (foodandplanet.org), a dietitian-run nonprofit focused on sustainable food systems. “Honoring economic systems, socio-cultural systems, environmental systems, and nutrition is essential, and in a way that’s respectful to planetary boundaries.”
Emily Moose, executive director of A Greener World (AGW), an Oregon-based nonprofit that offers regenerative agriculture certifications for ranchers and farmers, says farmers already are being forced to make extreme modifications in how they farm to adapt to weather changes and are seeing pests that previously weren’t a problem. “We have a very short window of time to mitigate the worst impact of climate change,” Moose says. “When you have a diverse, regenerative biodiverse system, you’ll be better able to be resilient in the face of extreme weather or new challenges that may not have been a problem 10 years ago. It’s helping to ensure that the farm ecosystem is as resilient as possible.”
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
While there’s currently no legal or regulatory definition of regenerative agriculture, one explanation says that it’s farming aimed to reduce the negative environmental impacts of agriculture to restore the ecosystem. The National Resource Defense Council provides another explanation, stating that regenerative agriculture is both a philosophy and a dynamic systems approach to land management that’s about growing food in harmony with nature.1 Although there’s no one way to practice regenerative agriculture—specific practices vary from farmer to farmer and rancher to rancher, and some definitions are process oriented, while others are outcomes oriented2—it has underlying principles focused on restoring soil and ecosystem health, addressing inequity, and leaving the earth’s land, water, and climate in better shape for future generations.
“If I were to describe regenerative agriculture in one word, it would be ‘critical,’” Moose says. “We’re not only at a point where we have to do everything we can to put the brakes on climate change but we also have to adapt to a changing planet.”
The National Resource Defense Council emphasizes that industrial agriculture, which focuses on crop yields and harvesting of natural resources at the expense of soil and water quality and biodiversity, is contributing to soil erosion at a rate 10 to 100 times higher than soil formation, as well as harmful algal blooms in waterways caused by fertilizer runoff, and threats to pollinating insects. On the other hand, healthy soils rich in organic matter are more biodiverse in terms of soil microbiota and can absorb more water during a flood and draw down greenhouse gases.
Examples of regenerative agriculture practices include the following:
• Using “chicken tractors” instead of static chicken enclosures, so the birds can eat insect pests and fertilize pastureland.
• Limiting mechanical soil disturbance (“no till” farming) to preserve the beneficial underground biological structures built by worms, bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes.
• Reducing reliance on synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers to enable beneficial insects and wildlife to return, regardless of whether a farmer wants to pursue organic certification.
• Using diverse crop and livestock rotations to disrupt weed cycles, improve soil fertility, and, in the case of livestock rotation, enable pasture
grasses time to regrow.
• Planting cover crops in soils that would otherwise be bare to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health, increase water retention, and enhance biodiversity.
• Composting to turn waste from manure or food into fertilizer.
• Mimicking forest systems by integrating trees and shrubs into crop and animal systems (this is known as agroforestry and is an Indigenous practice).
• Utilizing riparian buffers (vegetated zones near streams that protect water quality and mitigate flooding) and hedgerows (which act as windbreaks) to provide habitat for beneficial organisms.
• Using grazing livestock to control brush that could be fuel for wildfires.
• Reducing farm reliance on fossil fuels.
• Providing on-farm staff with fair wages and a seat at the decision-making table.
Regenerative agriculture supporters view the land not just as something that produces consumable goods but as an ecosystem that deserves to be nurtured and preserved while also seeking to meet the economic and social needs of farmers. A 2016 study looking at Australian cattle ranchers found that practicing regenerative agriculture can increase farmer self-efficacy, which in turn can increase feelings of well-being.3 Economic gains come from factors such as cost savings from reduced use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides; building greater financial security through diversified revenue streams; and promoting rural economic development.1,4 Regenerative agriculture also seeks to address long-standing social injustices, including systemic discrimination against African American farmers.5
Regenerative Agriculture vs Organic Agriculture
Many consumers are familiar with the idea of organic agriculture, but most probably aren’t familiar with regenerative agriculture, as people frequently assume organic farming principles are “regenerative.” While a farm can apply both approaches simultaneously and maintain both certifications, a key difference is that regenerative agriculture focuses on improving land and the ecosystem, whereas organic agriculture, as outlined by organic certification standards, is focused on excluding chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
“Organic has a list of criteria you have to meet, but how that’s implemented is really different based on the farm and the farmer,” Vogliano says. “You can have large scale organic that, at the end of the day, is a monoculture, which isn’t in harmony with nature. But organic agriculture also can be regenerative.”
Moose agrees that organic and regenerative agriculture standards aren’t mutually exclusive and says they both can be rigorous. “We had a number of organic producers in our pilot program,” she says. “Our regenerative program also can be a great tool for producers who are transitioning to organic agriculture, but our program goes much further in measuring biodiversity and soil health, and our standards are pretty detailed in measuring that there are improvements happening.”
Regenerative agriculture standards include benchmarking of elements such as air and water quality, animal welfare, wildlife species/habitats, and social fairness, as well as taking measurements over time to assess the degree of improvement—or identify a lack of improvement.
AGW’s animal welfare certification is based on European Union (EU) organic standards, which, unlike US standards, allow therapeutic use of antibiotics when that’s the only option for the health of the animal. Whereas US organic standards require any livestock animal receiving antibiotics to be permanently pulled out of organic production, something Moose says is hard on farmers. EU organic standards require a withdrawal time that’s double the statutory limits for nonorganic livestock, ensuring that no antibiotic residues are in the milk or meat when it goes to consumers. Both EU and US organic standards ban subtherapeutic use of antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease because the practice contributes to the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
Another difference between organic and regenerative agriculture is that regenerative agriculture certification is farmer-led, Moose says. “It’s not A Greener World out there saying you have to do X, Y, and Z. We do have rigorous standards, but how farmers meet those requirements is by their design.” Farmers write their own regenerative plan, and AGW helps them remain accountable to that plan.
Regenerative Agriculture Certification Programs
US farm policy doesn’t prioritize regenerative practices, although some individual states have incentive programs. Farmers and ranchers who want to adopt regenerative practices and use a related label on their products must seek certification through nongovernmental, nonprofit programs. The following are four of the most robust certification programs.
A Greener World
AGW (agreenerworld.org) offers five certifications for ranchers and farmers, including Certified Regenerative by AGW. It defines regenerative agriculture as “A set of planned agricultural practices that ensure the holding [land owned or controlled by the applicant] isn’t depleted by agriculture practices, and over time the soil, water, air, and biodiversity are improved or maintained to the greatest extent possible.” Farmers must have a “regenerative plan,” and once approved, the farm is visited and audited at least once a year. Certified Regenerative is a “whole farm” program, meaning all products, including plant- or animal-based products, produced on the farm must be produced according to the Certified Regenerative standards. Generally, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers aren’t allowed in this certification; however, organic certification isn’t required.
Regenerative Organic Alliance
Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) (regenorganic.org) certification is built on three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Soil health includes building organic matter, cover crops, crop rotations, no GMOs, no synthetic inputs, promotion of biodiversity, and rotational grazing. Animal welfare includes freedom from distress and hunger, ability to express normal behavior, grass-fed/pasture raised, limited transport, no confined animal feeding operations, and suitable shelters. Social fairness includes democratic organizations, fair payment for farmers, good working conditions, and livable wages. ROA uses approved third-party certifying bodies to do onsite audits and annual reviews.
REGEN1 (greenbrownblue.com/regen1) currently is available only to Northern California farmers. It focuses on five key ecosystem benefits—air, water, soil, biodiversity, and equity—and helps farmers start on a path to continuous improvement. The program is open to farmers and ranchers at all points of the transition to regenerative agriculture, from those who are trying one new regenerative practice to those who have been practicing regenerative agriculture for years or even generations. Rather than offering certification per se, REGEN1 is developing a regionally focused supply chain tool that will help purchasers reward farmers and ranchers for their regenerative practices through targeted purchasing commitments and will educate consumers on where and how their food is grown through point-of-purchase displays and other tools. The program’s goal is to transition 1 million acres in Northern California to regenerative agriculture practices by 2025 and build an adaptive framework that can be scaled worldwide.
Regenified (regenified.com) was cofounded by farmer Gabe Brown, who’s been practicing regenerative agriculture since 1991 on his 5,000-acre ranch in North Dakota. Regenified’s trademarked 6-3-4 Verification Standard is based on six principles of soil health, three rules of adaptive stewardship, and four ecosystem processes. Farmers and ranchers seeking verification undergo initial and annual evaluations. They’re ranked into one of five tiers based on their current regenerative practices and must make enough regenerative changes within three years to move up to the next tier; otherwise, they’re disqualified.
Becoming certified can be a selling point to restaurants, retailers, and consumers who support sustainable food systems. AGW (agreenerworld.org/directory) and ROA (regenorganic.org/roc-directory) offer directories in which consumers can search for certified products. Moose cautions that some certifications are cobbled together, and some focus too heavily on a narrow definition of regenerative. “I think there’s a danger in just focusing on soil carbons,” she says. “Regenerative agriculture is about so much more than that, and even soil health is much more than that.”
Moose says some companies will slap a regenerative label on products without substance to back it up, so it’s important for consumers to look for valid claims and certifiers that use third-party auditing to ensure standards are being met. “There are many definitions for what regenerative means. It’s worth sifting through the fluff to see what’s credible,” Moose says. “I encourage everyone to read what the standards mean. ‘Regenerative’ is a word. It’s full of promise, it’s full of potential, but the actions behind the word have to be positive and meaningful. It’s worth thinking about what regenerative means to you and find labels that match that.” She says she often uses a “weed and water” metaphor: “Weed out the labels that aren’t delivering what they promised, and water by using your food budget on the food labels that are trustworthy and honoring your trust.”
What the Future Holds
Regenerative agriculture isn’t a new idea, as this was how Indigenous communities farmed for centuries,6 but with climate change and growing threats to the environment, interest in this approach is growing. “There’s an exploding interest in regenerative farming right now. In many cases, it’s inspired by traditional Indigenous practices,” Moose says. “It’s funny that people are now ‘discovering’ these practices that are so indispensable to our survival.” She says not moving towards a more regenerative future would mean missing a crucial opportunity to change how we feed ourselves.
Biodiversity is a key component of regenerative agriculture on multiple levels, including soil microbes, beneficial insects, wildlife, and crops. But biodiversity also is good for nutrition. “How do we improve biodiversity for diets’ sake, but also help nature rebound from our current farming practice?” Vogliano asks. “About 60% of plant-based calories come from corn, rice, and wheat, and from a nutritional and a climate resilience standpoint, that’s not good.” He emphasizes that many traditional foodways were diverse and the foods themselves nutrient dense. “It really was in the industrial revolution that we shifted towards these monocultures.”
Vogliano points to the breakdown of global food chains during the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason why certain features of regenerative agriculture—including economics and the building of regional food systems—are so vital. “If we could shift toward a more regional regenerative food model, there would be so many community benefits. It could help people be more connected to where their food comes from, and there are so many opportunities to integrate regenerative agriculture into schools. I think there’s a real benefit to shifting the conversation and the production of food to be more regional and to be reflective of that region and what people want to eat.”
— Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is the nutrition columnist for The Seattle Times, owner of Nutrition By Carrie, and author of Healthy for Your Life: A Non-Diet Approach to Optimal Well-being.
1. Regenerative agriculture 101. The National Resource Defense Council website. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/regenerative-agriculture-101. Published November 29, 2021.
2. Newton P, Civita N, Frankel-Goldwater L, Bartel K, Johns C. What is regenerative agriculture? A review of scholar and practitioner definitions based on processes and outcomes. Front Sustain Food Syst. 2020;4:2571-2581.
3. Brown K, Schirmer J, Upton P. Can regenerative agriculture support successful adaptation to climate change and improved landscape health through building farmer self-efficacy and wellbeing? Curr Res Environ Sustain. 2022;4:100170.
4. LaCanne CE, Lundgren JG. Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably. PeerJ. 2018;6:e4428.
5. Johnson A. Rescue plan signals hope for just ag policy. Natural Resources Defence Council website. https://www.nrdc.org/bio/allison-johnson/rescue-plan-signals-hope-just-ag-policy. Published March 16, 2021.
6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Alliance of Bioversity International, and CIAT. Indigenous peoples’ food systems. https://www.fao.org/3/cb5131en/cb5131en.pdf. Published 2021.