Thousands of years ago, agriculture started changing civilization. As humans figured out ways to grow crops and domesticate animals, they stopped being hunters and gatherers who continually moved around on a never-ending search for food and shelter, and created communities with distinct cultures. And eventually, we ended up where we are today.
While industrial farming on a grand scale has become very efficient, it has degraded the quality of soil. “As the soil has been mined of its fertility, we’ve seen the loss of vitamins and minerals within foods,” says Ann Adams, PhD, executive director of Holistic Management International, a nonprofit organization that educates farmers in regenerative agriculture. “If we have a truly living, fertile soil, that’s very different than dirt that’s being used to grow food by putting in synthetic fertilizer and herbicides and pesticides,” she adds.
During the past 80 years, tests performed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) show the concentration of essential vitamins and minerals in our food, especially vegetables, has dropped by 5–80 percent, depending upon the nutrient. Depleted soil also makes land more vulnerable to climate changes that destroy crops and threaten our food supply, and increases air pollution. But a regenerative way of farming can reverse these trends.
Organic farming protects the land (and us, when we eat organic food) by shunning toxic herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. It may improve the quality of soil to different degrees, depending upon the farm, but the basic approach is to do no harm. Soil quality is not among the criteria for organic certification. Regenerative agriculture goes a step further, aiming to literally regenerate the life, fertility, and resilience of the land, and it’s become a hot topic.
The most recent survey of American organic farmers by the nonprofit Organic Farming Research Foundation found that soil health was their chief priority in every region of the country. To meet these needs, the organization funds studies to identify the best methods to enhance soil and provides educational guides to help farmers improve crop yields and make their land more resilient in the face of climate shifts.
Building Healthy Soil
In healthy soil, there are more living organisms underground than above ground, from microscopic bacteria and fungi to clearly visible worms. “It’s said that a teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microorganisms than all the people on earth,” says Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer and regenerative pioneer. And those organisms are essential for nutritious food, resilient farmland, and clean air.
What’s Up with Carbon Farming?
Uniting these seemingly unrelated issues is a gas that often gets negative headlines: carbon dioxide. It makes up 80 percent of the greenhouse gases that trap heat above the earth, but carbon isn’t all bad.
Every time we breathe, we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon. Plants do the opposite, taking in carbon and emitting oxygen. Too much carbon, often found in poorly ventilated offices, makes the air seem stuffy, can make people feel sleepy, and can lead to headaches. But in farming, says Adams, “Carbon is the food of life.” Here’s how nature intended it to work:
- Plants take in carbon from the air, convert some of it into energy, and pump out the rest through their roots.
- Organisms in the soil feed on the carbon, supply nutrients to the plants, and enable soil to absorb water efficiently and withstand droughts and other extreme weather.
- As long as there is plenty of life below ground, massive amounts of carbon are stored in the soil, instead of escaping into the atmosphere
By killing off life in the soil, herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other farming practices have broken the cycle. Depleted soil floods easily, leads to toxic run-off, can’t withstand drought, produces poor-quality food, and contributes to air pollution. But it can be rescued.
Did you know?
Since the 1970s, just one regenerative farming technique—not tilling the land—has reduced carbon dioxide in our air as much as a year’s emissions from 50 million cars.
Saving Farms Through Regenerative Agriculture
Brown's Ranch in North Dakota is a prime example of regenerated land. Gabe Brown bought his farm in 1991 and started farming the usual way, tilling the land and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and it didn’t go well. Several years of hailstorms and droughts left him on the brink of ruin, until he started learning about alternative methods.
“I was a farmer, but I didn’t know about the soil,” he recalls. For example, he says, “Tilling the land is releasing carbon into the air instead of feeding the plants,” so he stopped tilling. Planting many varieties of cover crops and rotating animals on grazing land are among the other regenerative techniques that gradually made his land much more fertile and able to withstand extreme weather changes and produce more nutritious food.
One of the ways soil scientists evaluate soil health is by measuring how much rainfall it can absorb in an hour—better absorption prevents floods, stores water for times of drought, prevents erosion, and helps keep local streams clean. Brown’s farm went from ½ inch to 8 inches per hour. One day, 13 inches of rain fell in less than 6 hours and his land happily soaked it up while a neighboring conventional farm was still flooded three weeks later because dead soil can’t absorb water.
Brown’s farm has become very successful, and he has become a leading advocate of regenerative farming, helping other farmers to rescue their land. “We have to become regenerative to fix the human health crisis,” he says. And, he encourages everyone to buy food produced this way and help drive the growth of this type of farming. “We underestimate the importance of our buying decisions,” he says.
Cleaning the Environment
“The soil has an incredible ability to store a lot of carbon,” says Adams, but only if it’s rich in living organisms. As those organisms die off, carbon is released into the air. Scientists at Ohio State University have estimated that cultivated land around the world has lost up to 70 percent of the carbon it once held.
The process can be reversed by revitalizing soil, depending on how much of the world’s farmland is cultivated in the future with regenerative methods. If these practices became the norm, they could, theoretically, solve a significant part of the world’s carbon problem.
The Role of Animals
Industrial feedlots may be inhumane polluters, but on regenerative farms, healthy animals thrive while playing a vital role in enhancing the land. “When we focus on ‘animals are bad,’ we’re missing the boat,” says Nicole Hahn Niman, author of Defending Beef, a former environmental lawyer, and a vegetarian since her college days. “If you just look at any kind of natural system,” she adds, “there’s a tremendous interrelationship, a very complex kind of tapestry between the plants and animals.”
How to Go Beyond Organic
“Make it a journey and begin to learn more about your food,” says Hahn Niman, “without becoming obsessive.” In addition to buying organic and local whenever possible, she suggests:
- Ask if food was produced in a way that enhances the soil and keeps it alive.
- Seek out pasture-raised hens, as well as grass-fed beef.
- Get more connected with food by growing some of your own, maybe starting with herbs on the kitchen windowsill.
- Grow food in your own garden, or join a community garden.
Kernza: The Breakthrough Grain
A new type of grain developed by The Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization that designs alternatives to destructive farming techniques, Kernza can help reverse soil depletion. Traditional grains deplete soil because they are annual plants; seeds must be planted each year and are harvested a few months later, leaving the soil fallow and exposed to erosion, with no food for living organisms. Kernza is a perennial; once planted, it lives for many years, producing an annual grain crop.
Kernza has very deep roots, which grow to about 10 feet in a year. “Those roots are there to take up whatever resources are available and they’re forming a network that holds the soil and prevents erosion all year round,” says Lee De Haan, PhD, lead Kernza scientist at the institute.
“If our growing of grains undermines the system, eventually it will collapse, as historically civilizations that are dependent upon annual grain crops have collapsed as they deplete their soils,” he says. “So we’re trying to have a system that has natural sustainability like natural ecosystems do, by allowing the plant to be one that lives for many years in one place.”
So far, Kernza has been used to make Long Root Ale (hopworksbeer.com), and farmers have started growing it for grain foods. So you may be seeing Kernza soon, in a store near you.
“It’s said that a teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microorganisms than all the people on earth,” says Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer and regenerative pioneer. And those organisms are essential for nutritious food, resilient farmland, and clean air.
Regenerative Farming Resources
To learn more about regenerative farming, try these resources: