Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Q: I was blown away when I saw the documentary Kiss the Ground, and learned how important regenerating the soil is to so many things, including growing nutrient-dense food that keeps us healthy, efficiently absorbing both carbon dioxide and water, and positively impacting weather extremes. What are the best ways I can take action as a consumer to support regenerative farming?
A: Most people don’t understand how critical healthy soil is for supporting a web of health and environmental matters they care about—everything from producing nutritious food and conserving water when growing crops to stabilizing Earth’s climate. Which is why the new movement toward regenerative farming is so important.
As Kiss the Ground (now on Netflix) explains, in many areas of the world where crops historically have been grown, a process called “desertification” is occurring: Land has turned, or is turning, into desert or bare ground. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other conventional farming practices have killed off living organisms in the soil. The result is that living, fertile soil becomes dirt. Because it is depleted in nutrients and important micro-organisms, dirt doesn’t efficiently absorb and hold water. It floods easily, leads to toxic runoff, can’t withstand weather extremes, and produces poor-quality food—or no food at all.
The film presents feed-the-soil solutions based on the principles of regenerative farming, which is also sometimes called “carbon farming.” It is a set of practices—including avoiding tilling, planting cover crops, applying compost, and managing grazing—that builds organic matter in the soil. This leads to the soil storing more water and drawing more carbon out of the atmosphere. Formerly barren land then transforms into fertile land filled with a diversity of vegetation.
Animals grazing and leaving their droppings is an especially critical step in regenerative farming, because it adds organic matter to the soil that helps it become alive with important microorganisms. That’s the system of improving the land that nature designed. This is in direct opposition to the unnatural system of animals raised in industrial feedlots, which destroys healthy soil and damages animals’ health and the environment.
Organic vs. Regenerative Farming
Once you understand the importance of healthy soil and the ways it helps improve human, animal, and environmental health, you naturally may want to buy food produced using regenerative farming practices. But if you’re like most consumers, you may not know how to identify products produced using techniques that improve soil health.
It’s common to believe that choosing products with the USDA organic label is the best way to support regenerative farming. But that’s not always true. Going organic is an excellent way to avoid synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but the organic seal doesn’t directly tell you about whether the food was grown in healthy, regenerated soil. Soil quality is not among the criteria needed to receive organic certification.
7 Ways to Take Action That Supports Regenerative Farming
By making conscious, informed purchasing decisions, you can eat well, build soil, and regenerate the planet. In addition to buying organic as much as possible, add to that strategy in the following ways:
1. Buy seasonal, local foods that have been grown in healthy soil.
At farmers markets, ask local food producers if they practice techniques to regenerate the soil, such as no tilling, using cover crops, rotating crops, and adding compost. You can also search for regenerative-focused food producers in your area at RegenerationInternational.org.
2. Choose meat that helps regenerate the land.
Avoid commercial meat from animals that have been raised in unhealthy confined feedlots, and seek out 100 percent grass-fed, grass-finished meat labeled in a way to mean more than just that the animal was fed grass at one point in its life. The Eat4Climate Purchasing Guide by the nonprofit organization Kiss the Ground suggests looking for these certifications:
- American Grassfed Association (AGA Certified)
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Pasture Raised
- Global Animal Partnership Certified (Steps 4 and 5)
3. Choose dairy products that help regenerate the land.
Again, look for products from grass-fed and grass-finished animals that are raised by ranchers who use managed grazing, regularly moving their animals onto different fields.
4. Add more perennial crop foods to your diet.
Perennials are plants that live longer than two years. Some perennial trees and bushes even live for hundreds of years. Perennials establish deep roots in the soil, protecting the land and drawing down carbon year after year. Examples of perennials include walnuts, coconuts, bananas, peaches, oranges, apples, asparagus, cacao, coffee, and tea.
In contrast, annual crops live for only one growing season and must be replanted every year. The farming of annuals can be destructive to soil if it isn’t done through regenerative practices. Annual plants to eat less of include corn, beans, wheat, rice, lettuce, carrots, and potatoes.
5. Use avocado, olive, or coconut oil.
These oils are made from perennial crops, as opposed to oils grown from annual crops such as corn, soy, canola, peanut, and sunflower oils, which should be avoided. Choose organic avocado, olive, and coconut oils from companies that maintain strong environmental commitments.
6. Be on the lookout for new products marketed as “sustainably produced” or produced through regenerative practices.
(See below for examples.) We’re at the beginning of a movement that is widely expected to grow dramatically in the future.
7. Choose Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) products.
(See below for examples.) ROC is a revolutionary new certification for food, fiber, and personal care ingredients. ROC farms and products meet the highest standards for soil health, pasture-based animal welfare, and farmworker fairness. ROC encompasses organic farming, and then raises the bar, prioritizing improving soil health and building soil carbon.
A pilot ROC program was launched by the Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s, and Patagonia in 2018 and 2019. That has been completed, and consumers can now find the first group of Regenerative Organic Certified products wherever organic products are sold. Learn more about this certification at Regenorganic.org.
Finally, plant more trees and try growing food in your own garden. Kiss the Ground’s message is: Let’s collectively take action to support healthy soil, which will revitalize the regenerative power of Earth itself.
Regenerative-Oriented Companies and Products to Know
Some companies offer products that have met Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) certification standards. Before being eligible for ROC, farms must first hold USDA organic certification. ROC then adds further criteria to ensure soil health, pasture-based animal welfare, and social fairness for farmworkers. Regenerative organic farming is widely considered the highest standard for agriculture around the world. The first brands and farms to display the Regenerative Organic Certified label include:
- Apricot Lane Farms Avocado Oil
- Dr. Bronner’s Regenerative Organic Coconut Oil
- Nature’s Path Oats
- Grain Place Foods Popcorn and Cornmeal
- Patagonia Provisions Regenerative Organic Chile Mango
- Lotus Foods Brown and White Basmati Rice
- Sol Simple Regenerative Dried Fruit
Though not certified, some companies make products that are marketed as produced through regenerative farming or aquaculture methods, including:
Akua creates foods made from kelp, a crop that requires no fresh water, no fertilizer, no feed, and no arid land to grow. Kelp also filters carbon from the water. The company sources the kelp it uses from regenerative ocean farms along the Northeast coast of the United States.
Force of Nature produces 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished meat that is regeneratively sourced, conservation-focused, carbon-sequestering, and soil-building.
Serenity Kids sells certified organic baby food in shelf-stable squeeze pouches. Its ingredients—meats, fruits, and vegetables—are sourced from small family farms that use regenerative techniques to improve soil microbial health, reduce water runoff, and sequester carbon.