What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Our definition of Regenerative Agriculture is inclusive: a holistic practice stemming from Indigenous knowledge and techniques that have been cultivated over many years. This encompasses agriculture, food, social, and business systems that increase biodiversity, enrich soil, improve food, air, and water quality, and increase carbon sequestration, thereby mitigating climate change.

The terms we use are important. What’s the difference between sustainable and regenerative food growing?

Sustainable food growing and land management is about sustaining the status quo, or stopping when we reach “net zero”. Unfortunately, in most cases, the status quo is pretty damaged. Regenerative food growing and land management seek to heal and actively restore, to “go one better” by regenerating soil, land, food, community. Regeneration is an ongoing process, especially in a changing climate where unexpected challenges are the new norm.

Indigenous Land Management Leadership

Indigenous people have long been leaders in the regenerative agriculture movement, as well as the climate movement as a whole. Long before the European incursion, Indigenous nations managed land for its health and regeneration as well as for food, fiber, fuel, medicine, ritual items, crafts, clothing, and more. Today, Indigenous people are guardians of our planet’s land and biodiversity; Native people are responsible for protecting 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity. Indigenous regenerative practices and values are the roots of contemporary regenerative agriculture. 

Find the native land in your local area at Native Land. Also, check out our webinar exploring equity and Indigenous roots in land-based movements and regenerative agriculture.

Photo credit: Native Land

Indigenous land management is being recommended by the U.N. and Canada and sought after by land managers in the U.S. for information on regenerative land, especially now in the context of a changing climate and resource scarcity. This has come in the wake of countless Indigenous nations fighting for sovereignty and the right to manage the lands they once stewarded before colonialism.

A list of articles on Indigenous Agricultural and Environmental Knowledge Systems is here, as well as more information on the #LandBack movement forged by Indigenous activists.

Connecting Regenerative Agriculture to Other Environmental Issues

We live in an interconnected world, and the way we manage our land and food system has concrete impacts on the lives and health of people, animals, ecosystems, and the planet. By supporting regenerative agriculture and localizing our food system, we can also start to address environmental problems like climate change, soil health, carbon sequestration, water conservation, and farm and farmer resilience.


Carbon Sequestration and Climate Change

The role of agriculture in mitigating climate change is incredibly promising. The Rodale Institute estimates that if all pastures and cropland were to be converted into regenerative agriculture, more than 100 percent of current annual C02 emissions could be captured and stored

Implementing regenerative agricultural practices should be incorporated as part of a multi-dimensional climate solution. As we cross more climate-tipping points that cannot be undone, acting quickly and considering all of our options are critical.

Soil Health

In the United States, it’s estimated that we only have about 60 years left of harvestable topsoil — if we continue farming using industrial agricultural practices, including monocropping, tilling, and fertilizer and pesticide application. This has huge implications for human health and food accessibility. 

Utilizing regenerative practices revitalizes our soils. Not only does healthy soil allow us to produce adequate food for everyone, but it also greatly improves the nutrition and quality of the food we grow. Healthy soil with healthy root systems holds more water and stores water deeper underground, making it more resilient to drought; supports biodiversity, which is essential for healthy ecosystems and helps to keep the spread of disease and viruses in check; and sequesters more carbon, helping us in the fight against climate change. When soil is healthier, it is better able to provide for us and more resilient to the effects of climate change, which means that farmers are better supported and more able to handle climate shocks, too.

Resilience to Drought and Flood

The USDA calls healthy soils “water in the bank,” and for good reason. When soil is healthy, it is rich in organic matter and living organisms. In turn, the soil is better equipped to store water and deliver it to plants. Things like worms and arthropods create porous openings that allow the water to flow through the soil for storage; when the land is tilled, the aggregates that hold the soil together are destroyed, compromising the soil’s water-retention abilities. Healthy soils also support deeper root systems, which help to move water deep underground for storage. 

On the flipside, healthy soils are also beneficial during flood years. The Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that “building healthier soils could reduce runoff in flood years by nearly one-fifth, cut flood frequency by the same amount, and make as much as 16 percent more water available for crops to use during dry periods.” 

Preventing Dead Zones

Image credit: SERC

Regenerative Agriculture practices include using significantly less pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. By applying a responsible amount of fertilizers, less chemicals are absorbed into the soil and the watershed. As the water from our soil flows out into the streams and rivers, excess agricultural fertilizers that aren’t absorbed by crops eventually flow out into the ocean. This is where a process called eutrophication takes place. Eutrophication occurs when excess fertilizers cause algae to bloom excessively at the mouths of rivers and in coastal waters. Then, as the algae dies and decays, it creates carbon dioxide. Excess carbon dioxide causes the water to become low in oxygen (hypoxic) and more acidic, which is inhabitable for fish. NOAA found that 65% of the researched estuaries and coastal waters in the contiguous U.S. are moderately to severely degraded by excessive nutrient inputs. This process is extremely harmful to environments as a whole, in addition to already endangered ocean ecosystems. By practicing regenerative agricultural practices such as responsible fertilizer application, we hope to reduce the amount of eutrophication.

Regenerative Agriculture, Human Health, and Equity

Regenerative agriculture not only seeks to restore the soil, but our entire food system. It is impossible to separate the humans within the food system — from the farmer to the harvester to the packager to the grocery store worker to the consumer, and everyone in between — from how food is grown and how it ends up on our plates. A regenerative food system seeks to right the many injustices within the food system by addressing issues like food sovereignty, food accessibility, nutrition, and workers’ rights. 

Our committee stands in support of food system workers’ rights, improved food access and food nutrition for all people, particularly communities of people of color, and food sovereignty.

Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty is an essential component of resilient, nurtured communities. Just as food can connect someone with their community and culture, lack of healthy, traditional food can also limit the power and autonomy of individuals. 

The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance expands on this concept: “[food sovereignty] asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between providers and those who eat.” For communities and identities who have been made vulnerable through systemic processes and mechanisms — like Indigenous peoples and people of color — food sovereignty is especially imperative.

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

– Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

Seed Stewardship

Saving our own seeds not only ensures that we will continue to have strong seeds adapted to our area, but also preserves the history of the food our ancestors grew and ate before us. Seed sovereignty ensures that each seed saver and the community has the power of food, rather than giving power to industrial agriculture corporations (Big Ag).

Big Ag produces weak seeds that cannot stand on their own without the corporations’ other inputs (fertilizers and biocides), feeding into monopolistic growth. Furthermore, Big Ag uses biological practices to patent their seeds, which mutates the food we eat from its natural state, contaminates organic seeds, and makes seeds privatized and inaccessible to others. For this reason, seed stewardship is an important part of regenerative agriculture. By empowering seed stewardship and managing seeds holistically, we can ensure that food as we know it will be preserved for generations to come.  For more information on seed advocacy, we recommend visiting https://seedalliance.org/advocacy/ 

Workers’ Rights

Food system workers are the backbone of our livelihoods–the reason that most of us have food on our table. Yet historically, agricultural workers have often been the most exploited, dating back to the system of slavery within our country; disparities and inequities today are rooted in structural racism. Food system workers are often exposed to harsh working and weather conditions; are denied basic workplace protections and benefits, such as healthcare, a minimum wage, overtime pay, and workers’ compensation; and are at high risk of occupational injury.

Our committee stands and advocates for a food system that recognizes that people need to be the focal point, which means ensuring that all workers have safe working conditions, that basic human rights are upheld in the food chain, and that workers are justly compensated.

Animal Welfare

Through rotational grazing and holistic management, animals are a key part of regenerative agriculture. Many within the regenerative agriculture movement strongly believe that animals should be allowed to graze in a way that mimics nature, which not only promotes healthy soil, but is also more humane. Feel free to check out our webinar featuring Mad Agriculture‘s Clark Harshbarger where he discusses holistic land management!