- - Soil Health

To Increase Profits, Build Soil Health: Regenerative Agriculture

Across generations and geographic regions, an increasing number of consumers are searching for foods that are healthier for both themselves and the environment. Consumers value transparency in where and how their food is grown. And now, major food companies are responding to this demand by rolling out ambitious sustainability initiatives. These direct partnerships can often provide benefits to both corporations and the growers they’re working with—a win-win.

Recently, many such plans have focused on regenerative agriculture: a way of farming that promotes healthier ecosystems by rebuilding soil organic matter. While regenerative practices are nothing new to agriculture—and the term “regenerative organic” was popularized as a grassroots effort among farmers and activists in the 1980s—corporations have been bringing the concept into mainstream discourse.

In 2017, McDonald’s announced a “small but potentially significant project to measure and analyze the ability of cattle farming to sequester carbon in soil.” In 2018, Danone announced a commitment of up to $6 million towards research on soil health. This year, General Mills committed to bringing regenerative agriculture practices to 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. Indigo Agriculture just unveiled The Terraton Initiative, which incentivizes farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices with the goal of sequestering 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The conversations surrounding transparency in food production have begun to move beyond the broad realm of “sustainability” into more specific measures benefiting soil health, the water cycle, and farmers’ bottom line.

But what exactly does regenerative agriculture mean, and how does it benefit growers?


A Systems Approach

Regenerative agriculture is neither organic nor conventional. It adheres to a set of principles but will look different to farmers in different regions. In short, regenerative agricultural practices build healthier ecosystems through a holistic approach to growing food and raising livestock—regenerating topsoil, increasing biodiversity, and improving the water cycle. This increases farms’ resilience in times of drought or heavy rain as well as decreases susceptibility to pests and disease; similar to a healthier immune system for the soil.

There are five main regenerative agriculture principles.

  • Minimize soil disturbance. One teaspoon of soil has more living organisms than there are people on Earth. And healthy soil contains a lot of air, making it porous like a sponge. Tillage weakens the structure and can cause soil to collapse on itself, turning solid and brick-like. This means it’s more difficult for water to be absorbed and stored in the ground. Regenerative practices reduce both chemical and physical disturbance—for growers, this means both tillage and the application of inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
  • Maximize crop diversity. Feeding soil a diverse diet allows more nutrients to cycle to plants, leaving the soil both healthier and less susceptible to drought, pests, or disease. Crop variety means some plants deplete the soil of certain nutrients and minerals, while others restore them. For this, growers need access to markets for a larger diversity of crops, and food companies can help create these markets.
  • Keep the soil covered. Whether through cover crops or plant residues, keeping a natural armor on the ground protects soil from wind or water erosion, lowers soil-level temperature, and feeds microorganisms, which are essential to healthy soil.
  • Keep a living root year-round. Living roots feed the soil microbes, a key soil health component. And much of the carbon fixed by photosynthesis is released through living roots, increasing the soil organic matter.
  • Integrate livestock. Grazing livestock after harvest or before planting stimulates the plants to pump more carbon into the soil, driving that nutrient cycle. Regenerative agriculture practitioners say the key is in a high density and frequent moves for this livestock. Many have bolstered this cycle’s potential for mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration. For growers, grazing cover crops or corn stalks has a direct and immediate impact on soil health and fertility.

With one-third of the world’s topsoil acutely degraded, according to the United Nations, and researchers predicting a complete degradation within 60 years if current agricultural practices continue, focusing on rebuilding soils is key for agricultural productivity and food security. And while regenerative agriculture promises long-term environmental benefits, many taking up the practice are seeing the benefits in their bottom line.

Focusing on rebuilding soils is key for agricultural productivity and food security.


The Benefits

Building soil organic matter—or the fraction of the soil consisting of decomposing plant/animal tissue—is key to a host of benefits for growers. By providing better aggregation, pores, and soil structure, soil organic matter reduces nutrient runoff and erosion while increasing water-holding capacity. Soils range in organic matter content with typical values measuring 2% to 10% soil organic matter; each 1% increase helps the soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre. For growers, this means crops are less susceptible to drought and flooding—a crucial tool as severe flooding devastates the Midwestern planting season after the nation’s wettest 12 months on record, and California's droughts become more frequent and severe.

While many regenerative systems focus on a diversified portfolio and specialty crops, the principles can easily be applied to benefit commodity crop growers. In a 2018 study, for example, researchers found that regenerative farming systems provided greater ecosystem services and profitability for farmers than an input-intensive model of corn production.

According to researchers, pests were 10-times more abundant in insecticide-treated corn fields than on insecticide-free, regenerative farms in the study. And while the regenerative fields produced 29% less grain, they led to 78% higher profits compared to traditional corn production systems.

“Profit was positively correlated with the particulate organic matter of the soil, not yield,” the authors write.

It’s been reported that, in one study, conventional farms spent 32% of their gross income to grow the crop, while regenerative farms in the study spent only 12%. In regenerative systems, growers save on input costs such as fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide, as well as buying seeds not treated with insecticide.

What’s more is when plants have stronger rooting systems and the soil provides nutrients necessary to thrive, they’re able to build compounds to protect themselves from insects and disease. Increased plant diversity leads to increased insect diversity—meaning a self-regulating mix of “good” and “bad” bugs.

Increasing Momentum

One of those at the forefront of the movement is Gabe Brown, a North Dakota rancher. Twenty years ago, his 5,400 acres were heavily degraded. After four consecutive crop failures from 1995 to 1998, all due to severe weather, Brown looked for ways to cut input costs on his financially struggling operation. By incorporating green manure crops, planting multi-species and diverse cover-crops, and practicing intensive rotational grazing, he reduced his commercial fertilizer use by 90% and his herbicide use by 75%.

Now, Brown’s soil organic matter has increased from 1 to 14%, feeding the soil’s teeming microbes and storing three-times more water to protect the land in times of drought.

Brown is credited for playing a large role in popularizing the regenerative agriculture movement. He outlines his family’s story of transitioning to regenerative practices in his book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, but he also saw the opportunity to educate technical service providers and agronomists on the benefits. Now, Brown hosts webinars, speaks at conferences, and posts resources on soil health and holistic management to benefit others.

The regenerative movement has been gaining traction from Europe to Africa to the American midwest, though it is in many ways still a grassroots movement. In the nonprofit world, 250 partner organizations throughout the world have formed Regeneration International, which identifies regional best practices and hopes to spread the “message of hope through regeneration.” Farmers themselves have convened to share resources and troubleshoot—a regenerative agriculture Facebook group now has more than 22,400 members discussing, with that number continually growing.

Farmers can access educational resources, connect with other growers, and find local extension services, conferences, and events through organizations like Regeneration International, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Soil Health Academy. As extreme weather events put stress on farming operations throughout the world and consumer demand for more sustainably produced food increases, more and more organizations aim to help growers convert to more regenerative practices for better soil health.