You may have come across the term “Regenerative Agriculture” and wondered what it means. Unlike “Organic”, there is no legal definition and certainly no official efforts to provide certification for farmers who want to use the term to market their products — yet.
Farming practices that are considered “regenerative” include providing wildlife habitat, generating green energy through solar or wind, and reducing or eliminating tillage. Also included on the list are soil-building, through growing cover crops and applying compost, that most organic farmers are required to do. Most of these practices reduce the carbon footprint of the farmers who use them.
But more and more of the Certified Organic food you buy in the store is grown in greenhouses, without any soil at all (hydroponically). In a decision that many of us see as tragic, the federal government decided to give indoor farmers an exemption from the rules requiring soil-building conservation practices. From an economic perspective, that gives them an enormous advantage over field growers.
In the meantime, some conventional growers who use “regenerative” practices — while still applying pesticides and fertilizers that organic growers are prohibited from using — have begun using the “R” word to market their products.
The marketing of “regenerative” focuses heavily on the idea that it can offset climate change. But while it is fairly certain that certain practices can reduce carbon emissions, the jury is out on whether agriculture can actually pull large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it. For example, it is very difficult in arid regions like California to add carbon to the soil beyond a certain point and still grow crops. But that isn’t stopping some people from making the claim anyway.
Here at Terra Firma, we have always focused on building and stewarding our soil. We also graze livestock on our crop residue, our cover crops, and in our orchards. Bringing livestock back into crop agriculture has a huge potential to reduce carbon emissions that are released by conventional livestock industry that grows feed thousands of miles away from where the animals are housed and fed.
As an organic grower who uses these practices, it increasingly angers me to have to compete with hydroponically grown vegetables shipped thousands of miles. So the idea of having a way to differentiate ourselves is appealing.
The hidden evil behind climate change is not the fossil fuel industry, or big agriculture, or the auto manufacturers. It is the “free” carbon that makes it cheaper to grow asparagus in Peru than in California, or to feed cows in Texas with grain grown in Iowa instead of grass behind the barn. Unless and until the whole world puts a price on carbon pollution, the environment costs of the stuff we buy are mostly hidden from us.
The “Regenerative” label could be a way for consumers to know that they are paying more out of their pockets for food with a smaller carbon footprint. But unless and until it is quantified and legitimized through a process of certification and oversight, I would take it with a grain of salt.
Until that happens, we’ll be out here…regenerating.