• Kimberley Megis

Regenerative Agriculture in the United States

Agriculture is associated with one third of global land use, while the global food system is contributing to 21-37 per cent of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas [1] (GHG). These alarming numbers are correlated with a growing population and never-ending demand. Agricultural land is quickly getting stripped of nutrients and minerals, leaving it infertile and making it increasingly difficult to cultivate crops.


In the United States, modern agriculture operates on an industrial scale, relying on fossil fuel inputs, multinational companies, artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides to grow output. Most cropland in the United States is characterized by large monocultures, whose productivity is maintained through a strong reliance on costly tillage and chemical products. The never-ending cycle this method of cultivating land follows only leads to further destruction of ecosystems.


Regenerative agriculture has recently received significant attention from producers, retailers, researchers, and consumers, as well as politicians and the mainstream media. It is portrayed as a way to completely transform the land, while replacing vital nutrients and restoring biodiversity.


What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is not just a buzz word that has been overused by the media recently, it is a way to rethink the current agricultural system in the United States.


Regenerative agriculture is a set of farming and grazing practices that benefit the health of agricultural land ecosystems by revitalizing soil health through a focus on organic matter which in turn generates a domino effect of positive health and environmental effects. [2]


Today’s industrial system consists of over-farming the land and can be characterized as degenerative farming, leaving the land in poorer condition than before it was cultivated. Sustainable farming has often been perceived as a solution to degenerative farming, as it no longer depletes the lands, but leaves is as it is. Sustainable agriculture is, as its name implies, a way to continue to use the land while leaving it as it is for future generations. Regenerative farming goes beyond this concept and aims at healing the land and leaving it better than it is.


Regenerative agriculture restores the amount of nutrients cycling through soil by improving soil organic matter while also increasing the soil’s potential for storing carbon. Rhodes claimed that “regenerative agriculture has at its core the intention to improve the health of soil or to restore highly degraded soil, which symbiotically enhances the quality of water, vegetation and land-productivity.” [3]

The seven principles of regenerative agriculture


Robert Rodale, head of Rodale Institute, has outlined seven tendencies towards regeneration in agriculture, known as the seven principles of regenerative agriculture. [4] Also known as the seven P’s, they describe how a system can move towards being regenerative.



Pluralism


As previously discussed, agriculture in the United States and largely based on monocultures. Pluralism means increasing the diversity in plant species.


Protection


Protection here refers to the need for larger surface cover of plants to end erosion and increasing beneficial microbial populations near the surface of the soil. Microorganisms “decompose organic matter, detoxifying the toxic substance, fixing the nitrogen, transformation of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other secondary & micronutrients are the major biochemical activities performed by microbes in soil”[5]. Decomposition of organic component by bacterias increase the soil porosity which increases the infiltration capacity, thus protects the soil from the erosion. [6]

Purity


Purity describes the intentional lack of pesticides and fertilizers in production therefore allowing a greater mass of plants and other life to exist in the soil.


Permanence


Permanence suggests the need for the development of more perennials and plants with vigorous roots.


Peace


Generally, peace refers to the harmonious relationship between human activities and nature. Growing with nature instead of fighting against it and ceasing patterns of weed and pest interference.


Potential

Potential describes the need for nutrients move upward in the soil profile or to accumulate near the surface to become more available for use by plants.


Progress

Finally, progress “encompasses the ever-improving soil quality in terms of structure and water retention capacity.” [7]



The Indigenous Origins of Regenerative Agriculture

While the Rodale Institute prides itself as the inventor of the term “regenerative organic agriculture” in the early 1980s [8], the principles of such agriculture have existed long before then.


Indigenous people in the United States have had a deep relationship with the land since time immemorial and this relationship allows for agricultural practices that work with rather than against natural systems. Regenerative agriculture has been criticised for borrowing practices from Indigenous cultures and leaving out their worldviews and hence erasing their history and contributions. [9]


As discussed before, pluralism is one of the main pillars of regenerative agriculture, which can be directly linked to the way Indigenous people managed their crops. Intercropping and polycultures were an integral part of farming as Indigenous peoples knew the importance of protecting and supporting plants. An example of this intercropping system is the famous Three Sisters: some Indigenous Peoples planted corn, beans and squash or pumpkins together in mounds, in an intercropping complex known as the Three Sisters.[10] In this context, “corn provided support for beans, beans provided nitrogen through nitrogen-fixing rhizobia bacteria that live on the roots, and squash and pumpkins provided ground cover to suppress weeds and inhibit evaporation from the soil.” [11] Growing several crops in the same field produced a diverse plant environment that was more resistant to drought and attacks by pests and by not using large open fields, Indigenous horticulture minimized the effects of erosion by wind and rain. [12]


Indigenous peoples also performed efficient water management, a key pillar of regenerative agriculture, by using mounds to conserve moisture in the soil or canals to maintain a steady supply to crops, matching flood patterns and overall being in Peace with nature.

African American contribution


The contributions of African Americans to the history of regenerative agriculture have also been greatly overlooked.


Dr. George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver can be considered one of the grandfathers of regenerative agriculture as he discovered that years of growing cotton depleted vital nutrients from soil and growing nitrogen-fixing plants such as peanuts could restore soil health. [13] Dr. Carver was an agricultural scientist, inventor, and educator at Tuskegee University who gave modern agriculture a roadmap for soil health and conservation in the 1930s. [14]

The number of Black farmers in the United States peaked in 1920, when there were 949,889, which represented 14% of farmers in the nation. In 2017, according to figures from the US Department of Agriculture, only 1.3%, or 45,508 of the country’s 3.4 million total farmers were Black. [15] Initiatives such as the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund are emerging in the US, in response to this significant decline as well as the rarity of farmland owned by Black people. Today, Black farmers only own 4.7 million acres of farmland in the U.S., which is about 0.5% of the country’s total. [16] The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund was created in 2020 and aims to address the historical racial land ownership disparity that has affected Black farmers across the country. The Fund raises money, provides monetary awards directly to farmers so they can purchase land from the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA), and accompanies and assists farmers with the development of their farms. So far, the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund has been able to help a over 70 farmers.


Another notable organization is the National Black Farmers Association. The NBFA is a non-profit organization representing African American farmers and their families in the United States that focuses on civil rights, land retention, access to public and private loans, education and agricultural training, and rural economic development for Black and other small farmers. The organization was founded by John Wesley Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation farmer from Virginia, in 1995. Boyd explains that he founded the NBFA after encountering the US Department of Agriculture's discriminatory practices first-hand and meeting many more Black farmers who shared this experience.[17] Boyd is known as one of America's most effective defenders of civil rights.

John Wesley Boyd Jr., National Black Farmers Association

Regenerative agriculture today


After a peak of interest in regenerative agriculture in the 1980s, the term and concept virtually disappeared again for a couple of decades.


The Rodale Institute launched Regenerative Organic Certified™ in 2017 and describes it as a revolutionary certification for food, textiles, and personal care ingredients with farms and products that meet the highest standards in the world for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness. [18] Today, the Institute is at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement in the United States but it is important to remember that while the term itself has only been around for some decades, practices have existed for centuries.


The term regenerative agriculture now constantly appears in the media and books as well as academic literature.


We are losing topsoil at an alarming rate. The resurgence of regenerative agriculture is good news for humanity, but fully transitioning away from degenerative agriculture in the United States will be a complex and long process.



About the Author

Kimberley has a M.Sc in International Studies (Cooperation, Development, Economics) from the University of Montreal. She is passionate about biodiversity and Indigenous peoples' land rights. Kimberley has been working with NGOs for the past couple of years as a writer, translator and researcher. During her free time, Kimberley loves to venture on long distance hikes in the wilderness.

Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/kimberley-megis

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kimberleymgs



Notes

[1] Mbow, C., and others (2019). Food Security. Climate Change and Land An IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, IPCC: Geneva.

[2] McMorris, M., & Neudorf, C. (2021). Regenerative agriculture, A part of the Lric White Paper Series, retrieved from https://www.livestockresearch.ca/uploads/cross_sectors/files/RegAg-White-Paper-Final.pdf

[3] Rhodes, C. J. (2017). The imperative for regenerative agriculture. Sci. Prog. 100, 80–129. doi: 10.3184/003685017X14876775256165

[4] Rodale Institute. (2014, January 14). The original principles of Regenerative Agriculture. Rodale Institute. Retrieved from https://rodaleinstitute.org/blog/original-principles-of-regenerative-agriculture/

[5] Bhattarai A, Bhattarai B, Pandey S. Variation of soil microbial population in different soil horizons. J Microbiol Exp. 2015;2(2):75-78. DOI: 10.15406/jmen.2015.02.00044

[6] Watson GW, Kelsey P (2006) The impact of soil compaction on soil aeration and fine root density of Quercus palustris. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening4(2): 69-74.

[7] Ibid at note 4

[8]"AFSIC History Timeline". Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, United States National Agricultural Library, USDA.

[9] Angarova, G., T. Ruka, S. Mitambo, B. Guri, K. Frederick, R. Haslett-Marroquin, M. Nelson, N. Kelley, and K. Chayne. 2020. Whitewashed hope: A message from 10+ Indigenous leaders and organizations: Regenerative agriculture and permaculture offer narrow solutions to the climate crisis.

[10] Ngapo, T.M.; Bilodeau, P.; Arcand, Y.; Charles, M.T.; Diederichsen, A.; Germain, I.; Liu, Q.; MacKinnon, S.; Messiga, A.J.; Mondor, M.; Villeneuve, S.; Ziadi, N.; Gariépy, S. Historical Indigenous Food Preparation Using Produce of the Three Sisters Intercropping System. Foods 2021, 10, 524. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10030524

[11] Mann, C.C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2nd ed.; Vintage Books: New York, NY, USA, 2011.

[12] The American Anthropological Association. (2009). Bulletin of General Anthropology Division. General Anthropology, 16(1). Retrieved from https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1939-3466.2009.00003.x

[13] Espejo, E. (2021, October). CSA's and regenerative agriculture's ties to Black history. One Earth. Retrieved from https://www.oneearth.org/csas-and-regenerative-agricultures-ties-to-black-history/#:~:text=George%20Washington%20Carver.,peanuts%20could%20restore%20soil%20health.

[14] Shea, K. (n.d.). Dr. George Washington Carver. USDA. Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/oascr/carver

[15] Sewell, S. (2019, April). There were nearly a million black farmers in 1920. Why have they disappeared? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/29/why-have-americas-black-farmers-disappeared

[16] Detroit Black Farmers Land Trust. (2022). Retrieved from http://www.detroitblackfarmer.com/about_us

[17] About. National Black Farmers Association. (2022). Retrieved from https://www.blackfarmers.org/about

[18] Farm like the world depends on it. Regenerative Organic Certified. (2022). Retrieved from https://regenorganic.org/