Organic over conventional. Regenerative over sustainable. The recent shifts in our preferences when it comes to agriculture illuminate our modern understanding of how agricultural practices can and should work. Although the term “regenerative agriculture” is not new (the Rodale Institute coined it in the 1980s), it has entered popular parlance as the need for a more holistic and restorative model of agriculture has become apparent.
Regenerative agriculture focuses on rebuilding soil health using cover crops, minimal tillage, and rotational livestock grazing. While sustainable agriculture focuses on maintaining a status quo, regenerative agriculture also actively rebuilds and repairs essential ecological functions, from soil microbes to carbon sequestration.
The History of Regenerative Agriculture For millennia, Indigenous cultures have employed methods of regenerative agriculture. Still, it wasn’t until the 1980s that those methods were labeled as such and came into widespread use within farming and academic circles. Robert Rodale, the son of Rodale Institute founder J.I. Rodale, began using the term to describe an organic farming system based on natural processes and holistic management.
Along with the Rodale Institute, Allan Savory has been a prominent voice in implementing regenerative agriculture practices around the globe. Savory, who in 1984 founded the Savory Institute, learned much of his holistic management and agricultural methods from livestock herders in Zimbabwe. These methods focus on using livestock to mitigate desertification and reverse climate change by grazing livestock on both desertified and intact grasslands. Today, regenerative agriculture is implemented worldwide, with specific practices adapted to unique ecological regions and particular native plants and animals.
Livestock Management One of the foundations of regenerative agriculture is the use of ruminant livestock for the restoration of soil and plant life. Ruminants—animals with multiple stomach chambers that can eat and digest cellulose (grass)—have existed on the landscape for nearly 50 million years. These animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, bison, elk, and deer, survive on grass and other plants that often grow on land that is otherwise incapable of producing edible crops for humans.
Arable versus non-arable land is a significant component of regenerative agriculture. Arable land, named for the Latin word arabilis, meaning “able to be plowed,” consists of nearly 1.3 billion hectares worldwide. The rest of that land—about 5 billion hectares—is considered non-arable and is, therefore, best suited for livestock grazing. When managed regeneratively, livestock grazing on pasture and grasslands can sequester more carbon in the soil than they emit, resulting in a net loss of atmospheric carbon. Grazing also provides aeration and manure, which rebuilds topsoil and mitigates water loss from runoff or evaporation.
Regenerative livestock grazing measures livestock pounds per acre. This focuses on the number of animals on the landscape and how often they are rotated through a specific piece of land. With cattle, for example, the maximum grazing yield averages out to between 15 to 23 cows per acre. However, the number of cows per acre is useless if those animals aren’t rotated through pastures consistently.
Historically, elk, deer, and bison herds were pushed across the landscape by wolves, bears, coyotes, and other predators. By mimicking those movements, regenerative livestock management works to rotate livestock herds through pastures in a way that simulates a predator-prey relationship. This concept ensures that animals don’t stay too long on any particular patch of land, allowing large swaths of pasture or grassland to be grazed and then left alone for an efficient re-growth period before the dense herd moves back on to the land.
Grazing and Cover Crops The main goal of regenerative agriculture is to rebuild soil life and health. Another positive byproduct of this regrowth is that it requires the drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere. As soil microbes are rebuilt using livestock grazing and cover crops, the plants growing in that soil can build deeper, more robust root systems. These roots systems store carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and sequester it deep underground.
Grazing and cover crops work to enhance carbon sequestration in two ways. First, by grazing livestock on the plants rather than tilling or pulling them from the ground, those plants are merely shorn, and the roots (and carbon) are left undisturbed. Secondly, through photosynthesis, cover crops consume carbon dioxide, drawing it into the roots. If these crops are left in the ground and either grazed or allowed to mulch back into the soil, they work as a nearly permanent carbon sink. Cover crop diversity also builds resilience against pests and diseases, mitigating the need for chemical inputs and thus maintaining soil health.
Carbon vs. Methane One of the main concerns regarding regenerative agriculture is that the closed-loop system requires the presence of livestock. As a result, many conversations around climate change focus on the detrimental effects of agriculture, specifically the methane production from animal agriculture.
While it is true that methane is a greenhouse gas that affects climate change, it differs from carbon in terms of atmospheric lifespan. Carbon is essentially permanent; once released into the atmosphere, it will not disappear on its own. Methane, on the other hand, only sticks around for about 12 years in the atmosphere. This short lifespan and the carbon sequestration benefit of regenerative grazing practices indicate a potentially net-zero carbon effect when managed correctly.
Beyond the Soil For a system to be genuinely regenerative, it must be beneficial to all systems involved. This means that while regenerative agriculture must necessarily focus on animals, plants, and soil, it must also provide for individuals and communities. There is some concern that as companies like General Mills and Cargill make public commitments to pursue regenerative agricultural practices, the term and the movement will lose meaning if farmworkers and rural communities become buried under corporate marketing schemes.
To ensure that regenerative agriculture follows through on its myriad promises, it will likely need to go the route of "USDA Organic," which sets federal mandates for certification and subsidies. Without accreditation, regenerative agriculture risks languishing as an undefined, unregulated ideal to be co-opted by those seeking to profit off the term rather than the actual practices.
The movement also needs to acknowledge the Black and Indigenous roots of regenerative practices, particularly in cultivating and maintaining wild landscapes in North America. This continent would not look the way it does without thousands of years of holistic land management. Those same regenerative practices may be the answer to saving, maintaining, and rebuilding these essential landscapes.