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What is Regenerative Farming and What Does it Mean for Our Health and the Environment?Food
If you're someone who spends equal time cry-laughing through Instagram reels and poring over grocery store labels in search of healthy/environmentally-conscious noms, you may be wondering about the new food word "regenerative." (For the record – yes, we are also proudly those people.) Is "regenerative" really that different from "organic" or "sustainable," you may ask? We've got you covered so you can feel more informed the next time you sojourn through your virtual or in-person grocery aisle!
What does "Regenerative" mean? (Hint: it has nothing to do with generators)
To sum it up, regenerative agriculture (or regenerative ag) not only seeks to "do no harm" by omitting bad stuff from our food, but it also aspires to "regenerate" the land and all things living in it (1,2). Building soil health is where it all begins. This basically means taking what looks like regular old dirt and cultivating within it beneficial microorganisms, root systems, and friendly bugs/worms. These busy networks of soil life barter important nutrients and perform some cool biochemistry, with rippling benefits across neighboring ecosystems. Practices used to build soil health can include: cover crops/crop rotation (growing nutrient-giving stuff after harvesting nutrient-grabbing stuff), multiple cropping (adding variety to attract more diverse bugs/nutrients), "no till" planting (not messing with the soil too much), and rotational animal grazing (letting our roaming friends drop nutrients, mow the grass, and break open the soil for us). Though distinct from organic farming, regenerative ag often avoids synthetic chemical use and incorporates organic practices.
How can agriculture be that good for the environment?
It might be hard to imagine how farming can lead to these types of ecological benefits, given how often we hear about its downsides! But—hang with us—here are a few ways regenerative ag works for the environment:
- Happier microorganisms and habitats: when farms use fewer (or zero!) synthetic chemicals, they help build a more active and biodiverse community of soil organisms (3, 4). Cultivating healthy soil with biodiverse plants (rather than monocultures) make better habitats for local pollinators like birds and bees! (5, 6). *Side note: if you just had a flashback to middle school sex ed, you're not alone.
- Cleaner water: thriving soils with deeply rooted plants contribute to more effective water filtration and cleaner watersheds (7, 8). And decreasing fertilizer run-off into water supports fish and marine environments by reducing toxic algae blooms (9).
- Decreased greenhouse gases: Here's the (slightly) simplified version of how that works… When animals frolic and poo around, they loosen and fertilize the soil; grasses and crops then have better conditions to grow. As the grasses/crops grow, they take carbon dioxide out of the air and use it to create food/roots/leaves (here's a photosynthesis pic if it's been a minute). Grass roots especially can grow very deep, so animal poo can facilitate a lot of carbons storage in the ground! This is also known as carbon sequestration. (10).
- Mitigated flooding and erosion: the combination of rotational animal grazing and grass/crop planting helps establish root networks and makes soil more permeable (see above point and thanks again, animal poo). Roots help prevent erosion by holding onto the soil and permeable soil reduces flooding by allowing more water to seep in (11).
- Restored environment: all of these together mean a cleaner, less toxic, more biodiverse and more beautiful environment!
Regenerative is also good for our health…
Here are a few of its direct human health benefits:
- Foundation for health: similar to our amazing gut microbes (really, could they be any cooler?), beneficial soil microbes also build an important foundation for resilient animal, ecosystem, and human health (12, 13, 14).
- Improved nutrient quality: animals raised in regenerative settings roam freely and chow down on pasture and/or grass. Not only is this better for animals, but the animal products also have healthier proportions of fats and nutrients (15, 16).
- Healthier animals: animals pick up fewer hitch-hiking pathogens when they're healthy and have enough space, which means we then have less exposure to food-borne pathogens (like E. coli). Also, when animals don't need as many meds, fewer endocrine-disrupting antibiotics and chemicals end up in our food and water systems!
- Reduced toxic exposure and disease: less pesticides and synthetic fertilizer use means our farmworkers are exposed less often to toxic chemicals and therefore at decreased risk for chronic disease. And those who eat the food have reduced exposure and risk as well!
- *Bonus*: all the environmental benefits mentioned above contribute to our long-term health as well!
How to get regenerative in your life
Your herb-growing capacity might just be some cute windowsill space, so how can you incorporate regenerative practices and products into your day-to-day?
- Search for local farms that use regenerative practices and get to know them (in a pandemic friendly sort of way). Usually if farms are doing regenerative ag, they show it and want to talk about it!
- If you want to find more standardized products, look for the Regenerative Organic Certification—they build on organic principles with strict standards for soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. The Land to Market seal includes regenerative ag fashion products as well (see their Regenerative Buying Guide).
- Keep an eye out for other products that say they're regenerative. "Regenerative" itself is not a standardized term, but you can always look up the farm/producer and learn more about their practices.
- Use modified regenerative practices in your own garden! Try a "no till" approach. Improve your soil health and nutrient content by planting cover crops like fava beans. Consider planting diverse native plants/grasses that establish deep roots and provide a habitat for pollinators. Your HOA (or family) may not want a sheep in the front yard, but you can still make an impact without acres of farmland!
- Reduce or eliminate harmful pesticides/fertilizers as much as possible, opting for organic compost/fertilizers/pest management instead!
- Learn more! The Rodale Institute and Savory Institute are both great resources.
- Be curious and have fun!