Defining Regenerative Agriculture

Image: Soul Fire Farm/Instagram

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

The American agriculture system is in need of an overhaul. A combination of more erratic weather resulting from climate change and years of soil depletion make it nearly impossible to simply continue monoculture farming. An approach called regenerative agriculture could change the system. But even as farmers and agriculture policy experts agree that regenerative agriculture is the future, what it means in practice isn’t codified, The Counter reports. Broadly speaking, the term could mean focusing on:

  • Processes, like low-till or no-till farming that doesn’t disturb carbon in the soil, or planting cover crops
  • Outcomes, like measuring how much carbon is sequestered or better water quality
  • Or a combination of both, “suggesting that both the what and the how matter.” 

Why This Matters: Right now, the U.S. farming system is optimized for yield and little else. Regenerative agriculture has the potential to reduce the sector’s climate impact (currently about 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions) — but it could do much more. Black and Native farmers have been practicing this type of farming without the label for generations, even as they were forced off their land. How regenerative agriculture is defined and who informs possible government programs could help address deeper issues around justice and land ownership.

 

What Regenerative Ag Could Be: With the U.S. farmer population aging, an estimated 70% of farmland will change ownership in the next decade. That presents an immense opportunity for making it easier for Indigenous and Black farmers to afford the skyrocketing cost of farmland. Returning to the style of farming that these communities have practiced for generations means less monoculture, less machinery, and more ecological care.

The goal isn’t to have as few laborers as possible and make this as cheap as possible. The goal is for land connection to be mutually beneficial for land and people,” Liz Carlisle, professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara told The Counter.

We need to celebrate people as the key tool rather than a chemical or a piece of equipment, and we need to pay them and value their work in those systems. We have to see it is possible for agricultural work to be remunerative and joyful—not see it only as a source of potential injury or exposure to chemicals. We have to see that people can live good lives on land, and the work that happens in food systems should be designed around that goal.” 

The Need: Regenerative agriculture that centers BIPOC farmers can also help solve the food insecurity issues that disproportionately affect minority and Indigenous communities. As Green America wrote, the systemic denial of access to farming means that many African Americans and other people of color depend largely on retailers like grocery stores to get fresh foods, but too often retailers fail to show up in lower-income neighborhoods.

  • Lack of access to healthy foods has had profound health effects, with 21.2 percent of Black households and 16.2 percent of Hispanic households experiencing food insecurity—the USDA’s measure for decreased access to healthy and varied food.
  • Meanwhile, only 8.1 percent of white households are food insecure, according to 2018 USDA data.
  • It’s for this reason that Soul Fire Farm–an organization based in Grafton, New York, with a mission to end racism and injustice within the US food system–was founded.

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