Gabe Brown, Understanding Ag, LLC
You cannot pick up a farm magazine, listen to a farm radio program, or talk to an agri-business spokesperson without hearing the words “regenerative agriculture.” But what is regenerative agriculture and why is it creating such interest?
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines regeneration as, “a renewal or restoration of a biological system after an injury or as a normal process.” I find this a very fitting definition because the prevalent methods being used in farming and ranching today are actually “injuring” our ecosystems. In contrast, nature wants to heal itself, thus it is a “normal process.”
Many who farm, ranch and make their living from agriculture would argue that the methods being used today do not “injure” or “degrade” our ecosystems. But let’s just look at what the current production model has done, using my own ranch as an example.
The plow that broke our soil
From historical archives we know that 140 years ago, this part of North Dakota was covered with a diverse mix of cool- and warm-season grasses and broadleaves. Immigrants moved onto these prairies, bringing with them the plow. Diverse prairies soon were turned under with tillage. Tillage crushes, smashes, and pulverizes the soil aggregates that enable healthy soil function. During this intrusive plowing process, oxygen is infused into the soil, stimulating R-Strategist opportunist bacteria. These bacteria multiply quickly and consume the highly soluble, carbon-based biotic glues. These glue substances form/hold the micro and macro aggregates together. In other words, these highly complex, super molecular glues hold the sand, silt, clay particles together creating “living and breathing space” within the subterranean soil ecosystem.
But when these glues are consumed by these opportunist bacteria, soil aggregates collapse and the silt and clay particles fill the voids, further reducing soil porosity. This reduced porosity causes anaerobic conditions which alters the type of soil biota, which may increase pathogens and a loss of nitrogen in the system because of denitrifying bacteria.
Further, once these glues are consumed as microbial energy, CO2 gas is released into the atmosphere. No one can argue the fact that too much carbon has left our soils and moved into the atmosphere. This additional source of CO2 is widely considered to be a significant contributor to what many today call climate change.
As microbes die they release soluble forms of nitrate nitrogen into the soil solution which, in turn stimulates weeds. Tillage also diminishes complex mycorrhizal fungi networks. The resulting severed hyphal network can no longer deliver complex amino acids and other complex organic/inorganic molecules/minerals, which adversely impacts plants, animals and humans. Fewer nutrients for the plants also means less nutrients for animals and people.
Monoculture and the demise of diversity
To add additional injury to the prairie, we followed tillage with monoculture grain production. And not just monocultures but fewer and fewer plant species as well. Where once grew over 100 species, now only a few grow. Today, fifteen crops supply approximately 90% of the plant-based food we eat! Any bet that those early settlers ate a much more diverse diet than we do today?
This loss of biodiversity has led to many things, including a reduction in soil nutrient cycling, which led to an increase in the use of synthetic fertilizer, much of which ends up in our watersheds, causing issues all the way down the watershed and into the oceans.
The overuse of synthetic fertilizer has also led to an increase in weeds (most weeds are high nitrogen users). An increase in weeds led to an increase in the use of herbicides. Many of the herbicides used today are chelators and chelators bind to metals such as zinc, manganese, magnesium, iron and copper. Can you guess where this is leading?
These are the same nutrients that are needed by the plant to ward off disease. A lack of these nutrients can lead to a higher incidence of fungal diseases, among others. An increase in fungal diseases leads to an increased use of fungicides, which are detrimental to soil biology and pollinators.
The lack of nutrients available to the plant also makes the plant more susceptible to pests. An increase in pest pressure leads to an increased use of pesticides. Of course, the majority of pesticides are not pest specific which means many beneficial insects will be killed also. This includes pollinator species such as bees. The same pollinators that are needed to pollinate our crops! Wow! There are very few fruit and vegetables grown today that do not have copious amounts of insecticides sprayed on them. Is it any wonder why we have such a dysfunctional ecosystem? A recent study conducted in Germany showed a 70 percent loss in insect biodiversity in less than 30 years!
The impact on farm animals and humans
From a livestock perspective, the goal of “more pounds” led to placing animals in confinement. Dairy and beef were taken off pasture, where they once benefited the ecosystem by grazing living plants thus cycling more carbon, and were put into confined lots. Their diets changed from one of forage to one based on high-starch grain, in turn affecting their own health and longevity. It is common for most dairy cows that are raised in this method to have a lifespan of less than four years! Add that to the fact that the milk, cheeses, and other products from them is much lower in nutrient density and we can see the resulting impact on human health, as well.
The same can be said of beef animals. High-starch rations negatively impact the life of the animals, as well as the nutritional value of the beef itself. It has long been known that our diets should have an omega six to omega three ratio of less than two to one (2:1). Grass fed beef has this proper ratio, but grain fed beef does not. It has a ratio of 7:1 or higher! Consider the ramifications of eating grain- feed beef over one’s lifetime. Is it any wonder we have a human health crisis?
The feedlot industry has nothing to do with the cattle business. They are in business to market feed and pen space. They want cattle that will eat a lot of feed and take a long time to finish because it is in their best interest. Do any of us really believe that a grazing animal prefers to be in a feedlot? Just open the gate and see which they choose.
Hogs, chickens and turkeys were put into buildings in the ruse that they would be “better off.” Do any of us, as farmers and ranchers, want to sit in a cubicle all day, every day?
Now, think of what else this production model has caused. It has led to tighter and tighter margins for producers. Farm debt has increased significantly. Lower margins mean producers must farm more and more land to make ends meet. As farm size increases, it leaves fewer and fewer people on the land. In other words, this production model has led to the demise of many of our small towns.
The hope in regenerative agriculture
So, how do we reverse this? Regenerative agriculture, that’s how. Regenerative agriculture has the ability to address all of the “symptoms” that we are experiencing.
There is no set definition for regenerative agriculture, and I don’t know that there should be, as it needs to be adaptive itself. For now, I offer this; “Regenerative agriculture is a renewal of food and farming systems which aims to regenerate topsoil, increase biodiversity improve the carbon, mineral and water cycles while increasing farm, ranch and community profitability while ensuring an enjoyable quality of life.”
By following nature’s principles, minimizing soil disturbance, keeping the soil covered, ensuring diversity with living plants, integrating animals and farming and ranching in context, we can reverse most, if not all, of the negative impacts of the current industrial agriculture model.
We can take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the soil, reversing the increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon in the soil will restore nutrient and water cycles. As soil health is improved, pressure from pests and disease will decrease, as will, input costs, which will improve farm and ranch profitability. More carbon in the soil builds resiliency into our farms and ranches by making soil more resilient to swings in moisture and temperature, which also improves long term profitability.
From an environmental standpoint, regenerative agriculture will reduce nitrates and phosphates in our watersheds and lead to improved water quality. More carbon in the soils of our farms and ranches leads to higher water-holding capacity which mitigates flood-related damages to infrastructure in our communities.
And then there are the benefits to human health. As soil health is advanced, the plants grown in those soils are higher in plant secondary metabolites and tertiary compounds. These compounds improve both animal and human health. Improved nutrition will result in better human health and lower health care costs, which benefits us all.
The tie that binds
Another benefit I see occurring from a focus on regenerative agriculture is how it brings society together. Whether your priority is farm profitability, climate change, water quality, human health or others, regenerative agriculture has the potential, more than any other cause, to unite us. I encourage everyone to join together to support those farmers, ranchers, organizations and businesses that are working to realize the full potential of regenerative agriculture.