Regenerative Agriculture 101September 10 2021
The Problem with Industrial Agriculture
When you think of agriculture, you may picture farmers out at daybreak, gazing out across their acres of plowed fields. Maybe you picture large swaths of wheat or corn waving in the late summer sun. It seems picturesque, doesn’t it? Wholesome even.
The truth is a little more complicated. Industrial agriculture ignores the importance of maintaining soil health. Soil is rife with living organisms such as insects, fungi, microbes, worms and more that support plant life above the surface.
Common agricultural practices, such as using heavy machinery to plow soil, planting monocultures (a single species of plant grown over a large area), and applying chemical fertilizers leave soil depleted. Soil that’s worn-out leaves crops vulnerable to pests, disease, and weather.
When the complex web of soil life is disrupted, soil itself is lost. In the U.S., Iowa’s fertile plains have lost roughly 10 inches of topsoil since the beginning of the 20th century. Worldwide it’s estimated that 33% of soil is degraded.
Industrial agriculture causes a number of other problems including:
- increased environmental pollution which disproportionately impacts marginalized communities
- reduction in long-term productivity
- health and safety threats to farmers
- loss of soil’s ability to hold water, increasing run-off in excessive rains and desertification of soil in periods of low rainfall
- compacted soil, prompting the need for further tillage
There is a better way of doing things. Regenerative agriculture---a holistic approach to growing food that replenishes the soil---has far-reaching benefits for the health of our planet.
Regenerative agriculture is an idea that has gained traction in recent years, but it’s not new. Long before Europeans settled in North America, indigenous people were practicing regenerative land management for generations. In fact, there is considerable controversy that the regenerative agriculture movement is rife with cultural appropriation.
Indigenous leaders maintain that current proponents of regenerative agriculture are missing a critical ingredient in their approach to agriculture---the indigenous world view. As we move forward in this journey to heal our planet and our communities, we aim to incorporate this holistic indigenous view and encourage others to do the same.
What is Regenerative Agriculture and How Can It Help?
Modern regenerative agriculture prioritizes protecting soil health at every stage of crop production. In his book, The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm, Daniel Mays discusses the symbiotic relationship between the health of soil and plants. He states that, in regenerative agriculture, “A holistic view of the soil-plant food web draws no boundary between soil and plant.” Both are alive and depend on one another for optimum health.
Methods of regenerative agriculture include:
- no-till planting methods
- minimizing bare ground
- the use of cover crops
- the use of organic matter to amend the soil (compost and mulch)
No-till planting is a less invasive way of getting plants in the ground. Some farmers drill holes into existing plant matter and drop seeds in. Others gently move aside soil and plant matter to make room for transplants and move it back again. Other farmers emphasize growing perennial crops such as lavender, chives, and asparagus.
Another means of protecting soil health is minimizing bare ground. Soil life depends on the structure and nutrients of plant matter to remain strong. If land is left bare, soil life loses vital nutrients. Bare ground sets the stage for soil erosion due to winds and excessive rains.
Cover crops are essential to minimizing bare ground. Cover crops are planted on regenerative farms to protect the soil, fix carbon and nitrogen in the soil, break up compacted soil, and provide plant material to support underground biological diversity.
Compost and mulch are additional ways of adding organic matter to support soil health. As they break down, they contribute to the fertility and structure of soil. They also hold water, protecting crops from drought.
The benefits of regenerative agriculture are numerous. It can:
- preserve organic matter that feeds microbial life under the soil
- provide structure to the soil
- use fewer chemical fertilizers
- require less machinery
- pulls carbon from the atmosphere
Regenerative agriculture is a promising climate change mitigation strategy. How promising? Project Drawdown rates large-scale climate solutions in terms of their potential for reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. They rate regenerative agriculture eleventh on their list of top one hundred solutions.
How Alter Eco Supports Regenerative Agriculture
Alter Eco Foods promotes regenerative agriculture practices in cacao cultivation through our Alter Eco Foundation. Our foundation is committed to assisting our cacao suppliers in Ecuador to transition to a type regenerative agriculture called dynamic agroforestry. Dynamic agroforestry mimics the natural ecosystem of the surrounding rainforest. Cacao plants are intercropped with several other native plants---such as banana trees--- that support soil health, store water, provide shade, and manage pests naturally. This biological diversity protects the cacao plants from the dangers of monoculture planting practices----soil erosion, extreme weather conditions, and the devastating impacts of crop failure. It improves production and provides income stability for farmers.
The Alter Eco Foundation is committed reaching beyond our own cacao suppliers. Our mission includes sharing our agroforestry model across the cacao industry. We are committed to leading the industry in adopting the climate-mitigating practice of regenerative agriculture.