The phrase is on everyone’s lips. Major food and apparel companies, presidential candidates, farmers, both conventional and organic, even chemical giants are touting “regenerative agriculture” as the be-all and end-all solution to reversing climate change.
Regenerative farming is having a moment because scientists believe it can help transfer massive quantities of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil. With pressure mounting to address the climate crisis, on presidential campaign trails and otherwise, regenerative agriculture may prove a significant and permanent upheaval to traditional farming methods.
The challenge, according to those who support the concept, is that “regenerative” itself lacks a clear definition. Although several certification schemes exist, they differ on how it should be implemented and evaluated. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the organic standards, has so far stayed out of the fray.
Most proponents agree regenerative agriculture involves tilling the soil less (or avoiding it altogether), as well as planting cover crops, growing a diverse array of crops, and managed grazing. But some say these are just a baseline, and should be part of a greater sustainable farming system that goes beyond soil health.
One point of quiet debate concerns the role of herbicides and synthetic fertilizers within regenerative agriculture. While conventional farmers using a regenerative, no-till approach tend to rely heavily on herbicides to manage weeds, organic regenerative farmers rely on a whole suite of other, less chemical and more labor-intensive tools.
Kendra Klein, a senior staff scientist with Friends of the Earth U.S. (FOE) wants to see this debate amplified. The organization today released a brief summarizing the science around how pesticides can damage the microbial life that drives carbon sequestration. The group is also concerned that the term “regenerative”—much like “sustainable”—could be co-opted by the pesticide industry.
“Pesticides are rarely mentioned in many regenerative agriculture circles,” Klein told Civil Eats. “We [want] to elevate the importance of pesticide reduction … especially now that regenerative agriculture is reaching the policy sphere.”
Considering the role pesticides play is key, Klein said, because the regenerative agriculture concept is much bigger than just carbon sequestration. “We need to think about it as a counterpoint to the extractive, destructive model of industrial agriculture. It’s rethinking how we … grow the food that sustains us and sustains the ecosystem we depend on.”
But not everyone agrees. In fact, a number of advocates see occasional herbicide and pesticide use as a key tool, even for farms that are prioritizing soil health and carbon sequestration.
Conventional Farmers Lead the Way
Regenerative agriculture isn’t a new concept. Some of its components, such as cover crops and composting, have been part of organic, biodynamic, and other sustainable farming systems for generations. The term itself was coined in the 1980s by the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research institution, to describe a type of organic agriculture that not only maintains natural resources, but also improves them.
The recent buzz is linked to plants’ ability to absorb carbon through photosynthesis and pass it on to soil microbes in exchange for nutrients, making the soil a carbon sink. Organic farming, while focused on soil health, isn’t necessarily effective when it comes to “carbon farming” because it has relies heavily on tilling the soil to manage weeds. Many researchers now believe tilling negatively impacts soil and releases carbon back into the atmosphere.
One of the reasons herbicide is rarely discussed in the context of regenerative agriculture is because regenerative practices have been largely adopted by conventional, chemical-dependent operations. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, cover cropping and reduced tillage have experienced a boom in recent years. By 2017, no-till and reduced till accounted for about two-thirds of America’s cropland.
This is significant because, in the past, these farmers were on the fringe. “When we first started talking about regenerative agriculture, nobody knew what it was. People who would use cover crops, they were wackos,” said Jonathan Lundgren, a former USDA scientist who left the agency after he said supervisors tried to restrict his research on pesticides. Lundgren now runs Blue Dasher Farm in eastern South Dakota, where he teaches the pillars of regenerative agriculture.
The fact that industrial farmers have been battered by poor commodity prices has everything to do with the shift, Lundgren said. The approach began attracting farmers because it allowed them to increase profits by cutting costs on fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides, he said. Healthy soil also has a better water-holding capacity, making it more resilient to drought and floods.
“People [said], ‘Holy crap, the equity in my farm is gone, land prices haven’t changed, the prices of corn and soy keep falling.’ Everybody started to realize something has got to change,” Lundgren said. “Now people are listening at a rate that has never happened before,” as evidenced by myriad soil health meetings and conferences, the expansion of cover crop companies, universities devoting programs to the approach, and the inclusion of regenerative agriculture information in mainstream ag publications. Lundgren has even started a “soil builder coffee club” for local farmers.
“Farmers as a community tend to be pretty risk-averse,” he said. “Admitting that the industrial monoculture model has stopped working has been a hard pill to swallow.”
And yet, today, the vast majority of conventional farmers who use regenerative methods continue to use pesticides, according to a survey by No-Till Farmer, a leading magazine for the regen crowd. Some 92 percent of respondents planned to use glyphosate for weed control, and the majority said they would plant crops that had been engineered to withstand its use.
To Lundgren, that’s not a problem. He believes regenerative agriculture is not anti-pesticide. Farmers can retain chemicals as part of a list of tools within the regenerative system, but he’s optimistic that over time they won’t be needed. Lundgren’s study showed that growing a more diverse range of crops attracts a more diverse range of insects, and the former is linked to significantly reduced pest populations. In addition, when farmers plant cover crops and raise livestock that graze on them, “weed problems become opportunities rather than obstacles,” he said.
Pesticides May Disrupt Carbon Sequestration
Not everyone is quite so trusting that conventional farmers will naturally phase out pesticides and herbicides.
“Soil has a living community of microbes and fungi and other complex living systems. And since pesticides are designed to kill, it makes sense that they harm soil organisms. They have many unintended consequences,” said FOE’s Klein. It’s likely, she said, that by disrupting soil’s microbial life, pesticides disrupt the process of carbon sequestration itself, though researchers aren’t yet sure by how much.
Klein said her group’s call to action on pesticides in regenerative agriculture isn’t about criticizing conventional growers who are adopting regenerative practices. They should be applauded for innovating, she added. Rather, she said, the goal is a more active move away from the deeply entrenched, chemical-heavy approach to farming that’s been pushed on farmers by pesticide giants for decades.
Already, said Klein, agrochemical companies are trying to co-opt the regenerative farming concept. For instance, Bayer (which now owns Monsanto) talks about how to “sustainably boost soil health” on its website, and Syngenta describes “investing in soil health” as one of its corporate commitments.
“They’re using the same type of language, they’re purposefully riding the momentum,” said Klein. “What it becomes is a cover for continuing a very resource-intensive, energy- and greenhouse gas-intensive form of agriculture.”
Bayer spokeswoman Charla Lord did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. A Bayer video on climate change says, “Planting genetically modified seeds enables farmers to use reduced tillage and no till practices, which has resulted in a substantial reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Soil health has also improved.”
Farmers should be helped to step off the so-called pesticide treadmill in a way that doesn’t sacrifice profit, Klein says, pointing to a recent study in Nature that suggests that most farmers could reduce pesticide use without negative effects on productivity or profitability.
Measuring Regenerative Practices Versus Outcomes
As multiple organizations have crafted definitions of regenerative agriculture and rolled out standards and certifications for farmers, only some have tackled the pesticide issue head-on.
For the Carbon Underground, a group that promotes carbon sequestration in soil, synthetic chemicals are not a long-term solution. But farmers may need to continue using fertilizers or herbicides, and the decision should be theirs to make, said the group’s founder and president, Larry Kopald. Even Gabe Brown, a superstar of regenerative agriculture among conventional farmers, has said he needs to spray a little herbicide every couple of years.
The Carbon Underground has partnered with researchers and corporate partners to roll out a regenerative agriculture standard, the Soil Carbon Initiative. It can be adopted by conventional or organic farmers, and will measure for a handful of specific outcomes (as opposed to the practices they adopt). It does not require a decrease in the use of pesticides.
“We look forward to a world where we’re not using chemicals to grow our food,” Kopald said. “That being said, if you’re a smoker, you need to wean yourself off slowly. It’s the same with a farmer who has been trained to use chemicals.”
Most farmers are one bad season, or one extreme weather event, away from losing their farm, added Kopald. “It’s a scary position.” He believes that as studies continue to show that healthy soil equals increased profits, farmers will make the switch.
Carbon Underground’s partnership with companies such as Danone and Ben & Jerry’s (a subsidiary of Unilever) and its open door policy are key, because a maximum number of farmers are needed. Given the scale and immediacy of the problem, Kopald sees restoring the soil as an act that has the highest “return on investment to fight climate change.”
He said three presidential candidates recently called the Carbon Underground to learn more about carbon sequestration. “The fact that it has percolated to that level is incredibly exciting,” he said.
But not everyone is taking such a hurried approach. Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the nonprofit Regenerative Organic Alliance, says the group sees no place for synthetic chemicals in regenerative ag.
“If you’re allowed to apply judicious amounts of Roundup, you’re still destroying the health of those soils,” she said.
In 2018, the California-based nonprofit—formed by the Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s, and Patagonia—launched the Regenerative Organic Certification, which includes multiple tiers and a focus on animal welfare and social fairness in addition to soil health. Farmers must already be certified organic to apply, and the standard measures both the practices and the outcomes for soil health.
Will a Focus on Pesticides Scare off Conventional Farmers?
Others worry that taking a purist approach may scare off conventional farmers who are curious about converting to regenerative practices.
“If the approach is all or nothing, you’ll get nothing at this point,” said Steve Swaffar, the executive director of No-Till on the Plains, an educational nonprofit that also hosts a large annual conference. The group does not take any kind of position about the use of chemicals, he said.
Swaffar said some flexibility is needed as the industry more widely adopts soil health practices. “As people begin to refine how they’re farming, using the suite of practices … the soil will return to a natural state and will begin to self-regulate some of these processes that the chemicals are now used for,” Swaffar said. “It’s because the soil is now your protector, not just a growing medium.”
Pesticides may still be needed in certain situations, Swaffar said. To anyone critical of that, he counters: “Even with the use of some commercial nitrogen and the occasional use of herbicides, the system we encourage people to use is still so much better for the soil” than a conventional, industrial system.
Changing one’s way of farming can be very difficult due to the pull of tradition, the structure of farm bill programs, and the risks involved, Swaffar said. Instead of making pesticide use a sticking point, he said, organizations and the government should focus on rewarding farmers who use regenerative methods by, for example, giving them breaks on the federal crop insurance premiums.
Whitlow with the Regenerative Organic Alliance said her organization aims to do just that. Its certification standard is very strict, she said, partly out of concern about greenwashing and to prevent chemical companies from co-opting the concept of soil health. She said the group plans to make resources available to help conventional farmers transition to organic. And companies and funders that want to support or buy regenerative organic products are already lining up to help.
“It’s important to be inclusive because farmers are in a corner; their margins are very tight,” Whitlow said. “I think the regenerative movements that help those farmers understand that no-till will be better, that they will save money and their yields will improve … are doing an essential service to start them on a journey. Once they get there, we can get them to the next step.”
Top image caption: Farmers Kenneth and Sheri Jensen, and their daughter, Rose, were early adopters of the soil health movement in Eastern Oregon. (NRCS photo by Tracy Robillard)