Regenerative agriculture is having a moment. A new Netflix documentary highlighting its potential to rebuild soil, Kiss the Ground, is drawing attention to the practice’s climate mitigation potential. Companies including General Mills, Target, McDonald’s, and Cargill are investing in regenerative agriculture. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has mentioned paying farmers to sequester carbon in his campaign language, and several U.S. senators have introduced a bill to help farmers generate carbon credits after adopting regenerative practices. And new public and private carbon markets (and one new ecosystem service market) are being formed to issue those credits.
As wildfires, extreme temperatures, droughts, floods, and other climate-fueled disasters plague much of the country, it’s easy to see why a solution that promises to draw carbon out of the atmosphere while simply farming differently has growing appeal.
And there’s good reason for all the optimism. Many experts agree that regenerative agriculture practices—including, for example, the use of cover crops, reduced or no tillage, and diversified crop rotations—hold great potential to rebuild dwindling organic matter, improve soil health, stave nutrient runoff that causes water pollution, and sustain biodiversity.
A new white paper from the Rodale Institute and the Carbon Underground—called Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution—lays out these benefits in detail and aims to define the suite of practices that will rehabilitate ecosystems.
Robert Rodale, son of the Rodale Institute’s founder, is said to have coined the term “regenerative agriculture” in the 1970s, and the farm and research facility has long been a pioneer in organic practices and soil health. Now, the Institute is behind the new Regenerative Organic certification and label, which it launched with Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia in 2018. Meanwhile, The Carbon Underground has assembled the Soil Carbon Index, which they hope will be an “outcome-based, verifiable standard designed to improve soil health and build soil carbon by encouraging the shift to regenerative agricultural practices.”
“With this white paper, Rodale Institute shows us how regenerative agriculture has the potential to repair that damage and actually reverse some of the threatening impacts of our climate crisis,” Tom Newmark, Chairman of The Carbon Underground, said in the press release for the paper.
The paper promises to bring the latest science to bear, but it makes an eye-popping, unsubstantiated claim. It says that regenerative practices, if adopted around the world, could sequester all annual carbon dioxide emissions. The document states: “Data from farming and grazing studies show the power of exemplary regenerative systems that, if achieved globally, would drawdown more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions.”
Rodale soil scientist Yichao Rui confirms that the white paper authors based the extrapolations of carbon sequestration rates found in one study of a corn and wheat organic system based in the Mid-Atlantic and one study of a regenerative grazing system in the Midwest to the rest of the world—regardless of soil type, temperature, or precipitation regime. The report features a few other studies as evidence—such as agroforestry projects in Costa Rica, cover crops in the tropics, or organic amendments in olive orchards in the Mediterranean that have also recorded roughly twice the amount of carbon sequestered that Rodale used in the extrapolation.
“The 100 percent offset of greenhouse gas emissions is based on a thought experiment,” says Rui. “This is our perspective. I understand there will be questions. Not everyone will agree.”
Every soil scientist interviewed for this piece agreed that the benefits of regenerative agriculture are wide-ranging and many, including for climate change mitigation. But they also agreed the 100 percent claim was baseless.
“Achieving 100 percent of our annual carbon dioxide emissions is not feasible,” says Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, recent winner of the World Food Prize, and a supporter of Rodale’s previous work. “The scientific data doesn’t support these claims,” he says.
“Regenerative agriculture is a powerful drawdown, both to reduce emissions and add new carbon sinks . . . but no one thing can possibly fix climate change.”