If you read the news, you may have heard plenty about regenerative agriculture in the past year. Researchers and climate scientists are pushing for farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices. And farmers who have witnessed the miracles of this approach first-hand are encouraging other farmers to make the switch. Maybe you’ve heard that General Mills, who produces popular cereals, like Lucky Charms, has pledged to transition farming practices to regenerative ones. And maybe you’re wondering: what exactly does that mean? What is regenerative agriculture, anyway?
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a practice that entails healing infertile land and polluted resources.
For decades, conventional farming practices have eroded and degraded our soil; polluted our waters; and hurt important species. Practices–such as tilling, monoculture, pesticide use, and fertilizer use–have all been employed for the sake of greater gains and larger profits. Yet these practices are unsustainable, meaning that they cannot continue to be used forever.
Why? Because these practices pollute and damage the land. If the land is not restored after it is damaged, it will never heal. Instead, it will simply degrade to the point of no return.
We’ve already witnessed this in the last few years. Tilling, which entails churning the soil to prepare it for new crops, has ruined our soil’s ability to retain water. Just this spring, when the Midwest was hit with heavy rainfall, many farms couldn’t recover from flooding because their soil was so eroded from tilling.
Fertilizer overuse has polluted water resources and degraded soil quality. Monoculture has contributed to erosion because when one crop is grown and nothing is planted to protect the soil after that crop is harvested, the soil is exposed to harsh conditions. In addition, pesticide use has contributed to bee and firefly population decline. Both species serve an essential role on farms, as bees pollinate crops and fireflies control pests.
Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, ensures that the land is being restored. Regenerative farmers focus on restoring the soil, minimizing pollution, and supporting biodiversity in a number of ways. For more information, you can read our article, Practicing Regenerative Agriculture to Reverse Climate Change, which discusses these practices in detail.
For now, we’re going to discuss General Mills’ regenerative farming practices.
General Mills Switches to Regenerative Farming
Last year, General Mills pledged to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. What does this mean exactly?
On its website, General Mills describes its planned regenerative practices. Admittedly, they do not go into detail about soil restoration and how, exactly, they plan to support healthy soil. They do, however, state that they are converting 34,000 acres of farmland in South Dakota to certified organic acreage. On this land, they plan to use crop rotations (which will help protect the soil) and plant 3,000 acres of pollinator habitat.
Just recently, General Mills announced that it would partner with farmers in Kansas’s Cheney Reservoir Watershed to improve water quality and soil health. The pilot program, which will run for three years, will not only support the environment, but it will also support farmers. By connecting farmers through social media and field days, this program will allow farmers to network and educate one another on regenerative practices. According to Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer and co-founder of Understanding Ag, “The project represents an enormous opportunity to demonstrate the many on- and off-farm benefits of regenerative agriculture in wheat production, including increased farm profitability, improved resiliency, and enhanced biodiversity. Thanks to this partnership, UA’s regenerative-farmer consultants will work to ensure the successful and profitable adoption of critical soil health-improving practices on these farms.”
In addition, General Mills’ Cascadian Farm is working with the Land Institute to grow and commercialize Kernza, a perennial plant that can help repair the soil. (In fact, all perennial plants can help repair the soil. You can read about it in our article, Perennial Crops the Future for Global Food Production.) Cascadian Farm has also committed $125,000 to soil testing and other beneficial programs for regenerative farmers.
While General Mills is paving the way for farmers to switch to regenerative ag, which is all-in-all a good thing, there are some who question the “good” of popularizing regenerative agriculture.
The Danger of Buzz Words
We’re by no means suggesting that regenerative agriculture is a bad thing.
What’s bad is that, when things become popular, they’re usually taken advantage of. Take, for instance, the word organic.
Organic is a buzz word that often tricks consumers into thinking a product is healthier or safer than one that is not organic. According to the USDA, organic produce is simply produce that isn’t grown using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and is not genetically engineered. Organic produce, however, has not been proven to be healthier or safer than regular produce. Yet, consumers think that because something is organic, it is better for them.
Similarly, regenerative activists fear that Big Ag companies will use the term regenerative agriculture in order to appear sustainable. In reality, however, these companies will only use one regenerative agriculture practice while continuing to hurt and pollute the land.
How to Keep Regenerative Ag from Being Co-opted
According to Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), it’s imperative that we have third-party groups verify regenerative pledges. Conditions often stay the same or get worse because there is a perception that something is being done. But, really, nothing is being done. By becoming a buzz word, regenerative agriculture could be used to trick consumers into thinking unsustainable farming practices have ended. Then thirty years down the road, when our land is even more damaged, people will question how we arrived here.
The good news is that farmers want regenerative agriculture. They really, truly do. And it’s not just because it’s good for the planet, but because it’s also good for their businesses. Better soil means bigger yields and more profit. Better diversity means healthier plants.
More farmers are sure to follow in General Mills’ regenerative agriculture pledge. When the time comes, we’ll need those third-party groups to verify that these practices are, indeed, repairing the soil and supporting our resources.