The Roots of Regenerative Agriculture
Shiloh Maples, an educator and community organizer of Ojibwe and Oglala descent, works with Anishinaabe peoples in Detroit to strengthen urban food sovereignty. Maples’ growers asked for access to culturally appropriate foods they could grow in the city. In Detroit, they didn’t just want grocery store varieties. They wanted access to heritage varieties with which they had an ancestral connection and were native to the Americas, such as the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash.
For Maples, this connection is an essential element of what is now called regenerative agriculture. She explains, “I’ve come to see that regenerative agriculture and permaculture is in many ways a rebranding of generations of ancestral knowledge.” Maples continues, “it can’t really be a holistic approach without the inclusion of land-based peoples and the cultures they come from. People are focused on specific practices, but that’s only a piece of it.”
Of growing interest to farmers, researchers and food companies, the regenerative agriculture movement introduces new scientific understandings to agricultural traditions as ancient as farming itself.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture refers to an agricultural system that actually improves the natural resource base, leveraging practices that go beyond the current standard of sustainable agriculture. The distinction is subtle, yet important: sustainability means not depleting natural resources, while regenerative practices strive to improve the condition of those resources. In a video about regenerative agriculture on Patagonia Provisions’ website, Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber explains that agriculture is responsible for 30% of global carbon emissions, 70% of water use, and 60% of global biodiversity loss.
Given these statistics, it is no longer enough to strive for neutral impact. Agriculture must generate positive impact—for people, for the planet, and for food itself. And the key is soil.
In the video, Faber is pithy, saying, “we have now sucked all the life out of the soil.” Modern agriculture destroys soil both mechanically (through tilling that causes erosion) and chemically (through pesticide and herbicide use). Scientists estimate that 30% of the world’s arable land has now become unproductive due to soil erosion. Meanwhile, farmers use chemicals that kill off the biological life in soils and then attempt to replace what crops need with synthetic fertilizers. But the interactions that link soil carbon to planetary health, the soil microbiome to plant health, and crop nutritional content to human health are more complex….
The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, is working in partnership with researchers around the world to breed perennial grain crops, such as kernza and rice, that are adapted to diverse agricultural environments. As acting president Rachel Stroer explains, their focus is on grains since these staple crops account for more than 70% of global calorie production and more than 70% of global agricultural lands.
Just as Maples sees regenerative agriculture as working with nature to improve it rather than extracting or degrading it, Stroer says, “a regenerative agricultural system should function ecologically more like a natural system than our current agricultural system does.” It should do things like build soil and soil organic matter, steward water and filter it of toxins, and incorporate greater biological diversity to help ecosystems be more resilient in the face of drought or disease. It should also lock in soil carbon.