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Last summer, the world's largest french fry producer, McCain Foods, made Canadian headlines when it promised to convert its entire supply chain to regenerative agriculture, an approach to agriculture that promises to sequester carbon and boost biodiversity.

The New Brunswick potato giant is not alone. Over the past decade, the approach has been promoted by a hodgepodge of both small- and large-scale farmers, environmental and social justice advocates, agribusiness CEOs, tech bros, journalists, and academics. It's even received federal support, with Canada's 2030 emissions reduction plan pledging roughly $1 billion to help farmers adopt regenerative methods.

The problem? No one agrees on what regenerative agriculture actually means.

Heritage breed piglets play inside a barn at Spray Creek Ranch, a regenerative ranch near Lillooet, B.C. Photo by Jesse Winter/National Observer

Over the coming weeks, a five-part series by Canada's National Observer will explore the cast of characters putting the approach into practice in Canada. It will look back on a couple who farmed regeneratively before it was cool and try to figure out if beef can ever be sustainable. A techie's search for the regenerative holy grail is also on the menu, alongside the quest to grow a grain that never dies.

But first …

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture (or regenerative farming) is an approach to agriculture aimed at boosting soil health. Because healthy soils are carbon sinks, the approach is often promoted as a solution to climate change, though most scientists warn that healthier soils alone won't end the crisis if we don't also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The approach uses a suite of techniques, like cover crops and rotational grazing, to build soil carbon and reduce or eliminate the need for harmful practices like synthetic fertilizers or feedlots to grow crops or livestock.

Healthy soils are complex ecosystems home to millions of different bacteria, fungi, plants, insects and other organisms. At their heart lies soil carbon, which is carbon once contained in organic matter like decayed leaves or manure that has been incorporated into the soil. Soil carbon has multiple benefits, like feeding soil ecosystems, helping retain nutrients and reducing erosion.

Agrichemicals like pesticides and fertilizers disrupt these soil ecosystems, reducing the amount of carbon they absorb. They also lead to a harmful buildup of nutrients like nitrogen that can leach into waterways or be transformed by microbes into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. Too much tillage can also harm soils by converting soil carbon into carbon dioxide. Regenerative agriculture aims to eliminate these harmful impacts and practices.

The past decade has seen exploding interest in an approach to farming focused on soil health called regenerative agriculture proponents say can help fix the climate crisis. The problem? No one agrees on what regenerative agriculture actually means.
Researcher Shuwen Wang examines grains of perennial wheat in a greenhouse at the Kansas-based Land Institute, a research centre dedicated to breeding perennial crops without genetic engineering. Perennials are much better at regenerating soil health than annuals and successful perennial crops could drastically reduce the environmental impact of our food. Photo by the Land Institute
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How can it help fight climate change?

Over half the land on the planet covered in vegetation is used for agriculture, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates these fields, orchards and pastures are responsible for roughly a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial farming practices and the conversion of natural carbon sinks like forests and prairies into farmland are the main drivers of these emissions.

Regenerative farming promises to reverse this flow of greenhouse gases by putting carbon back into the ground, turning agricultural landscapes into carbon sinks. Regenerative practices aim to mimic natural ecosystems — which are natural carbon sinks — theoretically letting farmers and ranchers store lots of carbon on their land.

The approach typically depends on livestock or poultry, which provide manure that can feed the soil with nutrients and carbon. This has emboldened some of the world's biggest meat companies to become ardent proponents of the approach, raising suspicions among researchers and activists that they are using the term regenerative agriculture to greenwash their business, even when it is clear people, especially in wealthy countries, need to eat less meat.

Chickens flock around Lillooet, B.C. rancher Tristan Banwell in their winter pen in February. Come spring, he will transfer the fowl to a mobile enclosure that lets him move them around his pastures and fertilize them as needed. Photo by Jesse Winter/National Observer

Who is fighting for it?

Indigenous people and peasant farmers have used regenerative techniques for generations, and civil society organizations like La Via Campesina have for years called for the approach to be more widely adopted. Organic farming is also based on promoting soil health and many organic farmers use similar techniques. The term "regenerative agriculture" is largely attributed to the Rodale Institute, a U.S. organic farming research centre.

There is a broad consensus among these groups that regenerative farming only describes the physical farm-level aspects of a sustainable food system. Agroecology, a broader term that describes both regenerative techniques and a host of sustainable social and economic policies and initiatives, is their preferred term to describe a sustainable food system. Agroecology is an approach to farming and food that prioritizes sustainable practices, social justice and communities' food sovereignty. It has been endorsed by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

However, the past decade has seen a more varied group of people and organizations advocate for the approach, especially in North America. Big agribusinesses like General Mills and McCain Foods have pledged to transition parts of their supply chains to regenerative practices, while the 2020 Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground boosted regenerative farming into the mainstream. Agtech and carbon trading companies are also eyeing the approach.

Karn Manhas, CEO of Canadian agtech company Terramera, talks with Tom Hall, a robotics engineer, in a high-tech growth chamber in Vancouver, B.C. The company is trying to create a system that could easily measure how much carbon is sequestered in farmers' fields in an effort to make regenerative agriculture more common. Photo by Jimmy Jeong/National Observer

In Canada, several companies and non-profit organizations are pushing federal and provincial governments to help farmers implement more regenerative practices. For instance, Farmers for Climate Solutions, a farmer-led advocacy group, last year convinced the federal government to include about $270 million for regenerative practices in the 2021 budget. In B.C., the provincial government has created a body in its Ministry of Agriculture to support regenerative farming.

The hype about regenerative farming has some sustainable food and climate researchers and advocates concerned. Unlike organic farming, which is regulated under strict rules, or even agroecology with its UN endorsement, regenerative farming has no certification or regulatory requirements. Anyone can market themselves as a regenerative farmer or regenerative food company — flexibility that leaves the term ripe for greenwashing.

Critics also emphasize that the approach doesn't typically tackle social or economic inequities in the food system. They warn that omission opens the door to a host of social and economic issues, from low wages for farm and processing plant workers to big agribusinesses merging to consolidate their power over farmers and consumers.

A combine harvests a crop of Kernza in July 2020. The grain perennial crop developed by the Land Institute to be grown commercially. Photo by the Land Institute

What's in it for farmers?

Regenerative farming can be a boon for farmers, potentially reducing their costs and making them more resilient in the face of extreme weather events like floods or droughts. Because the approach helps build on-farm biodiversity, it can also improve natural pollination and reduce pests while cutting farmers’ exposure to toxic pesticides and fertilizers.

Unfortunately, for most farmers transitioning to regenerative farming isn't cheap. Their yields typically decrease, especially during the first few years of the transition, and without a certification scheme like organic, it is tricky to sell the harvest at a premium price to cover the extra costs. Regenerative agriculture can potentially require more labour, again increasing costs. For many farms, that burden is too big to overcome without extra financial support. With the bulk of Canada's farm subsidies geared to helping farmers maximize their yields for Canada's $56-billion annual agri-food export market, farmers have few options to fund a transition to more sustainable practices.

Regenerative techniques, like leaving grasses and weeds between rows of vines helped Sperling Vineyards, in Kelowna, B.C. weather extreme heat and drought last summer, head winemaker and owner Ann Sperling explained during an October visit. Photo by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/National Observer

Sounds great! Where can I buy regenerative food?

The easiest way is to go to a local farmers market and ask vendors if they farm with regenerative techniques. Some farms and food companies also advertise their goods as regenerative, and a list compiled by the national organization Regeneration Canada shows dozens of regenerative farms across the country. Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia also uses regeneratively grown ingredients in its selection of camping food.

Finding regenerative products in supermarkets is more challenging, in part because of the lack of a certification scheme. Meat or dairy that is fully pasture-raised will typically have been grown using some regenerative approaches. And while they're not necessarily regenerative, pulses like lentils or chickpeas fix nitrogen, are good for soil (and human) health, and are a low-carbon source of protein. Anything sold under organic certification will also often have been grown using some regenerative techniques.

Keep reading

With the war in Ukraine, a large portion of the world's fertilizers are stuck in Russia and Belarus resulting in a looming global food crisis and an increase in world hunger, especially for countries already suffering from food scarcity. European fertilizer plants are significantly cutting production because of high energy prices. There are extensive horrific consequences of this unconscionable war but for the global food market, there are few worse countries to be in conflict than Russia and Ukraine. Although fertilizers are judiciously used in regenerative farming, they aren't as vital and had more farmers been using regenerative techniques, this would not be as much of a global a crisis as it is going to be. Yields will be low for a year or two and there will be food scarcity but perhaps this will lead to more farmers switching to regenerative techniques if they and we can survive this critical period.

This is an interesting article that points out the potential for 'greenwashing' by large scale factory farms. If readers are really interested in alternatives to industrial factory animal farming they should check out organizations like Nation Rising, Reimagine Agriculture, and Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals for more information on the environmental and economic benefits of switching from animal agriculture to plant agriculture.

We need plants AND animals. We need healthy soil microbes and ruminants on grass in order to sequester carbon. If we're going to look anywhere, note that the Audubon Society has partnered with regenerative farmers and ranchers because of the massive increase in bird populations, because of the biodiversity and thriving ecosystems that accompany regenerative agriculture and holistic grazing.

Hi Cher, I'm not sure where you're getting your numbers showing a massive increase in bird populations. If you look at various sources on-line you will see that some bird species like raptors and waterfowl have displayed increases in their populations but overall there has been a drastic reduction in the populations of many bird species, due to anything from habitat loss, pesticide use, hunting by domestic cats, etc.

Regarding the effects of grazing ruminants on our soil's health, looking on-line you will find many organizations claiming the positive effects of ruminant grazing, and most of these organizations are farming or ranching groups. Check out some other sources like : https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/grazing/ and you will find information on the overall negative impacts. We definitely need animals of all types in our ecosystems but they should be treated humanely and with compassion, something that you will not find in large scale industrial farming/ranching operations. We are in the 21st century and our societies claim to be civilized. It is time that we live up to those claims.

Ranchers and farmers are the main groups promoting grazing because a) they see the beneficial impacts, and b) if you don't live with a piece of land daily over protracted periods you can't see what is happening. Bird Ecology and Conservation Ontario (becobirds.org) ONLY do research on farms that graze ruminants because ONLY those farms have sufficient habitat and food to support grassland bird populations. All of the field crops (e.g. corn, soybeans, pulses) and vegetable crops that vegetarians expect to feed humanity are grown in ways that decimate biodiversity and hence decimate ecosystems.

Disclosure: I raise grass-only beef after several years growing vegetables and realizing vegetable farming's impact on our farm's ecosystem and its consequent non-sustainability for our farm's land. Since switching most of the farm to beef cattle, we have 4 of Ontario's 5 grassland bird species at risk on our farm year after year.

Agroecologically grazing ruminants are the engine that drives ecosystem improvement: soil fertility, water infiltration, nutrient cycling, and stable diverse polycultures which in turn provide stable diverse habitat for natural biodiversity. While it does sequester carbon, that carbon can quickly be released into the atmosphere by changes in practice, e.g. renovating a worn out pasture. Consequently the current thinking is that we need agroecologically grazing ruminants to rejuvenate farmland, but carbon sequestration is not a stable-enough benefit that it should be counted among the many benefits. And yes North Americans should eat less (but better) meat.

Yes. We know a farmer in Alberta who went back to green belts and natural pasture for parts of his farm and found that many birds returned. When you are doing monoculture, and maximizing the land under cultivation, where is it for our wild friends to go?? Increasing the diversity of the land base......refusing to plow everything under, holding on to wetlands, etc. gives wildlife a place to call home.

I'm thrilled the the NO is finally amplifying regenerative agriculture, it's our most promising way out of a number of current messes, in 2014 the UN announced that we have only 60 farming years left because of soil degradation. This is incredibly concerning, many previously lush areas of land are now basically deserts (remember the Dust Bowl in the 1930's).

Regenerative agriculture and holistic grazing can build top soil within a matter of years, while sequestering carbon. Climate change has made carbon the enemy, because it's displaced, from underground where it was and should still be stored, the ocean can't store any more carbon, we need to use our lands, to create healthy soils, this is where the carbon should be sequestered, and we will create beautiful thriving ecosystems along with it. Regenerative Agriculture is a WIN/WIN.

The Audubon society is partnering with regenerative ranchers because of the increase in bird populations, where there are birds, there are insects, bees and diverse polycultures, and just think, we can do all this with cows/ruminants properly managed on grasslands.

Fixing carbon in the soil through RA and its attention to building soils has very high potential. It makes you wonder why the feds are subsidizing the fossil industry through questionable carbon capture, utilization and sequestration tech when regenerative agricultural and forestry practices offers an alternative with orders of magnitude more potential and many other direct benefits, like nitrogen capture, improved drought, flood and pest resistance, greater profits for farmers, and so forth.

There's only one good answer to why our federal government continues to subsidize capital intensive ideas like carbon capture....when there are so many good, smaller and cheaper alternatives, such as regenerative agriculture. The massive power of the Fossil Fuel industries.......and the money they throw into astroturf outfits that keep telling people new technologies will solve climate change WHILE allowing unconventional oil and gas projects, like fracking and in situ bitumen mining to continue.

It's a Big Black Lie: And we the public are paying for it.