Food: a commodity that brings us together, builds community, breeds creativity, fuels us, brings us joy, and is destroying our planet. Unfortunately, you read that right: Food systems contribute upwards of 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and the agricultural sector is the largest producer of non CO2 greenhouse gasses (cite). These greenhouse gases are causing climate change, wreaking havoc on humans and ecosystems all over the world (fires in California, Australia, and the Amazon, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels, etc.). Luckly, humans are innovative and have developed a method that can both produce food and actually improve the quality of the environment: Regenerative Organic Agriculture.
So what exactly is regenerative organic agriculture? The term refers to an operation that encompasses a variety of practices and tools. A certification for farms is currently in the works, but a comprehensive draft of what goes into getting certified can be found here. Methods used include rotating crops to maximize nutrients in soil, reducing the amount of churned soil to keep in carbon and nutrients, promoting pollinator habitats, the application of compost, minimizing pesticide use and only using certified organic pesticides (when necessary). Systems must also utilize cover crops and animals must be grass fed and pasture raised, live in suitable shelters and not be housed in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Farmers and workers must be treated with social fairness, and must receive a fair pay, have good working conditions, long term commitments, no forced labor, and the ability to organize. (cite). More broadly, the goal of regenerative organic practices is not to maximize yield as seen in conventional agriculture, but rather to actively work to improve the environment while producing healthy crops.
Now, you may be wondering how this differs from the USDA Certified Organic label. For a product (or operation) to be certified organic, it must be grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or sewage sludge, it can not use genetically engineered seeds, and animals must have access to the outdoors and hoofed animals such as cows must have access to pastures. (cite). Organic methods also emphasize the importance of soil health, often manipulating soils to reduce weeds or promote plant growth. (cite) For an operation to be classified as Regenerative Organic, they must already meet all standards of USDA Organic. You can think of it as a level up from organic, taking in all of the methods that organic operations use and adding many more to maximize the sustainability of production.
Of great importance to both regenerative and organic practices is a reduction, and ultimately, an elimination in the use of synthetic pesticides. In both regenerative and organic practices, no synthetic pesticides are used and organic pesticides are used only as a last resort. (cite) Why? Well, research on synthetic pesticides shows that they may be potential carcinogens (meaning they cause cancer), may impact pollinator populations, be harmful to young children, and may be related to a slew of other diseases and health conditions (cite). These pesticides can also damage soil microbial content, hindering nitrogen fixation and carbon sequestration. (cite).
This all sounds well and good, but does it actually make a difference? In fact, it makes a huge difference. Currently, much of the food in America is grown using conventional agricultural practices. This broad term refers to a system of farming in which synthetic chemicals, genetically modified seeds, and lots of energy are used as inputs in order to maximize the crop outputs. Often these methods alter the natural environment and deteriorate soil quality and eliminate biodiversity. Conventional practices utilize synthetic fertilizers to make up for this loss of soil quality. Between 1961 and 2010, greenhouse gas emissions from synthetic fertilizers grew at an average rate of 3.9%/yr. Considering the current trends in use, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that synthetic fertilizers “will become a larger source of emissions than manure deposited on pasture in less than 10 years and the second largest of all agricultural emission categories.” (cite p 824).
Conventional agriculture also heavily relies on pesticides. Seeds are genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in roundup or ranger pro. This enables farmers to spray wide swaths of land in these chemicals without killing the crop. However, these pesticides do not disappear, rather they stay on food surfaces, enter waterways, drift in the air, and devastate biodiversity (cite). Farmworkers are often exposed to these pesticides and develop cancer or other health issues as a result. (cite) When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, conventional agriculture is a top culprit. The degraded soils, constant production, use of fertilizers and pesticides, and overall high energy input means that the system is constantly putting out emissions.
Regenerative Organic Agriculture stands in stark contrast with conventional methods, offering not a glimmer of hope, but a lifeline. Long term studies have found that organic systems use 45% less energy, produce 40% less carbon, and can produce up to 40% more yield than conventional systems. Additionally, organic practices improve soil quality and quantity. When regenerative practices are added on top of these organic ones, operations have the capacity to sequester carbon, capturing and storing atmospheric CO2 (cite). Research shows that if humans converted all global croplands and pastures to regenerative organic agriculture, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions. (cite). This is huge!
So next time you're choosing between that organic apple and that conventional one, know that your choice has real world impacts. Research around regenerative organic practices proves that the production of food, a necessity we all cherish and love, does not have to be destructive to the environment. Here at Mikuna we are spearheading this movement of regenerative practices, hoping to serve as an example of how food should be produced: in a way that benefits our workers, our land, our planet, and our consumers.