Course:CONS200/2021/The Viability and Potential of Regenerative Agriculture in the USA

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Regenerative agriculture has been utilized globally since the 1980s as a mechanism to regenerate soil as opposed to depleting the soil. [1] As an alternative method associated with positive economic, social and ecological outcomes. [2] While conventional agricultural methods ecologically destructive due to the poor land management and are associated high externalities, low crop yield and insecurity of food. [2] The viability and potential of regenerative agriculture depends on transition and adaptation from conventional agricultural methods towards regenerative methods. [1] The United States government has the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) subsidizing the cultivation of certain crops including corn, wheat and soy. [3] Farmers are incentivized and dependent on the subsidy. As a result, consumer prices are faced decreased supply of fruits and vegetables at more cost. And more subsidized crops and their by-products at low costs. [3] Transitioning and transforming the systems involves a variety of frame-works to address all the intersections. [1]

Silage Grass by Tony Atkin

Principles

The negative effects contemporary agriculture has on United States soils is the main reason the idea of regenerative agriculture has been created and popularized [4]. This is because the quality of the soil ultimately determines the success of agriculture and crops, and in turn, determines the success of the society relying on these crops [4]. Regenerative agriculture is based on the fact that over 46%  of soils are at a poorer quality today than they were in the past, almost entirely due to poor agriculture practices [4]. Regenerative agriculture has a goal of reversing these negative soil qualities by promoting plant biodiversity, stopping the use of tillage style management to decrease soil surface disturbance, and using more natural approaches to maintaining landscape, such as livestock grazing [5]. These practices lead to a more natural-based agriculture  style, and overall lead to healthier crops and soils [5].

History

Though many are not aware of it, regenerative agriculture is far from new. Intercropping, agroforestry, and permaculture, which revolve around principles and values from around the world that date back to pre-modern days paved the way for the increasingly popular regenerative agriculture of today that promotes indigenous farming practices.[6] Attention was widely brought to these ideas through a series of conservation programs such as the “Agricultural Act of 1933, the Soil Bank Program of 1956, and the Food Security Act of 1985”[7] as well as the widely known Green Revolution which lasted from 1966-1985.[8] During these times, the concepts of regenerative and sustainable agriculture came to be in the early 1980s and during the early 20th century, these concepts of conservation evolved, “first giving emphasis to preservation of natural areas.”[7] The success of the Green Revolution aside, the costs and uncertainty of regenerative agriculture proved too much for Third World countries to maintain long-term. [9] Soon after, “investment in agriculture dropped off dramatically into the mid-2000s” and it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that an interest for regenerative agriculture spiked once again along with demands for a second Green Revolution.[8] Today, regenerative agriculture has been the focus of institutions, corporations, and growers alike with organizations pushing sustainability to regenerative agriculture Facebook groups with over 21,500 members.[10]

Benefits

There are many benefits to regenerative agriculture, as it reduces waste, conserves CO2 emissions, and it increases soil fertility.[11] According to the Rodale Institute, “shifting both crop and pasture management globally to regenerative systems could draw down more than 100% of annual CO2 emissions, pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil.”[12] According to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, utilizing soil health to combat rising CO2 emissions could potentially eliminate upwards of 250 million metric tons of CO2 annually.[11]

By focusing on building soil, farmers can optimize their yield results and crop health naturally. “Healthy soil contains aggregates that help it bind together, preventing erosion and run-off. It contains more bacteria and fungi that help plants fight diseases and pests. And healthy soil also contains more minerals and nutrients that feed plants.”[13]

A study by Arohi Sharma, Lara Bryant, Ellen Lee, and Claire O’Connor show that farms and ranches performing regenerative agriculture saw positive results in profitability due to the money that would have been spent on chemicals, including fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and antibiotics being saved and used for other purposes.[14] Claire LaCanne and Dr. Jonathan Lundgren also noted in their own study that regenerative agriculture grown corn reaped 78% higher profits than traditional corn production systems despite a lower crop yield.[5]

Regenerative farming also benefits water quality and quantity. This reduction in harmful chemicals and pesticides on regenerative farms and ranches results in less chemical pollution impacting ground and surface water, which in turn, leads to a decrease in harmful algal blooms and drinking water pollution.[14] Improved soil health resulting in improved water efficiency leads to 15-20% better water holding capacity, allowing organic crops to withstand extreme weathers such as floods and drought.[13]

Costs

While there are undoubtedly many benefits to regenerative agriculture, there are also many downsides and costs to it [5]. One of these is the possibility of a lower crop yield [5]. In a 2010’s study on the effectiveness of regenerative agriculture, it was seen that overall, there was less grain produced by regenerative agriculture [5]. Specifically, 29% less corn grain was produced through regenerative agriculture than was produced through conventional agriculture practices [5]. The growth of a lower quantity of crops could potentially not be enough to sustain the population and the livestock that also requires much of the grain produced each year. Currently, conventional, or industrialized, agriculture has successfully sustained the current population growth, and has even made it possible for people to believe that there will be enough food in the future to support an even larger population growth [4]. Because of the government subsidies, biotechnology, and other modern farming implementations that are used in conventional farming, it makes it a very successful and somewhat convenient approach to agriculture, which in turn sustains the world population easily [4]. By switching to a new practice of agriculture, it may be difficult to adjust and to see the amount needed to sustain the current growth rate of the population [4].

One important factor to consider when discussing the transition to  regenerative agriculture from conventional agriculture is that there are many social factors to consider aside from population [1]. These include political details and local belief systems, which could potentially make a significant transition unlikely or at least very difficult to achieve [1]. It is important to not simply try to just automatically transition to regenerative agriculture, but to also educate farmers and government leaders on what this change would be [1]. Past approaches to agricultural practices have been for governments to incentivise transitions to greener methods, however, this is unsustainable for the long term, so it is important to invest in the education of farmers so they can truly understand the importance of the transition [1].

Current remedial action(s)

It is know that regenerative agriculture allows the revitalization of soil and it's biodiversity.[15]However, how exactly are organization and individuals doing this? [15] There are numerous methods that have been incorporated into improving, as well as slowing down soil destruction.[15]

Reduced or No-till farming practices, leaves the land undisturbed.[16] Doing so, promotes improved soil structure through the increase in microbes present.[16] At an ecological perspective, soil structure preservation and advancement prevents the erosion of soils aiding crop quality and stressors.[16] There are also economic benefits that are involved in no-till.[16] An increased flux in water penetration and regeneration has a direct relationship with the amount of nutrients the soil can withhold.[16] This method averts crusting of the soil and builds up more soil organic matter overtime.[16] Possessing healthy soils that are well suited for crop growth lowers the cost of labour and items associated with farming. [17] As well as, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing biodiversity and overall land quality. [17]

A method that allows the continual root growth of plants by providing healthy soils is Cover Cropping.[16] Cover cropping, can fix CO2 from the atmosphere by sequestering carbon as part of organic matter in soils.[16] It feeds carbon exudates to the soil increasing the amount of nutrient available in soils, biological soil, and preventing soil erosion.[16] Cover crops could be considered the scavengers of surplus nutrients.[16] They absorb the excess into their biomass, undergoing the specified fixation process that can then be stored until needed again.[16] Not only this, cover crops also hinder agricultural run-off.[16] They are often weaved between rows in farms, so that problems such as erosion and weed growth can be prevented.[16]

Compost is an approach where waste that we make in our everyday life can be utilized to rebuild disturbed soils for a more sustainable approach.[16] Biological matters like organic food, animal waste is a pertinent aspect to regenerative agriculture.[16] Most wastes contain mass amounts of matter that can be introduced into the soils that over time breaks down creating a stable organic material.[16] The process of decomposition of organic matter in order to form compost products is also quickened by composting.[16] The addition of biological organisms such as earthworms, nematodes, and bacteria also improves the time frame of converting compost into fertilizer.[16]

Areas that possess a variation in crops have been known to have more suitable and healthier land for future plant growth.[16] Crop rotation is a pertinent part in attempting to revitalize and mimic the natural environment in which the soil once was.[16] Different vegetation and crops excrete distinctive carbohydrates that microbes feed on. The microbes then replenish the carbs placing different forms of nutrients back into the soil.[18] By increasing the diversity of plants being planted farms will have better suited soils; improves productive yields.[18]

Animal Integration is a popular approach in regenerative agriculture.[16] The reintroduction of livestock into farms can give more chances for nutrients cycling.[16] A period after crop harvest animal grazing helps revitalize the excess carbon to low carbon manure.[16]

Options for future remedial action(s)

PRACTICAL

In order to transition to regenerative agriculture, there must be a fundamental transformation of the agronomic system [19]. The transformation demands the engagement of all actors within the system [20]. The US government requires a policy framework to incentivize individual actors to practice regenerative land stewardship [20].  In addition to, developing a knowledge base and social network to connect regional land practices. This demands additional scientific research monitoring the natural mechanisms of their ecosystems [1]. In order to support natural ecology, farmers need to change practices and perspective and commit to new farming principles [1]. In doing assuring ecological integrity of the farms and food security for the US [1]. The transition would enable the US to reduce national energy usage. As well as, reduce the usage of chemical fertilizers relying instead on recycling food waste and sewage into inputs to enrich the soils[19].  

Urbanization highlights the future viability of regenerative agriculture. As the phenomenon occurs globally and throughout the US, less space will be retained for the land intensive methods and outcomes of conventional agriculture [19]. In future, multiple land uses within a region will encourage interactions between urbanity and the agronomy through urban and peri-urban agriculture [19]. Allowing urban residents to contribute to food production, through employment [19]. Thus within the constraints of urbanization, regenerative agriculture is viable due to its positive environmental and social outcomes [19].

ECONOMIC

Regenerative Agriculture is a semi-closed system relying on high internal inputs (labour), low external inputs (fertilizer and machinery) and low external outputs (environmental outcomes). Achieving crop production while maintaining ecological resilience of the landscape [19]. By nature of the semi-closed system, costly inputs and their ecological impact are minimized. The inputs into the system rely on predominantly human labour[21] consequently creating social capital by connecting stewardship knowledge and building community [19]. The additional inputs of labour produce sufficient crop yield while sustaining the landscape [19]. Minimizing the use of external inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and machinery enables low production costs and diminishes environmental externalities [19]. The system relies on recycling by products of production, to enrich soils rather than sourcing them externally [19]. Which lowers the use of chemical fertilizers and the impacts of leaching [19]. Economic comparison between models (open and semi-closed) exclude their externalities, making them difficult to compare monetarily [19]. However, regenerative agriculture is economically viable due to the low input cost, the increased natural capital of ecosystem services and the minimizing of negative environmental impacts. According to Constanza et al., ecosystem goods and services are calculated to offer greater monetary value than the food production on the same land [22]. Regenerative systems offer monetary value through sustained ecosystems and their services independent of crop yield [19].

TECHNICAL

The approach towards transforming the agronomic system towards regenerative methods is based in changing the perspective of the actors within the system. Implementing a framework for regenerative agriculture through the alignment of policy, science and economics [19]. Transitioning the agronomic system  to regenerative agriculture does not require traditional technological advancements or economic growth [19]. Instead requires commitment to remediation techniques for degraded ecosystems, to create resilient ecosystems which can sequester carbon and hold water [19]. Facilitating research of geographic information systems and variable-rate applications to improve the usage of fertilizers and pesticides[19]. As well as, researching biotechnology to improve the viability of crops towards external stress[20]es to reduce the dependence on chemical inputs [19]. Finally, researching robotics can offer a solution towards the increased labor demand of the methods [19].

PERSONAL

In order to change from conventional agricultural methods to regenerative, individual farmers are confronted with a vastly different set of values and perspectives towards farming [1]. Many farmers are confronted by external pressures, related to failing ecosystem services, forcing them to re-evaluate their farming practices [1]. Individuals become motivated to engage with regenerative methods because they are associated with positive business, social and environmental outcomes [1]. Yet the transition to regenerative methods still remains difficult in the US, due to a lack of land stewardship knowledge, over-valuation of production and attachment to tradition [1]. Farming practices and the farm are analogous with the farmer. Thus farming practices are a reflection of the individual identity of farmers . Land stewardship is not as effective if practiced in isolation, creating positive social rapport among the community of farmers enables reinforces land stewardship as a social normal [20]. Building a network and knowledge base of stewardship in the community enables farmers to be able to adapt to arising external contexts [20].  Regenerative agriculture is a mechanism to reinforce connection with the landscape and the community [19]. Reframing perspectives about farming beyond yield and instead towards land stewardship, knowledge and community [19].

POLICY

In the United States, despite discourse in the U.S. Farm Bill about Regenerative Agriculture. No policy framework currently  exists to incentivize the transition to Regenerative systems [2]. The U.S. has policies aimed at reducing externalities, subsidizes practices and protecting areas [23]. However, aligning the outcome of the policies to real world contexts is complex [23]. In the U.S. individual farmers can decide to participate in conservation efforts, based on policy and market conditions aimed towards high production [23]. Future policies should be based on agro-ecological principles marked by land-use patterns, soil health and ecology [2]. In addition to long-term economic viability and social acceptance [2] aligning existing research, policy and industry to advance and build a robust framework and knowledge base [2]. Management policies should be region specific to accommodate ecological concerns [2]. As well as socially viable through incentives which encourage and protect farmers and industry to adapt to regenerative methods [2].

Practical policies must include valuation of both production and ecosystem services [19]. However valuation of ecosystem services is a challenge and is highly contested. Gatto and De Leo argues measuring ecosystem services monetarily, oversimplifies decisions by reducing factors into a monetary value[24]. However, Patterson views valuation of ecosystem services as visibility within political and economic governance systems [25]. Nevertheless, ecosystem services are valuable and lead to resilient ecosystems [19].

The U.S Farm Policy has been an important part of the agricultural system, based on the commodification of crops (maize, wheat, soy and corn)[23]. This policy initially allowed food security during periods of uncertainty. Due to such policies the agronomic system has evolved to a ‘Supply Management Program’ evaluated based on metrics of supply [23]. Reforming this policy framework to incentivize particular practices to ensure environmental outcomes, incentives the transition to regenerative agriculture [23].  Enabling the government to incentivize individual actors to produce positive environmental outcomes [23]. While retaining an already effective policy framework, providing farmers with external support while improving their practices [23].

Conclusion

Alternative methods of growing crops can lower the negative impact on our ecosystem, regenerative agriculture being one of the options.[26] Despite the uproar of popularity in regenerative agriculture, there has yet to be any legal regulatory definition enforcing these practices.[26] Individuals still choose to partake in these approaches, forming their own definitions and principles on how to revitalize the farms. Whilst regenerative agriculture may be defined as ," a system of principles and practices that generate agricultural products, sequesters carbon, and enhances biodiversity at the farm scale.", by Cranfield Environment and Agrifood other organization can wager their own definitions.[7] Though the definitions may differ, most if not all organizations main goals and practices include lowering or avoiding tillage, removing bare soil, increasing diversity, water percolation, and reintegrating live stock back into the farms.[7] These methods benefit agroecosystems in countless ways.[27] It reduces waste, restoration of ecology, mitigates climate change, reduced and conserves CO2 emissions, and many more. [28] Additionally, regenerative agriculture improves the water quality and quantity due to the mitigated chemical and pesticides placed in the farms which lowers the chemical pollution on the surfaces of water and grounds; prevents algae blooms.[8] This increases the total soil water holding capacity due to the improved soil health; improved soil health allows water to move more efficiently giving better groundwater recharge.[8] These improved conditions allows more resistance to floods and droughts on the site.[8] These benefits do not come without a cost such as lower crop yield.[11] The lower quantity of production bring concern as to whether or not the amount of crops being produced is enough to support the growth in population as well as sustain the current and future.[11] The present state of where the production industry is in terms of food is promising as it has shown to support the continual growth in population.[11] It is crucial to consider the political and local belief of individuals when contemplating the viability of transitioning into regenerative methods as it determines the likeliness or unlikeness of these methods making a significance in agroecosystems.[13] The assurance from political figures will result in better informative when educating farmers and horticulturists of these methods.[13] The viability and potential of regenerative agriculture continue to be recognized as one of the more notable methods at transitioning from conventional to revitalizing methods in tackling the agroecosystem issues today. However, there are still major precautions that have to be considered when swapping between conventional to regenerative methods.

References

Please use the [14]Wikipedia reference style. Provide a citation for every sentence, statement, thought, or bit of data not your own, giving the author, year, AND page. For dictionary references for English-language terms, I strongly recommend you use the Oxford English Dictionary. You can reference foreign-language sources but please also provide translations into English in the reference list.

Note: Before writing your wiki article on the UBC Wiki, it may be helpful to review the tips in Wikipedia: Writing better articles.[29]

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  24. Gatto, M (2000). "Pricing biodiversity and ecosystem services: the never-ending story". Bioscience. 50: 347–355.
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  29. En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Writing better articles. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Writing_better_articles [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
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