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Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is a broad term used to describe farming practices that are meant to connote the strengthening of ecosystems and the empowerment of farmers

Regenerative agriculture is an increasingly used term to describe farming – think “organic” or “sustainable” as other categories in the same family. It is meant to convey a holistic approach to agriculture that puts the health of ecosystems as well as human communities next to crop production value. Importantly, there is no current consensus on the exact description or measurement of these practices, and its use is growing. As this term is shaped, and its value in the market evolves, it will drive large opportunities for investment in different aspects of the agricultural systems and their intertwined ecological and human communities.

The 3 primary buckets that make up Regenerative Agriculture are outlined below

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Justin Freiburg

Managing Director at Yale Carbon Containment Lab

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Soil Health

  • Soil quality and health

  • Water quality

  • Carbon sequestration

  • Biodiversity

  • Seed preservation

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Animal Welfare

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Farmer & Community Wellbeing

  • Economic resiliency of farms

  • Livable wages

  • Increased food security

  • Under represented minorities increasing land ownership

  • Recognition of indigenous roots

  • Food security and access

Why is Soil Health so important?

Improving soil health improves land productivity, long-term sustainability, and importantly helps store a significant portion of carbon - all important in fighting climate change and providing food for a growing global population.

Improving Soil Health is the most agreed upon pillar of Regenerative Agriculture
The main practices included in Regenerative Agriculture to increase soil health and biodiversity

THE KEY DIFFERENCES ACROSS DEFINITIONS

  1. Animal welfare and an emphasis on the social and economic well being of farming communities are often mentioned. However, practices vary widely in degree and strictness across definitions. Some definitions may mention the latter two buckets, but they may lack clear guidelines for measuring outcomes.

  2. The scope of practices. For example, comparing reducing tillage vs eliminating tillage can have significantly different outcomes.

  3. Practices need to be tailored to different types of farming and geographies to produce successful results. This makes it difficult to create uniform definitions and measures of regenerative agriculture, making monitoring and certification a challenge

  4. GMOs are considered an acceptable part of a regenerative agricultural practice by some definitions, but not by others.

  5. There is also disagreement over organic v/s non-organic practices and what level of synthetic inputs is acceptable

3 Examples of Regenerative Agriculture in practice and used be non-profits and for profit organizations

1. Macro

1. Danone

2. Soul Fire Farm

3. Regeneratie Organic Alliance

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Where does the term Regenerative Agriculture come from?
 

The term Regenerative Agriculture as we know it in a western context was first surfaced by the Rodale institute in the 1980s and became mainstream until 2016 as awareness of the impacts of climate change became more widespread . The Rodale institute sought a term that went beyond organic, and moved away from post-industrialization large scale farming practices which primarily extracted materials from the ground to a practice which restored and added nutrients to the system. The part about adding nutrients is important and differs from “sustainable agriculture” which aims to sustain or keep resources at the same level.

This was not the first “new” term for a more sustainable form of agriculture to emerge. Regenerative agriculture represents the next phase of  many modern agriculture terms. Ethan Soloviev of HowGood outlined 5 “lineages” of regenerative agriculture, or practices that influenced the rise of Regenerative Agriculture today, such as Rodales’ organic practices, permaculture, holistic management, Charles Krone’s Regenerative paradigm, and the idea of soil profits and no-till, aimed at conventional farmers often scared off by organic.

 

These practices themselves draw from thousands of years of indigenous knowledge. For example, the Iroquois in the Northeast practiced intercropping of the “3 sisters”squash, corn, and beans. The ideas of regeneration, long-term viability, and working with the land rather than against it are core tenets of many indigenous agricultural practices.

For more on indigenous farming practices see:

The Indigenous Origins of Regenerative Agriculture | National Farmers Union

The History of Regenerative Agriculture | reNature

Social Inequity and RA
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Who benefits from regenerative agricultural practices, who gets credit for the creation of these practices, and can this paradigm create a more equitable food system?

 

The answer to the first of these questions seems to be relatively agreed upon - RA should benefit farmers and farming communities. How to qualify and measure these benefits is not as clear.

 

In discussing RA, the indigenous roots of many of its practices is often brought up – certainly more often than in discussions on organic or sustainable agriculture. Many who note these contributions also call for an acknowledgement by companies of the past and ongoing injustices within the agricultural sector. 

 

While modern discourse frames Regenerative Agriculture as a “new” concept, it is not. Practices of regeneration, long-term viability, and working with the land rather than against it are core tenets of many indigenous agricultural practices that have been around for thousands of years. The roadmap for modern crop rotation and soil health, a critical component of regenerative agriculture, was provided at the turn of the century by  Dr. George Carver, an African American agricultural scientist, inventor, and educator.

For more on Social inequality and regenerative agriculture, read:

Does Regenerative Agriculture Have a Race Problem? | Civil Eats

https://www.instagram.com/p/CGYkvnvDSVr/

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What's Next?
Construction Site

Forecasting the opportunity for RA

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What's Next 

-Misuse: Greenwashing

Label confusion

Label creation

Here are some helpful resources for further readings:

Overview of Sustainable material management

2021 State of the Industry Report: Next-Gen Materials

Examples of Circular Design Solutions

STOP (below for extra design specs)
Bioplastics from wood
Kitchen items

A research team led by Dr. Yuan Yao and Dr. Liangbing Hu successfully created bioplastic from wood byproducts using a simple manufacturing process. Currently available bioplastic materials don’t have comparable mechanical strength to fossil fuel plastic. However, this bioplastic has high mechanical strength, stability when holding liquids and UV-light resistance, is biodegradable, and has a lower life-cycle environmental impact when compared with petroleum-based plastics and other biodegradable plastics. 

Mushroom-based Styrofoam
Wild Mushrooms

Several companies have created sustainable alternatives to Styrofoam using mushrooms. Among these are packaging materials created using low value agricultural waste streams as feedstocks for growing mushrooms. The mushrooms in turn are used to create biodegradable and recyclable packaging.

Key Challenges

Exhaustion

All physical resources are finite. Some materials are so widely available that their exhaustion is of no concern, while others are very scarce. When a certain scarce material becomes in high demand for one or more specific applications, we are at risk of its depletion.

Limits to Recycling

While recycling is critical for prolonged usage of existing resources, there are thermodynamic limits to recycle and recover materials close to their original state. Both theoretical and empirical evidence show that the work/energy needed to remove every bit of impurity from a near-pure material increases infinitely as the purity requirements increase. Hence, considering the energy required to recycle waste materials, recycling may not be the end all and be all solution to waste management

Concentration

Modern industrial production has led to geographical concentration of key resources creating near-monopolistic scenarios for several resources. A well-known case is that of concentration of cobalt. As a leading producer of cobalt, Democratic republic of Congo can create artificial scarcity by limiting export of cobalt, a critical material for batteries used in electric vehicles

Progressive degradation

As a result of limits to recycling, the longer we keep a material in circulation through recycling processes, the more this material will degrade because of impurities. Many modern materials are created by combining various elements to achieve extremely specific set performances. These compounds can, for example, have very small percentages of rare metals that are very beneficial to the material during its lifetime, but end up as unwanted impurities during its recycling stage.

 Waste 

Every product that enters the socioeconomic sphere will eventually turn into waste, sooner or later. Thus, it is reasonable to assert that for each ton of materials that is created, there will be one ton of corresponding waste stream. Waste carries many challenges, from the physical collection and sorting to the introducing contaminants and hazardous substances into the ecosystem.

Emissions

Practically all industrial processes are associated with environmental emissions. These emissions might be airborne like CO2 and methane as well as contaminants that enter land and/or water. Even seemingly emission free activities generate indirect emissions. For example, while power plants operate on renewable energy, they still generate environmental impacts throughout their life cycle—albeit to a much smaller degree compared with their non-renewable counterparts.

Watch Dr. Alessio explain the life cycle of materials, their impact on our environment and ways to mitigate the same.

Here are some helpful resources for further readings: