Author: Christopher Collins | Published: July 10, 2017
The soil at Adobe House Farm in Durango, Colorado, gets better each time the landscaping trucks, brimming with leaves from a nearby housing development, make a delivery. Linley Dixon, a farmer and soil scientist for the Cornucopia Institute, says that over the years the leaves have helped raise her soil’s organic matter from 2 percent to about 8 percent.
This is good for an obvious reason: Plants grow better in soil with high levels of organic matter. But soil fertility is a reliable indicator of something else, too: how much carbon dioxide the ground can absorb from the surrounding environment. Scientists have linked high atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide to a warming climate, so the more CO2 the soil can sequester from the air, the better. Research has also indicated carbon sequestration can replenish depleted carbon networks in soil.
Dixon practices a farming method she calls “regenerative agriculture.” She uses compost, cover crops, and tills only minimally. These practices have been around since at least the 1970s, and have often been described as organic or agroecological. But Dixon says that regenerative agriculture goes further than most organic farming, and she hopes to help bring the approach to the mainstream.
Dixon and other members of the movement have used the growing threat of climate change as their rallying cry. “There’s so much doom and gloom around climate change, so if you can come up with a solution, it’s absolutely exciting,” Dixon said. At the Cornucopia Institute, regenerative agriculture is touted as a protection for farmers against the floods and droughts that are becoming more frequent in our rapidly warming world.
Dixon and the Cornucopia Institute aren’t alone. The people behind Holistic Management International, the Carbon Underground, Green America, and the Rodale Institute are all working to make inroads to bring regenerative ag to the mainstream. In some cases, these organizations are in conversations with suppliers, regulators, and manufacturers to begin using the term as a label on food. And while it’s not clear that the market has room for another eco-label, some regenerative ag advocates appear to be pushing that agenda forward.
Seizing an Opportune Moment
Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has oversight over the certified organic label, changes to existing rules have happened slowly. Case in point: The agency spent years working on an update to the animal welfare practices put forth in the current certification. Despite some momentum at the beginning of 2017, under the Trump administration it has been delayed several times. Similarly, while organic standards call for special attention to soil fertility, not all organic farms practice those techniques.
With a growing number of large producers transitioning some or all of their business to organic to capture the market, challenges to the label’s legitimacy have arisen, as evidenced by two scathing Washington Post investigative pieces spotlighting the USDA’s failure to regulate organic products.
Although organic sales are at a record high ($43.5 billion in 2015), the organic brand is struggling with a perception problem. A 2015 study by market research firm Mintel found that more than one-third of shoppers are skeptical that organic products are any better than conventionally grown food.
And even more are confused by alternative labels: A 2016 Consumer Reports survey found that 73 percent of consumers sought out products labeled “natural”—a label with no regulatory teeth—while only 58 percent look for organic products. This may be due in part to a 2012 Stanford meta-analysis study that found organic food is only slightly more nutritious than conventionally grown food, although the report’s methodology has drawn criticism.
“The organic certification is struggling. There are people who feel like it’s been watered down,” said Ann Adams, executive director of Holistic Management International. She also points to the fact that while less than 1 percent of farmland in the U.S. is certified organic, organic sales account for closer to 4 percent of the market. “Because we can’t produce enough of these organic products in this country, we’re importing a lot and people are looking the other way.”
And while foods grown using regenerative practices may help fill the void left by inadequate organic regulation, Adams said, it would likely be an uphill battle to convince consumers to buy them. “The number one reason people buy organic is for the health of their children,” she said, pointing out that some regenerative tenets—soil health and farmworker rights, for example—may be too abstract to win over organic customers.
But Larry Kopald, president and co-founder of the Carbon Underground, sees the climate argument as an effective marketing pitch for regenerative farming. According to its website, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit specializes in “crafting campaigns that motivate people to act,” with past clients including Honda, American Express, PepsiCo, and McDonalds. “We’d like to get to a point where we can hang a sign above the apples at the co-op that says, ‘These apples helped reverse climate change.’ The pressure that would put on the apples next to them would be immense,” Kopald said.
Carbon Underground is in the early stages of discussions with “investment and development people” to bring regenerative ag to the public consciousness. Kopald declined to give details, but said that the organization has worked with California State University, Chico and the National Co-op Association on the project and he hopes to achieve “significant scale” within five years.