Regenerative Organic Agriculture Puts Soil Health Front and Center

Author: Lisa Marshall

On Oct. 21, 2002, a New York Times editorial proclaimed: “Today marks a milestone in American farming.” The newspaper lauded the long-awaited implementation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP), which defined the word organic and established—for the first time—who could and could not use it legally. The real value of the program, the Times argued, was not in any added health benefit of organic food itself (that had yet to be scientifically validated), but rather in its emphasis on soil preservation. “In an organic system … the soil grows richer and richer, more and more fertile. It does not blow or wash away,” the editorial explained. “Buying organic food is a way to support the health of the soil itself. For that alone, it deserves our support.”

Fast-forward 13 years and organic has no doubt been a success. Sales of products emblazoned with the USDA Organic seal soared to $39 billion in 2014, up 11 percent, according to the Organic Trade Association. But with that success, and the accompanying influx of industrial-scale organic producers, has come concern that the NOP, while an important step forward, does not go far enough to achieve that foundational mission. “I am a huge fan of organic, but unfortunately, the National Organic Program is not sufficiently focused on soil health,” says industry veteran Tom Newmark, whose former company, New Chapter, was the first supplement brand to obtain the organic seal. “There is an international movement afoot today that says it’s time to take things a step further.”

Newmark is among a growing number of vocal advocates for so-called “regenerative agriculture,” a catchall phrase describing farming systems that not only protect existing soil from prohibited chemicals and other inputs (as the NOP does) but also promote soil generation. Advocates say abundant, healthy soil—which can act as a carbon sink—is a key but oft-overlooked solution to addressing global climate change. Some farmers take the term regeneration a step further, seeing it as their obligation to regenerate not just the soil and the forests that spring from it, but also the communities that rely on it and—in the case of Biodynamic agriculture—the “life force” within in it.

While some organic farmers are indeed regenerative farmers, Newmark says many are not. He argues that, although legal under NOP, the heavy tilling, monocropping, use of nonorganic chemicals and other practices some large-scale industrial organic operations rely on are hardly good for the soil.

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