Regenerative agriculture has become the new “buzzword” among critics of today’s large-scale, industrial agricultural operations. Its advocates claim that regenerative agriculture could sequester sufficient carbon in soil organic matter to mitigate and potentially reverse global climate change. They point to research and on-farm experience to support their claims. Farm policies proposing to pay farmers to sequester carbon have heightened interest in regenerative farming among farmers as well as agribusinesses. Claims that regenerative agriculture can increase productivity and profitability obviously add to the enthusiasm of farmers.
However, regenerative agriculture is not without its critics. Some soil scientists challenge claims that regenerative farming can capture or retain enough carbon in the soil to mitigate climate change. Others claim the focus should be on selecting, promoting, and perhaps genetic engineering specific crops to sequester carbon, rather than promoting some vaguely defined farming system. The “industrial agricultural establishment” seems to have bought into the concept of “agricultural intensification. They claim that producing more while using less land with fewer polluting inputs is the most effective means of meeting the ecological and food security challenges of the 21st century.
Regenerative agriculture is also being challenged with defensive tactics similar to those faced earlier by organic and sustainable agriculture. The “Real Organic Project” was established in defiance of compromises made by USDA to accommodate industrial production methods in certification of organic production. The concept of sustainable agriculture has been co-opted, redefined, and misused to the extent that some early advocates believe it has become useless. The term regenerative is already being used to promote specific carbon sequestering crops and production practices that can be accommodated without significant changes in industrial farming operations.
Like organic and sustainable farming, regenerative farming does not have a single, precise definition. Carbon Underground defines regenerative agriculture as “an integrated set of land management practices that utilizes plant photosynthesis to sequester carbon, restore soil health, increase crop resilience, and restore the nutrient density of foods.” Lists of regenerative practices typically include reduced reliance on tillage and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, increased adoption of cover crops, crop rotation and diversification, and management intensive grazing systems.
Internationally, regenerative farming is more likely to be defined as a system of production guided by common principles rather than practices. Rather than focusing on single objectives, such as carbon sequestration, regenerative agriculture has multiple social, economic, and ecological objectives. For example, Terra Genesis International defines regenerative agriculture as “a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. . . Regenerative Agriculture aims to reverse global climate change. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming communities.”
Using this more comprehensive definition, regenerative agriculture must be economically viable as well as ecologically regenerative and socially responsible. However, markets will never provide adequate economic incentives to create sustainable regenerative systems of farming. The upfront economic costs of establishing regenerative farming operations are too high relative to the long-run economic payoff. Markets place heavy discounts on long-run future values relative to upfront present costs. Thus, a transition from industrial to regenerative agriculture will require fundamental changes in farm policies to make it economically feasible for existing, and beginning, farmers to justify the upfront costs of transitioning to, or establishing, regenerative farming systems.
The 2020 presidential campaigns provided compelling evidence of growing political support for such fundamental changes in farm policy. Virtually all of the Democratic candidates promised to address the challenge of climate change and other environmental problems associated with today’s industrial agriculture through farm policies framed in the language of the Green New Deal–a 2019 congressional resolution. As with the more inclusive definition of regenerative farming, the Green New Deal recognizes that environmental problems are inseparable from the social and economic problems associated with industrial agriculture.
In addition to presidential candidates, various nonprofit organizations and think-tanks have developed political agendas around the principles in the Green New Deal. One such think-tank is Data for Progress, which has developed a Green New Deal Policy Series, that includes Regenerative Farming and the Green New Deal that we co-authored. The following is a brief outline of the farm policies included in this proposal.
1. Reform and eventually phase out current government subsidies of crop and livestock insurance for yields, prices, or gross revenues from specific crops and livestock species.
a. Limit producers’ eligibility for government subsidized crop insurance to commodities produced using approved practices to limit soil erosion, sequester soil carbon, and control pollution of air and water from agricultural chemical or biological wastes.
b. Place limits of total acreage and insurance coverage of all insured crops eligible for government subsidized crop insurance at $250,000 gross farm income or $50,000 net farm revenue per insured farm or insured farm family.
c. Over time, phase out government subsidized crop insurance programs for single crops and all other commodity-based programs, unless accompanied by supply management programs that eliminate incentives for production in excess of needs for domestic food security.
2. Replace current crop and livestock insurance programs with a Whole-Farm Net Revenue Insurance program, implemented through a special tax credit that shares the risks of transitioning from industrial agriculture to regenerative farming systems.
a. The new whole-farm net revenue protection program would reestablish the original concept of “parity” by ensuring a level of net farm revenue sufficient to guarantee farm family incomes on par or at parity with medium non-farm family income in the geographic area of the farm. The current USDA Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) program only ensures a percentage of anticipated “gross” farm revenue based on historic farm tax records for insured farms. Insuring a percentage of historic gross farm revenue would not ensure that a farm family could survive a transition to regenerative farming.
b. The new net revenue protection program might be called the Family Farm Transition Program (FFTP) and could be financed through guaranteed “tax credits,” similar to those in current “Earned Income Tax Credits” for low-income taxpayers. If a farm family’s total income falls below the insured level, farmers would get a tax credit from the government to make up the shortfall.
c. The objective of the FFTP would be to ensure long-run domestic food security by absorbing the risks inherent in establishing regenerative family farming operations or transitioning from unsustainable commercial farming operations to sustainable, regenerative full-time family farms. To apply for FFTP protection, farmers would be required to submit a whole-farm plan for establishing or transitioning to sustainable, regenerative whole-farm systems.
d. The primary role of the USDA and state Cooperative Research and Extension Service programs would be to conduct appropriate applied research and to facilitate the development and implementation of regenerative whole-farm plans needed by farmers to qualify for the program.
e. Farm plans would include farming practices similar to the current USDA Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), but all farming practices would be integrated into an approved regenerative whole-farm plan capable of sequestering carbon, rebuilding soil organic, restoring natural productivity and evolving to long-run economic viability. Families would be guaranteed a reasonable time to make the transition and would be assisted by other government programs.
3. Redirect USDA farm programs that currently incentivize and support industrial agriculture to incentivize, support, and prepare current farmers to transition from industrial farming practices to regenerative farming systems.
a. Reward farmers for undertaking practices that enhance ecological functions through government programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program.
b. Pay farmers to transition marginal croplands to pastures and retire marginal pastures to native prairie, particularly in historic prairie areas.
c. Incentivize pasture intercropping/rotational pasture crop systems in areas of lower yields croplands to reinvigorate them and add income streams.
d. Transition USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Cooperative Research and Extension programs from supporting industrial farming practices to facilitating the development of regenerative whole-farm systems.
e. Increase funding to the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and redirect these programs to incentivize and support the transition from industrial agriculture to regenerative farming systems.
f. Establish a joint incentive and education program through the USDA Agricultural Research Center (ARS) and NRCS for the agricultural production and use of compost, biochar, mulch and other organic amendments that improve soil health.
g. Grow the USDA research and development budget for carbon sequestration, soil health, and other regenerative practices as components of regenerative whole-farm systems.
The success or failure of the current regenerative agriculture movement will depend on whether U.S. farm policies are transformed from supporting industrial agriculture to making it economically possible for thoughtful, caring farmers to create and sustain regenerative farming systems. It’s important for consumers to vote with their dollars but it’s essential for citizens to vote and become involved in the processes of governance. The farm and food policies that currently support industrial agriculture can, and eventually must, be shifted to support and sustain regenerative agriculture. Here are a couple of action items we will leave you with so you can make a change:
- Check out the THRIVE Agenda and call your representatives to tell them to support the agenda!
- Are you a farmer or a rancher? Sign this petition to support the Green New Deal.
- Subscribe to our podcast, Agenda 23 about the 2023 Farm Bill!