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.

Keep Reading in New Hope 360

From ‘Sustainable’ to ‘Regenerative’—The Future of Food

This week (October 26, 2015), the paywalled site PoliticoPro reported that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture wants “farmers and agricultural interests to come up with a single definition of sustainability in order to avoid confusing the public with various meanings of the term in food and production methods.”

We agree with Secretary Tom Vilsack that the word “sustainability” is meaningless to consumers and the public. It’s overused, misused and it has been shamelessly co-opted by corporations for the purpose of greenwashing.

But rather than come up with one definition for the word “sustainable” as it refers to food and food production methods, we suggest doing away with the word entirely. In its place, as a way of helping food consumers make conscious, informed decisions, we suggest dividing global food and farming into two categories: regenerative and degenerative.

In this new paradigm, consumers could choose food produced by degenerative, toxic chemical-intensive, monoculture-based industrial agriculture systems that destabilize the climate, and degrade soil, water, biodiversity, health and local economies. Or they could choose food produced using organic regenerative practices based on sound ecological principles that rejuvenate the soil, grasslands and forests; replenish water; promote food sovereignty; and restore public health and prosperity—all while cooling the planet by drawing down billions of tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil where it belongs.

‘Sustainable’—Is that All We Want?

The dictionary defines “sustainable” as: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources; able to last or continue for a long time.

In other words, sustainability is about maintaining systems without degrading them. And it is about keeping things much the same without progressing.

Industrial agriculture today, with its factory farms, waste lagoons, antibiotics and growth hormones, GMOs, toxic pesticides and prolific use of synthetic fertilizers, doesn’t come close to “not using up or destroying natural resources.”  And even if it did, is that all we want, or need, to achieve?

Or do we want to grow our food in ways that restore climate stability and regenerate—soil, health, economies—rather than merely maintain the status quo?

Greenwashing and the Labeling Game

Corporations love to brand themselves, and label their products, as “sustainable.” The hope is that consumers will view “sustainable” products as superior to mere “conventional” products, or better yet, equate the word “sustainable” with “organic.”

But when a widely discredited and despised company like Monsanto co-opts the word “sustainable,” the word loses all meaning for consumers. On its website, Monsanto says:

Our vision for sustainable agriculture strives to meet the needs of a growing population, to protect and preserve this planet we all call home, and to help improve lives everywhere. In 2008 Monsanto made a commitment to sustainable agriculture – pledging to produce more, conserve more, and improve farmers’ lives by 2030.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready, chemical-intensive GMO crops now dominate agriculture, on a global scale, poisoning soil, water, air, farm workers and consumers. The words on their website fool no one—the agriculture they promote is anything but “sustainable.”

It is the same with the certified “sustainability” labels promoted by corporations such as Cargill, Heinz Benelux, Mars, Nestlé, Unilever and Cadbury. These labeling schemes, such as Rainforest Alliance, Sustainable Agriculture Network, and UTZ can be congratulated for promoting the planting of trees on farms, for improving the farm environment and for requiring compliance with minimum labor standards. But they do nothing to curtail the use of soil-destroying, climate-destabilizing chemical fertilizers and the thousands of toxic pesticides that are known to cause both environmental and health damage.

A “sustainability” label may mean the production methods behind a product inflicted somewhat less damage on the environment. But it doesn’t mean the product will cause less damage to human health. Numerous published scientific studies link exposure to the smallest amounts of these “approved” pesticides to cancers, birth defects, endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, developmental neurotoxicity, ADHD, autism, obesity, type 2 diabetes, reproductive problems, immune system damage, epigenetic mutations, kidney, liver and heart disease and numerous other non-communicable diseases that are currently in epidemic proportions.

Most of the farmers enrolled in these “sustainability programs” used to grow crops or graze animals traditionally, with little or no chemicals. The same is true for the many thousands of certified organic coffee and cacao farmers who have been hijacked by these schemes—schemes which allow them to charge a premium without meeting the more rigorous organic standards. How can the promoters of these “sustainability” labels claim that they are reducing chemical use when they have converted thousands of low-input traditional farmers to the use of chemicals that they never used before?

A global ‘Regeneration Revolution’ is under way.

In the 1970s, Robert Rodale, son of American organic pioneer J.I. Rodale coined the term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’ to distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond simply “sustainable.”

According to the Rodale Institute:

Regenerative organic agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual well-being.

Regenerative organic agriculture “takes advantage of the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed. In that primary sense it is distinguished from other types of agriculture that either oppose or ignore the value of those natural tendencies.” Regenerative organic agriculture is marked by tendencies towards closed nutrient loops, greater diversity in the biological community, fewer annuals and more perennials, and greater reliance on internal rather than external resources. Regenerative organic agriculture is aligned with forms of agroecology practiced by farmers concerned with food sovereignty the world over.”

We opened this piece by stating that we agree with Vilsack—the word “sustainability,” in the context of food and food production, has led to consumer confusion.

But we don’t like where Vilsack is headed. He told PoliticoPro:

“In recent years, Consumers have raised concerns about conventional agricultural practices, which has led to the growth of organic, GMO-free foods and ‘natural’ products, often at the expense of the reputation of conventional products. I think it’s going to be incumbent on us to have a common understanding of what [sustainability] means to better serve the interests of agriculture as a whole and consumers.”

At the “expense of the reputation of conventional products”? Is Vilsack referring to the well-earned bad reputation of products (those containing GMOs and toxic pesticides, perhaps?) produced using degenerative, rather than regenerative, practices?

A “common understanding” of what sustainability is might better serve the interests of Monsanto and the agribusiness corporations—but it will do little to serve the interests of small farmers and consumers.

The number one driver behind rising sales of organic foods is consumer concern about health, especially pesticides, growth hormones and GMOs. But as scientists issue increasingly dire warnings about the climate, and people throughout the world connect the dots between industrial agriculture and global warming, there is a growing contingent of farmers and consumers who want to do more.

An increasing number of farmers want to grow food and raise animals using organic and regenerative farming and grazing practices that are not only better for human health, but that also cool the planet, feed the world, heal the soil, foster food sovereignty and strengthen communities.

And consumers want to purchase those products, knowing that their production generated healing, not harm.

It’s a Regeneration Revolution. And it goes well beyond “sustainability.”

André Leu is president of IFOAM Organics International, and on the steering committee of Regeneration International.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association, and on the steering committee of Regeneration International.

The Exxons of Agriculture

Author: GRAIN

It goes without saying that oil and coal companies should not have a seat at the policy table for decisions on climate change. Their profits depend on business-as-usual and they’ll do everything in their power to undermine meaningful action.

But what about fertiliser companies? They are essentially the oil companies of the food world: the products they get farmers to pump into the soil are the largest source of emissions from farming.1 They, too, have their fortunes wrapped in agribusiness-as-usual and the expanded development of cheap sources of energy, like shale gas.*

Exxon and BP must envy the ease their fertiliser counterparts have had in infiltrating the climate change policy arena. World leaders are about to converge for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in December, but there is only one major intergovernmental initiative that has emerged to deal with climate change and agriculture  and it is controlled by the world’s largest fertiliser companies.

The Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, launched last year at the United Nations (UN) Summit on Climate Change in New York, is the culmination of several years of efforts by the fertiliser lobby to block meaningful action on agriculture and climate change. Of the Alliance’s 29 non-governmental founding members, there are three fertiliser industry lobby groups, two of the world’s largest fertiliser companies (Yara of Norway and Mosaic of the US), and a handful of organisations working directly with fertiliser companies on climate change programmes. Today, 60% of the private sector members of the Alliance still come from the fertiliser industry.2

Read the media release about this report here

Keep Reading and Download the Report from GRAIN

A National Food Policy for the 21st Century

Authors: Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, Olivier De Schutter

“Thanks to the productivity of our farmers, the United States has led the world in agriculture for generations. But it’s time to recognize that the challenges facing our food system have shifted; we need to do more than produce an abundance of cheap calories. Too many of our children are struggling with obesity and type 2 diabetes, while many adults struggle with chronic preventable diseases linked to diet, costing us more than $500 billion a year. We must commit not just to feeding but to nourishing our citizens, especially our children. We can do this by honoring our great tradition of small family farms, and by building a food system that works with nature while continuing to be productive and profitable. To that end, I’m announcing the creation of a task force reporting directly to me and charged with developing the nation’s first National Food Policy. This policy will be organized around the paramount objective of promoting health — that of our citizens and of the environment — at each link in the food chain, from the farm to the supermarket, to our schools, home tables, and even restaurants. With the development of this policy, we will demonstrate that the American food system can continue to be a model the rest of the world can follow.”

— America’s next president
A scenario for the State of the Union address, January 28, 2017

The Opportunity

The current and future well-being of the nation can be significantly improved by creating a National Food Policy (NFP). Such a policy, if properly conceived and implemented, will result in a healthier population, a reduction in hunger, mitigation of (and adaptation to) climate change, decreases in energy consumption, improved environmental conservation, rural and inner city economic development, a reduction in socioeconomic inequality, a safer and more secure food system, and savings to the federal budget, especially in spending on health care.

How could a single innovation such as the NFP possibly deliver on such a broad spectrum of our major contemporary challenges? Because these various issues are currently addressed through piecemeal and often contradictory approaches, whereas they are interlocking problems that can best be addressed through a unified and coordinated policy focused on their common denominator: the food system.


Agroecology and the Right to Food

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The reinvestment in agriculture, triggered by the 2008 food price crisis, is essential to the concrete realization of the right to food. However, in a context of ecological, food and energy crises, the most pressing issue regarding reinvestment is not how much, but how. This report explores how States can and must achieve a reorientation of their agricultural systems towards modes of production that are highly productive, highly sustainable and that contribute to the progressive realization of the human right to adequate food.

Photo credit: Flickr / Grassroots International

Drawing on an extensive review of the scientific literature published in the last five years, the Special Rapporteur identifies agroecology as a mode of agricultural development which not only shows strong conceptual connections with the right to food, but has proven results for fast progress in the concretization of this human right for many vulnerable groups in various countries and environments. Moreover, agroecology delivers advantages that are complementary to better known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties. And it strongly contributes to the broader economic development. The report argues that the scaling up of these experiences is the main challenge today. Appropriate public policies can create an enabling environment for such sustainable modes of production. These policies include prioritizing the procurement of public goods in public spending rather than solely providing input subsidies; investing in knowledge by reinvesting in agricultural research and extension services; investing in forms of social organization that encourage partnerships, including farmer field schools and farmers’ movements innovation networks; investing in agricultural research and extension systems; empowering women; and creating a macro-economic enabling environment, including connecting sustainable farms to fair markets.

Download the Report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Can Carbon Farming Make the Carbon Tax More Politically Palatable?

Author: Edward B. Barbier 

Australia has launched a carbon tax initiative together with the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). Under CFI, the government will buy carbon credits from farmers and land managers who save carbon by storing carbon or reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the land. Australian farmers are exempt from most of the carbon tax but are eligible for the carbon credits in CFI. The double initiative could be useful in gathering support from Australia’s farm lobby for the controversial carbon policy, but questions remain about market approaches to climate change mitigation.

In mid-July, I participated as a keynote speaker at University of Sydney’s 2012 Research Symposium on Soil Security.

A major topic at the Symposium was carbon farming, which is a payment scheme that allows farmers and land managers to earn credits by storing carbon or reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the land. These credits can then be sold to pay for the various carbon storing activities.

Since late 2011, Australia’s government has operated such a scheme, called the Carbon Farming Initiative.  Under the auspices of the CFI, the government has launched the Carbon Farming Futures plan, which will provide AU$429 million over the six years to encourage carbon farming across Australia.  Under the plan, the Government will buy carbon credits from farmers and landholders who undertake carbon-saving measures such as storing carbon and revegetation.  There are many ways in which Australian farmers might eventually earn credits for storing carbon, including planting trees, reducing livestock methane emissions, and managing natural habitat, but Australian farmers seem most curious about earning credits from altering existing cultivation and farmland management so that the soils hold more carbon.

Also while I was in Sydney, the Australia Government officially launched its carbon tax initiative.  Emitters will initially pay a price of AU$23 per metric ton of carbon.  The price will increase gradually until 2015, when Australia will shift to a trading scheme that will let the market set the cost.  Interestingly, however, Australian farmers will not have to pay for their current emissions of carbon, such as methane released by farm animals or carbon emitted from the soils through cultivation.  Gasoline for farm vehicles is also exempt from the carbon tax.  But because the carbon tax impacts Australia’s entire transport sector, farmers will soon be paying higher transportation costs for marketing their produce and bringing bulk inputs to the farm.

However, Australian farmers could be the big winners from the country’s new carbon policy: exempt from much of the carbon tax but eligible for carbon credits if they participate in any of the resulting CFI schemes.  This could be a “win-win” politically for the Australian government, as they may get a powerful political force – Australia’s farm lobby – to support the new carbon policy while at the same time justifying a new subsidy for Australian farms on environmental grounds.  Governments in the rest of the world, including in the carbon tax-phobic United States, may watch this Australian initiative with interest.  Who knows, one could even see in the near future French farmers protesting in Paris and Brussels demanding  that the EU adopt Australia’s carbon policy, or a strong “carbon farm” lobby emerge in the US Congress to demand a similar policy be instituted in the next US Farm Bill.

Keep Reading on the Global Policy Forum

Family Farmers: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth

Family farming preserves traditional food products, while contributing to a balanced diet and safeguarding the world’s agro-biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources. Family farmers are the custodians of a finely adapted understanding of local ecologies and land capabilities. Through local knowledge, they sustain productivity on often marginal lands, through complex and innovative land management techniques. As a result of the intimate knowledge they have of their land and their ability to sustainably manage diverse landscapes, family farmers are able to improve many ecosystem services.

Photo credit: Flickr / CIAT

Family farming represents an opportunity to boost local economies, especially when combined with specific policies aimed at the social protection and well-being of communities.

Family farmers have strong economic links to the rural sector; they contribute strongly to employment, especially in developing countries where agriculture still employs the majority of the labour force. In addition, the incremental income generated by family farming is spent on housing, education, clothing etc. in the local non-farm economy.

Download the Report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

World Hunger: Ten Myths

Authors: Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins

In troubled times, all of us seek ways to make sense of the world. We grasp for organizing beliefs to help us interpret the endlessly confusing rush of world events. Unfortunately, however, the two of us have come to see that the way people think about hunger is the greatest obstacle to ending it. So in this Backgrounder we encapsulate 40 years of learning and in-depth new research to reframe ten such ways of thinking explored in our latest book World Hunger: 10 Myths. We call them “myths” because they often lead us down blind alleys or simply aren’t true.

Myth one: too little food, too many people

Our response: Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world’s food supply. Even though the global population more than doubled between 1961 and 2013, the world produces around 50 percent more food for each of us today—of which we now waste about a third. Even after diverting roughly half of the world’s grain and most soy protein to animal feed and non-food uses, the world still produces enough to provide every human being with nearly 2,900 calories a day. Clearly, our global calorie supply is ample.

Even though the global population more than doubled between 1961 and 2013, the world produces around 50 percent more food for each of us today—of which we now waste about a third.

Increasingly, however, calories and nutrition are diverging as the quality of food in most parts of the world is degrading. Using a calorie-deficiency standard, the UN estimates that today roughly one in nine people is hungry—about 800 million; but adding measures of nutrient deficiencies as well, we estimate that a quarter of the world’s people suffer from nutritional deprivation.

Food scarcity is not the problem, but the scarcity of real democracy protecting people’s access to nutritious food is a huge problem. So, fighting hunger means tackling concentrated political and economic power in order to create new equitable rules. Otherwise hunger will continue no matter how much food we grow.

Keep Reading on Food First