In the world of sustainable farming, there’s a new buzzword going around; regenerative agriculture (RA).
For those of you not in the know, regenerative agriculture is the supposed cure for poor soil health due to monocropping and the next big thing to reduce carbon emissions.
RA uses no-till farming, cover crops, crop diversity, and integrates managed grazing of livestock. In this article, we’ll look away from the hype and focus on the main criticisms against it.
Ready to get started? Let’s go.
Regenerative Agriculture: Major Criticisms
The beauty of a lot of modern farming practices in the United States is that they use a copypaste model dependent on fertilizers and tilling that’s perfect for repeated farming. It’s a tried and tested method for producing high yields in crops.
Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, would have to replace a lot of farm-specific systems in order to get up and running. That’s because of its focus on testing what can be grown/raised well while minimizing destruction to the land.
So, depending on your farm’s location, climate, and what blend of crops works well together, scalability can be an issue.
Hence what works well for one farm won’t necessarily work for another farm. Especially those of a similar size in a different part of the country.
Just because one works in Alabama, doesn’t mean it will in Arizona.
Farmers using the RA method pick crops based on diversity. This replaces the more traditional method of picking crops based on profitability. From a business sense, this is enough to turn a lot of farmers off.
There are currently little to no subsidies given specifically for RA. Farmers are left with more risk to make the transition from conventional methods and are left financially vulnerable.
Even if farmers do make the transition, they’re in a difficult spot to compete in a market dominated by commercial farming. Many farmers won’t be willing to risk committing to the practice and the majority who do often see a decline in income (primary production).
3. Barriers to entry
The obvious question is; “if RA is so good wouldn’t everyone be doing it?” The reason why the majority of farmers aren’t is down to barriers to entry; the major one being the considerable planning and organization it takes to make it successful.
There are far more moving parts to consider in RA than on typical farms. These include:
- Soil systems
- The unique ecology of the land
- Less predictable crop growth
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of time to consider each of these!
Gabe Brown in his TEDx talk on the subject, suggests his farm only saw significant changes after 20 years of planning and applying RA techniques.
As Gabe suggests, there’s high probability of loss of earnings during the period of transition as the soil slowly adapts.
Besides this issue with time, there’s also cost.
This study shows how upfront expenditures deter adoption. Particularly as benefits aren’t seen for years in most cases.
Coupled with the rigorous process to get properly certified with anything to do with organic farming, it’s no wonder more farmers haven’t taken the plunge.
4. Vague terminology in scientific data
The last thing you want with a new system is to add confusion.
Both RA and “climate-smart agriculture” (another buzzword in the field) have been used inconsistently in studies, bringing some doubt over positive studies’ efficacy.
A meta-review completed by the University of Colorado Boulder (based on 229 journal articles along with 25 practitioner websites) found consistent conflicting uses of the term “regenerative agriculture.”
The three main findings concluded:
- Only 51% of the articles actually defined the meaning of the term
- They found the term had different meanings in many of the articles
- The term was often conflated with other terms in agriculture
Another study showed that because there are a number of confounded farming methods attributed to RA, it’s hard to question its collective benefits.
Farmers employed in regenerative agriculture may think they’re doing it, but due to unclear definitions, might not be doing it at all!
5. More intensive work
Another reason why farmers might be less inclined to take on this new method of farming is the increase in work needed to maintain such farms.
For example, it’s very time-intensive to corral cattle and keep moving them from one grazing paddock to the next every few days. Also, more fencing is needed, as the plots of land are broken up into more areas than conventional farming.
The overall setup of RA is more labor-intensive. More robust water systems are needed to reach more individual plots of land. Typical grazing plots are much easier to manage by comparison.
6. Long-term effects are unclear
Similar to the confusion in point 4 (vague terminology) the long-term effects of RA are also unclear because it’s hard to find uniform data. Practices that work on one farm do not necessarily work on the next farm. Especially considering climate and environmental differences.
Because not all farms are created equal, it’s unclear if the data taken from a successful one is transferable to others.
As this study shows; “there is a crisis in erosion measurements because there [is] insufficient empirical data of adequate quality.”
Whether RA works over the long term, across the majority of farms, is still unclear.
7. Exaggerated Benefits
There are a lot of remarkable claims being made of RA’s abilities, but not a lot of remarkable evidence to back it up. Of course, there are examples of farms increasing soil health, but the claim of it being a cure-all for climate change seems very premature.
One study did show a significant reduction in greenhouse gas through the “sequestering” of carbon into the soil, but the catch-22 was that it needed 2.5X the land usage compared to conventional farms to achieve this.
This resulted in a lot of debate as to whether large-scale deforestation was worth it in the search for more livestock grazing land.
Seeing as there’s a lot of confusion and mislabeling when it comes to regenerative agriculture, it’s difficult to know its true impact.
The increase in no-till farming (a prominent feature of RA) over the years looks good on paper, but a 2017 study by no-till farmers showed that 92% of the farmers interviewed still planned to use herbicides.
As you can see, the practice is not without its controversies.
Hopefully, in this article, we’ve helped present the major criticisms and provided more balance to the debate over regenerative agriculture’s supposed benefits.
Will you be looking into it?
What are the major regenerative farming techniques?
The main methods are generally thought to include:
- Reduced tilling (breaking up and stirring soil)
- Crop rotation (growing different things at different times of the year)
- Spreading compost
- Avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.
Obviously, as we discuss above, there is some debate over whether these techniques can actually be defined under RA.
Hopefully, as we move forward, we can get a clearer definition of the practice and what it involves.
Does regenerative agriculture really work?
Theoretically speaking, regenerative agriculture should work. The agreed-on techniques help promote biodiversity by reducing lethal poisons and promoting more healthy habitats. The controversy comes in the definition, as well as the compromises soil regeneration brings.
Can regenerative agriculture be debunked?
No. Just as it’s difficult to be 100% in favor of its benefits.
Conflicting studies and data reports make the pros and cons of the practice unclear. Because it’s an applied technique (dependent on different environmental conditions), debunking it as ineffective in one place doesn’t mean it will be in others.