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Who "created" regenerative agriculture - and who is it for? We need to ask these questions.

March 3, 2022

This post reflects on Episode 3, “What is Organic Farming?” and Episode 4, “Soil Health…What is It, and Why Should I Care?” from Rodale Institute’s “Being a Regenerative Consumer” course.

 

Since you're reading this on the website for a pasture-raised farm, I imagine you already have some knowledge about regenerative agriculture and soil health. Maybe you've learned about the biology of soil organisms. Or maybe you're interested in carbon sequestration. Regardless, this episode makes me think of a popular phrase in the regenerative world: "It's not the cow, it's the how." It's not about the cow, or the methane, or even the crops. It's about how all of those things engage in a relationship with the land.

Were you surprised to hear that, if we continue our current practices of conventional farming, the UN estimates we only have 60 years of soil fertility left? I am. It's an important counterpoint to the argument that conventional farming is necessary because "we need to feed the world". It will be quite difficult to feed the world if we've stripped all the topsoil - and most of the life - from our soils.

In other words, it's not just removing harmful practices that's necessary for soil health. It's adding materials and practices that's essential as well.  

This is something that often gets lost in mainstream discussions of climate change. Nearly all the emphasis is upon removing emissions, and pasture-raised systems are often dismissed as “too small” to do anything worthwhile. Yet simply removing emissions is actually not enough to reduce the world’s temperature rise to something manageable. Rather, we need to do things as well. And this is where regenerative agriculture comes in.

Quite simply, by rotationally grazing livestock, animals both remove carbon from the atmosphere (by keeping it sequestered in the soil) and add the essential minerals and nutrients that are vital to preserving soil health. Likewise, through rotations, bare spots where carbon can escape are prevented. This mimics the practice of cover cropping, in which the soil is always covered.

Yet, despite the good information, there are two problems I had with the videos I'd like to spotlight.

First, regenerative agriculture is often presented as something new that was suddenly created in the late twentieth century. However, many of these practices actually grew out of close observation and study of indigenous agricultural practices and land management. It’s important to note this specifically because white, non-indigenous settlers in this country are largely responsible for ignoring these practices, eliminating their practitioners, and producing devastating consequences to the soil. If we are to work with the soil, it’s important that we recognize that this is a partnership between what we implement on our farms, and what many indigenous cultures have always done. Most importantly, we need to give credit where it is due.

Moreover, the emphasis upon labels distracts from the main point – that you should have a relationship with your farmer, that you should know how your farmer is raising their food, and that you should know how that impacts your community. Labels are prohibitively expensive for small farms like ours, with costs in the thousands annually. Acquiring a label often means that the farmer is operating at a larger scale. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but again, it’s important to ask your farmer questions about how they farm, not just what the label says.

I think it's important to engage actively with these videos - to take the good information, but also to call out or challenge information we might find questionable. We need this kind of conversation if we are to improve our agricultural practices.

What did you think about the information in these episodes? Do you feel empowered as a consumer? How have you started to implement this information into your buying practices?

Michelle Sroka

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