I recently discussed the concept of regenerative agriculture in my review of the book Sacred Cow. I have been researching this fascinating topic further and am convinced that regenerative agriculture of both plants and animals (or a combination), is a crucial step environmentally. It can drastically reduce carbon emissions and even remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.
I also found that the evidence for regenerative grazing discussed in the previous review is more controversial than I thought. I’ll touch on that below. What does seem to be more universally accepted is that regenerative farming of plants, with and without animals integrated into the mix, is much more sound environmentally than current conventional farming practices.
Reversing Man-made Soil Degradation.
In modern agricultural practice, high-yield monoculture crops are grown. This means an entire field is planted with one commodity crop like wheat, corn, soybeans, etc. Not enough organic matter is put back into the soil, but instead this approach relies on ever increasing use of chemicals (fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides). This has led to tremendous loss of topsoil, poorly draining soil, and about half the applied chemicals being wasted as they runoff, polluting waterways. There is now a resulting dead zone near the Mississippi delta in the gulf of Mexico, the size of New Jersey. This has been becoming common practice in modern agriculture since about 1950. On the plus side, it has led to high crop yields, and lauded as “the green revolution”. But it’s starting not to work as well, as crop yields are dropping. All of this can be reversed by regenerative practices like no-till agriculture, and use of diverse crop rotations and cover crops. This is described in detail in the book Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life  by geologist Dr. David Montgomery. This process does not require the use of grazing animals. For example, “green manure” from legumes plays the same role as animal manure, and a roller-crimper can do some of the work the grazing animals do:
These regenerative measures improve the soil health dramatically, reducing or even eliminating the use of chemicals, and making runoff almost nonexistent. After a season or two when the soil as recovered, crop yields meet or exceed those of conventional farms with heavy use of chemicals. In addition, comparisons that claim that conventional practices have a higher yield than regenerative often are for ideal growing conditions, such as a perfect amount of rainfall. In less than ideal conditions, including droughts, which are becoming more common, regenerative farming often out-performs conventional. So it is a myth that we need unstainable conventional agriculture to “feed the world”.
There is a second, more low-tech way that farmland is degraded in much of the developing world: slash and burn agriculture. Brush and even forests are destroyed by burning, after which crops can be grown. But these fields do not remain fertile for long, so the farmers have to move on and repeat the process in a new area. These slash-and-burn fields do not have high crop yields. It is typically small-family farmers following these practices, and they grow, for example, about 80% of the food in Africa. But regenerative agricultural can come to the rescue here also, restoring the previous soil to good health in previously burned fields, and improving crop yields up to a factor of four, as shown conclusively on a wonderful demonstration farm in Ghana. These small family farmers are often too poor to afford grazing animals, but the plant-based regenerative measures (diversity of crop rotations, use of cover crops, etc.) are inexpensive.
Dr. Montgomery’s book conclusively shows how regenerative agriculture can help solve climate change, heal our soil, and feed the planet. And it saves farmers money! I don’t want to be cynical, but we do live in a capitalistic society. It gives me hope when the right thing to do environmentally also happens to be the best financially. There is an anecdote in the book where Dr. Montgomery is driving across Kansas with a guide who is showing him where regenerative agriculture is being practiced. He notices that in some areas the John Deere tractor dealerships seem to be dilapidated, while in others the dealerships seem to be thriving. His guide points out that the thriving dealerships are in areas where there is more regenerative agriculture is, so the farmers are more profitable and can afford new equipment.
Now to the role of animals in soil regeneration. Some regenerative farmers follow a hybrid technique that use the regenerative measure described above but also involves grazing animals. After cash crops are harvested, cattle or other animals graze the fields. This is often done with the cover crops as well. A chapter is devoted to how this is practiced by Gabe Brown on his farm in North Dakota, which inspired me to read the first-hand account in Gabe’s enjoyable book Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture. Gabe shows how the integration of cattle plus diversified crop rotation and cover crops (for about 30 years now) has dramatically improved the soil quality, in. The other interesting practice he follows is letting chickens range free in fields the cows were just in. They do further cleanup, including eating fly larvae. And the chickens can also be fed grain screenings which would otherwise be discarded.
Economics of Farming
The number of American farmers and farmworkers decreased dramatically from 1900 to the present, while the size of the average farm grew much larger. This was an intentional government policy intended to lead to economies of scale and higher yields. Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under presidents Nixon and Ford,(who we can also thank for bringing high-fructose corn syrup into the mainstream), famously told farmers “go big or get out”.
There are many rural communities that were decimated by this. Agriculture has become more and more “agribusiness”, controlled by large multinational corporations. Farmers are caught in the middle, having to buy increasingly expensive chemicals from a few large corporations, and then selling their crops at commodity prices to large corporations. The farmers are just considered a link in the supply chain, and the objective is minimize the cost of the final product. This makes it appear that growing large fields of single crops is the best solution because it maximizes yield. But this does not consider external costs like the damage caused by runoff of agricultural chemicals, or the medical costs to consumers eating a diet of cheaper but poorer quality food. This is all described in detail in the books below (how it similarly unfolded in the UK is described in ). Regenerative agriculture is a way to help reverse this trend, and in addition to Gabe Brown’s operation, other inspiring examples of this are in these books: [1,4,5]. It makes smaller farms more viable and provides more farm jobs. Better for the environment, the economies of local communities, and our health.
The Regenerative Grazing Controversy
There has been some criticism of regenerative grazing because descriptions of it can be oversimplified to “meat can save the planet”, so the concern is that the regenerative grazing argument can be used for marketing that “greenwashes” meat, which vegans and advocates for reduced consumption of animal foods understandably object to. But backlash against it can dismiss the whole idea of regenerative agriculture, which throws the baby out with the bathwater. There is a good balanced discussion here that admits some environmental benefits may have been exaggerated (like the effect of carbon sequestering) but still does not dismiss the major role regenerative agriculture can play, I still believe the bottom line is the best solution for the environment (and our health) is reduced consumption of both junk foods and animal products, combined with better farming techniques. As one author puts it “eat less, but better, meat” . and I think we should generalize that to less but better foods of all types. I’ll cover the ins and outs of this topic in more detail in an upcoming post.
Conclusion: Regenerative Agriculture, With or without Animals, Will Help Feed Humanity And Save The Planet
We can argue over to what extent animals fit in the mix, but regardless of the percentage of animals vs plants in our diets, in my opinion regenerative agriculture is a key step. Current practices of conventional plant and animal farming are not sustainable.
- David Montgomery, D, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, W. W. Norton & Company;, 2017.
- Brown, G, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019
- D’Silva, J, Webster, J, The Meat Crisis: Developing more Sustainable and Ethical Production and Consumption, Routledge, 2017.
- Quinn, B, Carlisle, L, Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food, 2019.
- Carlisle, L, Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America, Avery, 2015.