Farms

Will Regenerative Agriculture Change How We Grocery Shop?

Learn the history behind the bountiful buzzword making its way onto food labels.

February 25, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

Look for the word "regenerative" at your local grocery store. Chances are, you'll spot it on boxes of mac and cheese, cartons of milks, or even bags of chips. Regenerative agriculture, also called carbon farming, has become the latest darling of everyone from food companies to universities to politicians. But what is regenerative agriculture? How do products made with these practices differ from others, and can buying them help consumers fight the climate crisis? Here's what you need to know about this farming philosophy.

What Is Regenerative Agriculture?

Ask 10 different people to define regenerative agriculture, and you'll get 10 different answers. There is no one single definition, although several organizations are currently working to establish formal guidelines.

"The idea with regenerative agriculture is to make the land better than it was," says Dawn Pettinelli, associate cooperative extension educator at the University of Connecticut's Institute of the Environment.

In essence, regenerative agriculture is farming done in a way that helps build soil health, increase organic matter, store water more effectively, and draw carbon out of the atmosphere. This isn't exactly a new idea—farming with soil health in mind is a concept nearly as old as agriculture itself. It wasn't until the 1980s, however, that the Rodale Institute began using the term, and it's only recently become a buzzword.

"There's a lot of power in words, and I think people are drawn to the term because it conveys something that is missing," says Jiff Martin, associate extension educator in sustainable food systems for the University of Connecticut's College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, adding she's noticed the term being used more frequently in the past five years.

Regenerative Agriculture vs. Organic

The number of labels on our food and other products can be overwhelming, but there are some differences between organic, other labels, and those that denote products made with regenerative agriculture. Think of organic as the idea of "do no harm." Regenerative takes it a step beyond that: It's a farming philosophy focused on healing.

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Top Comment:
“Most discussion of regenerative ag, including this one, acts like it's been invented in the past few decades, while the reality is that for much of the history of humanity it's been the default. I'd appreciate it if future articles could acknowledge, and even speak with, the indigenous peoples who carry millennia of knowledge.”
— Jesse F.
Comment

You may find this terminology on products under the Regenerative Organic Alliance label. Designed by Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner's, products certified by the Regenerative Organic Alliance are organic and made in a way that benefits farmers and promotes long-term soil health.

"It's soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness," says Birgit Cameron, head of Patagonia Provisions. "It goes together with organic. You can call it regenerative or not, but you can't have a truly regenerative system if organic isn't attached to it."

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Patagonia Provisions partners with farmers and producers interested in regenerative agriculture that are already practicing organic farming, and the company has strong animal welfare and social fairness philosophies behind its line of shelf-stable packaged foods. While regenerative agriculture is something that many small farmers have long specialized in, that doesn't necessarily make the practice an easy one.

"It's hard because all of agriculture is hard, and you need to be viable," Martin says. "But people have different notions of what viable is, how much money you have to make to be successful, and ultimately if you can grow food in a way that meets your values while still being able to sell it."

Regenerative Agriculture & the Climate Crisis

More and more consumers are paying attention to the climate crisis. According to Nielsen, 73 percent of global consumers say they would change their habits to reduce their environmental footprint.

"I do think the market is there and that it can grow," Martin says.

In January, President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, the international treaty designed to avert catastrophic global warming. Still, according to several recent studies, it will be impossible to meet the agreement's global warming benchmarks without reducing emissions from food production. So, does buying regenerative agriculture products really reduce your foodprint? It's complicated.

"Carbon farming can help to mitigate climate change to some extent," says Pettinelli.

What's not clear, at least not yet, is how much carbon the soil can hold, and for how long. It's also hard to compare the regenerative agriculture products you find at the supermarket because (for the time being) General Mills' definition will be different from Patagonia's, whose definition might be different from your local CSA farmer's.

"If at all possible, see the farm and purchase from them directly," said Pettinelli. "If you can't visit, explore their website and ask questions about their practices. It's challenging to see past the marketing."

You can explore more about the Regenerative Organic Alliance label on their website and shop for certified products there. Still, Cameron suggests looking for organic products as a start.

"Organic is the base, and regenerative helps elevate the things that are good for people and good for the planet," she says.

Have you noticed regenerative agriculture labels on the foods you buy? Let us know in the comments.


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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Bridget Shirvell

Written by: Bridget Shirvell

Writer focused on food, climate and parenting.

8 Comments

/anne... April 10, 2021
Certainly in Australia organic agriculture has always included the idea that the land must be improved as part of the process. I don't know if this is because so much of the landmass of Australia is so old, and many of the nutrients have been leached out over millennia - some of our mountain ranges used to be taller than Mt Everest - or if this is the result of canny marketing by yet another organisation who want a slice of the US certification pie, and they haven't spread to Australia.

To see this from an Australian perspective, Charles Massy's Call of the Reed Warbler https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/34951739 is an excellent book.
 
Steve G. February 27, 2021
As a farmer, I'm glad to see regenerative agriculture being explained in a consumer magazine. I've been working on it for over 25 years. It's been a journey, one that the destination is unknown albeit always trying to improve!
 
Jesse F. February 26, 2021
Most discussion of regenerative ag, including this one, acts like it's been invented in the past few decades, while the reality is that for much of the history of humanity it's been the default. I'd appreciate it if future articles could acknowledge, and even speak with, the indigenous peoples who carry millennia of knowledge.
 
Author Comment
Bridget S. February 26, 2021
Regenerative ag is definitely not a new practice (just a somewhat new term) and I mentioned that in the piece. You're right that so many Indigenous peoples, as well as people of color and others, have always practiced it. That's why I think it's also so important (although not always possible) to talk to the people you buy your food from about their growing practices. So many small farmers practice regenerative ag without calling it that.
 
Jesse F. February 26, 2021
Thanks for the response. Maybe I didn't make my point clearly enough. Articles on this topic that don't include indigenous voices perpetuate the conception that the consciousness around regenerative agriculture is a new thing. It's not just that some farmers have accidentally done it for a long time, it's that many have been very purposeful without using the exact words that have now become popular. I would encourage you to seek diverse voices for future articles and am happy to point you to some if they would be helpful.
 
Heifer March 7, 2021
Hi Jesse!
I agree with you and if you can point me to the articles with diverse voices I would tremendously appreciate it.
 
Genevieve Y. March 7, 2021
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is an excellent book on Indigenous wisdom and knowledge on plants and the natural world. It's not necessarily about regenerative agriculture, but I think any approach towards regenerative agriculture would be incomplete without the ideas that Kimmerer talks about in her book. Kimmerer is runs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment and her work is truly incredible. Braiding Sweetgrass is one of my favourite books - I highly recommend it!
 
Heifer March 7, 2021
Thank you so much! I will look those books up!