Can Regenerative Agriculture Help Heal the Planet?April 2nd, 2021
Stocking your kitchen with organically grown, ethically sourced food is a noble endeavor — not only for your well-being, but for the good of the planet and its people. Unfortunately, it can also be pretty confusing, thanks to marketing efforts (commonly known as “greenwashing“) that seek to give products a halo of health through the use of the same labels initially coined to help consumers make good choices.
When a new-to-many term like “regenerative agriculture” starts appearing more and more in articles, documentaries, and, of course, on your food packaging, it’s important for consumers to understand exactly what it means. We spoke to Thrive Market’s Chief Merchandising Officer, Jeremiah McElwee, a 20-year veteran of the natural food world and an early supporter of regenerative agriculture, about how this intuitive style of farming can improve our soil, our health, and even our climate.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture refers to something that is more a return to basics rather than a whole new process. It’s important to define these terms to preserve the purity and ethics of the farming process, and to protect the farmers who are doing the work to get it right.
The term “regenerative organic agriculture” was coined by Robert Rodale in the 1980s, though its techniques date back thousands of years. Essentially, it refers to farming practices that go a step beyond sustainability; rather than simply sustaining the soil (and, on a larger scale, the climate) as it exists today, regenerative farming actually improves the soil’s health, leaving it more nutrient-rich than it was before.
At Thrive Market, the first inklings of a shift toward regenerative agriculture as a certified, defined farming process began more than five years ago. It wasn’t about hopping on a trend — McElwee and others saw regenerative agriculture as a potential solution for an urgent problem.
McElwee shares that Thrive Market, along with several other brands, actually helped develop the Regenerative Organic Certification standard, and that those early conversations inspired the company to start sourcing its own regenerative products. “We decided pretty quickly, ‘Hey, let’s start sourcing products this way, let’s start having these conversations with our vendors.’”
“Over the past five to ten years, we started realizing we may have dug a hole that’s just too big to dig out of or fill back in,” McElwee says of the state of modern industrialized agriculture and food production. “We started seeing alarming statistics about the state of the Earth — the climate, but also things like the number of harvests we would have left.”
To McElwee, shifting to regenerative agriculture offered hope for “a healthy future and a beautiful world for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren.”
What is the Difference Between Regenerative and Organic Farming?
While they’re not the same, organic and regenerative farming are inextricably linked. In fact, according to McElwee, there is no regenerative farming without organic farming.
The two overlap in that neither organic nor regenerative farming uses any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. “As the organic movement rose through the ‘70s and ‘80s, everyone started realizing, Wow, maybe it’s not a good idea that everything we eat and everything we touch is full of chemicals,’ McElwee says. “They thought, ‘Maybe that’s not the healthiest thing for our bodies, or for the earth.’”
Organic farming is a great starting point, but regenerative farming takes it quite a few steps further — “it” meaning fighting climate change through smart farming practices, which is no small feat.
The Main Elements of Regenerative Agriculture
Geologists estimate that the earth loses 23 billion tons of good soil each year; if this continues, all topsoil could be gone in the next 60 years. “Do the math: that’s only 50 more harvests of food — or less — that we would have left unless we change,” says McElwee. “The good news is we can change.”
So, what does this change look like? It involves adopting a few holistic, climate-conscious farming practices that have been honed over generations:
1. Reduced till or no-till farming. Commercial farming involves tilling the ground, which is a process that uses tractors and tools to break up the soil before planting. This has quite a few negative effects: it diminishes carbon in the soil, increases erosion, encourages water runoff, and eventually leads to soil loss (think: the dust storms you see across the Midwest). Regenerative farming uses no tilling or minimal tilling to help soil retain nutrients, hold more water, and grow healthy fungi and bacteria that help plants naturally fight off pests. It also sequesters carbon in the soil (where it is useful for growing crops) instead of releasing it unnecessarily into the atmosphere — a big part of how regenerative agriculture can begin to reverse the effects of climate change.
2. Promoting and encouraging biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to a variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms growing in the same area in order to keep the soil rich and help one another fight off pests. Farmers can encourage biodiversity by planting different crops on the same land (known as crop rotation), as well as by planting complementary cover crops that prevent nutrient loss during their main crop’s off-season.
3. Composting and replenishing soil microbes. Healthy soil contains a diverse array of microorganisms, but unfortunately, conventional farming practices (like using chemical pesticides and fertilizers) eliminate this diversity. Regenerative agriculture uses a well-known technique called composting, which involves adding a mix of carbon-rich dried materials like leaves or straw and nitrogen-rich manure or food scraps to naturally introduce microorganisms to the soil. This naturally improves the soil’s biome such that chemical-filled pesticides and fertilizers aren’t needed.
4. Raising livestock alongside crops. Animals are an important part of regenerative agriculture. In a healthy farming system, cattle, pigs, sheep, and other animals are raised without hormones or antibiotics and are encouraged to graze freely throughout the fields, eating weeds and providing fertilizer through their manure.
Regenerative Agriculture is Better for Farms and Farmers
If it sounds like regenerative farming is a return to form, that’s because it is. “We’ve been doing it as a species for thousands and thousands of years,” McElwee acknowledges.
Indigenous communities established intuitive, invaluable farming practices employing biodiversity, sustainable water management, and natural pest control hundreds of years ago, long before the first European settlers arrived in North America. Even after the rise of harmful conventional farming practices in the 1920s, many indigenous and family farms continued to adhere to the same regenerative practices they’d always used. In defining regenerative agriculture today, it’s important to be conscious of both those groups who first established these practices and the ones who never strayed from them.
While much of today’s definition of regenerative agriculture revolves around farming techniques, the ethical treatment of farmers and farm workers is also a huge part of what defines regenerative farming. Regenerative agriculture doesn’t just improve the health of our soil — it also prioritizes fair wages, economic stability, and better quality of life for farmers.
Regeneratively Grown Products at Thrive Market
The best way to understand how regenerative agriculture works is to take a look at how a regenerative farm operates. While it may seem like there are a lot of moving parts that go into regenerative farming, in action, they create a seamless, closed-loop system that connects the land, the animals, and the farmers who tend to both.
Thrive Market’s Regeneratively Grown Hemp Seed Hearts
On a sprawling farm in Manitoba, Canada, fifth-generation hemp growers harvest the regenerative organic hemp hearts we sell at Thrive Market. When the farm was founded, its original farmers recognized the possibility that the area’s fertile soil, clean air, and even its climate were ideal for growing certain crops — including versatile, nutrient-dense hemp.
While the farmers always used organic practices, such as chemical-free pest control and composting, they made the move to regenerative farming a few years ago. Instead of growing one crop across a vast expanse of land (known as “monocropping” in conventional farming, a practice that is known to deplete the soil), the farmers grow a varied rotation of speciality crops throughout the year. They also grow cover crops, which cover the soil, keep it fertile, and manage erosion. These practices allow the family of farmers to maintain their soil health in hopes of continuing their farm for generations to come.
Thrive Market Regeneratively Grown Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is a beloved kitchen and beauty staple, but its popularity surge has brought unintended consequences. Keeping up with demand has resulted in monocropping, overuse of chemical fertilizers, and poor working conditions for farmers.
We source our regeneratively grown coconut oil from a co-op in Sri Lanka that works directly with more than 1,200 local farmers to provide a fair price for their coconuts. This is unique because many other suppliers use an intermediary to source their coconuts from farmers; by maintaining a direct relationship between the supplier and farmers, suppliers have more control over the purity and quality of the coconut oil.
The coconuts are grown using dynamic agroforestry practices, which allow farmers to manage trees together with other crops and animals to diversify their land use, encourage the sharing of resources, and promote success for all. Some farmers use a process called intercropping, which involves planting other crops (like ginger, black pepper, or bananas) between coconut trees to help increase biodiversity and sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil.
Farmers compost the soil using manure from cattle and chickens, and they even create mulch from coconut husks and fronds to improve the soil’s organic matter. About 90% of coconuts are rain harvested, so these processes are important for retaining moisture during the dry seasons.
The end result is a supply chain that not only provides fair, ethical wages for its farmers, but also sets in motion practices that will improve the area’s soil health over time.
Thrive Market Regeneratively Grown White Quinoa (Coming Soon!)
Launching later this year, Thrive Market White Quinoa is grown regeneratively on a small farm tucked into a fertile valley in Idaho. Though it does grow quinoa, this place isn’t technically a quinoa farm; first and foremost, it’s a dairy farm.
Here, dairy cattle roam the fields with a view of snow-capped mountains just beyond their pastures. The farm raises dairy cattle to produce the milk and cheese that provides the farmers with their main source of income. A few years back, they began growing white quinoa as a cover crop (one of the key tenets of regenerative farming) to help keep the soil healthy and provide a second source of income for the farm and its owners. The farmers plant quinoa when it’s in season, then allow their cattle to graze after the quinoa is harvested, creating a rotation that’s both good for the earth and good for the farm’s bottom line.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that independent dairy farms are disappearing at a rapid rate. Adding quinoa as a secondary cash crop increases the farm’s revenue stream and allows them to operate using the regenerative practices they believe in.
Can Regenerative Agriculture Help Reverse Climate Change?
It’s an ambitious question, but McElwee and many others believe that regenerative farming is one of the few things that can not only help combat climate change, but actually reverse its effects and help to heal the planet.
While the farming techniques now considered “regenerative” are in fact the basis of all farming, industrialized agriculture has strayed far from its roots. It will take a lot for the commercial food industry to give up the monocropping and chemical fertilizers they’ve come to rely on.
According to McElwee, though, a change is in the air — and in the soil.
“Over the past several years, the whole industry has mobilized,” McElwee says. “All of the brands that were pioneers of organic are now leaning into regenerative, really trying to figure out how to create a world that goes beyond sustainability.”
He adds that while a traditionally sustainable approach to agriculture can only go so far toward actually building a healthier world, regenerative agriculture gives him hope. “Regeneration is, ‘How do you heal? How do you actually create more, refurbish, and deliver a healthier environment?’”