What Is Regenerative Agriculture? What Can It Do For Me?
Alan Blaylock, Ph.D.
Dr. Alan Blaylock brings extensive North American and international experience in nutrient management to the agronomy team. University studies and service as a university extension soils specialist prepared him for a long career in the fertilizer industry. Having managed both domestic and global research and education programs, Dr. Blaylock has a wealth of experience in applying science-based nutrient management principles and products to solving practical questions. Dr. Blaylock earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in agronomy and horticulture from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. in soil science from Iowa State University. He has been in agriculture his entire life — from his childhood on an irrigated farm in eastern Oregon to teaching soil science at Iowa State University to his current role as an agronomist at Nutrien. These diverse experiences helped Dr. Blaylock develop the skills to excel in translating complex scientific principles into practical solutions. Although early in his university studies he explored computer science as a profession, deep family roots in agriculture brought him back to the people and values of his heritage. His career satisfaction comes from helping others improve the performance of nutrients and cropping systems.
The concept called “regenerative agriculture” (RA) is receiving much attention recently. Food companies are subscribing growers to specific sets of practices and differentiating foods thereby produced with regenerative agriculture labeling. It is being promoted as a solution to many varying agricultural production issues as well as a solution for many of the environmental and social risks associated with crop and animal production.
Proponents of regenerative agriculture often tout soil carbon enrichment as a means of stabilizing and decreasing atmospheric carbon and as one of the world’s best tools for mitigating climate change. Some claim regenerative agriculture, if widely adopted, could return earth’s atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial levels and even reverse climate change. Many see adoption of regenerative agriculture as critical to avoiding widespread global climate calamity.
Regenerative agriculture definitions or descriptions are widely varied. The main objectives center around building or rebuilding soil. Some advocates point to lists of regenerative practices that can be implemented to promote soil carbon storage and improved soil health to achieve regenerative agriculture objectives. Many of these practices have been studied and their benefits documented for years. Other proponents describe regenerative agriculture as a holistic system that is dependent on all components being implemented and working in concert to achieve the desired results. Components or practices often vary according to the specific system promoted.
While there may be disagreement about the details, most definitions of regenerative agriculture coalesce around the following common principles and their general benefits as described by their proponents:
- Limit, or better, eliminate soil disturbance. Tillage disturbs soil microbial populations, reduces soil biodiversity, and hastens organic matter decay. Conversely, eliminating tillage can enhance soil biology, especially fungi, and delay crop residue decomposition leading to soil carbon accumulation. Eliminating tillage also leaves crop residues on the soil surface to provide protection against erosion, conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and other benefits.
- Maintain soil cover. Keep the soil covered at all times and maintain living roots in the soil as much as possible. Soil cover prevents loss of precious topsoil, critical to storing soil carbon. Cover crops are a key component of regenerative agriculture systems. Cover crops scavenge unused nutrients, encourage soil organisms, and add carbon to the soil profile. Legume cover crops can fix atmospheric nitrogen to enhance soil nitrogen supply to crops. Many proponents emphasize that multi-species cover crops are vital to regenerative success.
- Increase biodiversity. Monoculture and short crop rotations limit diversity and are seen as incompatible with regenerative agriculture objectives. Longer crop rotations with more diverse crops increase ecosystem diversity and can reduce reliance on pesticides. Integrating legumes and perennials can reduce nitrogen fertilizer needs. Plantings of many cover crop species enhance biodiversity above and below the soil surface. Some advocate inoculating soils with manures, compost teas, or other microbial inoculants to stimulate or enhance diversity of soil organisms.
- Integrate livestock grazing. Grazing animals recycle nutrients extracted from the soil by forages. Animal manures promote soil biodiversity, while perennial forage crops rebuild soil. Regenerative agriculture proponents generally advocate intensively managed rotational grazing as a key to long-term productivity.
- Reduce or eliminate synthetic fertilizer and pesticide inputs. These inputs are often described by regenerative agriculture advocates as being detrimental to soils organisms. By eliminating fertilizer and pesticide inputs, natural soil microbial processes, in theory, supply the needed nutrients and promote pest resistance in crops and animals by balancing beneficial organisms against pests. Soil organisms stimulated by regenerative practices release nutrients from soil minerals and organic matter to meet crop needs without supplementation from off-farm sources. The reduced production cost is claimed to create greater profits than conventional production systems despite often lower yields.
The benefits attributed to regenerative agriculture practices center around improved soil health through increased soil organic carbon and increased soil biodiversity. These improved soil properties contribute to soils that are more resilient to climate extremes through greater water-holding capacity, better water infiltration, better soil fertility, reduced runoff and erosion, and better water and air quality. Healthy soils support healthy crops and healthy root growth. There are many good arguments for implementing soil-improving farming practices.
With the many benefits claimed for regenerative agriculture come many questions. Scientific studies validating the claims are often lacking. Because some of the claims are quite extraordinary and seem to defy our knowledge of soils – indeed, some proponents say RA systems don’t fit our existing knowledge of soils and new thinking is needed – more research is needed to understand regenerative systems, validate the claims, and quantify actual benefits. Many of the answers are likely highly specific to a specific environment, cropping system, and management.
There are certainly many researchable questions to be studied, including some of the following:
- How much carbon can soils really sequester and for how long? This has been under investigation for some time, and some scientists argue that while gains can be made, the carbon sequestration claims and climate benefits are exaggerated. Soil carbon sequestration is a long-term process. Can RA really sequester sufficient carbon to reverse climate change? How long do the climate benefits persist before the soil reaches a new equilibrium carbon content and ceases to sequester additional carbon, becoming carbon neutral?
- Does elimination of tillage necessarily increase soil carbon? Some studies contradict the claim that no-till increases soil carbon in showing that carbon accumulation under no-till may occur at the soil surface, sometimes at the expense of carbon deeper in the profile, resulting in a net loss of soil profile carbon.
- How do regenerative practices such as no-till and cover crops change nutrient transport pathways? Will these changes create unintended consequences? No-till and cover crops can sometimes increase soluble phosphorus runoff. How will this impact water quality with regenerative systems?
- What cover crops mixtures are best? Some claim many species are best, yet some studies show similar or greater benefits for mono-species cover crops.
- How effective are cover crops in cycling nutrients? Cover crops are effective nutrient scavengers, yet some studies indicate cover crops may not readily release those nutrients to subsequent crops.
- Can enhanced soil biodiversity and activity supply all the nutrients needed by crops from soil minerals and organic matter indefinitely as claimed by some? Soil minerals and organic matter constitute a finite nutrient supply. As nutrients are exported from the farm in crop and livestock products, will nutrients need to be replaced by off-farm inputs at some point? How long will the native soil-nutrient supply be sufficient? The rate of nutrient release from minerals and organic matter is a slow process. Will it be sufficient to meet crop needs during peak crop demand?
- What is the role of mineral fertilizers in soil microbial communities? Microbes need the same nutrients as crop plants and compete with crop plants for nutrients. Do mineral fertilizers enhance or inhibit microbial activity? While some contend fertilizer nitrogen suppresses microbial activity, many studies have shown additional nitrogen is needed to increase soil carbon.
- Will regenerative agriculture be sufficiently productive to meet global food, feed, fiber, and fuel demands without off-farm inputs? Are regenerative agriculture systems more profitable for farmers as claimed? Some advocates have described soil carbon or soil health as the primary product of regenerative systems, with marketable crops being just a by-product. Will farmers be able to sufficiently monetize soil carbon and soil health to remain profitable? Long-term economic evaluations are needed. Can global food needs be met without expanding cropland area? Recent studies showed regenerative grazing systems can improve soil health, but much greater land area is needed for the same production.
- Are regenerative agriculture systems feasible for certain vegetable crops where soil disturbance may be necessary for harvest or to prepare a seedbed for small seeds? How do we best implement regenerative practices in these systems?
- How beneficial are microbial inoculants? There is much uncertainty in how effective these products can be in enhancing native soil microbial populations and diversity. How competitive are added microbes with native populations?
It’s clear that there is much interest in regenerative agriculture, yet much to be learned. If the benefits are as claimed, and regenerative agriculture can be widely adopted, it could revolutionize crop and animal production systems. Soils and soil health are at the center of the RA concept. Crop nutrients and nutrient recycling in the soil will play a key role in the productivity of these systems and their impact on soil health.
It is also clear regenerative agriculture can be a polarizing issue. It will be important to study the many questions being raised in this field of study, read what those studies are finding and reporting, examine all the learnings, and not dismiss the findings just because one doesn’t agree with them. This is not to say that scientists are infallible or all-knowing (even “unbiased” scientists have biases), but they move our understanding further as they report research outcomes. Also remember in the real world there are always trade-offs and unintended consequences. Adopting a new management strategy may decrease the risk of one nutrient transport pathway and increase another. Changing tillage practice may enhance carbon storage on some soils, but not all soils respond the same.
The practice of science is a humbling endeavor. We are occasionally awakened to the reality that a process we assumed occurred in most environments does not. When faced with this new reality, we must adjust our guidelines/recommendations to account for the new discovery. Unfortunately, new discoveries take time and require a researcher to ask the right question (or design the right research).
For further reading on the subject, consult the following references:
Brazeau, M. 2021. Part 1. Regenerative agriculture: The movement dedicated to unseating intensive, ‘industrial farming’ by claiming it has comprehensive sustainability advantages. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2021/05/17/regenerative-agriculture-the-movement-dedicated-to-unseating-intensive-industrial-farming-by-claiming-it-has-comprehensive-sustainability-advantages/
Brazeau, M. 2021. Part 4. Ideological rigidity is hampering efforts to leverage the regenerative agriculture ‘revolution.’ Here are two paths forward. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2021/05/21/ideological-rigidity-is-hampering-efforts-to-leverage-the-regenerative-agriculture-revolution-here-are-two-paths-forward/. (See also parts 2&3 in same series.)
Duiker, S.W. 2018. Can I Increase Soil Organic Matter by 1% This Year? Penn State Extension. https://extension.psu.edu/can-i-increase-soil-organic-matter-by-1-this-year
Giller, K.E., R. Hijbeek, J.A. Andersson, and J. Sumberg. 2021. Regenerative Agriculture: An Agronomic Perspective. Outlook on Agriculture. Vol. 50(1) 13–25. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0030727021998063
McGuire, A. 2018. Regenerative Agriculture: Solid Principles, Extraordinary Claims. Washington State Univ. Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. https://csanr.wsu.edu/regen-ag-solid-principles-extraordinary-claims/
McGuire, A. 2020. How Does Regenerative Agriculture Reduce Nutrient Inputs? Washington State Univ. Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. https://csanr.wsu.edu/how-does-regenerative-agriculture-reduce-nutrient-inputs/
McGuire, A. 2021. Biodiversity, Healthy Soils, and their Combination in Regenerative Agriculture Can Reduce but Not Replace Fertilizer. Washington State Univ. Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. https://csanr.wsu.edu/biodiversity-healthy-soils-and-their-combination-in-regenerative-agriculture-can-reduce-but-not-replace-fertilizer/
Newton, P., N. Civita, L. Frankel-Goldwater, K. Bartel, and C. Johns C. 2020. What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 4:577723. doi:10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723/full
Ranganathan, J., R. Waite, T. Searchinger, and J. Zionts. 2020. Regenerative Agriculture: Good for Soil Health, but Limited Potential to Mitigate Climate Change. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/insights/regenerative-agriculture-good-soil-health-limited-potential-mitigate-climate-change
Rowntree, J.E., P.L. Stanley, I.C.F. Maciel, M. Thorbecke, S.T. Rosenzweig, D.W. Hancock, A. Guzman, and M.R. Raven. 2020. Ecosystem Impacts and Productive Capacity of a Multi-Species Pastured Livestock System. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 4:544984. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2020.544984 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.544984/full