Author: Dr. Bronner’s | Published: March 7, 2017
Soil is a miraculous living membrane, crucial for human and ecosystem health. Physically, soil sustains and nourishes us, each year bringing forth the bounty of crops and food that feed us and our fellow animals. Soil stores water, cycles nutrients and is the largest land-based sink for carbon. But we are literally plowing through and destroying this life-giving resource. The energy-intensive practices of industrial agriculture, involving the overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, intensive tillage and plowing, failure to cover resting soil with fertility-building cover crops, as well as overgrazing, has systematically destroyed soil biota necessary for proper cycling and drawing down of atmospheric carbon into soil. Instead we are oxidizing huge amounts of soil organic matter (SOM) and releasing it into the air.
Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are the lynchpin of the industrial ag machine. They produce 95+% of the beef, chicken, pork, eggs and dairy in this country in horrific conditions, and consume most of the carbon and water-intensive conventional corn and soy grown in the US while generating huge manure lagoons. Over half of US farmland is dedicated to animal feed crops grown with synthetic carbon-intensive fertilizers and pesticides that ravage and destroy soil biota and non-target wildlife. CAFOs and their monoculture deserts of feed are like a million burning oil wells, destroying soil fertility and generating huge amounts of greenhouse gasses (GHGs).
Up to a third of the excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is from oxidized organic matter from depleted topsoil on mismanaged farms and overgrazed rangelands, as well as land use changes such as deforestation and the draining of wetlands that are driven by agriculture. Even if we were to decarbonize our economy by 2050, with energy and transportation sectors utilizing 100% renewable energy, we will still have a huge legacy load of greenhouse gasses that we need to draw down to 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, to avoid catastrophic climate change and acidification of our oceans. Industrial agriculture is also killing huge amounts of non-target wildlife, depleting fresh water aquifers globally, and creating massive dead zones in the ocean from synthetic nitrogen runoff.
The good news is that we can restore healthy soil biota and rebuild soil organic matter through regenerative organic agriculture that sequesters carbon, stores and retains water, provides healthy food for our children and children’s children, and provides bio-diverse habitat for wildlife on a planet not facing catastrophic climate change.
Turning Regenerative Principles into a Standard
Recently, Carbon Underground published a definition for regenerative agriculture that outlines core principles:
1. Minimize disturbance of soil from excessive tillage that disrupts soil biota and oxidizes SOM; careful tillage is fine, depending on the overall holistic context of a given regenerative farm, termed “conservation tillage”.
2. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides disrupt healthy soil function and soil forming processes; synthetic nitrogen in particular takes a huge amount of energy/fossil fuel to manufacture and is the primary direct contributor to GHG emissions of industrial agriculture, in addition to sabotaging soil’s natural fertility.
3. To boost fertility, turbocharge soil biology and conserve topsoil, use nitrogen fixing cover crops to keep bare soil covered and roots in the ground as much as possible; use lots of compost; and implement a diverse rotational crop strategy.
4. Carefully manage ruminants (such as cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo) grazing pastures and cover crops, in ways that promote overall pasture and soil health. Ruminants should absolutely not be in feedlots inefficiently fed corn they did not evolve to eat in the first place.
These principles are clear and essential as far as they go, which my company, Dr. Bronner’s, has signed on to and endorsed. However, I am concerned we are shortchanging the regenerative movement’s ability to fix and elevate the organic movement to its true regenerative potential, versus catering to lower bar low-chemical-input no-till agriculture with cover crops. The latter is hugely important and commendable, but insofar as any amount of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide is used, another term such as “sustainable no-till” is a better descriptor. As soon as we go away from organic as the floor, we go down the rabbit hole of having to decide which chemical inputs can be used in what amounts and when. We should reserve “regenerative” as the gold standard and incentive for true holistic no-chemical-input “regenerative organic” agriculture. If we don’t, then there’s no incentive to improve toward the holistic regenerative goal. And “regenerative organic” can then take a more holistic approach that addresses the wellbeing of farmworkers as well as farm animal welfare.
In particular, a “regenerative organic” standard could require that pasture-based standards be met for monogastric (e.g. pigs and chickens) as well as ruminant livestock, as laid out in Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 4+, Animal Welfare Approved, or Certified Humane “Pasture-Raised” level rules. On the farmworker side, we could incorporate Agriculture Justice Project’s standards or similar. Additionally, we could require that minimum 50% of livestock feed (both protein and energy) be sourced domestically to boost domestic demand and supply, while allowing for next level regenerative projects abroad and shortages at home. This could be a relatively straightforward and efficient process: take NOP standards as the baseline, incorporate existing animal welfare and farmworker labor standards, and formalize the criteria outlined by Carbon Underground’s regenerative definition, in a process driven by and housed with Rodale and IFOAM (the originators and lead custodians of the regenerative organic movement). The organizations at the table should self-select based on commitment to the more expansive definition of “regenerative organic,” with minimum membership or revenues from regenerative organic agriculture and advocacy, or otherwise establish their regenerative rock star status.
Otherwise, “regenerative” is going to go the way of “sustainable” and mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. Already there are signatories to the Carbon Underground definition that don’t remotely meet regenerative criteria. In a similar vein, I am concerned that American Grassfed Association (AGA) standards are often extolled as regenerative in and of themselves. In fact without organic as a floor, huge amounts of synthetic Nitrogen and other chemical fertilizers and inputs are used on grass and forage pastures, for direct grazing and as well as cut hay, just like feed grain crops. This point was driven home when I recently visited Will Harris and White Oaks Pastures in Georgia with Gabe Brown. Both are AGA certified but cautioned that while they only use compost on their pastures, many AGA producers rely on synthetic fertility.
Gabe Brown and White Oak Rock
On my visit, Gabe relayed that he is moving to full regenerative organic no-till this year on his ranch in North Dakota, where he grows all the feed grains he needs for his pastured poultry and pigs without any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Until recently, he employed an herbicide pass for weeds—but now he’s cutting that out too, blazing the path and setting the bar for all to follow. Through cover cropping and carefully managed grazing, Gabe hasn’t imported any off-farm fertility for over ten years, while boosting his soil organic matter five times over.
White Oak Pastures in Georgia has already dialed in their grass-fed cattle operation, carefully rotating cattle grazing and timing along with many other species of livestock (goats, sheep, chickens and pigs), such that the pasture health and soil organic matter at White Oak is off the charts. White Oak is certified at the highest 5+ GAP level for farm animal welfare, and single-handedly restored the rural economy of Bluffton, paying its 130+ workers living wages. White Oak Pastures has “put the cult back in agriculture.” White Oak founder Will Harris also built an on-farm slaughter facility, designed by Temple Grandin and certified Animal Welfare Approved, to maximize animal welfare and minimize animal stress during transport. As Will shared and is plainly true, his animals have a great life at White Oak with one bad day, which Will ensures isn’t nearly as bad as the everyday nightmare of industrial CAFO confinement and slaughter practices. In the caged living hell of a CAFO animal, the best day is often its last, when it’s finally put out of its misery.
My visit to White Oak was incredibly productive and exciting, and our company has agreed to explore a joint venture with White Oak for growing animal feed in regenerative organic dryland fashion like Gabe Brown does, with Gabe’s close involvement. Dr. Bronner’s has extensive experience with regenerative organic farmer projects in the tropics, from which we source coconut and palm oils, as well as mint oil from India—and we’re eager to engage on a similar project on US soil. Our whole team is psyched to show that what Gabe has done up in North Dakota can be done in the South or anywhere else: grain for feed can be farmed in regenerative organic no-till fashion, with cost of production equal to or lower than in conventional agriculture, once the soil biology and SOM have been built up sufficiently through correct regenerative management. The first couple of years, as depleted soil is allowed to heal, will entail spreading lots of compost, seeding multi-species cover crops, and rotational grazing, to bring the soil biology back to life. After growing the first few years of grain crops, we will likely have to engage in conservation tillage until the soil health is improved sufficiently, but we are confident we will eventually have a full on organic no-till operation like Gabe’s in North Dakota.