Why major food and textile brands are backing regenerative agriculture

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It is widely believed that pesticide- and chemical-free organic farmland is the healthiest option for both us and our planet. The industrial methods that have been used for over 100 years in the United States are having devastating effects on soil quality, biodiversity and the climate.

Staple crops such as corn, wheat, cotton and soy are among the top commodities in US agricultural production. These most basic assets are facing serious threats of poor soil quality and unpredictable weather.

The good news is that some major food and textile brands, such as General Mills and Patagonia, are now recognizing that the health of our farmland is integral to their survival.

In 2019, General Mills, producer of Cheerios, Nature Valley and Betty Crocker to name a few, committed to adapting 1 million acres of farmland to regenerative practices over the next 10 years. The company said the “biggest opportunity to drive positive impact for the planet we all share lies within our own supply chain.”

It also granted $650,000 to the non-profit organization Kiss the Ground to help support its Soil Health Academies. SHA provides training and support to farmers to help them make ecologically-sound decisions that are also economically and socially beneficial. They also have a website that is an online hub for education and resources about regenerative practices.

Why regenerative?

Traditional farming methods, such as tilling, are a major cause of soil erosion. When the soil is continually disturbed, its structure deteriorates. This leaves the bare soil susceptible to harsh weather conditions – drying effects of the sun and displacement of soil particles by wind and rain.

When topsoil erodes, it leaches nutrients. It can no longer support the necessary microorganisms that contribute to the cycle of decomposition that creates healthy soil. This poor quality soil must then be supplemented with fertilizers, which may have negative environmental effects.

Kiss the Ground and other non-profit research and education organizations, including Rodale and the Land Institute, advocate a practical philosophy of regenerative agriculture. In practice, this means the use of farming methods that improve soil quality by regenerating and increasing the amount of topsoil.

How is regenerative agriculture different?

Rather than leave the soil bare and at the mercy of the elements, one method to maintain soil health between growing seasons is to plant it with cover crops. These are called cover crops because their job is to literally cover the bare earth. There are multiple ways cover crops can aid soil quality.

The dense plant root systems of the crops improve soil structure by stabilizing it and holding the different layers in place. The plants cover the soil and protect it from drying out in the hot sun. They also trap water near the roots making the land better able to resist drought.

Certain crops, such as alfalfa, mustards and chickpeas, can help replenish nutrients lost in the previous growing season. They can also be harvested for profit, making them doubly beneficial.

Reducing soil disturbance and planting cover crops, among other things, have shown to significantly improve soil health. This also means increased water retention and nutrient density, decreased soil erosion, and improved biodiversity. Returning to healthy, natural nutrient-rich soil means freedom from harmful chemical fertilizers.

The idea put forward by Robert Rodale of the Rodale Institute is that sustainable agriculture is not enough. What we, in fact, need is agriculture that can return our land to its healthy natural and productive state.

Is it profitable?

Aside from the fact that the regenerative model of agriculture ensures the future of farming by rejuvenating degraded land, it could also be more profitable.The Rodale Institute has the longest running study of organic versus conventional farming methods, having run side by side comparisons for nearly 40 years.

Over these four decades, they have concluded that the regenerative model, when compared to traditional practices, produced 40% fewer carbon emissions. It also had competitive yields after a period of transition and better yields in times of drought, and used almost half the amount of energy.

Without the additional need for fertilizing and reduced irrigation, a regenerative model also reduces labor and cost for the farmers.

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The organic brand

In the US, there are 22,000 certified organic farms and businesses, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In 2015, the organic industry was worth $43 billion in domestic retail sales alone. To be certified organic in the US, farm land must be chemical fertilizer and pesticide free for three years.

Patagonia is an example of how a company that trades on its ethics can be successful. The company dedicates a section on its website to environmental issues and activism.

It is currently piloting a regenerative agriculture scheme on 150 organic farms that supply the cotton for their clothing.

The company also sells a range of food items under the Patagonia Provisions brand. This product line includes fish, buffalo meat, fruit, grains, legumes and spices that are farmed using regenerative methods.

How to get involved

If you are interested in regenerative agriculture, there are a few ways you can get involved. If you are a farmer or just interested in further education on the topic, there are a number of resources online you can visit.

The Rodale Institute has long been at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement and has lots of information and history on its website.

You can visit the Kiss the ground and Regenerative Organic Certified organizations for training and information on becoming certified organic.

For those of us who would like to consume more ethically, look for the Regenerative Organic Certified logo on the products you buy. The ROC certification is still relatively new so products may not be so widely available.

If you have the inclination and space, the surest way to ensure your food is as clean and organic as possible is still to grow it yourself. It’s cheaper, healthier and packaging-free.

However, the fact that big brands are taking notice of environmental issues and investing in organic is definitely a cause to celebrate. Cheers!

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