What Is Regenerative Agriculture? Can It Benefit Our Planet?


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When Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures, transitioned his family-owned ranch away from industrial agriculture techniques in favor of centuries-old holistic management practices, he inevitably created a living ecosystem that allowed its 10 different species of animals to live in harmony with one another and with nature.

The symbiotic nature of the farm ensures that nothing goes to waste – even the animal remains are composted and used as fertilizer for the pastures and organic vegetable garden. Today, White Oak Pastures is a zero-waste farm that stores more carbon in the soil than its cows emit, which means these farming practices and livestock are actually helping to reverse climate change and rebuild the land.

A report conducted in 2019 found that White Oak Pastures “beef has a carbon footprint 111% lower than a conventional US beef system” and study findings show “great potential” for a net positive effect on the environment.

This holistic land management practice is known as regenerative agriculture, as it regenerates the earth rather than stripping it of fertile soils, eliminating microorganisms in the soil, or adding to the pollution of air and water. Regenerative agriculture draws carbon out of the atmosphere and rebuilds soil organic matter, which allows for increased soil biodiversity and the ability to store excess carbon, effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So how is it possible that cattle, thought to be a leading contributor to global warming, can actually have a positive impact on climate? Perhaps the animals themselves are not to blame, but the conventional agriculture system that abuses the use of chemicals and antibiotics and works against nature. (Not to mention the ongoing deforestation in Central and South America to make room for cattle farming)

With the increasing prevalence of monoculture agriculture (growing only one crop at one time) along with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and tilling, our once rich soils have become eroded dirt, devoid of microbial life and nutrients. Additionally, the conventional system of animal agriculture, often called CAFO or confined animal feeding operation, confines livestock in unnatural living conditions. This method does not allow for continual grazing and contributes to the pollution of the environment through improperly managed waste and abundant usage of antibiotics which in turn make their way into the milk and beef, as well as into nearby water sources.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as of 2020, 11% of US greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to agriculture, and cattle (including cows and other domesticated ruminant animals) are reported to be the No. 1 agricultural source of greenhouse gasses worldwide. They are also thought to degrade the land that they live on, however, this is not entirely the case. When managed holistically and allowed to graze strategically by preventing overgrazing, cattle can actually help to restore soil health and increase biodiversity.

Cows and other cattle like bison and goats are ruminant animals, hooved animals with unique digestive systems containing multiple stomach compartments and unique gut microbes that allow them to consume and digest plant matter that is indigestible to monogastric animals such as humans. Humans and the majority of our gut microbes are unable to break down cellulose into absorbable molecules usable for energy. Consequently, these animals are important for converting indigestible resources into food that is functional for humans.

The hooved feet of cattle and their propensity to graze on roughage could be the key to rebuilding our arid soil and bringing life back to the world underground. Even though not as effective as the hoofs of bison and other non-domesticated animals, the hooved feet of livestock work to break up this dirt and stamp seeds into it, helping to foster new growth of plant and grass species. Additionally, manure provides nutrient-rich fertilizer that further promotes the growth and biodiversity of the ground beneath them.

Much like our own gut microbiome, a diverse microbial ecosystem lives below ground with over 10 billion microorganisms per gram of soil made up of 10,000 different species all living in harmony among the roots of plants. The health, and specifically biodiversity, of our soil is paramount for the health of humans as a species, aiding in the nutrient density and phytochemical content of our crops and the storage of water and resources. Soil biodiversity has been shown to benefit human health through suppressing “disease-causing soil organisms and providing] clean air, water and food.” The bidirectional interaction of microbes with the rhizome, the root system of plants, is one of the key drivers for various polyphenols defending the plant against pests, drought, and UV light.

Soil health has also been attributed to increased mineral micronutrient uptake and phytochemical production by crops. Conversely, the use of synthetic fertilizers and tilling, the process of breaking up and stirring soil, have been shown to negatively impact these mechanisms.

In order for our agriculture system to use cattle to its advantage rather than demise, it must shift away from conventional methods in favor of regenerative and holistic practices, just as Will Harris did with White Oak Pastures and as many other farms around the country are doing as well. While these methods may not yield the highest profit and take time and thoughtful management, they are a promising way to ensure the health of our planet, the animals we raise and of humans as a species.

So, while it can be agreed upon that the current modern agricultural practices used to produce livestock are unsustainable and detrimental to our health and the health of the planet, removing animal agriculture altogether does not seem to be the answer. After all, livestock if raised in a sustainable and responsible way might be one of the only ways that we can effectively reverse the damage done to our soil to create new life, more biodiversity and more nutrient-dense food.

Fiona Riddle Fiona is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD