“Sustainable agriculture”—you’ve heard the term, but what does it mean? From a production and distribution standpoint, “sustainable” often refers to a three-tiered model focused on systemic social, environmental, and economic impacts. From an agricultural perspective, this can mean ensuring fair labor wages and working conditions, implementing ecologically-friendly farming practices such as the certified organic standards, and guaranteeing fair pricing for final goods to strengthen local food economies. While sustainable agriculture has many advantages over industrial agribusiness—which relies heavily on patented GMOs, vast monoculture cropping and feedlots, and repeated use of synthetic chemicals and antibiotics—there is still plenty of work to be done.
A great potential exists to transition our food systems from a leading carbon source to a carbon sink, especially since they account for roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. With that in mind, we should consider moving beyond sustainable agriculture towards a more holistic model that not only sustains us, but dramatically improves environmental health for the benefit of people, planet, and our rapidly changing climate. How can sustainable agriculture evolve while retaining its core values? Two words: regenerative agriculture—a model that pushes sustainable agriculture one step further through increased use of ecological services and natural resource inputs.
Regenerative agriculture is a farming method geared toward creating climate-resiliency primarily through building organic soil matter and sequestering atmospheric carbon, a leading contributor to our planet’s increasingly unstable climate. By restoring healthy soil through practices such as cover cropping and on-site composting of organic matter, nutrient-poor soils can transform into fertile ground teeming with beneficial microbes, bacteria, and mycelium. Nutrient-rich soils aid in plant growth and on-site water retention, have a greater ability to resist pests and droughts, and have a greater capacity for sequestering carbon. Techniques such as crop diversification and polyculture cropping—planting multiple species in the same space—can greatly assist these goals while promoting biodiversity and creating pollinator habitat. Additionally, the practice of agroforestry—a dynamic system that combines annuals, perennials, trees, and livestock—can further mitigate climate change while creating abundant, closed-loop systems that require few, if any, external synthetic inputs.
Regenerative agriculture is not a new phenomenon; rather it’s in a state of resurgence similar to the recent urban agriculture renaissance of the past few decades. A wonderful local example can be seen at Frogtown Farm, a 5.5-acre urban farm (one of the largest in the country) located in the heart of St. Paul. Frogtown Farm is our current April 2018 Positive Change recipient. While only a few years old, they’ve begun implementing many regenerative agriculture practices. Open to the public, they encourage visitors, directly support the local community, and offer hands-on volunteer opportunities. In the cooperative spirit, it will truly take a collective effort to shift our dominant agricultural paradigm toward one that is not only sustainable, but regenerative as well.