What is regenerative agriculture and is it the solution to the environmental crisis?

Author: Kate Fowler

Read Time:   |  25th May 2023


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Kate Fowler explores if regenerative agriculture really is a solution to the environmental crisis...

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For some years, credible and compelling data that links animal agriculture to climate breakdown has been amassing.

As more and more people are choosing to eat plant-based for the planet, the industry has started to promote regenerative agriculture as a solution. So, what is it and can it help?

Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, so no wonder all eyes are turning to it as a way of reducing our climate impact.

With researchers from Oxford University, Harvard, the World Health Organization, Chatham House and many more top-level institutions all stating that meat and dairy are driving climate breakdown, it was inevitable that the trillion-dollar industry would fight back, and what they have come up with is regenerative agriculture.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Thirty years ago, Robert Rodale coined the phrase “regenerative organic” to describe a system of farming that goes way beyond sustainability. “Sustainable” has for a long time been held up as the gold standard, but what it really means is that we continue to consume at the uppermost limit of exploitation.

Regeneration, on the other hand, seeks to undo the damage already done. It prioritises soil health, limits chemical use, promotes biodiversity and allows the land to heal.

Rodale’s seven principles connect the health of the Earth to the wellbeing of workers and communities. It is both a practical and progressive philosophy, but recently those principles have been hijacked by an industry desperate to place farmed animals right at the centre.

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Regenerative agriculture prioritises soil health, limits chemical use, promotes biodiversity and allows the land to heal. Photo © Margaret Burlingham via Adobe Stock

Regenerative agriculture prioritises soil health, limits chemical use, promotes biodiversity and allows the land to heal. Photo © Margaret Burlingham via Adobe Stock

Arguments for farming animals

There are three arguments regularly put forward for why farming grazing animals – mainly cows and sheep – should be part of the most planet-friendly diet: the animals produce fertilising organic matter; they encourage new plant growth; and, crucially, they help increase carbon storage in the soil.

For the first argument, it is, of course, true that animals produce manure that can be used as fertiliser, but the huge amount of slurry currently produced by farmed animals is responsible for devastating water pollution, and the widespread death of life in rivers, lakes and oceans.

Quite simply, there is far too much poop. Cutting down on our meat consumption would help, but the truth is, we don’t need this manure as fertiliser for our food production at all.

There are many “stock-free” farms that maintain soil fertility using vegetable compost, green manures, crop rotation, mulching, and other sustainable, ecological methods.

The number of these farms is increasing all the time, as the connection between farming and environmental degradation becomes clearer, and farmers seek to disentangle themselves from this damaging system.

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Farmed animals generate huge amounts of slurry which is wreaking havoc on water pollution and contributing to the death of life in rivers, lakes and oceans. Photo © Wolfgang Jargstorff via Adobe Stock

Farmed animals generate huge amounts of slurry which is wreaking havoc on water pollution and contributing to the death of life in rivers, lakes and oceans. Photo © Wolfgang Jargstorff via Adobe Stock

Does grazing help plant growth?

The second justification is that by allowing animals to graze, certain plants will flourish. Again, this is true, but we don’t need farmed cows and sheep when natural grazers, such as deer, boars and rabbits are about.

However, if we felt strongly that domesticated animals would be beneficial to help orchids and other species grow in specific areas, we could introduce small numbers of animals without killing and eating them.

They would be part of the conservation and rewilding effort, rather than objects of exploitation, discarded by an industry that does not care about their right to life.

Even so, we should ask ourselves: what good are nibbling cows to wildflowers when climate breakdown has removed all the other conditions those flowers need to survive? That means, we need to examine the climate impact of those grazing animals.

Natural grazers, such as deer, boars and rabbits allow plants to flourish, so farmed animals are not needed. Photo © Soru Epotok via Adobe Stock

Natural grazers, such as deer, boars and rabbits allow plants to flourish, so farmed animals are not needed. Photo © Soru Epotok via Adobe Stock

Do livestock sequester carbon?

So to the third argument, that says farmed animals can benefit the climate by helping to sequester carbon in the ground. When cows or sheep nibble at grass, they stimulate the plants to put down deeper roots, and this allows more carbon to become fixed in the soil.

So far so true, but if we were to ask if it sequesters enough carbon to offset the emissions from farming those same animals, the argument unravels.

“The data showed clearly that a fully vegan diet was by far the most climate- friendly, and significantly better than eating meat or fish even just once a month.”

A report by the Food Climate Research Network, entitled Grazed and Confused found that, at best, the carbon stored this way is just 20-60 per cent of the animals’ emissions, meaning there would be a significant net rise in greenhouse gases from farming grazing animals. And that’s not the end of it.

After a few decades, the soil will have sequestered all the carbon it can, and from that point onwards, none of the animals’ emissions would be offset.

'When cows or sheep nibble at grass, they stimulate the plants to put down deeper roots, and this allows more carbon to become fixed in the soil.' Photo © William via Getty Images

'When cows or sheep nibble at grass, they stimulate the plants to put down deeper roots, and this allows more carbon to become fixed in the soil.' Photo © William via Getty Images

What diet is best for the planet?

In 2018, Oxford University published the most comprehensive data yet of the environmental impacts of our foods, and the results could not have been clearer: gram for gram, every animal-based product studied creates more emissions than every plant-based food, apart from chocolate.

In 2019, the International Panel on Climate Change examined the emissions of eight different diets. While headlines ran with the story that we should eat less meat, the data showed clearly that a fully vegan diet was by far the most climate-friendly, and significantly better than eating meat or fish even just once a month.

Then, in 2021, a report by Our World in Data asked: how much could we reduce annual global emissions through dietary change? They found that cutting out beef and lamb would save seven gigatons per year (so much for these grazing animals being part of the other studies, have regenerative climate solution!) but a vegan diet once again came out on top, with an annual saving of almost 15 gigatons per year.

These, and many put paid to the notion that “less and better” meat is the best way to protect our planet. It may be better than the current western diet containing large amounts of meat from intensively reared animals, but in terms of environmental protection, the optimal amount of animal products in our diet is none.

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Featured image: OpticalDesign via Adobe Stock

Written by

Kate Fowler

Kate Fowler is a freelance writer, film producer and campaigner who has been vegan for more than 30 years. She is the author of L-Plate Vegan: The Ideal Guide for New Vegans and the Communications Director for Generation V,  a global non-profit dedicated to educating people about the environmental, ethical, personal, and public health benefits of adopting a plant-based lifestyle.

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