Everyone is so excited about regenerative agriculture. The term is a little amorphous, but its focus is soil health. If we can improve soil health, we can grow higher-yielding crops, reduce inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, and sequester carbon. So practices like no-till, cover crops, and crop rotation are emphasized to build healthy soils.
None of that is particularly ground breaking. Farmers understand that soil health is key to maximizing yields and profits. And soil health has become almost an obsession over the past 15 years or so. Even in our own family, my brother regularly researches and studies the latest methods of restoring depleted soils (some of our farmland grew fruit, which is particularly hard on the soil).
The public’s fascination with regenerative agriculture is relatively new. But many people seem to think it’s a way to “fix” agriculture (even though there’s nothing to fix). Companies are making million-dollar investments. We’re seeing labels popping up for brands implementing the trend. And influencers are embracing and heralding this “new” perspective as game changing. Even UDSA’s Secretary Tom Vilsack is pushing a shift to regenerative agriculture.
What I find so amusing is that we’ve seen this before. I started blogging nine years ago. The same excitement we see around regenerative agriculture today is exactly the same aspirations we saw around organic farming then. Organic farming was going to “fix” agriculture. Companies made million-dollar investments into the sector. They would exclusively use organic for at least one ingredient, just so they could slap an “organic” label on it. Every self-proclaimed expert just knew organic agriculture would change the world. And, of course, the USDA sponsored the organic certification.
We even saw similarities with the non-GMO movement. That annoying butterfly logo was everywhere. Food companies claimed they would change their supply chains and embrace the label. Celebrities and online influencers touted the non-GMO label as the best and only way to eat or help the environment (though I still don’t understand that claim). USDA wasn’t directly involved (at least, not until the BE labeling law passed), but it also didn’t stop the non-GMO verification process.
We’re seeing a similar thread with plant-based meats right now. It’s probably one or two years ahead regenerative agriculture. Before that it was the clean-food movement (another amorphous idea). I’m sure I’m missing others.
So we’ve seen this before. And we’ll no doubt see it again. In five years there will be another farming trend. People will hail it as the way to “fix” agriculture. Companies will invest in it and pay for pretty labels. All those online experts will sing its praises. The USDA will mention it. And everyone will think of it as a game changer.
These movements are more about feel-good purchases than actually accomplishing anything long term. Unfortunately, it also seems like they never completely die. Just like diet fads, they come and go and–to some extent–stick around forever. That’s what I find so amusing about regenerative agriculture; it’s following the same trajectory as all the other trends. There’s just something about food.
That takes us back to where we started. Farmers. To a large extent, farmers just quietly do what they do and don’t pay much attention to any given label. Sure, some farmers see economic opportunities in getting certified for one label or another (and there’s nothing wrong with making a profit!). But farmers mostly just go about their business, watching the latest science, adopting the best practices, and growing our food. If aspects of regenerative agriculture work, then those things are adopted, regardless of whether anyone is excited about it. In other words, they don’t farm based on hype.