From water quality to climate change, how we treat our farmland affects so much of the environment around us. Agricultural chemicals run off into waterways, creating dead zones that strip marine ecosystems of life and poison the water that we drink – these same chemicals also destroy beneficial insect communities and weaken the food chains of the pollinators that feed on them. As we continue to pollute underground fungal networks and root systems, we limit the soil’s potential to be a viable solution in our climate change mitigation toolbox.
The way we farm also has a direct impact on our health. Industrial farming practices pollute the environment and have led to global epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Regenerative organic farming keeps nutrients where they belong – in our food – and helps farmers and rural communities improve their quality of life. Despite an abundance of calories, food today is less nutritious than it was in previous generations because conventional farming practices damage the production of the vitamins, minerals, proteins, and phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables, and contaminate our food with pesticide residues.
Because of our misguided food system, 75% of the United States’ $3 trillion annual healthcare expenditure is related to preventable lifestyle diseases. Autoimmune and neurocognitive disorders, also greatly influenced by diet, are on the rise as well. At the same time, we’re using record levels of pesticides – 5.2 billion pounds per year.
Our food is less nutritious than ever, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Conventional farming’s narrow focus on yields has led to a decline in the nutritional quality of many crops, making our food less healthy than it was just 50 years ago. Change starts on the farm, and soil holds the key.
Furthermore, the byproducts of conventional farming threaten watersheds and pollute drinking water. When it rains, soil and farm inputs—particularly nitrogen-rich fertilizers and toxic pesticides and herbicides—“run off” from fields into nearby creeks and streams.
The nitrogen and phosphorus in agricultural fertilizers cause algae to grow faster than aquatic ecosystems can handle, decreasing the oxygen that fish and marine life need to survive and causing “dead zones.” The same chemicals that harm aquatic life end up in drinking water supplies. Atrazine, for example, a commonly used herbicide in conventional farming that causes exposed frogs to become hermaphroditic, is known to leach into groundwater.
Farming has the power to change our planet’s future—for better or for worse. A warming atmosphere, rising tides, more frequent and severe hurricanes, droughts, and other natural disasters; our climate is changing at an alarming rate, and we know that human behavior plays no small part in that change.
The advent of tillage and the clear-cutting of forests released excessive amounts of carbon dioxide from our soils. Agriculture not only contributes to increased warming but is affected by it too, as more severe and unpredictable weather poses a threat to food safety and production. When it comes to climate change, not all farming practices are created equal:organic systems use 45% less energy, release 40% fewer carbon emissions, improve the health and quality of soil over time, and actually have the potential to produce yields up to 40% higher in times of drought than conventional systems.
Global warming worsened when we became dependent on fossil fuels to power our lives, but we can take that excess carbon from the atmosphere and put it back underground.
Plants and carbon live in constant dialogue. During photosynthesis, plants use solar energy to extract carbohydrate molecules, or sugar, from carbon dioxide. Those carbon-based sugars are extruded from the plant’s roots, feeding bacteria and fungi in the nearby soil. In turn, these microorganisms symbiotically transform soil minerals into nutrients that feed plants. During this exchange, the sugars that get consumed by soil bacteria and fungi are converted into more stable materials that trap carbon in the soil for decades, even centuries.
Although conventional agriculture systems are responsible for at least 25% of aggregate greenhouse gas emissions, regenerative farming works in partnership with ecosystems to fight rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere and improve our natural resources. Conventional systems also use chemical inputs like pesticides and herbicides that kill animals and plants beyond their target species. Greater biodiversity on regenerative farms helps promote resilience to extreme weather events, pests, and diseases. Regenerative farms also tend to be much more diversified than typical monocultures, growing a multitude of crops and integrating cover crops that support pollinators and other animals.
Regenerative farming goes one step further than traditional organics by placing emphasizing soil health. In addition to prohibiting chemicals that can harm the soil, regenerative farmers use practices like crop rotation, cover cropping, composting, reduced tillage, and integrated livestock management strategies to bring nutrients back to the soil, fixing more carbon in the ground and increasing the nutrient density of the harvest.
Regenerative Organic Certified, or ROC, is a new gold-level standard in food labeling. It brings together the two movements of organic and regenerative farming, setting a high standard not just for soil health but for people and animals as well. That means that you, the consumer, can feel confident that what you’re buying was grown with people and the planet in mind.
In 2020, brands started adding the ROC label to their food products. Like the USDA’s Certified Organic label, the ROC standard is a way for farmers and food processors to inform consumers about the practices employed to produce their food.
It’s time to support regenerative organic agriculture and reach our full potential to heal people and the planet!
Max is a recent graduate of Lehigh University, where he majored in journalism with minors in economics and environmental studies; he is now a Master’s student studying sustainability management at Columbia University. His passion for environmental sustainability and regenerative agriculture is inspired by his love of skiing and all things outdoors. Max wrote this essay while interning at Rodale Institute this year.