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Growing a regeneration generation: Reflections on a proposed regenerative farming certification

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 March Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

Jesse McDougall’s farm, Studio Hill, in Shaftsbury, Vermont. (From ecowatch.com)

More and more farmers are starting to understand that their ecological and cultural role goes far beyond producing food; they are what farmer Jesse McDougall of Shaftsbury, VT would call “planetary engineers.” Right now, some of our farmer engineers treat their land like a mining site: they rely on ancient energy, burn through soils, and deplete water aquifers. Other farmers have engineered their farms to function more like bee colonies. These farms are low on inputs and produce an abundance of products and benefits. Such farms, often called regenerative farms for their ability to rebuild ecological capital, offer a variety of benefits beyond food. They build soils, sequester carbon, retain water, and cycle nutrients efficiently.

While most of us recognize the value in such services, the cheap energy fueled economic and political landscape can put regenerative farming at a disadvantage. A new bill recently introduced in Vermont seeks to ameliorate this situation by creating a state-level certification for regenerative farms. Vermont’s Senate Bill 159 would certify farms if they meet any one of the following criteria over a three-year period:

  1. increase the level of top-soil each year
  2. sequester carbon each year
  3. increase the percentage of organic matter in the soil each successive year

Mr. McDougall, who wrote the bill, believes that creating a certification program for regenerative farming will serve to “help legitimize this style of farming as an economically viable option for farmers.”

Although the Vermont bill is still in its infancy, it is bound to provoke some polarizing discussion among organic growers and advocates. Certainly the goals of this proposed bill would be instrumental in stabilizing our climate and soils. We absolutely need to incentivize farmers to keep the soil covered, put carbon back in the soil, and build soil fertility without importing energy-dense inputs. But, as I read the proposed bill, I wonder if the current organic standards don’t already aim at many of those same goals. Practices inherent in regenerative agriculture such as pasture grazing, cover cropping, retaining biodiversity, and the recycling of organic matter are also well represented in the organic standards.

In fact, the organic standards extend far beyond just these practices; they strictly prohibit synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, antibiotics and GMOs. The same cannot be said for the proposed regenerative farm label; in fact, those standards could be used to promote conventional no-till methods that could increase organic matter at the cost of persistent herbicide residues and weed resistance. The regenerative label standards could also incentivize adding irresponsible amounts of manure or compost in order to comply with the necessary soil building requirements. Yet, the perception by some farmers and consumers, including Jesse McDougall, is that the organic label only tells customers “what’s not in their food.” He believes that, should this new bill pass, it “would tell consumers what is in their food, how the food was raised, and how the land was improved by its production.”

While the discussion over the comparative merits between these two forms of certification is bound to continue, it’s clear that many farmers want more from the organic standards. More and more farmers are referring to their farming practices as “beyond organic”. I think the popularity of so-called “regenerative” and “beyond organic” farming labels indicates that the current organic standards just aren’t stringent or adaptive enough to address the realities of climate change, topsoil loss, or peak oil. Indeed, when the NOP standards were first being drafted in the 1990s climate change was not an issue that concerned many farmers or consumers. In those days, prior to the evangelism of Al Gore, prior to organizations like 350.org leading high-profile campaigns, the facts on climate change were still hotly contested (when they were publicized at all) and even those who were believers didn’t always see the link between farming and climate change.

But times have changed, and we now know that agriculture accounts for at least ¼ of global greenhouse gas emissions. We also know that by using smart farming practices we can profoundly impact carbon sequestration and nutrient cycling. If we are to ask farmers to help solve this global dilemma we are going to need a diversity of smart economic and policy incentives to bolster responsible farming. That may mean amending the organic standards to aim beyond sustainability and into land regeneration. If that doesn’t happen, we may soon be seeing an infusion of new alternative labeling programs aimed at championing our conscientious planetary engineers.

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