What if feeding the world’s growing population could also improve the environment – and reverse the worrisome trend of U.S. farm losses.
That’s the idea behind regenerative agriculture, a new approach to farming that aims to produce a safe and abundant food supply, while improving soils and other natural resources, and increasing farmers’ livelihoods.
Today marks the release of a national proposal to revitalize American farming and advance regenerative agriculture from the Gund Institute for Environment’s Stephen Posner, Director of Policy of Outreach, to improve sustainable food systems, population health, innovation and economic resilience in the U.S agricultural sector.
In this Q&A, we spoke to Posner about the proposal, which results from a collaboration with Day One Accelerator, an initiative of the Federation of American Scientists and former White House policy experts.
Why focus on regenerative agriculture?
Sustainable agriculture is an enduring strength of UVM and Vermont, and a core Gund Institute research theme. Many faculty and student researchers across UVM are now working on innovations in regenerative agriculture. Heather Darby and Meredith Niles are developing big data and new agricultural technologies. Carol Adair is measuring greenhouse gas emissions from farmland. Ernesto Méndez is applying ecological principles to farming. Joshua Faulkner is testing the effectiveness of innovative programs to improve soil health and water quality. The Gund has partnered with Ben and Jerry’s on a new postdoctoral fellowship in regenerative agriculture. This policy proposal aims to harness this momentum and connect leading-edge research with real-world decision-makers.
What’s an example of regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture brings together science-based techniques from organic farming, agroecology, agroforestry and holistic land management. It can include everything from no/low-till farming, cover crops and crop rotation, well-managed grazing practices, compost, and attention to microorganisms as important components of soil health. Key benefits are that regenerative agriculture produces food and fiber while building soil health, improving water quality, and regenerating natural resources. This is in contrast to widespread industrial agriculture techniques - such as mono-crops, severe tilling, and over-dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides - which lead to poor soil health and even loss of soil’s natural ability to store water.
What’s the case for regenerative agriculture?
The environmental case for regenerative agriculture is clear. Farming can improve soil health, capture and store soil-based carbon, and contribute to healthy watersheds and working landscapes. But there’s also a strong economic case. Regenerative agriculture can create new income streams for farmers, and provide investments in rural economies while driving broader recognition of the key roles farmers and ranchers have in providing not only food, but also clean air and clean water. Supporting farmers to fulfill their critical role as land stewards especially resonates with a large number of young farmers who face an uncertain future for American agriculture.
How would regenerative agriculture address the challenges facing U.S. agriculture?
Farmers face many challenges today, including unpredictable prices, the impacts of trade and dependence on import/export markets, and rainfall that doesn’t come when or in the amounts we’d always like. The ag sector is also navigating a generational transition in the ownership of farms that has lasting impact – as many farms change hands, we see a trend toward fewer, larger farms. Meanwhile, the federal government spends billions each year to maintain a difficult status quo when it could be investing in innovation and a more promising future for farming. For example, what if the $23 billion in federal farm subsidies last year went to launching a competitive opportunity for states to propose regenerative approaches to farming? What if it supported farmers to produce food and minimize their environmental footprint?
What are the recommendations of your policy proposal?
The big ambitious proposal is to rebuild the country’s natural capital so that, on the whole, farmers earn as much from regenerating soil and natural resources as they earn growing food and fiber. I make three recommendations for strategic actions to advance regenerative agriculture. First, the White House could create a Regenerative Agriculture Advisory Task Force with specific goals to signal this as a policy priority and connect and empower agencies. Second, the federal government could mobilize investments to drive widespread adoption of innovative market mechanisms, technology, and regenerative farming practices. Third, USDA could feature regenerative agriculture as a major research theme while advancing their new Agriculture Innovation Agenda. This proposal spells out who can do what, outlines the opportunity for federal leadership, and addresses key questions that a policymaker would need to understand to embrace this proposal.
What happens next?
Now the real work begins. This strategy was created with scientific and policy experts at UVM and beyond. I am now connecting with researchers and government and NGO policy leaders to refine these ideas, and drive real-world change. True to UVM’s Land Grant mission, the ultimate goal is for our research to advance sustainable food systems, health, and livelihoods for the millions of people working in the agriculture sector.