By Phillip Lancaster
In the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a lot of discussion about sustainable agriculture. ‘Sustainable’ has been a buzzword in many industries for the last 20 years with everybody from farmers and ranchers to multi-billion-dollar corporations trying to find ways to be more sustainable. But what does the word sustainable really mean? If we break down the word, ‘sustain’ means to strengthen or support according to Oxford Dictionary. In the context of agriculture, we generally think of sustainability as the ability to support or maintain food production into the future, which suggests more efficient resource use. Agriculture has made tremendous strides in efficiency of resource use over the last 50 years.
Lately, the term regenerative agriculture has become a new buzz word, but it is really not a new concept. Robert Rodale coined the term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’ in the late 1970s as an approach that encouraged continuous innovation and improvement. Breaking down the word, regenerate means to regrow or replace what is lost. In the context of agriculture, we generally think of regenerative as replacing soil carbon/organic matter that was lost due to soil tillage or overgrazing. Again, agriculture has made tremendous strides in replacing soil carbon with adoption of no-till and cover cropping practices, and management intensive grazing in the last 30 years.
There are other aspects of the ecosystem such as plant and animal biodiversity that also fall under the idea of regenerative agriculture. Researchers are beginning to understand how grassland and rangeland management impacts plant species composition and wildlife populations, and developing novel management strategies to such as patch burning to enhance plant and animal biodiversity.
Many of the agricultural management practices that we considered sustainable are also regenerative. Whether the practice is sustainable or regenerative depends on the context of the situation in which the practice is being used. All soils have a maximum attainable soil organic carbon content based on physical characteristics (clay content, bulk density) and climate (rainfall, temperature). For example, a rancher whose soil has reached its maximum attainable soil organic carbon and practices management intensive grazing is sustaining the level of carbon. A second rancher whose soil has not reached its maximum attainable soil organic carbon and practices management intensive grazing is regenerating the level of carbon. Thus, even though they are using the same management practice, the first rancher is practicing sustainable agriculture whereas the second rancher is practicing regenerative agriculture.
As with soil organic carbon, a maximum attainable level of other aspects of the ecosystem will be achieved with regenerative agriculture. At this point, we will move from replacing what was lost to maintaining the new level, and from regenerative agriculture to sustainable agriculture.