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Daily News Blog

07
Mar

“Regenerative” Agriculture Still Misses the Mark in Defining a Path to a Livable Future

Despite the existence of an organic community with governing stakeholders that has evolved over at least seven decades and is codified in national law, regenerative agriculture is now increasingly being advanced as a loosely defined alternative to the organic standard and label.

(Beyond Pesticides, March 7, 2024) As the threats to health, biodiversity, and climate converge in agricultural policy and practices, the question of defining the fundamental changes necessary to reverse these existential crises takes on life-sustaining importance. Despite the existence of an organic community with governing stakeholders (farmers, consumers, conservationists, retailers, processors, inspectors, and scientists) that has evolved over at least seven decades and is codified in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, the term “regenerative” is now increasingly being advanced as a loosely defined alternative to the organic standard and label, which is transparent, defined, certified, enforced, and subject to public input. The publication AgFunderNews (AFN) last month published its updated “2024 list of agrifood corporates making regenerative agriculture commitments,” a who’s who of the largest food and agribusiness corporations worldwide. The list includes companies such as ADM, Cargill, Danone, General Mills, Tyson, Unilever, Walmart, and more with commitments to millions of acres in their supply chain practicing “regenerative” agriculture with target dates ranging from 2024 to 2050.

The AFN author reporting on the “regenerative” trend states, “[O]ne big challenge is that ‘regenerative agriculture’ still has no set definition. While that still holds true, the bigger observation in 2024 is the number of companies leaning heavily on sustainability jargon to describe goals. With greenwashing pretty rampant nowadays, it will be important to check beneath the PR-friendly language at the actual acres, dates, practices and prescriptions.”

Organic advocates point out that even if there was an agreed upon definition that was transparent to the public, the defined standard would require an inspection, certification, and enforcement mechanism that allows for public input and oversight, similar to the policy and structure established for organic claims under OFPA.

In January, Civil Eats reported that the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a progressive answer to the industry-financed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), organized a two-day workshop with over 30 state legislators from across the nation to provide “legislative approaches to promoting regenerative farming and ranching practices, which [SiX] believes can galvanize support across partisan and rural-urban divides.” How will this compare with the organic statute and its mandate for organic systems plans that are soil-based with prohibitions on synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge (biosolids), irradiation, excluded methods such as genetically engineered crops, and a national List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances? Is this building on organic standards to improve upon existing practices with more equitable and accessible production methods that meet the existential crises, including the climate crisis? Or, is this a weakening of the existing standards? Beyond Pesticides has advocated that the elevation of organic management practices with incentives and support because of the social good it provides in protecting life and saving resources that now go into treating petrochemical pesticide-induced illness and rebuilding after fires, floods, and mudslides, as well as loss of land.

As reported in Civil Eats, senior agriculture and food systems director at State Innovation Exchange (SiX), Kendra Kimbirauskas, finds it important to provide space for state legislators to “arm [them] with the resources needed to tackle ‘tough decisions’ in their State Houses….and expose them to perspectives outside the typical agriculture lobbying groups on abstruse measures and less-obvious implications of bills.” SiX facilitates a cohort of elected officials and state legislators from 43 states in a subset of their Agriculture and Food Systems program called Cohort for Rural Opportunity and Prosperity (CROP). “SiX connects lawmakers to policy advocates and agriculture-based organizations to share information and strategies in creating more effective policies.”

With the looming crises, organic advocates acknowledge that providing counternarratives to the petrochemical industry and industrial agriculture interests is important to systems change and “creating effective policies,” so long as it meets the urgency of the moment to protect public and ecological health. On the matter of biodiversity collapse, the United Nation’s (UN’s) Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) stated in the 2022 COP15 meeting.: “Despite ongoing efforts, biodiversity is deteriorating worldwide, and this decline is projected to worsen with business-as-usual. The loss of biodiversity comes at a great cost for human well-being and the global economy.” Beyond Pesticides has documented many aspects of this decline in biodiversity, and the implications for ecosystem, human, and planetary health. Similarly, the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP28) in December 2023 signaled “the eventual end of the oil age.” As reported previously, under organic management, healthy soil can absorb and store 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre foot of soil annually. This translates to about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre drawn down from the air and sequestered into organic matter in soil. (It is noteworthy that use of synthetic fertilizers actually compromises the carbon-capture ability of some kinds of terrain, such as salt marshes.) A fact often overlooked by policy makers in generating climate strategies is that carbon-sequestering soil practices are federally mandated in certified organic agriculture.

As reported by Beyond Pesticides in October 2021 before COP26, the use of synthetic fertilizers is a particular and noxious contributor to the rising planetary temperature. This happens largely through these products’ emissions of nitrous oxide, or NOx — another potent greenhouse gas that also pollutes the air and feeds the development of ozone. 

While not necessarily representative of the broader movement, some regenerative agricultural practitioners and their products have been found to fall short of organic standards and open the door to loopholes for toxic pesticide use that undermines the sanctity of alternative agricultural systems compared to the conventional status quo. For instance, “regenerative” agriculture could embrace genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant crops that require heavy use of herbicides. In 2019, industrial food titan General Mills committed to converting one million acres of farmland to regenerative practices by 2030. Their strategy allows for the transitional use of glyphosate-based herbicides in their regenerative agriculture strategy, which does not align with organic standards of proving that restricted pesticides have not touched land for three years. 

Additionally, a 2019 report by Friends of the Earth indicates the relationship between no-till practices (often analogous to “regenerative” agriculture) and the use of pesticides such as glyphosate: “86 percent of No-Till Farmer readers said they planned to plant Roundup Ready corn in 2017, while 80 percent planned to plant Roundup Ready soybeans, and some 92 percent planned to use glyphosate for weed control.” This connection between no-till, regenerative, agriculture and the application of pesticides is also true in Vermont, where farmers are advised to grow and spray cover crops with the Glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup. “Glyphosate is applied to the [genetically engineered] corn crop as it grows, adding the compound not only to the soil (from where it can migrate to ground or surface waters) but also, because glyphosate is a systemic herbicide, to the whole of the plant that livestock will ultimately eat. Then, farmers are using the herbicide on the same fields again to kill off cover crops once those have grown and served their purposes.” As a result, the application of glyphosate “rose from roughly 13,000 pounds annually in 2009 to nearly 30,000 in 2016,” exacerbating the health risks to nearby waterways and ecosystems.

Based on a wide array of analyses, organic land management as a baseline is crucial to address compounding crises relating to climate change, biodiversity, public health, and economic stability, while eliminating petrochemical pesticide use by 2032. There are examples of regenerative agriculture certifications that take this approach, including Rodale Institute and Regenerative Organic Alliance’s Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) label. Researchers in California quantified the reduction of total pesticide use in organic and conventional farms, noting that there was a “18–31% likely reduction in spraying of pesticides on organically managed fields compared to conventional, and a 27% likely reduction in use of pesticide products with high acute human toxicity for organic versus conventional fields” from 2013 to 2019. Biodiversity and pollinator health are also shown to be more prevalent on organic versus conventional farms, according to a 2018 Swedish study that corroborates previous studies in 2011 and 2012.

In terms of safety for human consumption, organic farming has also proven to reduce the likelihood of foodborne human pathogens based on data “compar[ing] dung beetle populations, soil bacteria diversity, and feces removal rates on 70 organic and conventional broccoli farm fields.” Additionally, a 2020 Public Health Nutrition study – a first-in-the-nation comparison of pesticide levels in conventional versus organic milk – found that “all conventional, non-organic milk samples have residues of current-use pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones not present in organic samples,” including atrazine, permethrin, cypermethrin, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, amoxicillin, sulfamethazine, and sulfathiazole. Legacy pesticides, including ppDDT and ppDDE, were found in both organic and non-organic samples, but these “residue levels remain higher in conventional milk samples than organic.”

To engage in opportunities to strengthen the National Organic Program, see our section on Keeping Organic Strong. Stay tuned for updated resources on the April 2024 NOSB meeting in Milwaukee, WI! Each year we provide information on the meeting agendas, pertinent proposals, sign-up periods to submit comments to the Board, as well as historical context and potential strategies in alignment with our Actions of the Week. Some of these Actions of the week include “Tell[ing] NOP to adopt an origin of livestock rule that protects dairy farmers and consumers,” “Tell[ing] your U.S. Representative and Senators to address climate change in the Farm Bill by incorporating a large-scale, national transition to certified organic agriculture and restoration and resilience strategies that prohibit the use of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers,” “Tell[ing] Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to implement the NOSB recommendation to remove incentives to convert native ecosystems to organic farms, and “Tell[ing] EPA and USDA that ‘regenerative’ agriculture must be organic.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.   

Sources: Civil Eats, Ag Funders Network

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