The United States, and much of the world, is in the midst of an agricultural crisis. Modern monocultural methods of food production have caused widespread destruction of ecosystems, in which 30% of arable land worldwide has become unproductive in the past 40 years due to erosion. 74% of North America’s drylands, where much of the continent’s agricultural production occurs, is desertifying. Furthermore, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, only 60 years remain before global topsoil is entirely depleted at current rates of soil loss. In addition to widespread environmental degradation, global livestock accounts for 14.5% of anthropogenic carbon emissions.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, livestock has the potential to greatly reduce carbon emissions and regenerate degraded agricultural land if correctly herded. Regenerative grazing, or herding livestock in a way that recreates natural interactions between wild ruminants and the land, can regenerate degraded and desertified pasture to the point that its revitalized vegetation and soil becomes a powerful carbon sink. In fact, regenerative grazing could mitigate the carbon footprint of all North American agriculture if applied to 25% of North American grazing lands. Perhaps most enticingly, regenerative agricultural operations can see an increase in profits of up to 78%. This is because the ecosystem services gained when an operation uses regenerative techniques (such as pest control and soil fertilization) effectively nullify the costs of fertilizer, insecticide, and other necessities of traditional agriculture.
However, with few incentives to use regenerative methods and scarce educational resources about how to successfully switch to regenerative agriculture, the benefits of regenerative techniques are left untouched by farmers and larger society. Both federal and state governments should create robust incentive and education programs that support farmers wishing to use regenerative methods.
How does regenerative grazing work? By recreating wild grassland herding patterns, regenerative grazing strategically mimics the way ruminant species naturally interact with their grassland habitats. Pasture is separated into small grids that concentrate grazing, and livestock is rotated through each section. As livestock is rotated, manure and plant material is trampled into the ground, thus churning and adding nutrients to the soil, stimulating a healthy soil microbiome. When livestock is rotated to a different section of pasture, plant life is allowed to recover and utilize the new nutrients added to the soil. This mimics the natural interactions between grassland habitats and wild herds.
Regenerative grazing provides clear benefits environmentally and economically. But does the United States support regenerative grazing in its agricultural policy?
One of the first breakthroughs with regards to regenerative agriculture on the federal level came with the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. The act includes a provision targeting soil health and carbon sequestration as prioritized outcomes. Included in statute 4567 of the Act is mention of a payment plan for farmers who use “advanced grazing management,” which includes the aforementioned rotational grazing method.
What about the state legislatures? In Maryland, the Maryland Healthy Soils Program requires the Maryland Department of Agriculture to provide incentives to farmers that engage in practices that contribute to healthy soils, such as planting mixed cover crops and implementing the aforementioned rotational grazing technique. Massachusetts enacted a similar bill. In New York, tax incentives are given to farmers who engage in agricultural methods contributing to carbon sequestration. California also enacted a bill targeting carbon sequestration as an agricultural goal within its Healthy Soils Program.
While some work has been accomplished to encourage regenerative agricultural and grazing patterns, there is room for much more improvement. Going forward, both the state and federal governments implement well established and robust incentive programs for farmers that use regenerative practices. These incentives could include monetary payments, tax breaks for agricultural equipment, preferential water use rights, and/or certification labels that allow consumers to purchase products sourced from regenerative farms. Additionally, the state and federal governments should publicize the incentive program and the benefits of using regenerative techniques, citing soil health, carbon capture, and profitability. Finally, the government should collect educational resources that can aid farmers in their transition from traditional to regenerative methods.
Clearly, regenerative agriculture and grazing has the potential to revolutionize the agricultural field. In a world where food production could grow 70% by 2050, it is time to reinvent our failing agricultural system. While some legislation has acknowledged the promise of regenerative agriculture and grazing, more legislation must be passed, and it will take more than a few provisions to enact the necessary change on outdated agricultural techniques. Now is the time to create an agricultural system that benefits both mankind and the natural world.
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