Is it time to bring regenerative farming back?
Over the last 120 years, agriculture has been transformed into an industrial machine optimized for efficiency. Although we can now produce more food than ever, the environmental costs of feeding our growing population are a looming threat. After all, deforestation is no joke.
Today, there are farms and companies who's goal is to balance meeting food demand with protecting the planet...no easy task. The more support these farms can get, the more likely that standards will improve. And, as one of the agricultural sectors largest customers, the restaurant industry may be perfectly positioned to show that support. This article will cover the effects of our current farming systems, brief intros to a few forms of regenerative farming being applied today, how restaurants can support regenerative farming and how consumers can support as well.
The effects of current farming systems
"Decisions about who produces our food, what food is produced, how it is produced, and who gets to eat that food have been steadily moving from … households and governments to … corporation boardrooms." - Mary Hendrickson and Harvey S. James Jr.
The industrialization of agriculture radically changed how the vast majority of food is produced in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. Over the brief span of the 20th century, agriculture underwent greater change than it had since it was first adopted some 13,000 years ago.
Modern U.S. agriculture has been described as “the most efficient in the world, at least in terms of the dollar and cent costs of production.” This level of productivity has resulted in a vast abundance of food product, which we experience in day to day life through always full grocery shelves and borderline cartoonish levels of food waste. The public health and ecological costs of industrialization, however, are not reflected in that abundance. But we can see them in the miles and miles of destroyed forests, degraded soil, dead zones, pollution and irrigation problems. Yikes...
Today, we are more aware of the harm being done by corporate industrial farming and there is beginning to be a shift towards a more socially aware approach. One part of that shift is regenerative farming, which is a set of farming practices focused on reducing environmental impact and contributing positively to the land we grow crops and raise animals on. There are different approaches to regenerative farming such as rotational grazing, no-till systems, and agroecology. Many times, a regenerative farm is applying more than one of these methods as part of a resilient and prosperous food system.
Rotational grazing is a method of managing livestock that continuously moves them through predetermined sections of land. Constant rotations prevent them from eating enough in one area to damage the soil or plant roots. In a system like this, the animals are vital to the health of the farm. Their movement, eating and bodily waste promote resilient soil structures in which a diversity of plants and animals can thrive.
Tilling land destroys millions of microbes and insects that form healthy soil biology, releases stored carbon into the atmosphere and can convert healthy soil into a lifeless growing medium dependent on external inputs for productivity. The no-till farming approach minimizes soil disturbance and enriches soil biodiversity, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers that emit greenhouse gases. Organic no-till practices, when combined with proper land management, help increase soil organic carbon by up to 9 percent after two years and 21 percent after six years.
Agroecology refers to an applied science that aims to mimic the balance between the different systems in nature. The goal of agroecology is to create self-sustaining farms which can use nature to maximize efficiency and output. One example of agroecology are VAC (Vuo-Ao-Chuong) farms. Typically, these farms are started by digging a large pond, the material excavated is used to create animal housing and raised vegetable gardens. With rainfall, the pond fills and creates a growing area for fish, vegetables, and livestock. Different varieties of vegetables are grown on terraces as well as in the water using a system called intercropping, each bringing their own benefit to the ecosystem. Varieties of fish use the resources at all water levels and livestock is raised using the pond's byproduct as feed. All this is ran on a monthly schedule, by the farmers who also eat off the land, to account for the fluidity of the farm.
The role restaurants and consumers can play
Though most of us aren't farmers we are all still a part of the global food systems we use today. Restaurants for example, play a vital role in distributing millions of tons of food products to consumers every day. Collectively as an industry, we can help lower agriculture's negative impacts by vocally supporting farms which are committed to delivering those standards. Restaurant operators can also raise awareness with current providers and encourage them to reevaluate the modern approach to agriculture. But it's not just restaurants, perhaps the most important key to widespread adoption of regenerative farming is the public. The more restaurants that are aiming to contribute positively to the challenges posed by agriculture, the more opportunities consumers will have to speak with their wallets and support the changes we need.
At The Automat contributing positively through innovation is part of our mission and it is a privilege to be writing about these commendable efforts being made in the agricultural sector through the Bite for Byte blog. Subscribe so you won't miss what we cover next!