Consumers are increasingly moving away from traditional processed food toward offerings with fewer additives that are natural or grown organically and sustainably. This movement is accentuated by the NOVA classification of foods based on the degree of processing (Monteiro et al. 2017). In this environment, initiatives such as regenerative agriculture—which seeks to profitably produce food in a way that is kind to the environment in a number of ways, such as practicing holistic land management, minimizing greenhouse gases, closing the carbon cycle, and building soil health—are gaining traction (California State University 2017).
By way of background, it appears that the greenhouse gases concept reflects hypotheses advanced, in part, by many brilliant scientists for nearly 150 years. Those individuals include 19th century French mathematician Joseph Fourier, the Irish physicist John Tyndall, the Swiss geologist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, and the Swiss Nobel Laureate Svante August Arrhenius. The 20th century Swedish meteorologist Nils Gustaf Ekholm noted that the atmosphere plays a very important dual role (UV protection, heat retainer) relative to the temperature at the earth’s surface. But it was not until the “virtual dialogue” among the English scientist John Henry Poynting and American astronomers Percival Lawrence Lowell and Frank Washington Very that the concept of the greenhouse theory and greenhouse effect were ascribed to a variety of processes that describe the loss of surface heat by comparison of day and night temperatures.
Within our contemporary environment and prevailing environmental challenges, some suggest global cultivation of crops and livestock contributes as much as 9% of greenhouse gases that include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (EPA 2018). To reduce the apparent change in global temperature, the process of regenerative agriculture seeks first to convert greenhouse gases into soil humus. Native and fertile soils are typically rich in humus, which takes years to develop. Critical plant nutrients and moisture are also held in the humus layer, preventing blooms downstream. So converting soil carbon to humus may have multiple advantages beyond carbon sequestration (Terra Genesis International 2018; Rhodes 2017).
Many local California family dairy creameries and farms are driven to produce high-quality organic products while preserving the integrity of land, water, and the environment. In some cases, creameries have instituted complete composting of farm waste and reapplication back onto pastures to improve humus. They recycle water used in their dairy processing. To make their own electricity, they use methane digesters to power electric generators. This power is used in creameries and to charge electric farm implements. Like-minded organizations have committed to programs that promote soil health, sustainable agriculture, transparency, and naturality in collaboration with leading universities (Refrigerated and Frozen Foods 2018).
Even nonfood ingredient and product producers have joined the organic movement for components like olive, palm, and coconut oils for soaps. These efforts include the principles of the social movement called fair trade as well as regenerative agricultural practices. For example, these producers enacted commodity prices that are fair to producers, while adopting regenerative principles. With regenerative methods, coconut palm yields are recovering, and farmers have increased total profitability beyond what they receive from their trade premiums. This is particularly good news because Typhoon Haiyan wiped out most of this primary agricultural crop in the Philippines in 2013, followed by infestation by the coconut scale insect in 2014 (Foodtank 2017).
As one would expect, regenerative agriculture is complex. Assessing performance or effectiveness of this approach is challenging. For example, some contend that the amount of below ground carbon accumulation is always far greater than the above ground carbon increase, the latter being what farmers see as yield. To aid in this assessment, 52 organizations and companies launched a computer-based program, COMET-Farm. This tool enables farmers and ranchers to estimate carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions related to annual crop production (U.S. Climate Resilience 2018).
Identifying products produced using regenerative agriculture is in its formative stage. There is a dearth of information on this topic in the scientific literature. Because regenerative production starts with organic principles, an organic label may be accompanied by product claims relating to regenerative practices. For example, some teas, herbs, and a few packaged foods are labeled using this declaration. In fact, a proposed Regenerative Organic Seal supported by NSF International may appear on foods by mid-2019 (Regenerative Organic Certified 2018).
A second certification practice is called biodynamic agriculture, which is allegedly a scientifically sound approach to sustainable management of plant systems based on a series of lectures by Rudolf Steiner (Kirchmann 1994). Regardless of the controversy surrounding the eight-pillar approach to organic agricultural practices advanced by Steiner, products produced using the Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard can obtain a DEMETER seal (Demeter Association 2018). Neither of these seals has been endorsed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, but the latter is acceptable within the EU Organic national label policies.
These efforts to produce quality foods through sustainable agriculture for a growing population are controversial, and the yield per acre remains a significant challenge. Analysis of nearly 400 publications that compared organic and conventional agricultural practices indicate organic product yield is about 80% of that of conventional farms. The variation of yield, however, presents about a 20% deviation, depending on the crop, geographic location, environment, farm size, and many other factors that impact agricultural practices (de Ponti et al. 2012). However, other data suggest European organic farms have a smaller impact on the environment (Tuomisto et al. 2012). Clearly, there is a need to better understand the dynamics of farming systems that could provide greater yields while having a lower impact on the environment.
Roger Clemens, DrPH, CFS, Contributing Editor
Adjunct Professor, Univ. of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy, Los Angeles, Calif.
David Stuart, PhD, is CEO, Food & Nutrient Impact, Hershey, Pa. ([email protected]).