Regenerative vs. Sustainable: Why Sustainability Isn't Enough

by Evan DeMarco on Aug 02, 2022

Regenerative vs. Sustainable: Why Sustainability Isn't Enough

The planet is in a climate crisis. Weather crises dominate the global news: even England saw temperatures of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) recently. The heat models scientists projected for 2050 are coming true now.

Farming and ranching contribute substantially to the global climate crisis. In fact, farming makes up for 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial soil management is responsible for over half of those emissions, while the methane that cows produce accounts for a quarter. Manure management alone accounts for 12 percent of farming greenhouse gas emissions.

Once, it seemed like sustainable agricultural practices were enough. With the climate crisis looming large over everyday life, it’s no longer enough to simply be sustainable. Today’s climate activists are pushing for regenerative agriculture. Preserving the status quo is no longer enough. Now we have to actively fight climate change—and regenerative agriculture can make a big difference.

Read on to find why sustainability is no longer enough.

Regenerative vs. sustainable agriculture: What’s the difference?

Sustainable agriculture seeks to preserve the land and prevent it from degrading further. “Sustainable” simply means that the agricultural and ranching practices will not destroy the land. To be sustainable means that the farming practices are designed to keep running in the future. In other words, sustainable farmers make sure that their growth doesn’t outpace the land capacity. This concept can be applied to a number of practices, like soil fertility, disease and pest management, water and crop management and energy and waste management.

Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, seeks to actively restore the land to a better condition. The goal is to increase biodiversity while improving watersheds and soil quality. Regenerative agriculture can help trap greenhouse gas emissions underground, reducing climate impact, while actively improving local land and crop productivity.

Regenerative agriculture uses practices like no-plow, no-till planting, crop rotation (instead of monocropping), composting, rotational grazing, cover cropping and reducing dependency on chemical pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides.

Why climate activists are pushing regenerative agriculture

Sustainable agriculture is good: it’s designed to stop farmers from actively harming the land. It’s just not enough anymore.

Regenerative agriculture has been gaining popularity over the last decade, but its roots date back millennia. Indigenous cultures have long practiced regenerative agriculture, working with the land instead of against it. As our scientific understanding grows, it has become clear that regenerative agriculture has a marked effect on climate change—and our food quality.

Sequestering carbon

One of the biggest benefits regenerative agriculture offers is how it can help sequester carbon. A no-plow, no-tilling approach to soil management is the primary contributor.

When farmers plow or till the soil, they cut into the soil and turn it over. This is supposed to break up compacted roots and make it easier to plant new crops. The problem is that when the soil is turned, it releases more carbon into the air.

Adopting a no-plow approach prevents carbon emissions. Cover crops are another part of the puzzle: when farmers let grass and other crops cover the land, they can trap and sequester massive amounts of carbon underground. The more regenerative farms we have, the better we can fight global warming.

Regenerating the topsoil layer

Regenerative agriculture is also helping to regenerate the rapidly eroding topsoil layer. Industrial farming practices have contributed to topsoil deterioration. “Desertification,” which happens when topsoil and reliable water sources disappear, is making our planet an increasingly unfriendly place to live.

Certain practices help replenish topsoil and restore its biodiversity. Allowing livestock to graze in fields allows them to spread manure into the ground. This supports the soil biome, which is full of helpful worms, insects, bacteria, fungi and decaying plant matter. Grasses and other carbon-sequestering plants will grow to protect the soil. Best of all, healthy soil can hold more water and sequester more carbon.

In fact, just a one percent increase in soil organic matter (plant matter, manure, sticks, microorganisms and more) allows the soil to hold up to 20,000 more gallons of water. Grasses not only pull carbon out of the air, but they draw upon the water in the soil and produce moisture. This moisture is drawn into the air. Through a process called transpiration, local rainfall increases. This helps prevent desertification.

Support regenerative farms

Regenerative agriculture offers many more benefits through dozens of environmentally-friendly, proactive farming and ranching methods. If you want to support the planet, support regenerative farms—they’re an important weapon in the war on climate change.