Crops Insights

Regenerative agriculture: New kid on the block?


I’m a steadfast ‘80s kid. The greatest decade, bar none. Anything remotely associated with the era adorns the walls of my mancave: Max Headroom, Scarface, Star Trek (TNG), Saturday morning cartoon memorabilia, and ‘80s starlets.

And of course, music. Remember New Kids on the Block — and their throngs of adoring (usually female) fans with ghastly perms? Even I sported a not so fashionable mullet back then.

The New Kids singlehandedly defined my generation’s transition to adolescence. Then, when their popularity started to fade (OK, they spilled over into the ‘90s a bit), they were repackaged as NKOTB, an edgier version that betrayed the innocence that made them so appealing in the first place.

But now, fully 30 years later, fans seem to be waxing nostalgic. In many respects, agricultural trends eerily parallel the boy band phenomenon. At their peak one moment, only to hit rock bottom — all while biding their time to make a pop comeback.

Evidently there’s one that’s on the upswing: regenerative agriculture.

It sounds both compelling and sensible. I’ve heard the phrase in passing, but didn’t know much beyond that. It seemed like a branding scheme drawn up by shrewd ad executives, but it surprisingly originated in the 1970s.

To get further up to speed, I had the opportunity to review a short film titled Farmer’s Footprint, a Path to Soil Health and Food Independence.”

Regenerative ag is hailed as (seemingly) chemical free, easy to implement, basically low/no cost, and pays near immediate dividends. But what practices make it such a standout? Very few particulars are given. Soil health is mentioned in passing, but short of multispecies cover cropping (I know many local farmers who have mainstreamed this practice, but haven’t adopted the regenerative brand), little else was mentioned. Earthworms got scant airtime, but their role in nutrient cycling and soil horizon “mixing” wasn’t specified.

According to the flick, no supplemental fertilizer is necessary. And although it’s suggested that the farmers expect a bumper yield (somewhat contradictory to big picture, long term sustainability goals cited earlier), they concede that the jury is still out. They haven’t compiled yield data yet!

A farmer mentioned that a typical farm loses three to four tons of topsoil per acre per year. So their hostility to herbicides like Roundup (more on this momentarily) is puzzling, since it’s enabled an unparalleled era of no-till practices widely endorsed by the conservation community.

In addition, one of the farms profiled had a soybean/corn rotation in place, but didn’t use cover crops! This seems like a glaring omission and a common sense practice. Not surprisingly, once implemented, many of their issues were miraculously solved. Totally woke.

Then the film jumps the cinematic shark.

Dr. Zach Bush weighs in with a cancer map, demonstrating an “explosion” comparable to Chernobyl. Glyphosate’s role as an “antibiotic” is implicated. I took exception to his consistent and baffling misuse of the word. As a medical practitioner, he should know better. An antibiotic is a microbe-derived material used to treat medically important bacteria in humans. A refresher of a medical terminology text might be in order.

Then he goes further into how it’s a “water soluble” toxin. Water solubility ensures a short residence time (of already trivial residues) in the human body. Would you rather it be fat soluble and bioaccumulate in fatty tissue? Roundup also has a very well delineated and rapid environmental fate. We have 40 years of data to attest to that. When used properly, it’s not toxic to anything but its intended targets. Please stop rolling all of our environmental ills into one chemo-scapegoat. It’s glaringly oversimplistic and a tired trope.

And the hyperbole doesn’t end there. Did you know that Roundup “kills everything it touches” (tell that to Palmer Amaranth and other resistant weeds)? Artificial selection is funny like that. Also tell it to Agrobacterium, whose Roundup resistance genes were engineered into Roundup Ready crops — effectively allowing a once over for weed control in the field — reducing herbicide and fuel use while conserving precious topsoil.

I’m also curious how E. coli and Salmonella qualify as “invasive” bacteria? They’re certainly situational public health issues — especially the pathogenic and hemorrhagic types of E. coli. Is Salmonella invading my gut when I eat cookie dough?

There are other spot cases of term misappropriation. “Mega-farming” isn’t a term with any meaningful descriptive currency, just like factory farming.

The final panel in the film touts a sobering statistic: chronic disease afflicted 4 percent of the population in 1965, and 46 percent today! The implication is that this is due to Roundup. A more rational, defensible assertion would be shifting employment demographics, sedentary lifestyle, alcohol and tobacco consumption, and poor diets (largely prompted by poor government policy!).

So after all of this, what’s the verdict on regenerative agriculture sans the Roundup (and insert other social grievance here) fervor? It’s a bit insincere. Kind of like word spandex — it opportunistically stretches to form fit the situation, possibly reining in some of the perceived agricultural unshapeliness at the same time. But, short of the retro appeal to go against the grain, does it really offer anything novel as a best management practice? How about exclusives to practitioners? To be curt, not at all. The attempt to elevate it on a pedestal is smug and off-putting. While many of the practices should be applauded — soil health in particular — there’s also the pop fluff (like many boy bands, sorry fans). Most ridiculous are the unsubstantiated pot shots against Roundup and its supposed links to chronic illness. This, more than anything, taints its scientific credibility and pedigree as a production ethic.

I’ve never understood the need to associate with a particular production mantra anyway. Is this the advent of “identity farming”? Like any operation, pick and choose what works for you based on a careful, site-specific analysis of field complexities/peculiarities and market analysis. An a la carte, buffet style approach to farming. Agriculture is too dynamic to be pigeonholed by definitions. Not organic or beyond organic, not conventional, not factory, not regenerative, but your distinctive farming approach.


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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