Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

Regenerative Agriculture – Solving the Problems of Conventional Agriculture

Last Updated on April 19, 2022

Our company began with a simple mission to make high-quality meat and seafood accessible to all. However, we soon discovered that meant doing something not so simple: Rethinking the food system, particularly the dominant, or “conventional,” approach to farming and ranching in America. As we learned about the consequences of conventional approaches to agriculture, we also discovered how farmers, ranchers, soil scientists, nutritionists, and consumers were advocating for an approach that went against the status quo: Regenerative agriculture.

Below, we’re sharing what we’ve learned and how regenerative agriculture principles are part of the solution.

Conventional animal agriculture, for reference, is highly mechanized, keeps animals in concentrated spaces with no access to fresh air, and is reliant on expensive inputs such as feed and antibiotics. Similarly, conventional crop production involves tradeoffs with inputs such as fertilizer and is often dominated by a few crops—primarily corn and soy. This lack of plant diversity leaves farmers at severe financial risk if disease or pests compromise their crops or if broader economic factors change.

Both a lack of biodiversity on the farm and reliance on external inputs destroy the quality of the soil, reduce the soil’s ability to absorb and store precipitation, and restrict farm resilience to extreme weather events. As a result, flooding and agricultural nutrient “runoff” are huge problems for farmers and surrounding communities. Agricultural runoff contains nitrogen and phosphorous that pollute water in local areas, often creating devastating algae blooms in downstream bodies of water. And, beyond polluting the water and damaging the health of marine life, chemical runoff from conventional agriculture hurts the livelihoods of fishermen who rely on a healthy fishing ecosystem.

Current evidence suggests that this unnatural system—of both conventional animal and crop production—produces less nutrient-dense food as well.

A Better Way – Regenerative Ag

We believe in supporting a better approach to agriculture, one that relies on natural systems and the wisdom of indigenous communities. Regenerative agriculture is an approach to plant and animal farming that restores the soil, leading to outcomes that are more economical for the farmer, better for the animal and planet, and healthier for families. While there is no standard definition, regenerative principles generally include:

  1. Understanding the context of the land
  2. Minimizing disturbance
  3. Maximizing diversity
  4. Covering the soil
  5. Maintaining live roots
  6. Integrating livestock

Planting cover crops, such as legumes, is a technique that covers the soil, providing structure to withstand weather conditions and adding nutrients for the following season’s crops. A common practice that minimizes soil disturbance is “no-till,” meaning farmers use a planter that creates a narrow furrow in the ground large enough for seeds while limiting soil displacement. This leaves the cover crop intact, protecting the soil from erosion and moisture loss.

Applying multiple regenerative practices, such as planting a variety of cover crops, utilizing no-till, and integrating livestock, can improve the health of the soil more quickly than just one approach alone.

Investing in the Regenerative Approach

Whichever principles farmers or ranchers apply, these approaches improve soil health, the resiliency of the land, and profitability for farmers.

Most of the positive results from the regenerative tactics mentioned above have been mostly demonstrated at smaller scales or anecdotally via the practices and history of the indigenous peoples of North America. Thus, there is a great need for research to quantify the impacts of regenerative practices on ecosystem health and the socio-economic wellbeing of farmers across a variety of geographical contexts.

That’s why ButcherBox has invested in a five-year research project, led by the Noble Research Institute, tasked with investigating the connections between regenerative land management practices on grazing lands and the quality of the soil and farmer welfare.

The beauty of the regenerative approach is that it is adaptable; farmers and ranchers can apply the solutions that work best on their land. As we learn more about what’s working across our business, particularly for ranchers and farmers, we’ll be sharing more. Stay tuned!

Kelly Hilovsky is the Senior Manager of Social and Environmental Responsibility at ButcherBox. She has an MPH from Johns Hopkins and is committed to addressing complex social problems through the lenses of public health and food justice.