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Should Synthetic Chemicals be Allowed in Regenerative Agriculture?

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Regenerative — a beneficial yet seemingly innocuous method of farming — has become the subject of controversy.

And the point of contention centers around the use of synthetic chemicals, such as glyphosate.

Given that there is no universally accepted definition of regenerative and the U.S. government does not regulate this term — as it does with “organic” — a heated debate has emerged.

On one hand, some people view any use of glyphosate as immediate disqualification for using the term “regenerative” because of glyphosate’s harm to the soil’s ecosystem; they contend that the soil is not being “regenerated” or improved, but is actually being damaged.

On the other hand, there is a belief that if farmers are reducing their chemical use and are employing techniques such as low-till/no-till, which result in higher soil carbon counts and improved biodiversity, that it is regenerative.

Here are two industry leaders, in their own words, with different takes on the matter.

Arran Stephens, Founder of Nature’s Path

The conventional ag/chemical/CPG industry has, in very short order, co-opted the “regenerative” moniker.

It is continuing to use fossil fuel, chemical-based fertilizers; cancer-causing herbicides, such as RoundUp, which is prodigiously used in “no-till” farming; and GMO seeds (since there are no prohibitions against any of these), all while adopting some time-proven organic practices, such as cover crops, crop rotations, intercropping, no-till or low-till and livestock integration.

Proponents of this non-organic Regenerative Agriculture want everyone to believe that Regenerative Agriculture is the same or as good as — or maybe even superior to — real organic farming practices, and that Regenerative Organic is the solution to declining soil fertility and global warming. What they often fail to mention is that Regenerative Agriculture, unlike Regenerative Organic, has no strict standards and requires no third-party certification.

Given the unfortunate reality that Regenerative Agriculture is being confused with Regenerative Organic, will the consumer be able to differentiate the two?

The cynic in me fears that this muddying of the waters is an intentional attempt to confuse and mislead people who are trying to make the best choices for themselves and their families.

Already, we have observed how the proliferation of label claims such as “natural” and “sustainable” — terms that have no proper definition or oversight — have confused consumers and soil health movements that seek to improve conditions for all life on earth. Additionally, we are also concerned that the way “regenerative” is being used potentially undermines the very hard work the organic movement has been steadily building upon for almost seventy years.

While we applaud companies for taking steps in the right direction to improve the health of the soil, we do not believe that using glyphosate or any other chemical herbicide, pesticide or fungicide is really regenerative.

These are toxic substances — many of which are carcinogenic — and they are poisoning our planet’s soils, waters and breathable air, while weakening or destroying soil biology, diminishing long-term fertility, harming the environment, and ultimately, to our detriment, infiltrating the food chain for humans and all other life forms.

The real organic movement has always been and will always be about improving soil fertility while avoiding toxic inputs, thereby leaving the Earth and its denizens better than we found them.

Tom Newmark, Co-Founder & Chair of The Carbon Underground, a partner of the Soil Carbon Initiative

Regeneration is objectively measurable: it is either happening or it is not.

If farmers and ranchers are seeing long-term improvements in soil organic matter, above and below-ground biodiversity, water retention and soil structure, then there’s regeneration. And with that regeneration comes real hope for food and water security, the conservation of biodiversity, and keeping our planet livable in the face of the climate crisis.

The question, then, is how farmers and ranchers should go about regenerating?

Given the thousands of permutations of soil type, growing zones, rainfall, crops, markets and cultures, the regenerative agronomists with whom we work do not think there’s a “one size fits all” suite of practices that will work everywhere. We need to honor and encourage local experimentation, and we also need to meet farmers where they are in their journey to regeneration.

Does that mean we, in the Soil Carbon Initiative, are pro-chemical?

No. I personally own an organic farm and my supplement company New Chapter was a pioneering participant in the organic and Non-GMO movements.

It’s just that after about 100 years of organic advocacy, starting from the agricultural lectures of Rudolf Steiner, there is precious little acreage that is certified organic. In the U.S., the percent of arable acreage that is certified organic is under 1%, while worldwide it’s at approximately 1.5%.

Given that the world is roasting with around 415 ppm of CO2 heating up the atmosphere, we need billions of acres enrolled in regeneration if we’re to have any chance of sequestering enough CO2 to make a dent. And we have to have this happen quickly; the climate crisis is accelerating and may soon reach irreversible tipping points.

What might make a dent? How about enlisting the 2 billion or so farmers around the world working on more than 500,000,000 farms? Most of these are smallholder farmers feeding their families and communities, and we want to “meet them where they are” and encourage them to start the process of regeneration.

Being certified organic is a function of regulatory compliance. Such certification doesn’t ensure ecosystem health. Deep and repeated tillage, deforestation, replacing grasslands with monocultures, and bare fallow are not usually consistent with ecosystem regeneration, but in each case, such operations can be certified organic.

As farmers worldwide regenerate soil, their need to use synthetic chemical inputs will lessen and ultimately slip away. Farmers won’t pay money for chemical inputs or irrigation if they don’t have to, and they won’t have to if their soils and soil biologies are replenished and thriving.

This is the vision of the Soil Carbon Initiative: meet farmers wherever they are on the journey to regeneration, encourage each step in the direction of ecosystem health, and applaud the farmers’ independence from expensive chemical inputs and other damaging practices.

Ultimately, we all share the same goal of using agriculture to help save the world. But how we get there is far from settled.

What this debate points to — and something we wrote about a few weeks ago — is the importance and impact of words and their ability to influence behavior in the marketplace.


In January 2018, Michelle Kopman, a good friend of mine from the industry, tragically passed away at age 45. ⁣

We first met at Natural Products Expo West 2013, when I stopped by her booth Raw Foodz. She had these amazing organic salad dressings, and I named her Greek dressing as one of My Top 5 Organic Products of Expo West 2013. ⁣

Michelle and I became friends, and we would hang out — and go eat — whenever she came to New York City. She really loved Pure Food and Wine, especially the sundae, and I vividly remember the extreme joy she expressed when eating it. It made her so happy.⁣

With her unfortunate passing, Raw Foodz eventually turned into Mother Raw and took on a new CEO, Kristi Knowles.⁣

Last week, Mother Raw closed on a $6.1M round, and it is really meaningful that her legacy is now being carried on in such a beautiful way and has ample funding to fulfill her original vision.⁣

You are very missed, Michelle, and I think of you often. ❤️❤️❤️⁣

With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

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This Week's Quick Hits

Quick Hits

* Patagonia has named Beth Thoren to be Environmental Action & Initiatives Director, EMEA. In this role, she will help Patagonia reach carbon neutrality by 2025 and support over 1,000 grassroots environmental NGOs around the world.

* The trailer for Don’t Let The Gene Out of The Bottle, a documentary that exposes the danger of genetically-engineered microbes, can be viewed here.

* Peekaboo Organics, which sells ice cream featuring hidden vegetables, won $200,000 and was named the grand prize winner of the Real California Milk Snackcelerator dairy snack innovation competition.

* FoodChain ID has created a Vegetarian, Plant-Based and Vegan certification program.

* Noma, the #2 rated restaurant in the world last year, has decided to convert its pop-up burger joint into something permanent. And organic, free-range hamburgers will continue to be the featured item.

* Organic farm succession planners are working to preserve Vermont’s agricultural heritage.

* Leep Foods, which grows premium organic mushrooms using regenerative soil methods on nutrient-enriched American hardwoods, won $250,000 in Round Two of Grow-NY, a global food and agriculture business competition.

* A research project by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture is hoping to understand why more farmers in the South don’t produce organic crops.

* In memory of Dr. Cynthia Cambardella, who did groundbreaking research on organic farming systems, a campaign has been started to support scholarships for students interested in soil health and organic agriculture at Iowa State University

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