The Definitive Guide To Regenerative Agriculture
Building a Sustainable World From the Ground Up
Download the Definitive Guide
Download the Definitive Guide
The world population is expected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations1. The large population increase means that there will be major changes in meeting the demand for agricultural production while mitigating and adapting to climate change. Agriculture’s role in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is widely known but poorly understood. Since 1900, global carbon emissions have steadily increased, with agriculture, deforestation, and other land-use changes being the second-largest contributors2. Unless the industry’s impact on climate change is addressed, the impact of carbon emissions will continue to increase.
Agriculture is one of the most chemical- and resource-intensive industries globally, which has direct and indirect effects on the environment. The unconsolidated nature of agriculture and the fact that it employs roughly 1 billion people3 means that a mass consensus for change must be achieved. Responsible management of land and resources is imperative for growing operations of every size and scale in order to minimize the impact to natural environments. The industry also faces the need to balance adjustments to prevent climate change and address biodiversity, food security, and the livelihood of farmers and farming communities.
Farmers represent the future of sustainable agriculture in the US. A growing number of food producers, companies, scientists, academics, conservation organizations and government bodies are promoting, incentivizing and trying new, sustainable farming practices. As a result, there is growing support for a shift to farming practices that make regenerative agriculture more productive and resilient while also helping to mitigate – possibly even reverse – climate change by drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere and reducing GHG emissions from farming practices.
That is where regenerative farming comes in. Farming is a complex operation, often requiring years and significant investments to realize the benefits of regenerative agriculture practice changes fully. Investments include the time to learn and incorporate new practices, money to fund new equipment, fuel, and seeds, and tribal knowledge handed down from prior generations of growers.
That’s why businesses and their growers need to identify and access appropriate resources to help further their sustainability journeys.
Regenerative agriculture is not a prescribed set of farming practices. Rather, it is an approach to farming incorporating regionally and crop-sensitive practices that focus on rebuilding and restoring the soil through:
Regenerative agriculture is not just the latest name or label for sustainable farming.
Agricultural sustainability traditions vary. At their core, they rest on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Under a sustainable mindset, long-term stewardship of natural and human resources is equally important to short-term economic gain. Stewardship of human resources includes consideration of social responsibilities such as working and living conditions of laborers, the needs of rural and traditionally disadvantaged communities, and consumer health and safety both in the present and the future. Stewardship of land and natural resources involves maintaining or enhancing the quality of these resources and using them in ways that will not prevent them from being used for the future, but not necessarily focusing on improving them now or later4.
Sustainable agriculture practices are primarily focused on efficiency without damage. Sustainability seeks to do less harm to the environment while still meeting society’s food and farming needs. Sustainable agriculture reduces and sometimes even avoids hazardous pesticides and fertilizers. These practices result in farmers producing safer crops for consumers, while decreasing the energy required to produce the necessary yields.
However, sustainable agriculture is fundamentally a fractured rather than a holistic approach. At its core, sustainability seeks affordable continuation rather than restoration. To be clear, it is a good approach5, but an incomplete one. Cheap continuation can pull in some practices that are intrinsically good for the soil. But its objective is not the recovery and restoration of the soil.
The Conventional – Sustainable – Regenerative Quadrant. Bill Reed (2007)
Conversely, regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that focuses on sustaining soils and the environment, and improving and restoring them. By implementing practices that help restore and revitalize soils, healthier, climate-resilient yields are produced, healthy soils and biodiversity are recovered, and ecosystems— including humans— are made healthier. The regenerative approach to farming works with natural systems to repair the landscape, soil structure, ecosystem biodiversity and climate for the sake of long-term productivity and sustainability. Regenerative agriculture brings together multiple climate-resilient and sustainable agriculture methods to achieve the goal of restoring land health.
Tillage practices break up the soil, which results in increased carbon dioxide emissions and carbon loss. Tillage can also result in more water runoff and soil loss. Minimizing soil disturbances helps keep carbon stored in the soil and maintains healthy microbial ecosystems. Building in no-till or minimum tillage can help enhance soil aggregation, water infiltration and retention and carbon sequestration. Additionally, there are cost reduction opportunities for growers, including reduced fuel use, reduced fertilizer requirements, and more efficient use of water resources.
Carbon sequestration is highly related to soil and management systems. Research on the impact of tillage practices and crop rotation has demonstrated that no-till and permanent vegetation are more effective in storing carbon in the soil. The use of crop rotation and conservation tillage, in addition to effective manure and nitrogen management systems, contributed significantly to improving soil carbon status. The value of storing carbon through conservation practices is significantly improving soil quality and productivity as listed earlier. (emphasis added)6
Artificial and synthetic fertilizers can create imbalances in the structure and function of soils, depleting the ecosystem and creating weaker, less resilient plants. Fertilizers also contribute to climate change by polluting the water and soil, disrupting soil microbial communities, and accelerating the decomposition of soil organic matter. While use of chemical fertilizers, especially ammonia, has revolutionized farming and dramatically increased the productivity of each farmed acre, the production of these fertilizers has a huge climate and carbon impact. According to Chemical and Engineering news7, between 75 and 90% of [global ammonia production] goes toward making fertilizer, and about 50% of the world’s food production relies on ammonia fertilizer. Reducing dependence on chemical inputs can help growers’ profitability by reducing costs and application runs while simultaneously reducing their carbon footprint and overall environmental impact. Soil fertility is able to be increased in ecosystems through cover crops, crop rotations, compost and animal manure, which can return plant nutrients to promote better soil health.
Industrial ammonia production emits more CO2 than any other chemical-making reaction. Ammonia manufacturing today contributes between 1% and 2% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.
Fertilizers also produce greenhouse gasses after farmers apply them to their fields. Crops only take up, on average, about half of the nitrogen they get from fertilizers. Much of the applied fertilizer runs off into waterways, or gets broken down by microbes in the soil, releasing the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Although nitrous oxide accounts for only a small fraction of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, pound for pound, nitrous oxide warms the planet 300 times as much as carbon dioxide8.
When farmers just plant cash crops, the soil is left bare in the off-season, which can lead to loss of soil fertility and quality, soil erosion, loss of water retention, and more. Keeping the ground covered and maintaining a living root protects soil and reduces the risk of erosion and runoff. Cover cropping keeps the soil protected with plants that may or may not be used as an additional cash crop. The biomass leftover from the cover crop can be mowed or roller-crimped to serve as mulch and to recycle nutrients back into the soil. Studies have found that cover crops can significantly increase yields. Positive impacts on soil regeneration include improved soil structure and ability to retain water, increased availability of soil nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium, magnesium and potassium, healthier and more biodiverse soil microbiology and increased carbon sequestration with potentially useful impacts on global warming.
Cover crops absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and store the carbon in the soil, helping to mitigate climate change. It is estimated that 20 million acres of cover crops can sequester over 66 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Coupling cover crops with other sustainable agricultural practices such as no-till or conservation tillage can provide additional and often complementary environmental and climate benefits. Cover crops can help farmers be more resilient to climate impacts by increasing the soil’s ability to absorb intense rain and hold onto moisture. This makes crops more resilient to drought, high heat, heavy downpours, and flooding. Cover crops also increase organic matter in the soil, which improves its structure and water-holding capacity, prevents erosion, and reduces the need for fertilizers. Less chemical and soil runoff provides the additional benefit of improving the water quality of surrounding waterways. Cover crops can out-compete weeds, reducing the need for herbicides, and can even disrupt pest cycles, leading to fewer infestations9.
Using a single crop in a field reduces the natural diversity of native plant balances. Increased use of a single crop each year has led to this diversity disappearing, creating imbalances in soils. The imbalances led to the need for increasing specific nutrients in the form of fertilizers, the degradation of healthy balanced soil biology, degradation of soil structure, and rapid depletion of soil organic matter. Increasing crop diversity reduces needs for chemical inputs and provides natural protection against pests. Crop rotations add to the diversity of soil microorganisms and create soils that assure crop resiliency and optimum yield over time. This practice of incorporating plant diversity also aids the development of soil microbiome diversity, key to soil health.
Furthermore, both simple and more complex crop rotations help build climate-resiliency to yields while accumulating soil regeneration benefits. According to one long-term European study on cereals:
Crop rotation appears to be a promising measure for sustainable intensification of temperate cereal systems under a changing climate. Without effective adaptation measures, the projected climate changes can cause large drops in cereal yield under medium to high emissions scenarios10.
Similarly, a North American study focusing on corn, soybeans and winter wheat rotations common there found:
Comparisons of long-term corn monoculture, two-crop rotations, and more diverse rotations, showed that increasingly diversified rotations improved corn yields across all growing conditions, including during growing seasons with extended droughts. In fact, having more diverse crop rotations can increase average corn yields by 28% over time and across all growing conditions. When conditions were good, yields increased by more than 22%, and in drought years corn yields were 14 to 90% greater when corn was grown following other crops in a diversified rotation compared to a simple rotation.
In a second study…compared monoculture corn, soybean and winter wheat cropping to 2-year, 3-year and 4-year rotations involving these field crops as well as a red clover cover crop. …The team found that corn grain yields were 38-42% greater when grown in a 3-year corn-soybean-winter wheat rotation with and without red clover cover crop compared to monoculture corn. Similarly, soybean yields in the same 3-year rotation were increased by 51-54% compared to monoculture soybean.
Soil carbon and potentially mineralizable nitrogen, followed the same pattern as crop yields, demonstrating the positive co-benefits of crop rotations on soil health. With increased soil organic carbon and nitrogen content, soil biodiversity is enhanced and nutrients are consequently made more bio-available for future crops11.
At the intersection of sustainability, conservationism and climate action, regenerative agriculture presents a solution that elevates and advances the goals of each of these agricultural paradigms. Regenerative agriculture mitigates climate change, creates more productive soil and supports the next generation of farmers. Regenerative agriculture presents new and more profitable opportunities for farmers to work with nature to support the health and productivity of their farm.
Regenerative agriculture encourages farmers to invest resources into restoring their most valuable asset, their land. While transitioning a farm to regenerative practices takes considerable planning and time, it provides farmers with the tools to plan for long-term success and mitigate future threats to their livelihoods.
Support for regenerative agriculture is echoing throughout the global agriculture industry. Food companies like General Mills12, Nestle13, and Pepsi14 are pledging and committing resources to make their supply chains more sustainable. The attention from household names is pushing suppliers to adopt more regenerative practices.
Consumers, too, are paying attention to the supply chains behind their goods and services. Two in three consumers in the United States, U.K. and China said that companies should invest in sustainability15.
Making purchases that support regenerative practices offers consumers a new opportunity to play an active role in tackling climate change. As individuals’ concerns about climate change deepen, regenerative products are well poised to become the next big thing to take over grocery store shelves.
For brands, regenerative sourcing presents an opportunity to define themselves as leaders in the space and to address the ever-increasing consumer demand for sustainable products. The companies that commit to regenerative early on will undoubtedly find success in their business as demand continues to grow.
In recent times, interest in and awareness of regenerative agriculture has exploded. As evidenced in web search term popularity, the concept of regenerative agriculture has far outpaced “conventional agriculture.”
GoogleTrends – trends.google.com search term comparison 2004-2022, accessed April 2022.
Regenerative agriculture is even now poised to overtake other, much more established concepts like sustainable and organic agriculture.
GoogleTrends – trends.google.com search term comparison 2004-2022, accessed April 2022.
“Regenerative agriculture” first overtook “sustainable agriculture” as a search term in June 2021, and now tracks closely while rising. Concurrently, sustainable agriculture, as a search term, is trending down since 2004.
GoogleTrends – trends.google.com search term comparison 2004-2022, accessed April 2022. Regeneration surpasses organic in June 2019.
Taking search term prevalence as a proxy for general awareness of and interest in these concepts, it is clear that regenerative agriculture is an important and growing concept, especially in relation to addressing global climate change.
The Paris Agreement16 sets out a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. Achieving these ambitious reduction goals requires looking into ways to safely reduce and remove carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.
When done properly, farming should continually improve and regenerate the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content, which, in turn, improves plant health, water security, nutrition and overall yield.
Regenerative agriculture also aims to dramatically cut agriculture’s carbon footprint while strengthening the food supply chain. According to Nature17, one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, ranging from land clearing to conventional farming. Regenerative ag reverses this trend, drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil, which can contribute to slowing down climate change.
Building regenerative agriculture into their practice allows farmers to work with the land – not against – to reduce erosion, maximize water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling, save money on inputs, and ultimately improve the resiliency of their working land.
While regenerative farming doesn’t always lead to increased yields, it’s important to understand that these sustainable processes can usher in higher profitability. Furthermore, farmers who have adopted these methods can often achieve comparable yield results. By producing more profitable crops, they can be more sustainable in the long run. According to one study18,regenerative agriculture can lead to 78% higher profits over traditional farming practices.
There is also the added benefit of reducing input costs per acre. Over time, regenerative agricultural systems require fewer external inputs like fertilizer. Increasing soil organic matter decreases the need for external fertilizer by restoring natural nutrient sources. But it is not just fertilizer. Researchers have found that these practices increase biodiversity, which can discourage harmful pests, leading to stronger, more resilient crops and less investment from the farmer.
The American Farmland Trust, using grants for regenerative agriculture like the USDA Conservation Innovation Grant, studied the cost effectiveness and ROI potential of regenerative agricultural practices on real working farms. The practices included no-till or strip-till, cover crops, nutrient management, conservation cover, compost application, and mulching. In the study, not only did cash crop yields increase between 2% and 22%, but also, growers saw reductions in input costs and an average ROI of 176%19.
By practicing regenerative farming, soils are left largely undisturbed, which drives improved soil microbiome communities and soil structure. Soil improvements create resiliency to crop stressors, increase crop quality, and ultimately improve yield.
…farms with regenerative practices were 78% more profitable than conventional plots. This increase in profitability was the result of two main factors: input costs and end markets20.
Conservation management practices improve soil structure, reduce wind and water erosion of soils, reduce agricultural run-off into watersheds, and aid in soil carbon sequestration. Reduced or no-till practices can increase water penetration and retention, crop nutrient retention and availability, decrease soil crusting, and increase soil organic matter over time. By choosing reduced or no-till practices, farmers also do fewer activities that contribute to additional carbon in the atmosphere, including running farm equipment.
Additionally, regenerative farming practices show substantially fewer pests in regeneratively farmed land versus those treated with conventional pesticides.
All of this lends itself to increased profitability, better on-farm efficiency and healthier, more climate-resilient yields.
Yield calculation is one of the most debated aspects of regenerative versus conventional farming. Some studies show immediate yield boosts. Others show declines in yield. All show increased profitability for farms practicing regeneration even when yield is decreased. This argues for moving from yield to net profitability as the measure of value and success of a farm.
One of the biggest challenges facing farmers today is maintaining the production levels that will ensure affordable food for the world while keeping methods and inputs sustainable. Research shows that although regenerative methods, which minimize or avoid tilling and chemical inputs entirely, can lower yields, this varies greatly depending on the crop and local conditions22. In some cases, regenerative and organic methods can lead to similar yields, and even yield increases23.
These yield increases are from the overall impact of healthy regenerative farming practices. These combine to make more resilient crops. According to the Rodale Institute24, yields “under organic systems are likely to be more resilient to extreme weather… in the long-running Farming System Trial, in drought years, yields were consistently higher in the organic system. For instance, organic corn yields were 28-to-34% higher than conventional.” In general, having resilient crops comes back to the soil and increasing soil biodiversity. By ensuring your soils are healthy and teeming with beneficial soil microbes, you can naturally displace and suppress disease25.
Crucially, even where yields are lower, the price premium on regenerative and organic food can make the crops more profitable than their conventionally-grown counterparts26. In 2018, US researchers showed that on farms in the Northern Plains of the USA, regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over conventional corn production systems27.
Regenerative agriculture helps revive soil health by encouraging the abundance and diversity of soil microbes. The soil microbes drive processes resulting in a rich cascade of beneficial soil health and structure effects including; improved soil aggregation, water penetration, increased water retention, improved nutrient retention, and availability to plants, decreased soil erosion, reduced agricultural run-off, increased CO2 capture from air and sequestration to soil. All these promote more vigorous and productive crops, while also regenerating rapidly depleted soils.
Regenerative agriculture goes beyond yields and profitability. While these are arguably the most immediate measures for farmers year to year, new sources of value, revenue and accounting are emerging. Of course, we mean carbon credits, insets and offsets.
When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, organizations can go about it in two ways – carbon offsets or carbon insets. Carbon offsets are the purchase of carbon credits to offset the production of a good while carbon insetting helps enterprises build sustainable activities directly into their supply chain.
Sustainability has been spreading to supply chain management. Enterprises are prioritizing how to create products that not only sell well but also have a lower impact on the environment. To help change how products are manufactured from the bottom up, organizations are looking for new ways to build carbon insetting into their supply chains.
A carbon credit is a certificate that a practice has removed 1 tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) or carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). In agriculture, a carbon credit is generated through broad adoption of farm management practices that replenish the soil and help trap carbon in the ground, meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and improvements in soil-based carbon sequestration.
By adopting regenerative farming practices such as cover cropping, and reduced tillage farms can reduce carbon emissions. Farmers enroll their fields in carbon markets. Information about the farming practices used in that growing season on that land is documented – either through remote sensing, simulation, grower attestation, API inputs from machinery and farm management systems or a combination of any or all of these – and the information is reviewed, confirmed, and approved. After regenerative practices are validated (often after the emergence of a cover crop or after cash crop harvest), the carbon credits are granted and then listed for sale in a carbon marketplace, listed on a carbon registry, or delivered to the parties that may have pre-purchased or reserved those credits.
At CIBO, our team uses modeling and remote satellite sensing to quantify the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. With remote satellite sensing, computer vision, and physical inspection, CIBO verifies tillage practice, cover cropping, cash crop emergence, and nitrogen application. Finally, after completing the verification process, verified carbon credits are added to the CIBO marketplace.
Carbon insets are when an organization invests in sustainable practices within its own supply chain. Carbon insets support implementing practices that sequester carbon, promote climate resilience, protect biodiversity, and restore ecosystems. For agriculture, carbon insetting means prioritizing regenerative agriculture, which helps to reduce carbon emissions and build resilience across organizations’ supply chains.
Companies buy carbon credits from programs that help to improve the environment. A carbon credit is a financial unit of measurement that allows companies and individuals to contribute towards a low-carbon future.
Each carbon credit that is sold helps organizations contribute to reducing carbon emissions as part of a larger project. Once a carbon credit has been used, it’s removed from carbon registries. To make an impact annually, organizations will need to purchase carbon credits each year to offset their carbon footprint.
Carbon dioxide has the same impact on the climate no matter where it is emitted. Carbon offsetting allows an organization to compensate for their own carbon emissions by paying another entity to reduce emissions. By supporting an activity that helps reduce an organization’s carbon footprint, they’re giving back to the environment.
Organizations interested in carbon offsetting can purchase carbon credits which help cancel out the impact of some of their projects. A carbon credit is the certificate that a practice has removed 1 tonne of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In agriculture, a carbon credit is generated through broad adoption of farm management practices that replenish the soil and help trap carbon in the ground, meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and improvements in soil-based carbon sequestration.
Carbon offsets enable organizations and individuals to reduce their carbon footprint. When purchasing carbon offsets, it’s important to ensure the offsets have environmental integrity. There are five criteria for carbon offsets that are recognized by all climate bodies and are outlined by the World Resources Institute (WRI)28.
CIBO helps companies follow through on their carbon commitments by creating a first-of-its-kind, voluntary carbon marketplace for direct access to insetting and offsetting carbon credits generated by farmers.
CIBO connects stakeholders with the regenerative potential of land in their supply chains. The platform makes it easy to see how sustainable farming practices impact the environment and helps companies incentivize growers through generation of carbon credits and other means. By building sustainable practices into a supply chain, organizations are able to economically and environmentally align for a positive environmental impact.
Each company is different and has different needs. That’s why CIBO works with organizations to customize their program to meet individual customer sustainability goals. The flexibility of the technology allows customization for portfolios, growers, and the ability to scale.
Supply chain transparency is a daunting task, complicated by a vast number of suppliers, plants, distributors, and products. Gaining the ability to track each seed from the ground to the grocery store opens up doors to new opportunities for sustainable promotion. More transparency into the practices of growers helps transparency-conscious food companies more easily provide information about their grower network. The new layer of transparency delivers confidence to consumers and real impact around climate change in regenerative agriculture and in the food industry.
The CIBO Program Engine is integrated directly into CIBO Enterprise. This enables businesses to create and manage their grower incentive programs for carbon credit generation, Scope 3 emissions reduction, and corporate sustainability.
CIBO Enterprise with the CIBO Programs Engine streamlines the recruitment and enrollment process for private and sponsored grower incentive programs.
CIBO Enterprise with the all-new CIBO Programs Engine now combines grower enrollment and program management with award-winning, scaled MVR capabilities. Now any business can engage, monitor, verify, and report on program outcomes.
CIBO Grower helps land owners and operators discover, enroll in, and stack incentive programs for sustainable and regenerative farming practices.
To land owners asking, “how do i get paid for regenerative farming?” the process is simple. Through a fast and easy online process, growers are automatically matched with incentives and programs for which they may qualify. CIBO Grower then streamlines and accelerates enrollment.
Incentives include pay-for-practice programs, carbon insetting programs, carbon offset and carbon credit programs, as well as private recruitment, incentive and government programs.
At CIBO, we believe everyone can help create a climate-resilient future. Regenerative agriculture is a key part of the solution to adopting sustainable farm management that also provides long-term productivity and profitability. The growing shift in farming practices is helping to make agriculture more productive and resilient while also helping to mitigate – possibly even reverse – climate change by drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere and reducing GHG emissions from farming practices.
CIBO helps both organizations and farmers to environmentally and economically align their choices in agriculture production. By incentivizing farmers to implement more sustainable practices, organizations can also benefit by offsetting their overall carbon footprint. Landowners and operators are now able to easily navigate discovering, enrolling in, and stacking incentive programs for sustainable and regenerative farming practices. At CIBO, we believe in helping every business and grower connect with the land in a new way. That’s why we’ve developed technologies that help farmers reap the benefits of improving the environment for all of us. Regenerative agriculture is here to help protect and improve the earth for future generations.