It’s long been a problem for the cause of regenerative agriculture that there’s not much science backing it up.
But some of that science is finally arriving, and the data can be striking – for the great potential it reveals while illustrating just how far we still have to go.
Case in point: a study published in February in PeerJ offers data on the profitability of regenerative versus conventional farming techniques. It’s quite encouraging: the numbers show a huge profit advantage for regenerative farmers, made all the more impressive by the fact that their production is significantly lower.
And this is where the numbers show how far we have to go. It’s still a widely held perception that regenerative techniques must involve reduced production, but evidence is mounting that such is not the case. Independent researchers are developing techniques and case studies that demonstrate the enormous, pesticide-free production made possible when soil biology is properly managed.
The study is co-authored by Jonathan Lundgren, an independent researcher in South Dakota who left a lab-management post with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over tension with the agency – tension that began when his lab generated data correlating popular pesticides with bee population declines.
For this study, Lundgren worked with lead author Clair LaCanne of South Dakota State University. The authors surveyed 20 farms in four Midwestern states, all in corn production. They found that regenerative farms earn 78 percent greater income over their conventional counterparts. Feeding into that number is a huge gap in input costs (32 percent of conventional farm income pays for seed and fertilizer, versus 12 percent for regenerative farms). Regenerative practices also correlated with significantly reduced pest pressure.
To qualify as “regenerative” in the study, a farm must employ at least three of five qualifying techniques, which include refraining from tilling and pesticide usage. Only one farm employed all five techniques – making it a foregone conclusion that the vast majority of surveyed farms suffered from underdeveloped soil biology.
There is plenty of evidence that we can efficiently maintain optimal soil biology in agricultural systems of all sizes, thereby maximizing the production potential of any crop by organic means. But so far, modern organic techniques have been developed by trial-and-error on small, diversified farms. We still live in a world shaped by the Green Revolution, which has had such an impact that for the past half-century, nearly all public research money has been spent on a synthetic-chemical-based approach to agriculture.
The challenge we face now is to convert large-scale production to ecology-based techniques. To that end, we at Foothill Biological applaud Lundgren and the research he’s trying to spark at his South Dakota site – and especially the effort by he and LaCanne to focus their study on corn, the country’s largest commodity crop, the vast majority of it suffering the long-term impacts that come with monocropping and chemical-based production.
We’ll get there soon, because we need to.