The regenerative agriculture conversation has in many ways been co-opted by advocates of so-called regenerative grazing (also variously referred to as holistic management, conservation grazing, adaptive multi-paddock grazing, mob or rotational grazing), who frame grazing livestock as beneficial or even crucial to soil and ecosystem health, even as native grazing animals who perform the same ecological functions are displaced and slaughtered on behalf of cattle producers.
Many climate and environment experts have critiqued the claimed eco-benefits of regenerative grazing as overblown and unscientific, while others emphasize that regardless of any benefits potentially conferred, "regenerative grazing" systems are still a net negative for the climate, environment and wildlife.
There are other forms of food production and farming that provide the same services of building and restoring soils, sequestering carbon, and regenerating degraded landscapes and ecosystems, and do not entail the disproportionate land use and greenhouse gas emissions of grazing livestock or the intense displacement and killing of native wildlife. These include food trees, legume cultivation, veganic or stock-free gardening and farming, perennial vegetable farming, and more.
Regenerative agriculture does not require livestock production. On the contrary: Climate scientists say food system reform must include massive reductions in meat and dairy production, especially from grazing animals.
Here we outline some regenerative plant-based forms of food production, as well as alternatives to grazing on land currently used for ruminant animal production.
Agroecology is the incorporation of ecological principles into farming practices, with a focus on increasing biodiversity, reducing harmful impacts to the environment and climate, and promoting greater ecosystem wellbeing through working with rather than against nature.
Agroecology includes practices such as agrobiodiversity, agroforestry, permaculture, polyculture, regenerative agriculture, veganic or stock-free growing, and more. Many of these techniques are often practiced in combination. Indigenous farming methods have long prioritized agroecological approaches.
While there are more than 300,000 identified edible plant species in the world, 75% of the food humans consume globally comes from a mere 12 plant species and five animal species. Of edible plants, just three (rice, maize and wheat) are used to supply nearly 60% of calories in the human diet.
This over-reliance on less than a handful of staple crops has led to significant decline in animal and plant biodiversity. The cultivation of vast monoculture crops, many of which are used for livestock feed, is a leading cause of deforestation, depletion of the Earth’s fertile topsoil and arable land, and loss of plant genetic diversity. This leaves our food supply perilously vulnerable to pests, diseases, and weather extremes, and leads to increased overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which harm surrounding wildlife, water reservoirs, air and soils.
Over the past century, globally, an astonishing 75% of genetic plant diversity in agriculture has been lost. In the United States, for example, some 80% of cabbage, pea and tomato varieties have been lost.
Dietary monotony is also a driver of global malnutrition, as access to such a narrow range of plant foods limits or excludes important vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients, both in populations experiencing hunger and food insecurity and in wealthier populations with higher incidence of overweight and obesity.
The FAO has urged that in order to ensure global food security and nutrition in the face of our increasing climate crisis, farmers must cultivate a greater diversity of crops able to resist environmental shocks and weather extremes. Approaches include revitalized growth of indigenous and neglected crops, increased cultivation of perennial vegetables, and agroforestry — specifically incorporation of native food trees.
Increasingly, agricultural researchers and nutritional experts are promoting the value of indigenous fruits and vegetables in areas most affected by climate change and hunger.
The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s marked the proliferation of technology from industrialized nations to improve agricultural yields in many parts of the world, with an emphasis on high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of cereals, and increased use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and mechanization.
Although these initiatives contributed to greater global calorie consumption, dietary diversity decreased and micronutrient deficiencies increased in many lower-income regions, with traditional crops that were historically important sources of critical nutrients displaced by the higher-value, higher-yielding staple crops.
Indigenous food plants are often richer in nutrients than domesticated non-native crops, and, being better adapted to their local environments, are better able to endure droughts and pests. This makes indigenous crops an important tool to reduce climate vulnerability and dietary deficiencies.
The chart below shows the nutritional composition, in many cases superior, of some indigenous African vegetables as compared to non-native crops.
“Orphan” Crops: Neglected, Underutilized, Forgotten
The displacement of indigenous crops around the world by higher-yielding commodity crops has resulted in a category of edible plants variously referred to as orphan crops, or underutilized, neglected, and “forgotten” crops. These crops have received significantly less attention, research, and funding within the agriculture and food security sectors, and have been subject to much less international trade, if any.
Many farmers, scientists, chefs and food groups are now working to change that. The Reawakened Foods Initiative shares the inspiring stories of farmers across the globe who are “reawakening” traditionally undervalued crops, helping their communities combat hunger, increase resilience to climate change, promote greater biodiversity, and support healthier and more secure food systems.
The Future 50 Foods Project is working with farmers and food organizations around the world to promote greater cultivation and consumption of nutrient-dense ancient grains, heirloom plants, and neglected traditional crops. Their goal is threefold: to improve global nutrition through greater variety of vegetables; to promote adoption of more sustainable plant-based sources of protein; and to improve worldwide agrobiodiversity.
Mission: Food Possible (M:FP), founded by chef and food activist Peter Ivey, was created to combat global hunger, promote food security and reduce food waste. Their proprietary Most Valuable Produce (MVP) scoring tool helps communities determine their most critical indigenous produce for hunger alleviation, on the basis of geography, nutritional value, yield value, climate resilience, and regenerative potential. They then develop training modules for schools and communities that empower them to better grow, prepare and incorporate these foods.
Globally, the staple crops most used to feed people, such as wheat, soy and corn, are based on annual cropping systems in which fields are planted with seasonal crops, harvested, then tilled and replanted yearly, a process that strips organic nutrients from the soil and depletes the topsoil layer.
Perennial agriculture — the cultivation of crops that live for more than two years without the need for replanting — is increasingly recognized as a crucial tool in restoring soil fertility, improving global food security and nutrition, and mitigating climate change.
Perennial plants develop longer, more stabilizing roots than annual crops, which help them sequester significantly more carbon in the soil. They also preserve topsoil, reduce soil erosion, improve soil microbe diversity, and conserve water — annual crops require up to five times more water than perennials.
Perennial crops also use less fossil fuel than annual crops. This is because they require less use of farm machinery as fields are not tilled and replanted every year and fertilizers are not applied as frequently. With their longer root systems able to pull nutrients from deep in the ground, many perennial plants do not require much, if any, fertilizer. Cornell researchers estimated that perennial corn farming could reduce fuel usage by $300 million of diesel fuel in the United States as opposed to annual corn planting.
Scientists say perennial vegetables are a neglected and underutilized source of food with great potential to address the overlapping crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and global food insecurity and malnutrition.
In a landmark study from 2020, researchers cataloged 613 perennial vegetable species, detailing the nutritional benefits and carbon sequestration potential of each. They estimated that expanding perennial vegetable acreage to 64million acres (from current 8million acres) by 2050 could store an additional 280.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year — roughly as much as cutting meat from American diets or eliminating the emissions of 60 million cars.
Hemp is also a growing source for meat and dairy alternatives. By weight, hemp seeds provide comparable levels of protein to beef and lamb; just 2-3 tablespoons contain around 11 grams. Hemp seeds are also rich in healthy fats, essential fatty acids, and important vitamins and minerals including vitamin E, magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, sulfur, zinc and sodium.
The 2018 Farm Bill reclassified hemp, and it is now legal to grow industrial hemp in the United States, with farm loans, crop insurance and safety net programs available to beginning producers. Eligible hemp farmers can also qualify for multiple Natural Resources Conservation Services programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
A recent Farm Journal survey of nearly 1,000 farmers and cattle producers across the United States found that 83% support the idea that farmers and ranchers should be involved in growing industrial hemp, and 71% agree they would grow industrial hemp themselves if sufficient safety nets were in place.
Since the Farm Bill passed, many cattle producers have begun incorporating hemp farming into their land. Hemp is a highly resilient, fast-growing plant that thrives in a variety of soils, requires minimal water, and can be grown without the use of fertilizers or pesticides. It is considered a regenerative crop because its long tap roots help it pull carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in soils.* In fact, hemp absorbs four times more carbon dioxide than trees.
All parts of a hemp plant can be used to create everything from fiber to food to cannabinoids to supply the booming CBD market.
Several companies have begun researching and developing hemp-based meat substitutes and analogues. Researchers in Sweden have succeeded in creating a hemp meat that matches animal meat's texture and flavor. New Zealand researchers have developed a hemp-based minced meat product, and a U.S. tempeh company has seen great success with sales of their innovative “Hempeh” product, which provides a whopping 20 grams of protein per serving, plus a natural source of Vitamin D. Meanwhile, hemp milk is already a popular plant-based milk sold widely in stores. Just one glass of hemp milk provides 50% of the recommended daily allowance of Omega-3.
Pulses — the edible seeds of legumes, which includes beans, peas and lentils — are grown in nearly all parts of the world and are one of the most nutritious foods on Earth. Protein-packed, high in fiber and rich in nutrients such as iron, folate, potassium, and magnesium, these superfoods are low in fat and contain no cholesterol.
Pulses also offer incredible culinary diversity and functionality. In addition to serving as a staple food in many traditional global cuisines, more recently legumes have emerged as a prime ingredient in plant-based meat and milk alternatives.
The nutritional benefits of pulses are rivaled only by their environmental impacts, beginning with soil improvement. According to the National Resources Conservation Society, “Locally adapted legumes can be used in almost any conservation situation to improve soil quality.”
Legumes fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study found that adding legumes to traditional crop rotations such as wheat and barley reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer by almost half while still yielding the same amount of food.
Additional soil benefits include: increasing soil organic matter; improving soil porosity; recycling nutrients; improving soil structure; decreasing soil pH; increasing microbe diversity in the soil, leading to greater soil stability; and reducing weed, insect and disease pressures.
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization calls legumes a “climate smart" food as they both adapt to climate change and contribute toward mitigating its effects by increasing carbon sequestration and reducing emissions from fertilizer.
Legumes are already widely grown in managed grasslands as forage for cattle; they could thus be cultivated in these same regions for human consumption. Some legumes also thrive in marginal environments, increasing resilience of leguminous crop or intercropping systems to climate extremes. And because legumes provide such substantial soil improvements, farmers often see an increase in crop productivity and subsequent yields when using legumes as part of agroforestry systems.
Veganic agriculture is an approach to growing food and building soil fertility without the use of animal-based or chemical fertilizers, or pesticides. Also known as "stock free," "vegan organic," and "biocyclic vegan" agriculture, veganic farming avoids all artificial chemical products (synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, growth regulators), genetically modified organisms (GMOs), animal manures and slaughterhouse by-products. This form of farming is commonly used by farmers to increase their yield, with countless scalable examples.
Both conventional and organic farming methods rely heavily on animal-based fertilizers. Conventional farmers use manure from factory farms and confinement operations, and organic growers, who avoid chemical fertilizers, use farm and slaughterhouse by-products including manure, blood meal, bone meal, feather meal and fish meal.
None of the nutrients required for soil fertility originate in animal manure or other animal products; they come from plants. In nature, plants keep the soil fertile. Plants pull carbon from the air via photosynthesis, and leguminous plants fix nitrogen into the soil, while the long taproots of many specialized plants pull nutrients and minerals up to the topsoil layer. When plants decompose, they also add nutrients to the soil that then become available to other plants. The nutrients in manure fertilizer also come from plants.
Although the notion of growing crops without the use of manure or other animal byproducts is unfamiliar to many people, there is nothing novel about it. For centuries farmers did not rely on animal manure to grow crops. There is a long history of the use of plant-based, “green manures” in Chinese, Greek and Roman farming.Green manures have been used in traditional agriculture for thousands of years, but were largely replaced by fertilizers and pesticides in conventional farming systems. However, growing emphasis on reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture has led to renewed interest from the agricultural sector.
Green manuring builds soil fertility in numerous ways:
With reforestation and conservation of existing forests urged as crucial tools for climate change mitigation, planting or farming of food trees emerges as a double-win for both carbon sequestration and food security. Additionally, food trees are often well suited to growth on marginal lands and lands currently used for grazing livestock, offering a more climate-friendly livelihood alternative. Food trees also improve biodiversity by offering habitat for wild animals, improving water and soil health of ecosystems, and helping prevent erosion of soils. There are many ways of incorporating food tree production into both natural and agricultural systems.
Earth’s vast diversity of food tree species is increasingly seen as crucial to global food security, planetary health, and climate change mitigation. Most global cropland does not incorporate food trees but has a high potential for doing so. Additionally, some 42% of global pastureland used to be forest. Food trees offer the potential for sustainable production of many foods, providing livelihood benefits, multiple ecosystem services, and improved human nutrition.
The claim is often made by cattle producers that much of the grazing that occurs is on marginal lands that cannot support crop production. In reality we do not need to use these lands for food production, as plant-based food systems can more efficiently feed the growing global population using drastically less arable/agricultural land. This would leave so-called “marginal” lands available for ecosystem preservation or rewilding/reforesting.
But it is also the case that much of the land currently used for grazing can in fact support other forms of food production, including fruit and nut trees, which have persisted and fruited for hundreds of years.
Alley cropping takes food tree farming even further in terms of maximizing land-use efficiency and food output. Alley cropping is an agroforestry practice where crops are grown in the alleyways between rows of woody plants or trees. Alley cropping can diversify farm income, increase crop production, enhance wildlife habitat, and provide protection and conservation benefits to crops.
By combining annual and perennial crops that yield multiple products and profits at different times, a landowner can use available space, time and resources more effectively. There are unlimited planting combinations for alley cropping systems. Common examples in the Midwest include wheat, corn, soybeans or hay planted in between rows of black walnut or pecan trees. Leguminous alley cropping can be especially advantageous as legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, providing a natural form of fertilizer for food trees in addition to yielding high-protein crops.
With a minimum of management, forest gardens, also known as food forests, mimic natural ecosystems to produce abundant food, all while restoring degraded soils, reclaiming and conserving water, removing CO2 from the atmosphere, increasing biodiversity, and providing habitat to wildlife. They are also highly climate resilient. Food forests use land the most efficiently and sustainably of any food production system, using the least amount of acreage to produce the greatest amount of food.
For much of history, food forests were a staple of Indigenous communities around the world. Due to colonization and modernization, many of these forests are no longer tended by human populations, but hundreds of years later they continue to produce abundant food and boast a level of biodiversity unparalleled by the surrounding forest acreage. Vestiges of these agricultural ecosystems have been located in Tanzania, southern India, Indonesia, the Amazon Rainforest, Central America, the Caribbean islands, and, most recently, the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
Some ancient forest gardens continue to sustain villages, like this one in Morocco that inspired permaculturist Geoff Lawton to devote his life to a food forest revival.
Multiple Products/Revenue Streams
Food trees provide multiple products for health, nourishment and commerce. Nut trees, for example, can be used to create all four of the staple food commodities of meat, dairy, oil and flour.Pulverized nut shells can be processed into biochar, a valuable soil amendment that sequesters carbon and increases seed germination and crop yields. The bark and leaves of many fruit and nut trees are also used for medicine. The diversity of products that can be obtained from food trees provides multiple potential revenue streams.
While government subsidies and bailout programs are still disproportionately allocated to meat and dairy production, there are a number of organizations working to help animal farmers transition to more sustainable plant-based agriculture. These include groups such as Transfarmation, Farm Transformers, Rancher Advocacy Program, Refarm’d, the Smart Climate Agriculture Program, Agricultural Fairness Alliance and Grow Green.
Grow Green has published several in-depth reports on its work with farmers, including Alternatives to Commercial Grazing: A guide for farmers in an age of climate emergency and public goods; and Success Stories of Plant-Protein Agriculture, a collection of case studies that includes livestock producers who have transitioned to plant-based agriculture.
In collaboration with farmers and sustainability experts, the Farm Transformation Institute has developed blueprints to help meat and dairy producers successfully transition their farms to in-demand commodities including hemp, mushrooms, legumes and wind farming.
“Conservation ranching” has emerged as one of many variants of regenerative grazing, with an emphasis on promoting livestock as a crucial tool for conserving and restoring biodiversity in grassland ecosystems. Aside from the many environmental harms entailed by even the most well managed forms of grazing, true grassland conservation efforts prioritize the reintroduction of native herbivores, rather than promoting the proliferation of non-native grazing livestock, whose ecological impacts are in stark contrast to native ungulates.
In order to effectively promote biodiversity, conserve ecosystems, meet climate targets and halt the extinction crisis, land will need to be converted from grazing land to conservation lands. Some 42% of global pasture used to be forests. A U.N.-backed report published in 2021 stated that if permanent pasture around the world that was once forested was returned to its native state, some 72 billion tons of carbon — or around seven years’ worth of global emissions from fossil fuels — could be stored.
The report called for “the convergence of global food consumption around predominantly plant-based diets” as the most crucial element to combating the climate crisis while also protecting and boosting wildlife populations.
Meanwhile a study in the journal Nature found that if even one-third of the world’s most degraded landscapes were restored, andstill-intact ecosystems were protected, roughly half of all human caused greenhouse gases emitted since the Industrial Revolution could be sequestered, while 70% of predicted species extinctions could be prevented.
This would entail, in addition to reforestation, better protection of peatlands, wetlands and savannahs, ecosystems that are frequently converted to grazing lands but that naturally provide habitat for an abundance of unique species, in addition to storing vast amounts of carbon.
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