By Dr. Hillary Dalton
When buying food, shoppers today are bombarded by an endless number of labels and marketing terms. Even when items are labeled “organic,” it can be unclear what that means for the farmers, local communities, land, wildlife, and farmed animals behind each food item. Does the “organic” farm growing that food look like an idyllic family farm with a small but diverse group of animals grazing on pasture? Or does it resemble a large, intensive operation with thousands of animals crammed together with minimal access to the outdoors? Is the term “organic” only being reflected in the organic feed given to the animals and assurances of no added growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics?
Is organic farming better for the environment?
Even in the United States, some larger organic-certified farms are raising animals under conditions that are virtually indistinguishable from factory farms. In reality, these “organic” factory farms remain part of industrial animal agriculture’s destructive footprint as a leading contributor to carbon emissions and climate change. An industry that destroys natural habitats and global biodiversity, upholds animal cruelty, depletes the health of our soils, and leaves rural communities in economic despair. Growing concern over the detrimental impacts of modern industrial farms has led to renewed interest in regenerative farming.
What is regenerative farming?
In contrast to conventional farming operations, regenerative farming grows food with respect to nature using holistic land management practices, as indigenous people around the world have done for thousands of years. Regenerative agriculture does no harm to the land and actually works to improve it.
Regenerative farming prohibits the use of antibiotics, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), fertilizers, growth hormones, or chemical pesticides. It also goes beyond these actions and uses practices, such as composting, that build the organic matter and microbial health of the soil. Rather than growing a single crop (e.g., soy or corn), regenerative farms plant multiple crops to avoid depleting specific nutrients from the soil and reduce the risk of disease or pests taking over. There is no or minimal tilling of the soil to prevent erosion. Trees and perennials that re-grow yearly are often reintroduced to the landscape as their long root systems better hold carbon and water in the soil.
Animals’ role in regenerative farming
Instead of being crammed indoors in dark sheds, farmed animals on regenerative farms behave how they would naturally—outdoors and in the sunshine. Beef and dairy cattle are integral to regenerative farms to build up the health of the soil, improve water conservation, and reduce erosion and run-off. The cattle are rotated between different sections of fresh pasture where they feed on the grasses. The cattle are moved to prevent overgrazing, which allows the vegetation on the pasture to replenish more quickly. After the cattle leave, laying hens and other poultry then come in to help to spread the cattle manure as they forage for insects on the pasture. Poultry birds are a natural clean-up crew and provide pest control. Both the cattle and chickens put nutrients, including carbon, back into the soil, which actively works to prevent climate change.
[However,] to be truly regenerative, a system must consider all players in the farm system — from the soil microbiome to the animals to the workers. After all, farmers are the stewards of our lands, and with the power of regenerative organic agriculture, can completely change the direction of our future.
In 2017, Regenerative Organic Certified ™ (ROC) program was created, encompassing the most robust standards for animal welfare, farmer and worker fairness, soil health, and organic farming into a clear and comprehensive label for food, textiles, and personal care products for consumers around the world. The ROC program is overseen and continuously updated by members of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, including the Rodale Institute, Textile Exchange, Fair World Project, and Compassion in World Farming.
Our mission at Compassion in World Farming is to end factory farming and promote a regenerative food system where farmed animals are treated with respect, consumers and farmers experience the benefits of a system free from harmful industrial agriculture methods, and our planet and soils are not only sustained but flourish for generations to come. We actively work with food companies to improve the availability of regeneratively grown products on grocery shelves. Compassion’s Sustainable Food and Farming Award recognizes businesses taking steps to produce higher welfare meat, dairy, and eggs in ways that protect, improve and restore wildlife and the environment.