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Regenerative Practices: Making American Agriculture Sustainable

A capitalist society gives up a lot in return for efficiency and cheap rates. In the food industry, the corporations that are able to produce and distribute quickly are often able to do so at a cheaper cost due to their ability to scale, but they sacrifice both environmental welfare and quality of produce in the process. The entire concept of fast food is predicated on illimitable access to cheap consumption, with bargain and convenience as the two core values of the industry. It is nearly impossible to produce sustainably and match the price and production rates of industrial agriculture. For that reason, sustainable consumption is largely only available to the upper-income demographic, creating an elitist space surrounding eco-conscious diets. These diets laud moralistic consumption while ignoring the social inequities that the culture surrounding them perpetuates.

Agriculture and related industries contributed 10.9 percent to US employment and $1.109 trillion to the nation’s gross domestic product. The eco-intensive and exploitative conditions of industrial agriculture ideally would receive immediate reform, but to completely pivot away from these processes right now is not realistic economically, as it would require an unlikely shift of the global supply chain. It makes sense to scale production methods that value regenerative practices, so that sustainably produced goods may be more widely accessible to all income demographics and the exclusionary culture of eco-conscious consumption is eradicated.

Whereas conventional farming methods deplete the soil of its nutrients, regenerative agriculture is a practice that focuses on the restoration of soil through holistic farming and grazing techniques. These methods increase biodiversity and rebuild organic soil matter. This style of farming cultivates a relationship within the ecosystem rather than working against it to ultimately allow for the soil to sequester carbon. Regenerative agriculture can entail various techniques to improve soil health, including the integration of livestock, no-till farming, cover crops, and increased crop diversity. It is not inherent in grazing animals to devastate the environment; livestock can be utilized for their ability to break up soil as they move, which speeds up the creation of organic soil matter. No-till farming limits mechanical, physical, and chemical disturbances of the soil, thus maintaining the soil structure and preventing erosion. Cover crops can be integrated into regenerative agriculture to keep the soil covered at all times while protecting it from erosion and feeding the microorganisms within it. Crop diversity also promotes healthier soil. Agriculture makes a significant impact on our climate annually. Regenerative practices must be scaled for the sake of the nation’s climate goals and so that healthy, sustainably sourced food can become accessible to all income demographics. 

Thanks to “Big Ag,” industrially produced goods are ubiquitous across the nation at ridiculously low prices. It is simply astonishing what you can get for your money these days: KFC markets a “fill up” box designed to feed a family of four for just $20 at certain locations. This option includes eight pieces of fried dark meat chicken, a large bowl of coleslaw, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and gravy. Taco Bell offers a $5 cravings box which entails a “specialty” product, a “classic,” as well as a side and drink. The offering is also accompanied by a sodium warning when you go to the website. These corporations can offer such prices because of the conditions under which their food is produced. While these production methods permit mass output, which allows the product to be widely accessible, the food is stripped of its nutritional value in the process. Copious portion sizes of cheap food have become a staple of American culture, available off of nearly every interstate. Food deserts – regions where people have limited access to healthy, affordable food due to either low income or location – have disproportionate prevalence in minority communities due to systemic racism, unjustly reducing diet options to nutrient depleted fast food. 

In modern American society, the ability to make choices about what you consume is, ultimately, a privilege. Right now, eating a sustainably sourced diet requires a degree of wealth that many in the nation do not have. This inequity stems from the fact that sustainable practices inherently require greater labor input. The convenience of these industrially produced goods at a low cost essentially takes away the choice of eating sustainably for low-income consumers, negatively impacting their health because they only have access to nutrient-stripped foods. There is blatant irony in the sustainable diets; their sententious sentiment is overshadowed by the social injustice in their lack of accessibility. It is a matter of how sustainably sourced food can become as prevalent in America as current fast food establishments.

A common practice to eat sustainably is to cut out animal products from one’s diet. Plant-based alternatives are getting cheaper, but still remain mostly inaccessible due to either price or convenience. Additionally, while veganism has many environmental benefits and has been proven to improve heart health, America remains obsessed with meat. Meat’s accessibility perpetuates this aspect of the nation’s consumption culture. It is estimated that Americans eat roughly 50 billion burgers annually, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It’s the Big Mac, not the Big Chickpea Salad, evidently. As advantageous as it would be for the environment for every American to become vegan, a more realistic solution to eco-conscious eating is to scale regenerative agriculture, which utilizes animals rather than abusing them in factory conditions.

There have been various debates on how exactly to go about scaling this agriculture practice. Regenerative farmer Daniele Cesano describes critical factors in the widespread adoption of the practice, including the cooperation of companies in setting specific social and environmental goals, the development of technology to decrease mechanical and labor costs, and the introduction of increased government incentives. The last one is especially critical because farming practices that decrease carbon content in soils are the recipients of government subsidies. The Biden administration plans to reduce subsidies toward “Big Ag” and reallocate $30 billion in farm aid money to pay farmers to implement regenerative practices that  sequester carbon in their soil. 

Every person should have access to a nutritious, sustainably grown diet. The scaling of regenerative practices would not only tackle environmental issues with agriculture but would also counter a blatant social inequity problem that is pervasive in America today. It is equally imperative for the private sector to cooperate as much as the public sector in making regenerative agriculture commonplace.

Image via Flickr (Rex Turgano)