Imagine a table filled with your favorite foods. Maybe it includes a warm apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a bowl of hummus with parsley sprinkled on top, or a plate of chicken tikka masala next to a stack of naans fresh out of the oven. Now think about where these foods come from: farms. There is no denying the importance of agriculture; it keeps us fed. And while it is easy to visualize the importance of agriculture, it is harder to visualize the impact agriculture has on the Earth.

Here are some data to help put it into perspective. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) census, there were more than two million farms in America in 2017, and they covered 40% of all land in the U.S. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that 38% of all land globally is used for farming. While these farms are vital to keeping our kitchens stocked, their impact is not always solely positive.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). industrial agricultural systems have contributed to the “introduction of toxic chemicals, nutrients, and pathogens; reduction and alteration of wildlife habitats; and invasive species.” One method of limiting these detrimental impacts is regenerative agriculture, a process that focuses on working with the land and restoring ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture does not have a hard and fast definition or set of practices. Different farms and organizations interpret it differently. The guiding principle is that by working with the environment, high-quality crops and livestock can be produced in a way that restores, rather than exhausts, the Earth’s resources. To achieve this, farms often focus on increasing biodiversity, preserving the soil, and integrating livestock and crop farming.

One method for increasing biodiversity is crop rotation. When the same crop is grown in the same field for multiple years, the soil is depleted, and disease is encouraged. For example, fusarium head blight (FHB) is a fungal disease that infects wheat, reducing yield and quality. Even after the wheat has been harvested, the fungus persists, surviving on wheat residue and debris in the field. If wheat is planted again the next year, the fungus reinfects the plants and damages the crop.

Practicing crop rotation can limit this problem. The fungus that causes FHB does not thrive on soybeans. By rotating between wheat and soybeans, a farmer can disrupt the fungus’s life cycle, preventing it from persisting year after year. This prevents the wheat crop from being repeatedly infected, keeping it healthy. Additionally, in their journal article “Confronting Barriers to Cropping System Diversification,” David A. Mortensen and Richard G. Smith emphasize that crop rotation increases soil fertility, lowers pest populations, and decreases the need for fertilizer and pesticides. Crop rotation is so important that it is practiced on most commercial farms.

Another method used to increase biodiversity is planting cover crops. Cover crops are grown to protect the soil. Instead of leaving a field barren the year it is not used for a commercial crop, a farmer will grow a cover crop such as alfalfa or clover. Having a plant growing in the soil helps prevent soil erosion, increases soil nutrients, and provides food and habitats for insects and wildlife.

Soil preservation is also important to regenerative agriculture, and no-till farming is one way to practice this. Some farms rely on tilling the soil to decrease weeds and pests and prepare the land for planting. Soil stores carbon, and when it is disturbed through processes like tilling, it releases some of that carbon into the air. Once the carbon is free, it can become carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. If farms reduce how often or how intensely they till, they can keep more carbon trapped in the soil and help mitigate climate change.

Increased carbon sequestration is not the only benefit of no-till farming. Soil that is not tilled for several years is generally better at retaining water than soil that is tilled regularly. This can reduce how often the field needs to be watered and contribute to plant health. Additionally, when tilling is reduced, the soil becomes more biologically active, creating a home for organisms from fungi to bacteria to insects. This biodiversity makes the soil nutrient-rich and benefits plant growth.

Commercial farms tend to focus on either crops or livestock. Regenerative agriculture advocates for integrating both. When livestock graze on a field of cover crop, their manure provides the soil with nutrients and helps increase the number of microorganisms and general biodiversity found in the soil. As livestock walk through a field, their hooves gently work the manure into the soil, which is perfect for farmers who want to avoid tilling but still want to ensure nutrients get into the soil. The nutrients in animal manure also decrease the need for artificial fertilizers.

Even if a farm only produces livestock, it can practice regenerative agriculture through methods such as rotational grazing. In rotational grazing, a pasture is divided into sections called “paddocks.” The livestock is moved from paddock to paddock, spending a limited amount of time grazing in each. This gives the grass and other vegetation a chance to grow back. Then, when the plants grow back, they decrease soil erosion and increase the pasture’s resilience to drought.

Regenerative agriculture can also have economic benefits. Farmers can reduce their costs by decreasing how often they till their fields, water their crops, and buy artificial fertilizers. Additionally, farmers that stop using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as part of their regenerative practices can potentially be USDA organic certified, allowing them to sell their products at a higher price. However, regenerative agriculture can have costs. For example, ranchers who switch to rotational grazing may need to construct additional fencing and spend more time moving livestock. It can take time to see the benefits of regenerative agriculture, and the financial and ecological returns are not instantaneous. 

Regenerative agriculture has long been practiced by Indigenous communities. A prime example of this is the Iroquois tribe’s tradition of growing the Three Sisters together: corn, beans, and squash. The beans provide nitrogen for the soil, the corn is a trellis for the beans to grow on, and the squash leaves keep the ground shady, maintaining soil moisture. Combining these three plants also has spiritual and cultural significance to the Iroquois.

During the time when they were common across America, small farms would also commonly practice regenerative agriculture. Families would grow multiple crops, as well as keep different types of livestock.

In the last sixty years, technological innovations have allowed farms to become larger and more specialized, focusing on a single crop or handful of crops. Farms have become so large that according to the USGS report “Investigating the Environmental Effects of Agriculture Practices on Natural Resources,” just 2% of all farms in America produced half of all farm sales in 2002. The report goes on to explain that this intensification has caused a “reduction in the types and rotations of crops…and greater reliance on agrichemicals[.]”

A renewed interest in sustainability may be shifting the tide towards regenerative farming. Syngenta, one of the leading agrichemical businesses that produces everything from herbicides to the flowers you plant in your backyard, has stated that one of its goals is to “support and enable farmers across the world to adopt regenerative agricultural practices.” Unilever, the company that houses brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, has developed a set of regenerative agriculture principles to complement its goal of practicing sustainable agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture isn’t just for industries: you can embrace it in your own garden. Instead of planting tomatoes in the same section of your garden each year, rotate what you plant. Mix grass clippings and leaves with your soil, using them as sources of nutrients instead of synthetic fertilizers. Regenerative agriculture was key to farms and communities of the past, and it looks like it may be just as important to our future.

Taskeen Khan has a bachelor’s degree in integrative biology and a minor in sustainability, energy, and the environment from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is passionate about science education and communication, as well as research.