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Ever since there has been an environmental movement, there have been tensions between the largely vegetarian and vegan sectors of the movement and the agricultural industry – especially animal agriculture, and industrial animal agriculture in particular. The obvious split between these factions is that one opposes animal slaughter and suffering, and the other (supposedly) necessitates it. But some forward-thinking farmers are realizing that preserving the land and its natural resources is in the best interests of their business, not to mention the best interests of humanity as a whole. There is one area of interest that could serve to bridge this gap between pro and anti-meat environmentalists: regenerative agriculture.
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No tillage, no synthetic pesticides, just vibration
Like “ethically sourced,” “natural,” and other words surrounding the future of food, there’s no official definition of what “regenerative agriculture” actually means. And although it is used by different people and groups to mean a plethora of different things, there are key points who come up most often.
The most common definition and argument for regenerative agriculture is improving soil health. Agricultural practices such as plowing (disturbing the top 6 to 10 inches of floor before planting), the use of synthetic pesticides and even the use of fertilizers can effectively strip the soil of its nutrients and destroy its delicate microbial composition, ruining the fertility of the land for possible future crops. RA not only seeks to avoid causing this damage, but also to leave the ground in better condition than it was found.
Other common goals of regenerative agriculture include increasing biodiversity and, interestingly, carbon sequestration: a process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored elsewhere, often deep within the earth. Its main objective is to mitigate climate change – an effort that can not wait.
So while animal agriculture has been largely the villain of the environmental movement, AR practices could be its redemption. White Oak Pastures and its fourth-generation owner, Will Harris, for example, use ethical practices that could alter the role of livestock in the climate crisis. In 1995, nearly two decades after taking office, Harris changed virtually everything about the operation of the farm: he ended common industrial practices such as the use of synthetic pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and of synthetic herbicides, and it has displaced the diet of livestock. from cheap, high-carb groceries like corn and soy. Harris basically went back about 100 years by diversifying his crops and livestock—in addition to cows, his farm now raises pigs, lambs, and chickens—and reintroducing traditional practices that focus on the health of the land, animals and people in his community and beyond.
Now, decades later, White Oak Pastures are estimated to be offsetting their beef production expenses greenhouse gas emissions 66% compared to beef produced on factory farms. (It should be noted that some food system advocates are skeptical of these results, arguing that the study used questionable models and that they are an outlier of other studies who find that grass-fed beef generates After greenhouse gas emissions); they also point out that 2.5 times more land was needed, a major concern given that human land use is the main cause of biodiversity loss.) As a beef producer, of course, l animal slaughter is still part of the business. But it’s a far cry from the gruesome images of battery cages, untreated infections and needless violence that activists have uncovered on factory farms over the years. For these efforts, White Oak has obtained animal welfare certifications, including Global Animal Partnership and Certified Cruelty Free.
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But these days, even the industrial titans who have mostly been on the wrong side of animal rights and environmental movements are taking a page from Harris’s book. Last year, Cargill, McDonald’s, and Target, along with The Nature Conservancy, signed on to a five-year project to support AR practices on Nebraska Farms. The program aims to provide farmers with the financial and educational resources they need to implement regenerative and more humane techniques – an especially useful approach, as these techniques can be prohibitively expensive for small farms already struggling to survive among the industry giants.
Greener pastures and cleaner air
But regenerative agriculture is not exclusive to animal husbandry. There are a number of vegan brands that source exclusively from regenerative farms. Milkadamia, a plant-based brand known for its non-dairy dairy products made from macadamia nuts, has publicly committed to regenerative agriculture. Not only does he use regenerative practices on his own property, such as using compost as fertilizer and planting cover crops (crops planted to protect the soil rather than to be harvested), but it seeks similar commitments from the farms it partners with. Likewise, White Leaf Provisions uses only organic, non-GMO crops, regenerating and biodynamic to manufacture its flagship product, baby food. These practices aim to raise not just healthy babies, but a healthy planet to live on.
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You’re probably not going to change the mind of anyone who strongly believes that it’s inherently unethical to slaughter animals – a reasonable conclusion – but neither are you likely to influence the rest of the world to abandon the meat overnight. Regenerative agriculture is a solution that can be (and in many places is being) implemented right now, and it serves the interests of activists, environmentalists (at least on some parameters), farmers , vegans and the communities they interact with. It doesn’t require society to come to a philosophical consensus — an impossible goal — but it could help alleviate the climate emergency, an issue that affects all of us.