Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Event Debrief: Cultivating a Greener Future with Regenerative Agriculture Policies

| Feb. 26, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The current agricultural system is responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, increasing erosion and reduced water retention, reduced nutrient content, and other environmental impacts.
  • Food production, human health, and the environment are all intrinsically linked to soil health.
  • Regenerative agriculture practices, which focus on preserving soil health, are linked to several socioeconomic, environmental, health, and welfare benefits but face many barriers to adoption.
  • These barriers can be addressed by targeted and effective policies that center farmers’ wellbeing and align farmer profit with regenerative agriculture priorities.

As a doctor who studies gastrointestinal pathology, Dr. Ashlie Burkart has long recognized the important connection between food systems and health. Food systems are also increasingly recognized as having a direct impact on the health of the planet. Estimates of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions originating from agriculture and associated land use range from one-quarter to one-third of total global emissions. As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, more and more people are recognizing that their diet comes with a carbon cost.

Regenerative agriculture (RA) is a growing movement centered around restoring soil through different, more sustainable farming techniques. It has shown potential for generating socioeconomic, environmental, health, and worker and animal welfare benefits by partially counteracting the climate, water, and biodiversity issues caused by modern industrial farming practices. 

“Regenerative agriculture is not a fringe movement,” said Dr. Burkart told a Harvard Kennedy School audience at an Energy Policy Seminar on February 5, 2024. “It’s becoming more and more mainstream.” 63 percent of leading agrifood companies (which account for roughly one-third of the entire sector) mention RA initiatives in their company disclosures. To many, RA represents either a pathway to reduce Scope 3 emissions and meet net-zero commitments or a significant financial opportunity, or both. 

Regenerative agriculture was recently in the spotlight at COP28 in the UAE, where parties agreed on a goal of transitioning 160 million hectares of farmland to regenerative practices by 2030 and engaging 3.6 million farmers worldwide. $2 billion has already been committed to the initiative, with an additional $2.2 billion in anticipated future investment. U.S. funding for agricultural conservation is also on the rise, with the government committing $20 billion towards U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs under the Inflation Reduction Act over the next five years, with an additional $4 billion for drought mitigation in the American West. This constitutes the largest investment aimed at helping farmers adopt climate-resilient land management practices since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. 

Regenerative agricultural practices represent a paradigm shift from conventional farming techniques, which focus on maximizing farm productivity through the use of synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals. However, productivity gains from the current agricultural system have slowed. Crop production, after more than doubling with the use of fertilizer, has since plateaued despite an 800-fold increase in the use of synthetic fertilizers. This singular focus on productivity has contributed to environmental change and the reduced resiliency of our food system, said Dr. Burkart.

Examples of regenerative agricultural practices include minimizing soil disturbance by reducing tilling and the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, increasing on-farm biodiversity, utilizing soil cover crops, and maximizing continuous living root plants. These practices have shown significant potential benefits (Figure 1), such as increased carbon sequestration, enhanced soil water retention, increased biodiversity, more nutrient-rich food, and improved wellbeing of workers and animals, among others.

benefits of regenerative agriculture

Figure 1: Potential Socioeconomic, Environmental, Health, and Human and Animal Welfare Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture. Image credit: Ashlie L Burkart, MD.

For livestock, a major source of methane emissions, integrative field management, intensive rotational grazing ("mob grazing"), and regional variability all represent strategies for better livestock management practices to build soil and lead to lower-carbon meat. However, as with regenerative growing practices, these strategies all require more land, labor, and data to be effective, hinting at the challenges facing greater adoption of RA (Figure 2). These are significant, and include: switching costs and delayed benefits for farmers, significant behavioral changes required, supply chain and market access issues, and existing subsidies for conventional methods.

challenges to adopting regenerative agriculture

Figure 2: Challenges to Adopting Regenerative Agriculture. Image credit: Ashlie L Burkart, MD.

However, Dr. Burkart urged the students and fellows in the audience to consider policies that could help address these barriers to adoption—the focus of her research at the Belfer Center. These include aligning federal subsidies with RA goals; creating market demand for RA products through labeling, certification, and consumer education campaigns; investing in research on soil health, soil microbiome, nutrient density, and soil contaminants; improving carbon and environmental finance markets to incentivize farmers to adopt RA practices; and providing financial support to farmers while they transition from conventional to regenerative farming practices.

While the challenges may seem daunting, an encouraging survey by the agribusiness software company Bushel that 77% of farmers said they would be willing to change the way they farm if it would have a positive impact on the environment and 96% would change if they believed they would become more profitable. As a result, Dr. Burkart stressed, the most effective incentive for change is aligning environmental and other benefits of RA with the profit motive of farmers, who must be able to realize socioeconomic benefits from the transition. If this can be done, then RA could begin to yield significant benefits for the health of the soil and, as a result, the health of the planet and all of us who inhabit it. 

Watch a recording of Burkart's talk below.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Floyd, Matt.“Event Debrief: Cultivating a Greener Future with Regenerative Agriculture Policies.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 26, 2024.

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