Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Can We Afford Regenerative Agriculture? (The Benefits and the Costs)

by Sheryl Karas, CRA staff

farm with sheep and sheep herder

In 2013 editor Paul Hawken and an international team of respected scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs, and advocates shared the results of a long-term investigation into solutions for addressing climate change in a book called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. The idea was to find the top 100 doable solutions already available at the time the book was written. To be included each solution needed to be economically viable and have had enough of a track record to determine whether it could remove 50 million tons of greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere over 30 years with modeling on a global scale. The results were inspiring and surprising even to the team, so much so that Hawken says they scaled back their original estimates to more conservative figures just to err on the side of caution. One of the bigger surprises was that changing how we approach food (what we eat, how it is grown, and how much we waste) came in as a greater solution than how we approach energy. Drawdown was also probably one of the most influential books (and now a website(opens in new window)) that brought the term “regenerative agriculture” onto the public stage. 

In the book, regenerative agriculture is listed as Solution #11 and several other solutions now often included in or practiced along with regenerative agriculture are in the top 30:  silvopasture(opens in new window) (#9), conservation agriculture(opens in new window) (#17), managed grazing(opens in new window) (#19), farmland restoration(opens in new window) (#23), and multistrata agroforestry(opens in new window) (#28). Future solutions (listed as “coming attractions”) such as microbial farming(opens in new window) (adding to the soil biology), pasture cropping(opens in new window), and intensive silvopasture(opens in new window) are increasingly being practiced as well.

Basically put, regenerative practices are those that restore degraded land to its full fertility and functioning. A wide variety of practices can be employed: 

  • Avoiding tillage
  • Keeping the soil covered using cover crops, compost, or green manure
  • Multiple crop rotations
  • Reduced or no use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides
  • Integrating animals (managed grazing)
  • Increasing biodiversity in terms of cover crops, cash crops, trees and animals
  • Enhancing and deliberately nurturing the soil microbiology

These practices lead to increased soil fertility, better nutrition for the plants (and possibly for us), better water infiltration and retention, less soil erosion, and farms that are much more resilient in the face of weather extremes. All of this comes about as a result of increased carbon-rich organic matter being left in the soil, most of which would ordinarily be lost to tillage and by the soil being left bare between plantings. What this means for global warming is incredibly significant. Plants and trees already draw down and convert greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. When the soil is protected and the soil microbiology is supported, the land naturally acts as a carbon sink. Instead of releasing it back into the atmosphere, it is stored safely underground where it is used by the plants and soil biology. 

The Potential vs the Costs

Hawken and his team estimated in 2013 that regenerative agriculture, as they defined it back then, could reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 23.15 gigatons by 2050 if adopted at their most conservative estimates. If it was aggressively adopted, they estimated that number could be as high as 32.2 gigatons. Silvopasture (combining lightly managed grazing with tree crops) could conservatively reduce CO2 by 31.19 gigatons. Managed grazing could add 16.45 gigatons to that number. But they did not run figures on combined agricultural techniques.

For example, farmers like Gabe Brown(opens in new window), combine regenerative practices like no-till, multi-species cover crops, companion crops, and crop rotation with managed grazing techniques. Farmers in Western Massachusetts and New Hampshire are adding fruit and nut trees to the hilly portions of their farms not suitable for the row crops they do elsewhere. They then integrate livestock under the trees(opens in new window) with managed grazing techniques. And farmers around the world are building fungal-dominant compost makers(opens in new window) to see if they can improve carbon sequestration and soil fertility on their farms. If they can replicate the results researcher Dr. David Johnson(opens in new window) has been able to achieve in New Mexico, it might be possible to achieve soil carbon sequestration 20-50 times what no-till and ordinary cover crops typically do alone. He saw impressive increases in crop yields as well. 

Of course, it would cost money to convert conventional farms to these approaches. One of the major sticking points in adopting regenerative practices is the combination of risk aversion and initial costs. On the other hand, for investors, farmers and others able to assist in the process either through their commitment to the planet or simply to their bottom line, the potential for return on that investment over time is enormous.

In an article(opens in new window) published March 23, 2018 on the website GreenBiz, Sasja Beslik, the head of sustainable finance at Nordea Bank AB, suggested that had Drawdown included the financial sector and the ability to steer pensions and savings towards sustainable solutions, that might be the most effective solution to climate change of all. Of course, he readily admitted that the calculations needed to measure the impact of this solution are not easy to come by. However, Hawken and his team were meticulous in including the cost and likely returns, at least in terms of savings, for industries that adopted the solutions that were included. In the world of business, lower input costs for similar or better output equals higher profits. The numbers they came up with in this regard were impressive. 

For an investment of $57 billion spread out over all the farms required to hit the projected goals by 2050, there would be an estimated return of $1.9 trillion through input savings in that same period of time. That was the figure estimated by Drawdown’s 2013 definition of regenerative agriculture alone. An investment in silvopasture alone was estimated at $41.59 billion; the return was at $699.37 billion. The cost of adopting managed grazing practices was estimated at $50.48 billion, the return at $735.27 billion. 

Keep in mind these were the conservative estimates, labelled “the Plausible Scenario” in Drawdown. If multiple approaches are aggressively adopted simultaneously, the impact could not only avert unmitigated catastrophe, it could lead to increased quality of life, including higher profits, for farmers and for the world.