Regenerative vs. Industrial Agriculture – A Solution to Climate Change?

Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau and Peter Mann report on sustainable agriculture’s potential to solve climate change.

by Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau and Peter Mann, WhyHunger

As President-Elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, the issue of agriculture’s contribution to climate change becomes increasingly urgent. This article describes the threats from industrial agriculture, innovative research from the Rodale Institute on regenerative agriculture, and the impact of global movements around food sovereignty. This article highlights only one aspect of the massive impact of climate change on agriculture illustrated in the slides below.


Industrial agriculture is the dominant way the world now produces food. Industrial agriculture creates large, centralized farms producing vast quantities of food to be shipped around the world. The negative tradeoffs to industrial agriculture, however, are the loss of small farmers and peasants throughout the world, the destruction of biodiversity, diminishing access to fresh food, and damage to the environment. Industrial agriculture is also a significant cause of climate change due to its use of fossil fuel-based inputs such as fertilizer and pesticide, its depletion of the soil and contribution to erosion and desertification. Agriculture’s harmful environmental effects and its destruction of communities can be stopped and even reversed once farmers stop growing food industrially.

Figure 1: Impacts of Climate Change on Agriculture1

Regenerative Agriculture and agroecology are ways of farming that reject chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the monocropping of genetically modified crops. Instead they use environmentally beneficial farming practices that include organic agriculture, the use of organic fertilizers such as compost, and the planting of a variety of crops that utilize natural beneficial relationships between themselves to defend against pests. Its benefits go beyond these measures, however, as a recent study by the Rodale Institute showed which found that Regenerative Agriculture could greatly reduce carbon in the air and drastically modify climate change. Agriculture could go from being one of the worst causes of climate change to one of its greatest cures.

The current approach that industrial agriculture has promoted to solve the climate change crisis is to shift the basis of our energy system to agrofuels, agricultural crops converted to be used as fuel, such as corn and sugarcane ethanol, jatropha, and others. However, agrofuels will not significantly reduce emissions, and they do not address the basic problem of industrial agriculture itself contributing to climate change and itself emitting carbon (“Fueling Disaster,” a publication of the Community Food Security Coalition in partnership with WhyHunger, lays out a compelling argument why agrofuels are not a solution to climate change). Unfortunately, agrofuels occupy an important role in the energy plans of President-elect Obama and his Agriculture Secretary nominee, Tom Vilsack. It is to be hoped that Obama’s “Energy Czar” Carol Browner, former head of the EPA under President Clinton, will coordinate a response to climate change and energy that involves sustainable solutions such as Regenerative Agriculture.

Figure 2: Impacts of Climate Change on Agriculture2

However, industrial agriculture has extensive money, power and influence to promote its policies. Beyond the agribusiness lobby, however, the transition to regenerative methods would face the huge logistical problems of teaching farmers new ways to farm and assuring them they will be able to make money farming a different way. Nevertheless, broad movements around the world such as the peasant-led Via Campesina, agroecological initiatives in Venezuela and other countries, and anti-hunger and local food movements in the USA are already organizing forms of sustainable agriculture that address the needs of farmers, citizens, communities, economies, and the earth. It is only through such broad social movements that we can create the political will and the resources for such a shift in the way we grow food.

Figure 3: Impacts of Agriculture on Climate Change3

The Promise of Regenerative Agriculture

The Rodale Institute is a think tank and research firm for organic and sustainable agriculture and has recently tested how organic agriculture can help solve climate change. According to Rodale’s study, “Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming,” fields of fruits and vegetables that were grown organically and sustainably sequestered much more carbon from the air than conventionally grown produce, and if regenerative agriculture were practiced on all 3.5 billion tillable acres of land in the world, could sequester 40 percent of total CO2 emissions. What is more, they argue that regenerative agriculture would not experience a decrease in yields or farmer profits! Regenerative Organic Agriculture lets nature fix climate change itself.

Figure 4: Impacts of Industrial Agriculture on Climate Change4

Conventional agriculture relies on nitrogen-based fertilizers and industrial herbicides and pesticides. Besides being made through the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, these chemicals do not build up the soil and actually cause agriculture to expel CO2 into the air. Using regenerative practices such as natural pest control methods and compost instead of fertilizer, carbon can be built up in the soil, which can help solve problems of erosion and desertification, as well as trapping up to 2,000 lbs of carbon per acre a year! If that were practiced on all the farmland in the U.S., we would have cut out a quarter of all CO2 emissions! So, not only does regenerative agriculture sequester carbon, it also reduces the very production of carbon.

Rodale estimates that it is not insurmountable to transition to regenerative agriculture from conventional agriculture since no completely new technology is needed. However, the issue of transmitting this information to farmers could be quite difficult. Many current farmers are committed to their conventional ways and may require some in-depth training in these new methods. A bigger problem, though, could be the reorganization of farmlands since regenerative agriculture can not be practiced on the large scale of conventional agriculture. This means that many more farms and farmers are needed to produce food in the United States. And finally, farms will have to move closer to highly populated areas to feed urban populations while reducing the long-range transportation that contributes to climate change. This requires political will if it is to happen.


Figure 5: Recommendations from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD)5


Besides advocating for the issue, the Rodale Institute study also proposes some solutions for the realization of Regenerative Agriculture through some key policy initiatives. Rodale has proposed changing agricultural commodity subsidies in the 2012 Farm Bill with sequestration subsidies to actually monetize the ecological cost of fossil fuel. This would support organic agriculture, lower carbon levels in the air, and orient prices to their true ecological cost. In general, all agricultural policy will have to stop treating agriculture as a commodity and treat it as an ecological tool.

While it will certainly be difficult to overcome the political hurdles to make Regenerative and Organic Agriculture supported through federal and state policy, it will be equally hard to help farmers transition to new ways of growing food. The Rodale Institute offers Organic Transition Courses that are effective for individual groups, but a large scale and coordinated transition would require massive resources to make it effective. Fred Kirschenmann, a policy and field expert on organic and biodynamic farming, has proposed some interesting ideas on how to make this transition, such as reaching out to younger farmers and converting commodity subsidy payments to funds to help individual farmers develop transitioning plans. Government funding and the coordination of federal agencies such as transportation, agriculture, energy, and labor, would be necessary.

In order to secure government involvement, however, we need to exert concerted pressure on the public and on government institutions. This involves connecting the idea of agriculture as a solution to climate change to powerful social movements around food and land. La Via Campesina is an international organization of peasants and farmers throughout the world, representing the demands for land and the rights to food and food sovereignty. Farmer to farmer training programs could be expanded. Social movements around food, land, water, seeds, credit, and livelihoods could also play a catalytic role. Mobilizing activists and leaders with these ideas is the energy we need to make Regenerative Agriculture an essential element in solving climate change.


Figure 6: Policy Needs in Food Systems6

Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau is Outreach and Partnerships Coordinator for the Global Movements Program, and Peter Mann is the Director Emeritus of the Global Movements Program. 


Molly Anderson/NASA slide show on climate change. Food systems and climate change.

Romero, Frances. “Energy Czar: Carol Browner.” Time. Monday, Dec. 15, 2008

Walsh, Bryan. “How to Win the War on Global Warming.” Time. Monday, Apr. 28, 2008.

Grunwald, Michael. “The Clean Energy Scam.” Time. Thursday, Mar. 27, 2008

1 Anderson, Molly. Food systems and climate change. Plenary panel, Community Food Security Coalition Conference, Cherry Hill, NJ. 8 October 2008.

2 Anderson, Molly. Food systems and climate change

3 Anderson, Molly. Food systems and climate change

4 Anderson, Molly. Food systems and climate change

5 Anderson, Molly. Food systems and climate change

6 Anderson, Molly. Food systems and climate change