Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently came out in support of "regenerative" farming as a solution to climate change. There is little evidence to justify her advocacy.
Politicians have a complicated relationship with science. When they think the evidence comports with their political goals, they love scientists and the work that they do. However, when their ideology clashes with the data, our representatives twist themselves in knots to avoid conforming their views to the facts. Case in point, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted the following comments about regenerative agriculture on July 20:
Many small farms are now using ‘regenerative’ farming techniques that indigenous people have been using for centuries - and in doing so, they may have found the key to protecting our entire global food supply from climate change. pic.twitter.com/migH5zFsD3
— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@RepAOC) July 20, 2022
The tweet included a clip of a hearing during which handpicked experts answered softball questions, giving Ocasio-Cortez's opinion a gloss of scientific legitimacy. That plays well in the media and generates lots of likes and retweets, but it doesn't make anything she said true.
The reality is that regenerative agriculture, as commonly defined today, can't “protect” the global food supply from climate change; it can't even feed a small country. To achieve the kinds of sustainability gains Ocasio-Cortez described, we need technology-driven farming that utilizes every available tool.
What is regenerative farming?
It's actually difficult to pin down a clear definition. Most growers and agricultural scientists are interested in sustainable, efficient farming practices that allow us to feed more people while preserving our natural resources. But that's not what advocates of regenerative farming typically mean when they use the term; their definition is often couched in ideological assumptions. Consider this summary from The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):
As a philosophy and approach to land management, regenerative agriculture asks us to think about how all aspects of agriculture are connected through a web—a network of entities who grow, enhance, exchange, distribute, and consume goods and services … There’s no strict rule book, but the holistic principles behind ... regenerative agriculture are meant to restore soil and ecosystem health, address inequity, and leave our land, waters, and climate in better shape for future generations.
Those are all admirable goals, but using flowery language like “holistic principles” doesn't move us any closer to achieving them. This challenge also presents itself when we try to define “agroecology,” another buzzword used to describe non-conventional growing. What really seems to drive advocates of these alternative production systems is a desire to go back in time, as Breakthrough Institute scholars Ted Nordhaus and Saloni Shah recently explained:
Virtually the entirety of organic agriculture production serves two populations at opposite ends of the global income distribution. At one end are the 700 million or so people globally who still live in extreme poverty. Sustainable agriculture proponents fancifully call the agriculture this population practices “agroecology.”
But it is mostly just old–fashioned subsistence farming, where the world’s poorest eke out their survival from the soil … They forego synthetic fertilizers and most other modern agricultural technologies not by choice but because they can’t afford them …
Lest anyone think this is a caricature, NRDC went on to explain that “Regenerative farmers and ranchers make every effort to reduce their reliance on synthetic inputs, such as herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers.” The problem with using this sort of technophobia as a guiding principle is that it excludes workable solutions to the problems everybody wants to mitigate.
Genetically engineered (GE) crops that require less water or naturally fight off pests are two very practical, innovative tools that “regenerative” advocates almost universally disdain. There is no justification for this bias since the genetics of a plant have little to do with how you grow it. A few agroecology advocates have made the same observation; they see no problem in growing GE crops according to agroecological principles.
The same goes for low-toxic pesticides. Widespread use of the weed killer glyphosate, the boogeyman in modern environmentalism, allowed many farmers to reduce or eliminate tillage as a form of weed control, significantly cutting their CO2 emissions. Herbicide-tolerant seeds introduced in the 1990s accelerated the adoption of no- and low-till agriculture.
In 2018 alone, farmers who cultivated these GE crops reduced their carbon emissions by 23 billion kilotons, the equivalent of pulling 15.3 million cars off the road. NRDC acknowledged the value of no-till farming, calling it "a technique that leaves the soil intact when planting rather than disturbing the soil through plowing." But the group has also lambasted glyphosate as "a toxic weed killer."
This isn't to say that agrochemicals have no negative impact on the environment, because they certainly do. But that externality has to be balanced against the enormous production increases pesticides and fertilizers enable, which reduce the amount of land we dedicate to farming while feeding more people.
In any case, the solution isn't to ban technologies that have proven their efficacy in spades. We instead have to devise new solutions that build upon earlier innovations. The end result is an increasingly sustainable food system.This is the key concept Ocasio-Cortez and other ideologues miss when they wax poetic about “regenerative farming techniques.” Let's give Nordhaus and Saloni the last word:
… [t]here is no shortage of problems associated with chemical-intensive and large-scale agriculture. But the solutions to these problems—be they innovations that allow farmers to deliver fertilizer more precisely to plants when they need it, bioengineered microbial soil treatments that fix nitrogen in the soil and reduce the need for both fertilizer and soil disruption, or genetically modified crops that require fewer pesticides and herbicides—will be technological, giving farmers new tools instead of removing old ones that have been proven critical to their livelihoods.