Reimagining the Role of Farmed Animals in Regenerative Agriculture

Editor’s Note

Stray Dog Institute values a range of food system interventions that reduce—and ideally eliminate—the human exploitation of animals. Because the bulk of animal exploitation in the US food system occurs through industrial animal farming, disrupting industrial agriculture is at the heart of many of the animal protection interventions we support. At the same time, we recognize that there is more than one positive way to transform the food system, and not all beneficial disruptions will be farmed-animal-free. With this post, our goal is to increase the strength of the regenerative agriculture movement by building alignment among diverse advocates of food system transformation, encouraging productive innovation, and constructively questioning assumptions. Despite differences in values and approach, we act in solidarity with food system disruptors who seek a replacement food system paradigm free from industrial animal farming.

THE POTENTIAL OF REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

The global food system currently faces many crises that endanger the common good of animals, people, and the environment. Decades of dominant industrial agriculture, with its emphasis on producing intensively farmed animals and industrial commodity crops—many as feed for farmed animals—have contributed to crises of biodiversity loss, deforestation, topsoil loss, food access disparities, rising global hunger, increasing rates of diet-related chronic disease, rural economic decline, rising pandemic risk, and immense farmed animal suffering. Greenhouse gas emissions from food systems represent more than one-third of the global anthropogenic emissions driving climate change.[1]

More equitable, compassionate, and sustainable ways of producing food are urgently needed. Regenerative agriculture is one leading proposed solution that aims to increase food production while improving environmental health, improving the wellbeing of farm communities, and sequestering carbon to fight climate change. This potential as a multiple win-win has caused interest in regenerative agriculture to surge among farmers, researchers, and policymakers, although framings of the regenerative approach vary.[2] Most practitioners advance a regenerative vision closely tied to farmed animal production and meat consumption, believing that integrating grazing animals into crop farming is a requirement for ecological land management. Others advance a farmed-animal-free view of regenerative agriculture that delivers benefits for communities and ecosystems without centering commercial animal farming or meat consumption.

By rejecting industrial agricultural methods, regenerative agriculture has the potential to deliver needed progress toward the increased wellbeing of animals, people, and the environment. However, regenerative agriculture’s approach to animal farming will shape its future potential. Exploring models of regenerative agriculture that do not center animal farming for human consumption can help enlarge the positive impact of regenerative methods while reducing animal suffering and further enhancing planetary and human health.

The sections below will summarize various elements and goals of regenerative agriculture, describe core practices in the regenerative agriculture toolkit, and explore the possibility of decentering farmed animals while still delivering regenerative benefits.

CORE PRINCIPLES OF REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that seeks to simultaneously produce nutritious food, mitigate climate change, improve soil health, optimize resource management and nutrient cycling, improve water quality and retention, and uplift farming communities.[3] Through these goals, regenerative agriculture shares certain elements of various other alternative farming approaches, including organic agriculture, agroecology, and permaculture.

Although definitions of regenerative agriculture vary among practitioners, academics, advocates, and policymakers, nearly all conceptions of regenerative agriculture reject the underlying land management approach of extractive industrial agriculture. Rather than viewing agroecosystems as simplified food factories representing a linear flow of resources to be harvested and disposed of, regenerative agriculture sees agroecosystems as complex biological systems of infinite interconnectivity in which resources continuously cycle.[4]

In the absence of a universally accepted rulebook for regenerative agriculture, many proponents articulate some version of the following principles.

1. MINIMIZE PHYSICAL, CHEMICAL, AND BIOLOGICAL DISTURBANCE OF THE SOIL

Physical disturbance of soil through tilling and plowing is a common weed control strategy in industrial monoculture production. Tilling negatively impacts soil health by leaving bare soil exposed to the elements and interrupting root activity that can help to sequester carbon. Regenerative agriculture advocates no-till farming or minimum tillage, controlling weeds and other pests through proactive crop design. When fields are not frequently disrupted by plowing, soil erosion slows, and water retention increases.

Chemical disturbances occur when chemical fertilizers and pesticides are overused and disrupt the normal function of the soil ecosystem. Biological disturbances include overgrazing, which impacts plant health and normal growth, causes soil erosion, and leads to soil compaction.[5] Regenerative agriculture advocates for reducing chemical inputs and rotating pastures to prevent overgrazing.

2. KEEP SOIL COVERED WITH VEGETATION OR CROP RESIDUES

Uncovered soil is prone to nutrient loss and damage to the soil biome. Leaving post-harvest crop residues such as stalks and roots in fields after harvesting provides natural surface litter to protect soil from the elements. Keeping perennial living plants (cover crops) growing on soil at all times is another method. Cover crops provide multiple benefits, including minimizing erosion from wind and water, reducing moisture evaporation, maintaining moderate soil temperatures, suppressing weeds, supporting a healthy balance of soil microbes, increasing root activity in soils, and preventing soil compaction. The primary purpose of many cover crops is to protect and maintain healthy soil, but some cover crops, such as winter peas, buckwheat, and alfalfa, can also be grown as cash crops for harvest.

3. INCREASE CROP DIVERSITY

Industrial agriculture depends heavily on annual monocropping, which has vastly reduced plant, microorganism, and pollinator diversity on agricultural lands. In regenerative farming, diverse crop rotation is a strategy to restore and protect agrobiodiversity[6] by planting a variety of crops seasonally rather than planting and harvesting one crop annually. Crop rotation can improve water retention and nutrient cycles while reducing plant diseases and pest infestations.

4. KEEP LIVING ROOTS IN THE SOIL AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

Soil ecosystems contain both biomass (which includes living bacteria, fungi, insects, arachnids, and nematodes) and mineral components from weathered rock. Living plants create food and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, maintain the proper salinity of the soil, and improve nutrient and water infiltration. Plant roots in soil feed and support soil microbes called mycorrhizal fungi that are integral to the production of new soil.[7] In healthy soils, these fungi can convert atmospheric carbon from plant leaves into stored carbon in soils. In addition to sequestering carbon,[8] increasing stored soil carbon also increases agricultural soil’s ability to hold water,[9] which aids both plant growth and flood mitigation.[10] Leaving soils barren of rooted plants interrupts the activity of mycorrhizal fungi, increasing erosion and shutting down the soil’s ability to sequester carbon.

5. INTEGRATE ANIMALS INTO CROP FARMING

Observing that wild grazing animals have long existed synergistically within grassland ecosystems and pre-industrial crop farming,[11] proponents of regenerative agriculture believe that domesticated herbivore species can play an important role in regenerating soil health. Popular integration strategies include using herds of herbivores to control weeds, managing pasture with short intervals of timed grazing and long recovery periods to promote soil health and root development, and allowing animals to graze on crop residues.

Timed grazing’s observed benefits for the land include increasing soil nutrients from animal waste and improving soil structure and function through the movements of animals. Benefits for animals include allowing cattle to receive their nutrition from grazing and express some natural behaviors limited by industrial animal confinement. Benefits to farm managers include returning nutrients to soils via manure, increasing crop productivity, and obviating the need to house and feed confined animals or dispose of concentrated animal waste.

IMPROVING ALIGNMENT AMONG FOOD SYSTEM ADVOCATES

Like many others interested in transforming the food system, regenerative agriculture proponents seek benefits such as the restoration of degraded ecosystems, increased carbon sequestration from agricultural lands, enhanced animal welfare, more abundant and nutritious food, economic wellbeing for farm communities, and cleaner air, land, and water.[12] Despite shared perspectives on the problems of industrial agriculture, many other food systems transformation advocates see room for improvement related to regenerative agriculture’s reliance on farmed animals.

Though regenerative agriculture rejects the intensive indoor animal confinement characteristic of conventional industrial farming, it typically presents its vision of an integrated agroecosystem with cattle farming and beef consumption as a central pillar, often without encouragement to reduce overall meat intake. To mimic the historic presence of wild herds of native ungulates, many regenerative farmers in the US today raise domesticated cattle and sheep that are not ideally adapted to North American grassland ecosystems.

Environmental advocates and climate scientists focused on the food system find methodological shortcomings and wishful thinking in some characterizations of regenerative agriculture’s climate benefits, which center cattle who generate significant GHG emissions through their digestion and manure. Food justice advocates observe that by centering the importance of grazing animals without an explicit focus on land justice and native fauna, regenerative ranching of domesticated species risks deepening colonialism by reinforcing the economic power of white ranchers. Farmed animal advocates observe that most regenerative practitioners consider animal farming and meat consumption unquestionable, while some supposedly regenerative farming models even advocate for intensive, indoor farming of beef cattle.[13] Both animal rights and human health advocates observe that animal-centric regenerative agriculture appeals to meat normalization by offering ready environmental justifications for animal-heavy diets linked to increased risk of diet-related chronic disease.[14]

For many food system transformation advocates, the barrier preventing closer alignment with regenerative agriculture is not the mere inclusion of animals in regenerative farming. Rather, it is the unquestioned assumptions that farming must include ruminant grazers to have ecological benefits, that these ruminants must be farmed in large numbers, that they must be domesticated species bred for meat and milk production, and that they must be—or, at least, might as well be—exploited as food for humans. A deeper problem is the untested counterpart assumption that biophysical rules preclude the possibility of viable plant-based forms of regenerative farming.

A growing community within the regenerative agriculture movement is dismissing the supposed centrality of farmed animals. Labeling their approach “veganic” (a portmanteau of vegan and organic) or “stockfree organic,” these farmers employ plant-based methods to achieve the core soil, harvest, ecosystem, and climate benefits of regenerative farming. However, vegan and farmed-animal-free models remain a niche element within the regenerative agriculture movement, perceived by the establishment as fundamentally wrongheaded. Because positive linkages have been demonstrated between grazing animals and soil health under certain circumstances,[15] farmed animal inclusion has become unquestionable, and many within the regenerative agriculture practitioner community have little appetite for exploring alternatives. Many regenerative agriculture practitioners also feel strong cultural attachment to cattle farming and animal product consumption and may derive a significant share of their farm income from cattle.

Unwillingness to question belief in immutable interspecies relationships or challenge economic and cultural attachment to animal farming limits regenerative agriculture’s potential, reducing enthusiasm for innovation and improvement. Polarization between regenerative and veganic practitioners muddles the message of sustainable agriculture and creates division among otherwise similar land management solutions.

PRACTICAL FEASIBILITY OF REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE WITHOUT ANIMAL FARMING

To what extent can the requirements of regenerative agriculture be met without centering animals? Evaluating the feasibility of regenerative agriculture without farmed animals and fish is complicated by the indistinct definition of regenerative farming. If regenerative agriculture is defined as a suite of practices that includes the integration of farmed animals, the two are inseparable. But if regenerative agriculture is defined based on outcomes such as the provision of food and enhancements to soil and environmental health, then the centrality of domesticated farmed animals is potentially assumed rather than required.

This is an active area of research where questions and experimentation are ongoing, and much can be learned from successful alternative examples. For those who are willing to think in terms of outcomes, many—if not all—of the benefits promised by animal-centric regenerative agriculture can be achieved through non-animal methods. For farms that struggle to achieve their vision of regenerative agriculture with only plant-based inputs, there is an opportunity to question assumptions about which species of animals can best contribute to desired outcomes, and whether they could participate in farming as wild visitors rather than as domesticated commodities destined for consumption.

SOIL HEALTH BENEFITS WITHOUT FARMED ANIMALS

Animal-based regenerative agriculture practitioners prioritize soil health as both an indicator of ecosystem restoration and an engine of carbon sequestration. Leading approaches to regenerative agriculture rely heavily on the use of farmed ruminant cattle as an indispensable part of the nutrient cycle of productive landscapes. Their grazing activity promotes the growth of plant roots that sequester carbon and return necessary nutrients to soils through manure.[16] This approach views the meat, milk, hide, manure, and other byproducts of grazing animals as core products of regeneratively farmed land, justifying their continued consumption and purposeful production, and, for many, making transition to regenerative approaches financially feasible. The many benefits of transition make even animal-based regenerative agriculture a worthwhile improvement over industrial farming. However, for farmers willing and able to consider taking the transition one step farther, there are many plant-based solutions for improving and regenerating degraded soils with or without the presence of grazing animals. In a no-till system working primarily or only with plants, cover crops such as alfalfa and clover can perform the all-important regenerative functions of protecting the soil surface against sun and erosion, sending down deep roots that stabilize topsoil, and sequestering carbon below ground. These green manure silage crops can coexist with row crops like corn and wheat.

The use of domestic cattle to mimic fast-moving herds of wild, native ungulates is also controversial from the perspective of ecologists and rangeland wildlife experts. Which species are ideal on a given farm depends largely on what the farm seeks to produce and what ecological outcomes are necessary for the local context. If specific animal food products are considered the core yield of the farm through meat normalization, the presence and commodification of animals may appear justified by measuring benefits to soils compared to industrial farming.

However, if a combination of crop yields, animal sanctuary, and ecosystem restoration are instead made central, there is no reason to stop at improving on the low ecological standard of industrial farming, nor to prioritize raising domesticated cattle, whose presence on US rangelands may have negative as well as positive effects on soil and ecosystems. Where animal sanctuary and ecosystem restoration alone cannot provide a living sufficient to enable transition, there is an opportunity for public financial incentives to better support regenerative approaches that decenter farmed animals.

IMPROVED SPECIES DIVERSITY WITHOUT FARMED ANIMALS

Green manure crops can be successfully sown with food or cash crops to increase plant diversity, contributing in turn to soil microbial diversity, pollinator diversity, and the many species interactions that form a healthy and regenerated agroecosystem. In combination with soil nitrogen fixation from legumes, leaving the residues of green manure crops on the soil after harvest returns nutrients necessary for crop production. Farms using only green manure crops for nutrient management have achieved the goals of regenerative agriculture on degraded lands. Long before their violent dispossession by white, European colonizers, Indigenous land stewards in North and Central America knew how to maximize the synergy of complementary crops such as corn, beans, and squash. Each farming context has a different use history, soils, local native species, weather, slope angle, and more; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Depending on crops and regions, green manures may either supply needed nutrients without the need for animal manures or may provide best results when combined with some quantity of animal manure (requiring precise monitoring to prevent excess nutrients from too much manure).[17] 

WELLBEING FOR FARMERS WITHOUT FARMED ANIMALS

In crop farming, many of the most recognizable alternatives to industrial agriculture (for example, organic agriculture) still rely on imported animal manure. Rejecting this, veganic regenerative agriculture practitioners have found success following animal-manure-free farming models focused on achieving the same soil and ecosystem benefits without reliance on grazing animals or their byproducts. Approaches such as plant-based regenerative permaculture, vegan permaculture, biocyclic vegan farming, and veganic farming successfully close nutrient loops on agricultural lands through the use of plant composts and mineral applications.[18] Such systems can be immensely productive and biodiverse, for the good of farmers and the communities they feed, while following many of the practices of regenerative farming minus the use of animal manure.

ANIMALS… BUT NOT FARMED ANIMALS?

In the search for locally appropriate alternatives to industrial crop and animal farming, ethical questions abound. A few academic researchers have explored the functionality and potential indispensability of any animals in farming, observing that there are many possible theoretical stops on the spectrum between farmed animal-centric agriculture and (hypothetical, and functionally impossible) fully animal-free agriculture.[19] Vegan permaculture practitioners have also noted that if regenerative farming looks to nature for guidance, then it is important to consider that there are no domesticated animals in nature. While the feasibility and scalability of farmed-animal-free agriculture may vary between farms, it is certainly possible to question and reimagine the relationship that humans might have with any animals that are present.

Regenerative agriculture approaches that still center animal grazing could be modified to include a no-kill attitude toward animal husbandry without sacrificing soil health and nutrient cycling benefits from animal manure. Rather than farming the animals themselves, this would entail including ruminants and other farmed animals on farmland without killing them (a non-lethal agriculture rather than a truly vegan agriculture) or without harvesting any of their bodily products commercially for food.[20] Existing examples of farmed animal husbandry guided by the principles of non-violence incorporate animals as ecosystem participants without commodifying them, instead caring for them through age and illness without shortening their lives when fertility, labor capacity, or yield of bodily byproducts decline.[21]

Ethically speaking, if farming can contribute to ecological health and regeneration of agroecosystems without exploiting sentient beings or their bodily products for food, the most benign course of action in a regenerative agriculture future would be to favor veganic farming wherever possible. Where domesticated animals are incorporated into agriculture, the next most benign choices would be to prioritize native, wild animals in place of domesticated cattle, and to minimize and decommodify domesticated animal reliance in animal-based regenerative farming.

CONCLUSION

Decades of business-as-usual must give way to a new agricultural normal in the US and worldwide if society is to effectively confront the combined threats of future global pandemics, climate variability, and rural economic downturn. Regenerative agriculture has a part to play in creating the necessary shift by replacing industrial agriculture’s failed paradigm of chemical-intensive, high-input, and monoculture commodity crop farming with a whole-ecosystem farming approach built on healthy soils, carbon sequestration, and farmer wellbeing.

However, regenerative agriculture’s potential is currently limited by its dependence on commercial animal agriculture, particularly cattle ranching. Openness to decentering domestic animal farming and exploring alternatives—either farmed-animal-free or without commodification of animals and their products—would help to widen its appeal and adaptability, improve the possibility of future global uptake, and optimize the benefits of regenerative agriculture for animals, people, and the environment. Increased openness to alternatives without animal farming would also improve alignment with a wide array of potential allies in food system transformation, especially the farmed animal protection movement. Willingness to question assumptions and innovate will help both advocates and practitioners of regenerative agriculture establish a more just and sustainable movement capable of replacing the dominant industrial food system for the benefit of the common good.


[1] M. Crippa et al., “Food Systems Are Responsible for a Third of Global Anthropogenic GHG Emissions,” Nature Food 2, no. 3 (March 2021): 198–209, https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00225-9.

[2] Peter Newton et al., “What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes,” Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems (October 2020), https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723.

[3] L. Schreefel et al., “Regenerative Agriculture—The Soil Is the Base,” Global Food Security 26 (September 2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2020.100404.

[4] Christopher J. Rhodes, “The Imperative for Regenerative Agriculture,” Science Progress 100, no. 1 (March 1, 2017): 80–129, https://doi.org/10.3184/003685017X14876775256165.

[5] A. Abril and E. H. Bucher, “The Effects of Overgrazing on Soil Microbial Community and Fertility in the Chaco Dry Savannas of Argentina,” Applied Soil Ecology 12, no. 2 (May 1999): 156–167, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0929-1393(98)00162-0.

[6] Cami Moss et al., “The Effects of Crop Diversity and Crop Type on Biological Diversity in Agricultural Landscapes: A Systematic Review Protocol,” Wellcome Open Research 4 (July 27, 2020): 101, https://doi.org/10.12688/wellcomeopenres.15343.2.

[7] Courtney White, “Why Regenerative Agriculture?,” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 79, no. 3 (2020): 799–812, https://doi.org/10.1111/ajes.12334.

[8] A. H. Fitter et al., “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Soil,” Functional Ecology 19, no. 3 (June 2005): 369–377, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0269-8463.2005.00969.x.

[9] W. J. Rawls et al., “Effect of Soil Organic Carbon on Soil Water Retention,” Geoderma, Quantifying agricultural management effects on soil properties and processes, 116, no. 1 (September 1, 2003): 61–76, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0016-7061(03)00094-6.

[10] Courtney White, “Why Regenerative Agriculture?,” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 79, no. 3 (2020): 799–812, https://doi.org/10.1111/ajes.12334.

[11] Douglas A. Frank, Samuel J. McNaughton, and Benjamin F. Tracy, “The Ecology of the Earth’s Grazing Ecosystems,” BioScience 48, no. 7 (1998): 513–21, https://doi.org/10.2307/1313313.

[12] Claire E. LaCanne and Jonathan G. Lundgren, “Regenerative Agriculture: Merging Farming and Natural Resource Conservation Profitably,” PeerJ 6 (February 26, 2018): e4428, https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4428.

[13] Lisa A. Schulte et al., “Meeting Global Challenges with Regenerative Agriculture Producing Food and Energy,” Nature Sustainability 5, no. 5 (May 2022): 384–88, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00827-y.

[14] Christopher J. Bryant, “Plant-Based Animal Product Alternatives Are Healthier and More Environmentally Sustainable than Animal Products,” Future Foods 6 (December 1, 2022): 100174, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fufo.2022.100174.

[15] Jason E. Rowntree et al., “Ecosystem Impacts and Productive Capacity of a Multi-Species Pastured Livestock System,” Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 4 (2020), https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.544984.

[16] Courtney White, “Why Regenerative Agriculture?,” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 79, no. 3 (2020): 799–812, https://doi.org/10.1111/ajes.12334.

[17] Patrick M. Carr et al., “Green and Animal Manure Use in Organic Field Crop Systems,” Agronomy Journal 112, no. 2 (March 2020): 648–74, https://doi.org/10.1002/agj2.20082.

[18] Lydia Eisenbach et al., “Effect of Biocyclic Humus Soil on Yield and Quality Parameters of Processing Tomato (Lycopersicon Esculentum Mill.),” Bulletin of University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine Cluj-Napoca. Horticulture 76 (June 1, 2019): 47–52, https://doi.org/10.15835/buasvmcn-hort:2019.0001.

[19] Tony Weis and Rebecca A. Ellis, “Animal Functionality and Interspecies Relations in Regenerative Agriculture: Considering Necessity and the Possibilities of Non-Violence,” in Routledge Handbook of Sustainable and Regenerative Food Systems (Routledge, 2020), https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429466823.

[20] Stefan Mann, “Could We Stop Killing?—Exploring a Post-Lethal Vegan or Vegetarian Agriculture,” World 1, no. 2 (2020): 124–34, https://doi.org/10.3390/world1020010.

[21] P. Meyer-Glitza, “Cattle Husbandry without Slaughtering: Case Studies from Europe and India | Know Your Food,” in Know Your Food: Food Ethics and Innovation (Wageningen Academic Publishers, 2015), 414–20, https://www.wageningenacademic.com/doi/abs/10.3920/978-90-8686-813-1_62.

About the author

Laura Driscoll

As Research Director for Stray Dog Institute, Laura writes articles and white papers revealing the role of animals in our food system and leads research on topics that can support improved advocacy for farmed animals. She is committed to amplifying the interconnected benefits of just and sustainble food system transformation.

About the Author

As Research Director for Stray Dog Institute, Laura writes articles and white papers revealing the role of animals in our food system and leads research on topics that can support improved advocacy for farmed animals. She is committed to amplifying the interconnected benefits of just and sustainble food system transformation.

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