How regenerative organic agriculture can feed the world and save the planet
When Ashley Walsh was faced with invasive surgery to cure a condition that prevented her from digesting most foods, she did what most people wouldn’t. She ate more. She just ate differently to avoid the operating room. That included adopting an organic lifestyle, using food and supplements produced with planet-healthy values to heal her gastroparesis, a disease that paralyzes the stomach and hinders the movement of food through the digestive tract. The change in diet didn’t just cure what ailed her by sparing a procedure to remove her stomach and replace it with feeding tubes. It eventually set her on a new career path that can help heal the planet and other people too.
Six years ago, Walsh founded Pocono Organics in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. It’s a regenerative organic farm that’s grown to be one of North America’s largest examples of an agricultural method with the potential to positively temper climate change while making nutritious food more readily available.
“I realized how broken the food system was,” Walsh says. “I had been following the Rodale Institute and their studies, and I was really sick of not being able to get the fruits and vegetables that I needed that are coming in from other countries. The supply just wasn’t there to meet the demand here in the US.” It could be with farming methods that focus on soil health, however.
Regenerative organic agriculture, with principles that include no tilling, use of cover crops, and promotion of biodiversity, ensures the longevity of the organic matter upon which the survival of every human depends. Meanwhile, regenerative farms act as carbon sinks, sequestering greenhouse gasses, holding them underground where they can’t do damage.
Robert Rodale brought regenerative agriculture to the fore in the 1980s when he coined the term to refer to farming practices that not only maintain resources but improve them by making soil health the cornerstone of all farming. Healthy soil—that means no synthetic chemical interventions—produces healthy food. Healthy food means healthy people and a healthy planet.
The need to farm with an emphasis on maintaining or bettering soil health is critical. Recently, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicted that, by 2050, the world’s total arable and productive land per person may be a quarter of that in 1960. The reason: it’s been degraded and destroyed by a number of human-influenced factors, including unsustainable land management practices.
Walsh is doing her part to reverse the loss of arable land by nurturing it one acre at a time at Pocono Organics. It started with a 50 acre parcel farmed under the guidance of the nearby Rodale Institute. Today, Pocono Organics spans 380 acres, including a 38,000 square-foot greenhouse and a 30,000 square-foot processing facility.
“Our goal was to take care of the soil for future generations and for all of us,” says Walsh. “There are more microbes in one spoonful of soil than there are people on the planet, and these microbes, we don’t even know all the ways they benefit our bodies.”
In addition to producing and selling nutrient-dense, affordable food in a rural American food desert, Walsh and her team are making a name for Pocono Organics as the world’s first and only regenerative organic-certified hemp grower.
Hemp grows like a weed with little intervention. Pocono Organics uses harvests to produce high-quality CBD oil. Further, studies with Rodale show that hemp is “the single greatest plant in the world to capture carbon,” Walsh notes.
The scaling up that’s happening at Pocono Organics is proof that regenerative organic agriculture isn’t exclusively the domain of small-scale farming operations. Even global brands with massive landholdings, including PepsiCo, Unilever, and Nestlé, have committed to using regenerative organic farming methods in their supply chains.
“It can definitely be done if it’s done the right way,” Walsh says about regenerative organic agriculture on a large scale. “People are waking up to the damage we’re causing the earth and not wanting to rely on chemicals and pesticides and the … ripple effects of the consequences it has. There [are] lots of people ready to support this and ready to enjoy the nutrient-dense crops we all desperately need.”
If only there were a pill to cure climate change. Supplement producer Ancient Nutrition is working on that.
The US company already sources many ingredients for its products from organic farms, but it upped its commitment when it unveiled its R.A.N.C.H. Project last fall.
R.A.N.C.H. stands for regenerative agriculture, nutrition, and climate health. The aim is to build topsoil, reduce waste, and sequester carbon while supporting the company’s mission to transform the health of people with powerful superfoods.
By 2024, Ancient Nutrition intends to be carbon neutral; plant one million perennial trees and plants that produce superfoods; reduce company-produced plastic and waste by 25 percent; collect and bank seeds from every harvest of more than 100 species farmed for its supplements; and support nonprofits dedicated to ending poverty, hunger, homelessness, human trafficking, and climate change.
Ancient Nutrition also moved its headquarters to a 110-acre farm in Tennessee, which will serve as a showcase for regenerative agriculture and sustainability.
Canada has caught on to the potential of regenerative organic agriculture in meeting emission targets. Agriculture is currently responsible for 10 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, leaving plenty of room for improvement.
To help, the federal government allocated $270 million in April 2021 to support solutions, including regenerative organic agriculture, that will reduce the sector’s contributions to climate change.
Funding regenerative farming, which sequesters carbon in the soil and keeps it there, also sets up the sector to be more resilient to extreme weather events that come with climate change. And that means greater food security for Canadians.
Research by the Rodale Institute shows that farming practices associated with regenerative organic agriculture, including the use of cover crops, compost, crop rotation, and reduced tillage, could sequester more than 100 percent of the carbon we currently emit and help reverse climate change.
This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue of alive.