I’ve been seeing more “regeneratively grown” labels on food, most recently on a carton of eggs. What exactly is regenerative farming and is it actually better for the planet?
— On My Endless, Labyrinthine Egg Troubles
From a marketing perspective, “regenerative” is another supposed synonym for “climate-friendly.” And, as we have seen with other commercial environmental claims, the line between green living and greenwashing can be very hard to find indeed.
The idea behind regenerative agriculture is that the soil of this little Earth is generally in rough shape, and if it were healthier, it could hold on to some of the carbon and other greenhouse gases that are currently floating up into the atmosphere and channel them into plants instead. That’s a worthwhile goal: According to a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, improved soil sequestration could remove 250 million metric tons or more of carbon dioxide per year in the United States alone. (More shortly on why that “could” is doing a lot of work.)
There are a lot of things we can do to make our soil healthier, and some of them fall under the category of agriculture, and more or less everything in that subset gets called “regenerative farming,” as my colleague Nathanael Johnson explained a couple of years back. Using cover crops, no-till farming, raising livestock in forest, and growing legumes among other crops can all count as regenerative farming. Beef can be “regeneratively farmed,” as can lettuce, as can lentils, as can eggs!
So if you do decide to shell out $8 for a dozen premium “regenerative” eggs, what exactly are you getting for your money? According to a regenerative chicken farming manual I found, such an operation would look a little something like this: Chickens roam free over land planted with small trees and perennial shrubs that themselves produce a variety of crops, like nuts or berries. The chickens feed off the grassy undergrowth, rotating pecking grounds so they don’t over-graze any particular area. The bird poop fertilizes the soil, helping the nut trees or berry bushes or whatever flourish. By basically replacing commercial fertilizer and helping farmers control pests without resorting to soil tilling, the chickens’ presence keeps more carbon buried in the soil. In the end, the regenerative egg farmer is theoretically cultivating an Earth-friendly, biodiverse, and codependent (in a good way) little ecosystem, in addition to getting to sell a variety of products at a premium price.
I say “theoretically,” because carbon sequestration is hard to measure. As a paper from the World Resources Institute points out, carbon accounting is a notoriously complicated process dominated by guesswork. That’s because there are so many unknowns: How long does the carbon actually stay there in the soil, and what is required to keep it there? Scientists aren’t sure! Does the space required by a regenerative chicken farm possibly mean that a forest is being cut down to make room for it? Maybe!
In other words, it’s hard to tell whether a regenerative farm is part of the solution or just getting credit for sequestering carbon that would have been successfully stored anyway without any intervention. I am not saying that all farmers who claim their regenerative methods fight climate change are trying to deceive their customers; rather, the degree to which those methods are effective in fighting climate change is both hard to measure and verify. There is a big difference between what you intend to do and the outcome of your actions!
And that means climate-conscious customers like you are constantly forced to make best guesses when trying to use your grocery list to better the planet. Perhaps you, as a consumer, intend to buy food that, at the very least, doesn’t make climate change worse than it already is. And you understand that regenerative farming has the potential to lower carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, so you think: Hell yeah, sign me up for those regeneratively farmed eggs. How do I find them?
Unfortunately, you probably won’t see an official “regeneratively certified” designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture anytime soon. That’s because the wide variety of regenerative farming methods make it nearly impossible to standardize the term. Grouping them all under one label would be challenging, to say the least. There is even disagreement in academic circles as to how to define the term “regenerative.” So really, as of now, anyone can slap a “regeneratively farmed” sticker on an egg carton. It doesn’t really mean anything — kind of like the dreaded “natural” label.
“It strikes me that in many ways ‘regenerative’ is the new ‘sustainable’, which was the new ‘local,’ which was the new ‘organic,’” Jayson Lusk, the head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University, wrote to me in an email. “It’s a halo treadmill, and a corporatization treadmill.”
A Bloomberg article that covered the advent of “regeneratively farmed” eggs seems to support Lusk’s opinion, judging by this excerpt: “Producers keep looking for ways to add more premium eggs, because they’re generating the U.S. industry’s growth. Cage-free sales volume jumped 12 percent in the year [that] ended on April 10, while organic eggs rose more than 7 percent, according to NielsenIQ data.”
“Cage-free” is another notoriously meaningless marketing term, at least in terms of the distance between the image it conjures and the reality it might describe. And organic egg production — where the chickens eat certified-organic feed and get some outdoors time — can actually end up being worse in terms of climate impact. According to a 2019 study published in Nature, organic farms reduce pollution but generate more emissions due to the larger amount of land they require in place of carbon-storing forests or grasslands.
I completely understand if all this information makes you feel frustrated and defeated. But you — and everyone else buying “premium” eggs — are just doing the best you can with the information available, and the information available is quite flawed.
Perhaps you will find some comfort in this tidbit from a 2019 paper from the World Resources Institute. The authors estimated that about a third of emissions that have to be cut from the agricultural sector could be eliminated by reducing food loss and food waste and shifting diets away from eating carbon-intensive foods like meat.
In other words, a good part of what needs to be done to fix the food system is far simpler than trying to parse the intricacies of chicken farming from an egg carton. And at least you can be assured that the kind of dietary shift you’re aiming for is meaningful, no labels required.