Regenerative Agriculture: The Science Behind the Keyword
September 21, 2023
Research is shaping our shared understanding of regenerative agriculture and its resulting benefits
What does “regenerative agriculture” mean to your brand? This increasingly popular phrase can convey a positive vibe even when the audience is a little (or a lot) fuzzy on the details. But cotton farmers and agricultural scientists need to know the details to best deliver the environmental benefits that brands and consumers expect from U.S. cotton. Cotton Incorporated and scientists like Texas A&M’s Dr. Katie Lewis are conducting research that deepens the industry’s collective knowledge of regenerative agriculture and helps farmers better understand which practices work best in their specific region.
Regenerative or sustainable: what’s the difference?
What is “sustainable agriculture?” Cotton Incorporated supports the definition used by Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture — “meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This phrase covers environmental, social and economic aspects.
“Regenerative agriculture” is an approach to sustainable agriculture. Field to Market describes it this way: “Using a systems-based perspective, regenerative agriculture sequesters carbon in the soil and intentionally improves soil health, biodiversity, water quality and air quality while ensuring the viability of farm production.”
Farmers using regenerative practices recognize that caring for the soil is foundational for improving many other interconnected systems. Regenerative agricultural practices, which take many forms, minimize soil disturbance, maintain living roots in and surface cover over the soil and maximize biodiversity.
Over time, these practices can help increase cotton yields while reducing the need for some inputs like fertilizer and irrigation. Practices that sequester carbon are also an important way for cotton farmers to take climate action. However, not all practices are equally suited for every cotton-growing region. So how and how much do different practices help farmers achieve beneficial outcomes, especially in semi-arid regions?
Enter Dr. Katie Lewis, soil scientist
Lewis specializes in on-farm research in the world’s largest cotton patch, the semi-arid Texas High Plains. Her research encompasses the interconnected fields of soil health, nutrient management, cropping systems, water dynamics and carbon sequestration.
She’s digging deeper into what happens in the soil when farmers implement various regenerative practices, such as no-till or cover crops: “How does a practice influence soil carbon dynamics, and how does that affect nutrient availability and water dynamics? I want to know from the physical, chemical and microbial perspectives,” she says. Since most of Lewis’ work is on-farm, she analyzes the microscopic details of regenerative agriculture while also examining the direct results on the cotton plants.
Lewis also helps farmers quantify carbon in their soil and escaping from their soil. “We’re putting carbon into the soil, where we’re exploring the benefits.” But she needs to think about this from another perspective, too: the role cotton can play in climate action. So she’s also researching how much added carbon remains in the soil, using a novel spectroscopy technology to measure carbon dioxide and methane at the soil surface in real time.
Telling cotton’s regenerative agriculture story
Ultimately, Lewis’ research can help farmers better understand which regenerative practices are likely to pay off, economically and environmentally — and how to optimize those practices for their location.
Lewis takes part in disseminating insights from her research to farmers across the High Plains. These insights can be also applied far beyond the High Plains as well, in other semi-arid regions around the globe where regenerative agriculture can make a significant difference in soil health and water conservation.
Lewis and other cotton researchers will continue to refine our shared understanding of cotton’s role in building soil health, conserving water and sequestering carbon and Cotton LEADS and partner organizations like Field to Market and the Soil Health Institute will continue to support valuable research and keep brands apprised of new data and progress along the way.
Read our new researcher profile, featuring Dr. Katie Lewis, her work and why it matters for farmers and brands alike.