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Returning Circularity to the Soil: National Opportunities for Sustainable Agriculture

Gregor Allen MacGregor


  • Discusses the policy changes necessary for creating a circular agricultural economy.
  • Examines ways each level of government can encourage regenerative agriculture implementation.
  • Encourages interrogation of municipal ordinances, zoning laws, business regulations, and Homeowners’ Association bylaws to identify ways to encourage local agriculture and markets.
Returning Circularity to the Soil: National Opportunities for Sustainable Agriculture
Ali Majdfar via Getty Images

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The biological cycle is circular: growth, death, decomposition, and new life arising from the foundation of the previous cycle. Agriculture is the original circular economy. Its methods and processes comprise an attempt to mimic nature in a controlled manner for our benefit. Agriculture has the potential to be entirely circular; each product and byproduct could be used to furnish the next cycle of sustenance. But obtaining this circularity will require a reimagination of how we produce what we eat. Creating a circular agricultural economy will require policy changes at all levels of government to tackle an overreliance on artificial inputs, reduce the current exceptional rates of soil erosion, improve water-use efficiency, reduce the distance traveled and energy used to bring products to consumers, and foster a more localized economy that improves access to fresh food for all Americans.

Improving circularity in our agricultural economy is not just a case of good business sense: It also ensures the long-term viability and stability of our society. Agriculture is a foundational sector that lacks substitutes and without which our complex society could not exist. The works of authors like Terence McLaughlin, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007); Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2011); and Steven Solomon, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization (2010), extensively document how the long-term success or failure of societies has been intimately and extraordinarily influenced by the ways in which their agricultural practices are extractive or circular.

Wholesale collapse of our interconnected modern societies may be unlikely, but the impacts of how we choose to produce our food can degrade both the environment and the quality of what we eat, produce unintended health consequences, and contribute to the inequitable distribution of wealth at home and abroad.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $1.055 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, accounting for a 5% share of the total national GDP. Removing food and related industries, direct agricultural output contributed $134.7 billion, roughly 0.6% of GDP. In the five states with the largest agricultural sectors relative to their state GDP—South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Iowa, and Idaho—agriculture can contribute up to 10 times the national figure, making up between 4 and 6% of state GDP and employment. On a national level, there are only roughly 1.25 million farmers remaining, and double that number are farmworkers.

Official statistics from the USDA paint a relatively rosy picture of the number of farms and the diverse holdings across the country, with small family farms making up almost half of the landmass under production. However, as Peter Lehner and Nathan Rosenberg point out, these statistics are skewed by the inclusion of large numbers of retirement farms, “lifestyle” hobby farms, and paper farms created for tax benefits. Peter Lehner & Nathan Rosenberg, Farming for Our Future (2021). Factoring out these properties, the landscape becomes a much more homogenous group of white-owned and industrialized operations. Industrialized operations with more than $1 million in sales increased their total share of national production from 31% to 51% between 1991 and 2015 as small to midsize farm production fell.

This predominantly mechanized model of our agricultural economy suffers from an overdependence on the availability of inexpensive oil, for both synthetic inputs and combustion fuels, as well as unsustainable water use and soil degradation that comes in the forms of erosion and nutrient depletion. It takes about four gallons of on-farm gasoline use to supply an adult’s annual total caloric needs from wheat. Nearly half of that is used in the creation of synthetic fertilizer alone. Overuse of synthetic inputs destroys natural biodiversity, pollutes waterways, and allows vast amounts of nutrients to be lost to the agricultural cycle. The need for oil to produce synthetics, perform on-farm labor, and transport the end commodities inexorably ties the stability of our food prices and economy to the price of oil. Petroleum use has allowed far fewer people to grow more of our food, but each calorie of food on your plate requires 10 calories of fossil fuel use to be grown and delivered.

Water availability in the face of climate change and groundwater draw-down is another major impediment to creating circularity in agriculture. The Ogallala Aquifer, underlying major areas of agricultural production from South Dakota to Texas, is being withdrawn at a rate three times its natural recharge. Continued mining of the aquifer increases energy use and operating cost as wells must be deepened to chase the dropping water table and lift water from greater depths—and risks the depletion of the resource altogether. Once depleted, the aquifer would require 6,000 years to fully recharge, endangering the production of $20 billion of food and fiber.

Agriculture’s reliance on surface water is jeopardized by anthropogenic warming and its effects on precipitation, stream flow, and extreme weather events like prolonged drought. Climate scientists in the Colorado River basin, such as Brad Udall, have demonstrated an almost 10% reduction in stream flows for each degree Celsius of warming, with the most dire modeling predicting a 50% decrease in the river’s flows by mid-century. Equity in the Colorado River Basin: How to Sustainably Manage a Shrinking Resource, 41st Ann. Colo. Law Conf. on Nat. Res. (2021).

Soil health is the final parameter of current agricultural production we will examine, one that is both embroiled in its own state of crisis as well as driving the increased and unsustainable use of both synthetic inputs and water. According to the USDA National Resources Inventory Summary Report (2020), cropland lost 4.63 tons of topsoil per acre from wind and water erosion in 2017, compared to the roughly 0.5 ton of topsoil that is naturally produced per acre. Losing topsoil reduces the natural fertility of the land and decreases its capacity to hold moisture, requiring increased inputs of synthetics and irrigation each season the cropland is degraded. Eventually subsoils are exposed, and meaningful product yields become entirely dependent on outside inputs.

David Montgomery identified the three big myths of modern agriculture: Industrialized agriculture feeds the world (80% of the world’s food is produced on small family farms); industrialized agrochemical agriculture is more efficient (well-managed alternative farms use fewer inputs and produce more food per acre); intensive agrochemical use will be necessary to feed the world of tomorrow (it doesn’t have to be). David Montgomery, Growing a Revolution (2017). Feeding the world of tomorrow with an agriculture that is less dependent, in both production and price, on nonrenewable inputs will hinge on how much circularity we can return to the soil.

“Alternative” agriculture arose in the 1950s, spearheaded by back-to-the-land hippies, Alice Waters’s farm-to-table culinary movement, and food advocate Mark Winne’s “uncompensated victims of the Good Housekeeping promise that canned, frozen, and prepackaged food would free humanity from Hell’s kitchen.” Mark Winne, Closing the Food Gap (2008). What would become the organic movement, and later conservation/regenerative agriculture, was not really alternative at all. It was a return to holistic practices that preceded the chemical revolution, bolstered by a deeper understanding of biology and ecology. On an agricultural timescale, what we think of as “conventional” farming is a recent phenomenon built on the marketing need for munitions manufacturers to find new uses for their chemical stocks following World War II.

Regenerative agriculture is a more recent and less formalized system than organics but is broadly characterized by maximizing continuous living roots, minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing biodiversity, and maximizing soil cover. Chris Smaje identifies the seven core practices of regenerative agriculture as minimum or no tillage, continuous cover of living plants, diverse crop rotations, use of perennials, use of grazing livestock, inoculation of soil fungi, and the elimination of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Chris Smaje, A Small Farm Future (2020). These processes represent an intensification of both biological and human processes. Diverse communities of flora and fauna support soil health, water retention, and erosion control, while human inputs increase as more intricate planning and labor are required.

The cost of human inputs is generally seen as a major impediment to profitable farm operation, whether in the cost of hiring additional hands or the opportunity cost of a single farmer’s time. But as North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown demonstrates in his book Dirt to Soil (2018), the decrease in synthetic input and fuel costs can mean greater overall profits even if staple commodity yields are lower. Long-term profitability is ensured by ameliorating or eliminating the deleterious effects of nutrient exhaustion, soil erosion, and aridification by use of these regenerative practices. Greater organic matter in the soil hedges against drought and reduces dependence on irrigation by holding a much greater percentage of natural precipitation.

On a smaller scale than Brown’s cattle and cereal operation, intensive regenerative agriculture can be abundantly more productive than conventional agriculture and bring higher prices for producers based on the produce quality, locality, and marketing. Our common model for intensive vegetable production comes from 19th century Parisian market gardeners, who were able to supply the city of Paris with all of its produce year-round using intensive regenerative agriculture using only 6% of the city’s landmass. These techniques paralleled those that sustained agricultural civilizations going back thousands of years in Asia and Latin America: intensive labor, intricate planning, and the return of nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

British gardener Alan Chadwick brought the Parisian market garden model to America when he started the Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Garden at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and then went on to found the Ecology Action microagriculture research and training station. At the station, John Jeavons has continued to implement intensive gardening practices with surprisingly effective results. According to Jeavons, the station’s regenerative practices (relying on manual labor) have resulted in yields two to six times higher than U.S. agriculture, a reduction in water usage by 67 to 88% per unit of production, fossil fuel use reduction by 94 to 99%, quintupled or octupled production of calories per unit of area, and a doubling of income per unit area. John Jeavons, Miraculous Abundance (2016).

Conservation practices help sustain agricultural lands, while the development of community-supported agriculture, farmers markets, and cottage food laws since the 1970s have helped to localize consumption and the food economy. While exact figures change based on the particular study and locality, the literature broadly agrees that local business purchasing contributes roughly twice as many dollars in the local economy as chain shopping does. Given the positive ecological and economic impact of local regenerative agriculture, we should examine ways each level of government can encourage its implementation.

Federal Levers

The Farm Bill, a package of legislation passed once every five years, is the largest federal driver of agricultural policy in the United States. The Farm Bill’s original goals were born out of the New Deal in response to the economic and environmental crises of the 1930s. It aimed to keep food prices fair to both farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate supply of food, and conserve the natural resources agriculture relies on. The means by which our policies have met these goals have come under increasing scrutiny as we recognize the ways in which the Farm Bill has encouraged the extractive practices explored above. The impact of the Farm Bill can scarcely be overstated, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in its 2018 Farm Bill: Summary and Side-by-Side Comparison (2019) expects the 2018 edition to provide farming operations $20 billion each year through its expiration in 2023. Crop insurance, commodity programs, and conservation programs make up nearly 97% of that sum once the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is excluded.

The central issues with the current crop insurance and commodity programs are their tendency to encourage consolidation, bring marginal or at-risk lands into production, and encourage carbon-intensive practices. While some crop insurance policies do cover crop losses, most actually provide revenue guarantees to keep certain crops lucrative. CRS has reported that more than 70% of the covered acres are dedicated to corn, wheat, cotton, and soybeans. The revenue guarantees for these crops have had the perverse effect of increasing production beyond sustainable levels on both an ecological and economic basis. Commodity programs supplement crop insurance for crops like corn, wheat, and rice, on an acreage rather than production basis, further incentivizing farmers to bring more land into production.

By subsidizing conventional practices and staple commodities, many smaller operations have had difficulty accessing these programs. To participate, farmers are required to use practices generally accepted by agricultural experts in their area, encouraging current extractive methods. This preference for the status quo excludes not only cutting-edge regenerative methods, but also many practices already recognized and encouraged by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Producers are forced to choose between insurance and basic conservation practices such as cover cropping or broadening their crop rotations.

In 2023, Congress can turn these hindrances into encouragements by revising the way crop insurance and commodity programs are administered. Greater varieties of product should be covered, sensitive land should be excluded from coverage, and rates should reflect our current understanding of the negative and positive externalities associated with different forms of production. Subsidies should be decreased for practices that are carbon intensive, are nutrition depleting, or contribute to erosion, and increased for conservation practices.

Conservation programs make up the third major component of on-farm spending in the Farm Bill. These programs include the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production; the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides funding to promote individual on-farm practices that conserve and improve resources; and the Conservation Stewardship Program, which takes a whole-farm approach to conservation. Lehner and Rosenberg calculated that for each dollar spent on these conservation programs, they return $1.01, $2.11, and $3.95 respectively, making them sound financial and environmental investments. Farming for Our Future, supra.

Increasing the gross or proportional amount of conservation program funding in the 2023 farm bill will help encourage conservation and regenerative agricultural practices and help farm operations adapt to changes in the operation of insurance and commodity programs. Sensitive land no longer eligible for insurance can be enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program to improve the environment and maintain a steady source of income for farmers. These programs can also encourage innovative approaches to conservation agriculture and lift up small and underrepresented producers.

The Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities is one such USDA program that is providing $1 billion to help states, local governments, agricultural organizations, and producers adopt climate-smart practices and develop markets for those products. Direct funding for these kinds of projects and a renewed focus on funding research for conservation agriculture practices can move us toward a more circular system.

The Farm Bill also includes programs that support consumers such as SNAP, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and various school nutrition programs that provide free or reduced-cost lunches and the Farm to School program. Expanding funding and access to these programs is an important way to provide aid to the 10.5% of American families who are food insecure, a disproportionate number of whom are minorities and rural residents. These programs are also an opportunity to integrate the disparate and often poorly coordinated efforts of the USDA by providing additional premiums to producers who participate in them and broadening the products and markets for SNAP, WIC, and other nutritional benefits programs.

State Programs

While the federal government can incentivize changes to our food system through the Farm Bill, states have a much wider berth to directly address our lack of circular agriculture. The USDA estimates that roughly 31% of food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels. The majority of this food waste is then transported to landfills with the rest of our refuse, where it contaminates groundwater and releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. In 2010, this waste represented 133 billion pounds of food, valued at $161 billion, exiting the nutrient cycle. This amount is in addition to post-consumer waste, such as the scraps, peels, and coffee grounds normally produced in our kitchens.

One example of state regulations promoting circularity is currently taking shape in California. Following in the footsteps of San Francisco, the entirety of California will require composting by 2023 in compliance with a 2016 state law (Senate Bill 1383). This diverted stream of organic matter will make its way to composting facilities, rather than landfills, where it will be turned into mulch, compost, and captured natural gas. Cities are then required to purchase back a portion of these products, with the remainder available for public sale.

Retail establishments will be required to donate to foodbanks edible food that would otherwise go to landfills. Improving the transfer of perishable goods to foodbanks not only helps food insecure families, but also the 23.5 million Americans who live in food deserts for whom a foodbank may be the only easily accessible source of fresh, nutritious food. States can also address food deserts by encouraging local food economies through the use of cottage food laws and farmers’ markets.

Since 2015, 25 holdout states have joined the rest of the country by passing cottage food laws: legislation allowing home-producers to make and sell food items that are not potentially hazardous. These new laws mean that residents in every state can produce goods at home and sell them directly to customers. These are generally items that are at low risk for the transmission of foodborne illness, are shelf-stable, and do not require refrigeration. Included among these products are baked goods, whole agricultural products like apples and wheat, and, in some states, jams and jellies. The majority of states allow cottage food owners to market online and deliver products by mail, but fewer than half allow the retail sale of cottage goods at grocery stores.

The low barrier to entry for cottage food businesses and the ability to run them out of homes make these entities excellent avenues for addressing food deserts on a small scale. USDA is currently expanding the ability of such businesses to accept SNAP benefits, with many cottage food businesses able to qualify as staple food providers. Encouraging cottage food businesses and bringing farmers markets to food deserts are major points of intersection between private organizations and state and local governments.

Making Agriculture Local

Local governments have the opportunity to either amplify or hinder federal and state support of circular agriculture by directly regulating the use of land and buildings. While San Francisco leads the way in municipal composting, other municipalities have been less supportive of urban circular practices.

An emblematic story comes from the TED Talk of Ron Finley (2013), the famed guerilla gardener of South Central Los Angeles. Finley’s response to the inner-city food crisis was to plant gardens and fruit trees in the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road, an area the city owned but residents were expected to maintain. Los Angeles cited him and ordered him to remove the garden, but he led a successful movement to change the law across the city.

Finley recounts that his councilman called him to say he loved and supported the garden and asked, “Why in the hell would they not okay this?” He points out that Los Angeles owns 26 square miles of vacant lots, enough land for 725 million tomato plants. Community food activist Mark Winne, in Closing the Food Gap (2008), identifies these spaces as prime candidates for redevelopment into community gardens, which could then supply local farmers markets and cottage food businesses. This chain would bring the entire life cycle of those food products within the community where they are consumed, providing nutritious food to those who have been historically excluded from our supermarket system. Compost provisioning like that available in California could then return those nutrients to the soil.

We should interrogate our municipal ordinances, zoning laws, business regulations, and Homeowners’ Association bylaws to identify ways to encourage local agriculture and markets. This can include mundane details such as how large a home-based business sign can be, or contemplate fundamental questions of whether front-yard gardens and backyard hens are permissible.

Circularity in agriculture involves matching the resources required to what is across time and space and then returning those resources to the source. A circular agriculture will not withdraw more nutrients, water, soil, or energy than can sustainably nourish our civilization. As Texas rancher John Welch said in Colorado State University’s Drought Leadership Training (2022): “We shouldn’t be looking for maximum production; we should be looking for optimal production.”