Ed Maibach is the director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication
In order to protect human health and the ecosystems on which we depend, nations of the world face three difficult but achievable climate change objectives: creating a clean energy economy, drawing down excess atmospheric carbon, and preparing for or forestalling health impacts.
The health benefits of the clean energy transition and climate change adaptation are well-established and recognized by a growing group of policy-makers, health care practitioners, and communities. Lesser-known, however, are the health benefits of interventions that capture carbon pollution from the atmosphere.
Who might one turn to in order to learn more about these benefits? You could start with the folks at Regeneration Midwest, a group of farmers, food-and-farm activists, rural community organizers, local and regional food systems practitioners, consumer advocates, and scientists who are working across twelve Midwestern states to turn new ideas around the carbon-capturing practices of regenerative farming—a range of approaches to improve soil health that include farming practices like crop rotation—into on-the-ground and in-the-ground climate and health solutions.
The team at Regeneration Midwest, which is co-led by farmer and soil conservation advocate Ann Wolf and agroecologist Rob Wallace, was awarded a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Climate Solutions grant to help turn an ongoing array of regenerative agriculture experiments in farm communities across the Midwest into a regional program that simultaneously redresses the interlocking problems of climate, population health, and health equity.
So-called “regenerative farming” practices have enormous potential to capture heat-trapping pollution from the atmosphere and put it back in the ground where it belongs—and they can provide important health benefits for people in communities that embrace the regenerative farming practices.
How so? It’s complicated, but the Regeneration Midwest team did an admirable job in explaining it simply and briefly:
From climate change to pollution, declining nutrition, new diseases, rural abandonment, farmer suicides, and the opioid epidemic, industrial agriculture is helping drive key crises across our communities.
A new approach is needed. Regenerative agriculture combines biophysical and social interventions that represent a foundational shift in how food, climate, community, population health, and health equity are produced together. These interventions include, but are not limited to, intercropping, crop rotations, cover cropping, conservation tillage, trap crops, mixed crop-livestock systems, agrobiodiversity, wildlife corridors, buffer strips, habitat for pollinators, and landscape resilience.
The interventions extend beyond the soil and into the heart of community life, promoting farmer autonomy, socioeconomic resilience, circular economies, integrated cooperative supply networks, food justice, full-scale democratic participation, and re-establishing interwoven regional food systems. Together these interventions aim to protect the interdependent health and welfare of farmers, farmworkers, consumers, local communities, livestock and poultry, wildlife, and, by extension, the greater world.
Over the next two years, the team at Regeneration Midwest, in partnership with the Organic Consumers Association, will be executing an ambitious research agenda to build the evidence base about the health and health equity benefits of regenerative farming.
The team will compare sites in six states that practice regenerative agriculture to those in each of these states that practice conventional agriculture. Through extensive site visits and data collection, they will develop an approach to use census data to identify communities in the Midwest that would be well suited for a switch to regenerative agriculture.
The work being done by the Regeneration Midwest team—given the enormity of its scale, scope, and potential impact—is incredibly promising in terms of its ability to help build a healthier and more equitable future for people living in the United States, and a more stable climate for all.