We’ve written about regenerative farming here at mindbodygreen before, but for those unacquainted with the concept, regenerative agriculture is a holistic, sustainable approach to farming that aims to restore the nutrient content of the soil during the farming process—as well as sustaining the world around it with conservation and rehabilitation measures.
Large-scale commercial farming is characterized by large monocrop fields, over-tilling, and use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizer. These efforts deplete the soil, resulting in eroded land, a significantly depleted planet biome, and reduced-quality of output. This has a severe environmental impact on a broad scale.
To zero in on one very important part of that ecosystem, is the microorganisms in the soil (or as we call it, the planet’s microbiome.) As our sustainability editor Emma Loewe writes, these “teeny tiny microorganisms that support plant growth and clean up the environment in the process. There are more organisms in a handful of soil than humans who have ever lived, and they all help sequester carbon from the atmosphere and trap it in the ground.” By reducing their diversity, we risk losing this benefit.
In fact, a report by the Rodale Institute, an organic agriculture research nonprofit, suggests that if all our land capable of being farmed or ranched was managed with soil health in mind, it could trap all the annual CO2 emissions produced by humans and then some. The situation becomes more dire when you consider the research on the opposite end of the spectrum: Previous studies have found that if we don't make this transition, most of the world's topsoil will be depleted within the next 60 years.
Hence, the urgent need for regenerative farming.
According to skin care brand Thrive Natural Skincare's CEO and co-founder, Alex McIntosh, their core mission is to identify areas of land erosion due to mainstream agriculture, use regenerative practices to revive it, and create better skin care products in the process. McIntosh shares with me that the guiding ethos of his life and the brand is to “leave it better than you found it,” which is a very succinct way to describe regenerative agriculture.
But I think it’s something better understood when visualized. While in Costa Rica, Mario Garcia Quesada, founding director of regenerative operations at Thrive, walked us through it in action. Garcia Quesada is a field botanist who’s been at the brand for about 10 years, and manages their regenerative supply chain by working with the farmers, molding best practices, and helping identify new locations. The Costa Rican soil and farmland is something he knows like the back of his hand.
He showed us a cooperative farm in Coopecuna in Limón, one of Thrive’s partnership farms that grows juanilama, a native botanical that they use in a variety of their products, among other crops. It’s a women-led co-op, with members coming from nearby communities. The farm has a “nursery” section where they nurture younger plants and experiment with new growing methods, as well as a nearby field where much of the actual crop is grown. On our downpour-soaked trip—it is a rainforest after all—we walked through the lush nursery.
Alongside McIntosh, Garcia Quesada walked us through the bustling ecosystem, full of frogs, insects, and other living organisms (ourselves included). The ground was full of foliage and shells of harvested plants. The sky was shielded by towering trees, providing shade from the midday sun, as well as nutrients when the leaves fell to feed the topsoil. Below us, roots carried nutrients, precious carbon, and communication between the diverse collection of botanicals.
This system is mimicked in the larger crop field next door, where the farmers are able to tend to and harvest the juanilama plant year-round—even in the dry season. They recreate the elements of a rainforest’s most optimal environment, like utilizing cover crops, leaving the dying leaves so their remains can pump nutrients back into the soil, and using compatible plants as a “living fence” surrounding the crop for botanical variety. In comparison to the derelict commercial farms, there’s an ecosystem here. And with the environmental community, the juanilama plant flourishes.
Once collected, the plant goes into the co-op’s own distillation machine where it becomes an essential oil. Here, they turn a raw material into liquid gold—while the farm can make money from the raw botanicals themselves, by being able to turn it into a more valuable asset, like an oil or extract, they increase their profit. The land's resource isn’t just excavated by an outside company, it’s celebrated by the community that grows it.
When I asked the group what their favorite essential oil was, the co-op's president smiled, laughed, and spoke to Garcia Quesada (who was translating). The rest of the co-op members laughed with him as they heard his answer. “That’s like asking who is my favorite child,” Garcia Quesada translated for me.