Regenerative agriculture: a shared ambition for the supply chain?

This blog was first published on the Forum for the Future website and I’m reposting a very slightly edited version here.

There’s excitement and hope stirring around regenerative agriculture with many organisations putting it into their strategies. So what is regenerative agriculture and could it offer a shared ambition for the food and farming sector?

This is the broad question I’m setting out to explore over the next 18 months in a Nuffield Farming Scholarship. I will visit farming systems and interview organisations across the supply chain that have regenerative agriculture ambitions. I’m interested in how regenerative agriculture is being understood, the types of ambitions and strategies considered for scaling it up – and if it’s scaled, what might our food system look like then? 

The Nuffield journey will complement work already taking place at Forum for the Future with various food and agricultural companies, which is exploring the potential around regenerative agriculture and the strategies necessary for it to scale and become mainstream.

Regenerative Agriculture: the latest buzzword or something bigger?

When I first heard the words “regenerative agriculture” many years ago, I didn’t give it much attention. Speaking with others, I know I wasn’t alone in brushing it off as another expression of sustainable farming that wasn’t particularly needed, given that we already have exciting (albeit small) movements in organic and biodynamic farming, natural farming and permaculture. Not to mention carbon-smart agriculture as well as growing recognition around agroecology

So what sets regenerative agriculture apart and why are several companies starting to take an interest in it?

Perhaps one attractive feature is within its language of regeneration. The enticing idea of putting more back into the environment than we take out. Certainly, the word “regenerative” appears to be becoming a sustainability buzzword within companies, however “regenerative agriculture” should perhaps be considered more specific than a vague aspiration.

Central to regenerative agriculture is the building of soil health and the many positive knock-on effects that this can bring to our farming systems and landscapes. This includes better water management and nutrient recycling, improved yields, business resilience and carbon sequestration. These are all appealing features. For some, it’s the latter benefit, the opportunity to increase soil organic carbon, that is causing a particular stir in some companies, given the increasing pace of climate change.

The IPCC special report, Climate Change and Land stressed the building of soil carbon as one of the most significant climate actions in the land use sector. The potential for drawing down carbon into our soils appears enormous although the exact potential is a matter of debate and further research. Today, international initiatives now exist, such as “4 per 1,000” that focus on accelerating action towards increasing soil carbon storage. 

Figure 1 shows some of the common principles and practices found in regenerative agriculture. When it comes to carbon sequestration rates, not all regenerative agriculture practices are equal. This is outlined well in Eric Toensmeier’s book, “The Carbon Farming Solution” which advocates the particularly impressive sequestration potential of trees (agroforestry) and other perennial crops in regenerative farming systems.

For many advocates of regenerative agriculture, it also speaks to the building of greater diversity in our farming systems and with this, the opportunity to help stop and start reversing the alarming crashing of biodiversity we witness today.

So far the regenerative farming movement has been fairly fragmented. A few companies have been advocating the approach and many of the practices have been pioneered by farmers, where a spectrum of practitioners exist that have embraced the “regenerative” moniker. In a recent article about the movement, Nathanial Short suggested that regenerative agriculture means many different things to different people but it appears to have the power to bring organic and conventional farmers together to work towards environmental outcomes. 

Figure 1. Some of the common principles and practices that can support regenerative agriculture

Shared definitions and company commitments

Having a shared understanding of regenerative agriculture helps. Over 150 businesses, NGOs and academics have supported this definition of regenerative agriculture proposed by The Carbon Underground:

farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.

Other definitions exist. For example, Terra Genesis propose a slightly different definition. Last year, my colleagues at Forum found that there were geographic differences in how regenerative agriculture was being understood. For example, in a workshop in India and discussions with people working in different parts of Africa, it was considered important to include positive social outcomes as a principle in regenerative agriculture, broadening the definition. Whereas, in US/UK/Europe, there was a greater focus on environmental outcomes, particularly carbon sequestration and soil health.

The definitions give a sense of the transformative potential that regenerative agriculture promises, and with that excitement, several companies are now grappling with what it means to put it into their strategies. Most notably, both Danone and General Mills have publicly announced it as a major focus. Patagonia and others are working with the Rodale Institute (who coined the term regenerative agriculture) and NSF to create a Regenerative Organic Certification. Ben and Jerry’s, Danone and others have also launched a Soil Carbon Initiative to develop verifiable standards for measuring soil carbon.

New disruptive start-ups are also entering the space, such as Indigo Agriculture and their Project Terraton Initiative, who are creating a marketplace for soil carbon, having recently announced they will start paying farmers up to $15/tonne to store carbon in their soil. On the ground, many farmers are showcasing what it looks like. Gabe Brown’s book From Dirt to Soil tells a particularly inspiring set of stories of how regenerative agriculture is transforming farms in the USA to be more profitable, higher-yielding and more resilient businesses, depending less on external inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer.

Gabe Brown from Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota

Systems change for regenerative agriculture

In the five minutes it takes you to read this article, around 100 football fields of tropical forests will have been destroyed (based on a rate of 8 million hectares a year), much of it to make way for monocultural agricultural landscapes. It’s clear that much of our land use today is far from regenerative. 

Regenerative agriculture offers a route through which we can make significant progress towards restoration, meeting the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. But while regenerative agriculture creates a positive stir we must remember that this is a young movement, sitting alongside various other sustainable farming movements. Without robust understandings of what regenerative agriculture looks like in our food system, there’s a danger that some companies will pull out the bits they like, call it “regenerative”, but continue largely with business as usual. 

The context-specific nature of regenerative agriculture, where no single measure or practice works across geographies or commodities, seems to be both one of the challenges and one of the primary reasons for taking a systemic approach. Now is a key moment for organisations across the food system to come together and explore the transformative potential of regenerative agriculture. To generate and scale up with urgency the solutions that can help bring regenerative agriculture into the mainstream, while maintaining its integrity and an ambition commensurate with the global challenges we face in our food system.

Farmers and land-owners may be on the front-line to implement regenerative agriculture, but they are part of a food system with complex and challenging power dynamics where responsibility and risk are often not shared fairly:

Understanding how systems change plays an important role in identifying the activities required to scale up regenerative agriculture. At Forum for the Future, taking a systems lens has helped us to identify some of the ‘building blocks’ that underpin a scaling-up strategy in regenerative agriculture. Interviewing organisations across the value chain has helped us identify some of the key barriers and interventions that we’re now exploring in projects. 

We often witness pockets of excellence where various regenerative practices are being applied, but to scale and go mainstream, there’s a big journey ahead for this movement. Many farms and organisations will need to come together to drive this, each playing their own unique roles that will help support and scale-up regenerative agriculture.