Thinking regeneratively

I’ve written about regenerative agriculture a couple of times recently (here and here) as I explore how this way of thinking can influence our food systems. In this piece, I’m sharing some perspectives on what it means to think regeneratively more broadly. These are personal musings, but much of the inspiration draws from my work at Forum for the Future. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts and feedback.

The regenerative paradigm

Within sustainability circles, a regenerative paradigm has been gaining momentum. It speaks of vitality and replenishment, encouraging us towards the continual improvement of the health and sustainability of key systems on which we depend – covering natural capital, social capital, human capital, and all other forms of capital

As our planetary health has become increasingly stressed and fragile, we’ve reached a point where active regeneration is critical. It feels the language associated with sustainability is no longer enough, we also need a regenerative vocabulary. The illustration below shows some of the words often found in this vocabulary. 

For those readers interested in systems change theory – thinking regeneratively has a lot in common with the mindsets required for systems change.

Figure 1. Common words used to describe regenerative (own illustration, feel free to share and adapt under CC license)

Healthy interconnections and working with complexity

The regenerative mindset takes inspiration from nature, where it’s recognised that the most resilient and healthy ecosystems are highly diverse, complex and interconnected. 

Understanding how we can design to support healthy interconnections is a crucial part of any regenerative design. Let’s explore this by example. Consider the human body which is composed of several complex and interacting systems such as the digestive system, circulatory, immune etc. As we engage in unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking or unhealthy eating, the systems in our bodies can cope for a while but eventually, damage occurs, our overall health declines and we become more vulnerable. Although our bodies are composed of highly complex systems that we often don’t fully understand, staying healthy is generally not complicated. Simple principles around regular exercise and eating well (such as Michael Pollan’s Food Rules) will support healthy interconnections, giving us a much better chance of good health.

This analogy demonstrates that when we engage with highly complex systems, we don’t always need complicated solutions. This may be obvious to some readers, and it can be applied to our interactions with all sorts of systems, from soils that buzz with billions of microorganisms (many undiscovered and their interactions unknown), to ocean ecosystems and even in the way we interact within businesses and our communities – through the values and practices we bring.

As the pioneering systems change expert Donella Meadow’s said: “We can’t control systems or figure them out, but we can dance with them!”.

A journey, not a destination

Another interesting aspect about thinking regeneratively is that it’s not a destination, rather it’s more evolutionary; a dynamic journey where the context is shifting as we constantly strive towards greater health. 

Despite this, the word regenerative (and the word sustainable) can sometimes be referred to as a status or destination that we reach. This “mission accomplished” mindset is problematic when the nature of the challenge is complex and ever-changing. Complex challenges, such as climate change, don’t get “solved”, rather they evolve without a finish line. As Daniel Wahl writes:

we have to “understand that this will be a continuous learning journey that will need many adjustments of course and constant redesign to adjust answers and solutions to changing conditions.”

Daniel Wahl (2018)

Having a “mission accomplished” mindset can limit or mislead our regenerative ambitions. Rather, a continuum mindset might offer a better way to conceptualise and work with our regenerative ambitions, as articulated by Ethan Solinez in this article, which explores levels of regenerative and the boundaries of what we can achieve are not limited.

Interdependent and co-operative

Many of our prevailing business models are challenged by a regenerative paradigm, which favours cooperation over competition and a much greater fairness in the way that we share and distribute value through supply chains. For many of us, moving from competitive to co-operative is a giant leap. Competitiveness and tribalism is deep in the bones of our culture and education systems. This is a big transition. Especially for businesses who thrive on vying for increasing market shares, or those on a seemingly relentless mission for cross-market domination

But, it’s just a paradigm…

As one colleague I work with said, this regenerative paradigm offers a renewed hope, at a time when sustainability feels stuck. Regenerative concepts have galvanised our imaginations, towards new possibilities and ways of thinking. 

While many inspired leaders paint a beautiful picture of what this regenerative framing might offer us, we must remember, it’s just a paradigm. It can mean different things to different people. Paradigms can also shift with time, get hijacked, corrupted and diluted. So there’s questions about how we might uphold this regenerative framing to continually challenge us, so it can be transformative and not just the latest buzzword. This feels important because we know small incremental improvements are not enough in the drive to restore our ecosystems and protect future human civilizations. 

…and back to regenerative agriculture

The roots of much regenerative thinking can be found in agriculture, where the concept has existed, arguably, for millennia. Regenerative ideas can be found in many indigenous systems, as well as the work of many farming pioneers from Dr George Washington Carver to Robert Rodale and the founders of the permaculture movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgrem.  I recently had a chance to explore this in the USA-context, working on Forum’s Growing the Future project where we explored what a regenerative agriculture system looks like, the barriers to getting there and a 7-point plan for accelerating a just transition towards it.

Envisioning the goals of a regenerative agriculture system, co-developed with stakeholders from across the USA agriculture system, in the Growing Our Future project.

For many, regenerative agriculture offers new perspectives on how we practice farming and re-organise the rest of our food system. It’s within agriculture where thinking regeneratively is most tangible and accessible. It’s here where we can be reminded of it every day, through every meal, every garden and every landscape, that yearn for regeneration.

Eight questions for the regenerative agriculture movement

Following my recent blog exploring the opportunity that regenerative agriculture offers as a shared ambition for the food and farming sector, here, I share eight questions I’m currently holding about regenerative agriculture.

A little context. In addition to my work at sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, I’m excited to be doing a Nuffield Farming Scholarship to explore the regenerative agriculture movement. So it’s a particular focus at the moment and in this piece, I draw on some of the thinking we’ve already been doing at Forum for the Future.

1) Does it matter if regenerative agriculture means different things to different people?

One thing I’ve learned with my colleagues at Forum for the Future as we’ve explored regenerative agriculture is that it means different things to different people. This is hardly surprising. The term is not protected and it’s a relatively young movement, with advocates across different types of organisations and geographies. So how much does this matter?

Will the term “regenerative” be akin to generic and vague terms such as “sustainable” or “eco”? Or does it communicate a clear and transformative ambition for our farming systems? 

Over the next 18 months, I will aim to speak to various farmers and organisations using the term to understand what it means to them. In particular, I want to understand the levels of ambition and how much this differs between people and geographies. I’ll include organisations that have proposed definitions as well as those developing and testing the new Regenerative Organic Standard. As I do this, I’ll draw on the range of other sustainable agriculture movements and philosophies (see below) to find out how people see regenerative agriculture as being distinguished. What, for example, is attracting some people towards regenerative agriculture, but not to organic, which has a much more established history. Ethan Soloviev’s proposed lineages of regenerative agriculture is one useful insight to draw on here.

Figure 1. Different farming movements: where does regenerative agriculture fit in?

I would also like to test a set of common principles and practices (outlined below) related to regenerative agriculture, exploring the consensus around what it means, how this is shifting and whether people feel consensus even matters.

Figure 2. Example principles and practices associated with regenerative agriculture. These focus on environmental, rather than social regeneration. Many agree that regenerative agriculture is not about simply ticking some of the boxes above. Rather it’s a process of understanding the specific farming system or landscape and working to continuously improve it. Covering outcomes such as soil health and carbon, biodiversity, nitrogen and water impacts.

2) Can the regenerative agriculture movement uphold a high level of ambition and integrity?

The term regenerative agriculture is occurring with increasing frequency, with farms and companies starting to use the term fairly liberally to describe their approach or ambitions. 

Working with the assumption that the scaling-up of regenerative agriculture is ambitious and would be transformative for our food system, there is a danger of the term becoming diluted or losing its integrity as more people use it to describe their ambitions. The risk is higher especially if there is no consensus around measuring what is regenerative.

Is regenerative agriculture a useful frame in which to engage the mainstream of farmers and companies? And if so, what can the regenerative agriculture movement do to uphold a high level of ambition and integrity?

3) Measuring regenerative agriculture: how do we know it when we see it?

Without using a standard or certification, how do we know when we are seeing a “regenerative agricultural” system? This leads to the question: “how might we measure “how regenerative” a farming system is? Is measuring regenerative agriculture even viable?

This is an important question because organisations working to promote regenerative agriculture are often looking for a consistent means to measure it that works across farms and geographies. Why is this? Perhaps because of the interests to monetise changes in practices (e.g. to create market incentives or enable funding) but also because measurement typically underpins most certification approaches. 

To explore this, I intend to speak to some of the organisations involved in standards and monitoring, such as the Rodale Institute, NSF, the Savory Institute, the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit, Sustainable Food Trust, Cool Farm Alliance and Indigo Agriculture. I’m anticipating a spread of opinion. For example, for many people, regenerative agriculture is about continually improving soil health and soil organic carbon. But for others in this space, regenerative agriculture includes additional and broader positive outcomes, such as continually improving local water quality, biodiversity and even livelihoods.

Ethan Soloviev and writes about regenerative agriculture being more like a continuum and with his work at Terra Genesis, they have proposed levels of regenerative agriculture

Figure 3. To uphold the integrity and increase its potential benefits to the systems of the world, Terra Genesis have proposed a ‘Levels of Regenerative Agriculture’ framework.

Exploring how we measure or witness regenerative agriculture also raises questions related to timescales. For example, some farms are working from a baseline where past management has resulted in highly degraded soils, and now, continual restorative improvements to the soil health and other ecosystem services is very much needed. Other farms might have a long history of sustainable practices and are starting to use the “regenerative” moniker. How might markets and the general public distinguish between the two? How can we have confidence that the benefits from regenerative agriculture (such as carbon sequestration) stick long into the future?

4) Is regenerative agriculture challenging what we grow?

If we are to really embrace the principles and philosophies of regenerative agriculture, I believe it challenges what you produce, not just how you produce it. For example, moving towards more mixed farming systems, more perennial crops and much greater crop and livestock diversity.

However, will the companies upstream who are advocating regenerative agriculture really support their suppliers to increase crop diversity in their farming systems? So far, I haven’t seen much evidence of this happening in practice. It’s an area at Forum we are increasingly trying to focus on with the organisations we work with.

5) Do we understand the barriers to scale?

Through my work with the sustainable nutrition team at Forum for the Future, we have identified various barriers that are preventing regenerative agriculture from scaling-up. These are summarised below. During my Nuffield Scholarship, I would like to explore these further, particularly focusing on the farmer’s perspective and how barriers shift across geographies.

Figure 4. Barriers to regenerative agriculture

6) The murky world of carbon markets: challenges in measurement and who claims the carbon saved? 

The possibility of carbon sequestration is a notable feature for regenerative agriculture. Carbon markets provide a possible route to finance a major transition to more regenerative agriculture. To explore this, I will explore initiatives such as Indigo Agriculture (Project Terraton) and examples such as Mootral’s ruminant feed entering carbon markets. But it is also worth learning from more established carbon markets that already exist, such as the reforestation and peatland restoration (where in the UK, Carbon Codes exist to enable a route for carbon offsetting). One of the many differences with regenerative agriculture is that the benefits from carbon sequestration could be quickly undone in a few seasons of intensive agricultural practice – which is perhaps less of a risk in a reforestation project.

Carbon sequestration in agriculture is fraught with uncertainties and complexity. To briefly explain a few:

  • Carbon sequestration rates in soil can vary depending on the soil type as well as the practices. Arable soils, for example, tend to have a greater scope for increase than grasslands, while the scope for sequestration on sandy soils can be as low as 2-3%, versus 30-40% for peaty soil. 
  • In trees, carbon sequestration varies with tree species and rates of growth. If those trees are cropped, then the carbon sequestered will depend on the end-use of that timber. 
  • There’s also a plateau with soil carbon sequestration. What happens when that plateau is reached? And how can we be sure that carbon remains locked-in?
  • We need to be realistic with the maths. As Dr Jonathan Foley explains in this thread, are claims of the huge sequestration potential realistic? 

How can we uphold integrity in carbon markets, ensuring a net reduction in carbon and avoid double counting?

Figure 5. Examples of climate mitigation potential of 20 natural climate solutions. From Bronson W. Griscom et al. PNAS 2017;114:44:11645-11650.

7) Exploring strategies to scale-up regenerative agriculture

For many, regenerative agriculture is just another banner for a movement that seeks to transform our food and farming system to work better with nature and provide healthy nutritious food for all. And there are many farmers already practicing it, simply because it’s the right thing to do.

But how do we create the enabling conditions to transform the entire food and farming system? What levers need pulling to bring everyone onto the same path? What does the transition look like?

Deliberately introducing systems thinking lens might help us to explore these questions. Frameworks and theories of how systems change, such as Rogers Innovation Bell Curve, Donella Meadows levers for change, and Forum for the Future’s Scaling Up Impact framework, can help us explore how to support regenerative agriculture to go mainstream. 

At Forum, we’ve already started convening organisations across the food system to explore what is required to scale-up regenerative agriculture. In particular, I would like to explore the role of policy/regulation to accelerate change. How necessary is government regulation to scale regenerative agriculture? And in what specific areas is regulation most effective to unlock or promote scale?

Figure 6 a) Proposed in 1962, Rogers Innovation Bell Curve provides a useful framework to understand how new products/services become mainstream
b) Forum for the Future’s Scaling-Up Impact framework pulls out the common building blocks of how scale has happened in the past, to enable the tipping point for a new paradigm.
(c) At Forum for the Future, we combined the scaling-up framework with expert interview insights to identify a set of eight interventions necessary to scale-up regenerative agriculture, summarised above.

8) Based on what we’re learning about mainstreaming regenerative agriculture, what are the different priorities for different actors?

Many different types of organisations influence our food system (as shown in Figure 7) and each has a unique role in supporting or influencing change. But who holds power? Who influences who? Where is pressure exerted? How might responsibility and risk be better shared? What would these organisations look like if regenerative agriculture was mainstream? How can organisations better collaborate to move faster towards regenerative agriculture?

During my Nuffield Scholarship journey, I’m keen to move beyond the theory and return with some practical suggestions to what the priorities should be for different actors in the food value chain to support the mainstreaming of regenerative agriculture.

Figure 7. Map of actors in the food system that influence agricultural practice

The journey continues…

So many questions and what feels like messy complexity right now. Thankfully, there are many smart folks out there working on this which I hope to meet over the coming 18 months. With each step of the journey, I will aim to keep writing and hope to get closer to answering some of these questions.