Regenerative Agriculture: Much More Than a Buzzword
Over the last four decades, we’ve observed a growing movement toward sustainable agriculture, with a focus on creating food production systems that do not degrade the natural resource base, thus ensuring the ability of future generations to produce and flourish. Numerous examples show how innovative businesses are adopting the principle of regeneration: creating and strengthening the capacity of nature, organizations, and communities such that each can support the other in mutually beneficial ways.
Project Drawdown, a nonprofit led by climate activist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken, compiles the world’s leading information resources on science-based climate solutions. It ranks regenerative agriculture systems as a critical opportunity for humanity to achieve climate health while ensuring financial well-being for farmers.
Given the current destructive impact of agriculture on nature (and with that, the long-term detrimental effects on human society as a whole), the question arises whether this movement can be the start of a large-scale transformation of current food production and farming systems.
In theory, a widespread systems change in the sector is possible if it can invent food production systems that work with nature, lower unsustainable use of water and other nonrenewable natural resources, regenerate healthy soil by restoring its carbon and nutrient content, and ultimately enhance biodiversity and natural habitat in farming areas.
The efforts of pioneering firms and other organizations discussed earlier suggest that a drastic shift toward regeneration could indeed help achieve such a system-level transformation in the agriculture sector.
Core to the discovery, implementation, and promotion of the lessons learned about regenerative practices are strong partnerships between businesses, including farmers, researchers, environmental nonprofits, investors, and other community stakeholders. Such deliberate collaboration helps companies scale up regenerative food production systems and adopt regeneration-oriented sustainability principles.
For example, General Mills partnered with Nature Conservancy, Soil Health Institute, Soil Health Partnership, and National Wheat Foundation to support research into achieving widespread adoption of regenerative soil health practices.
Equally inspiring, since 2017, Patagonia has worked with Rodale Institute (which pioneered the organic food movement in the US), Dr. Bronner’s soaps, Wild Farm Alliance, National Science Foundation, and Nature’s Path (a leading producer of certified organic foods) to form the Regenerative Organic Alliance to promote practices and standards that align with the principles of regenerative agriculture.
Businesses like General Mills and Patagonia do not only adopt the principle of regeneration based on ecological knowledge to embed sustainability throughout their own organizations; they promote its understanding and adoption through powerful networks of other social actors.
Joining the many parties engaging in and pushing for change are governing bodies. Many municipal, regional, and higher-level government entities are taking a proactive approach to building knowledge about and using the principles of regenerative agriculture.
In 2021, the University of Missouri with support from the Missouri Department of Conservation launched the Center for Regenerative Agriculture, the first of its kind in the Midwest. In collaboration with the local government, local farmers, farm and conservation organization representatives, and local agribusiness, the center develops innovative tools and regenerative farming methods that can lead to more resilient local food systems.
Regeneration Canada, a nonprofit organization founded in 2017, is working closely with governments, farmers, scientists, agronomists, businesses, indigenous communities, and citizens to create awareness of how soil regeneration can support a healthy food system.
The Regenerative Agriculture and Agritech Network launched by the Government of British Columbia (BC) offers a useful support system for local farmers to help them learn about, adopt, and expand regenerative farming practices. With this initiative, the BC government hopes to build a more resilient provincial food system to better respond to long-term, climate-related challenges.
All these developments suggest that regenerative agriculture is much more than a buzzword. We must also note the changing role of consumers. Consumers are starting to pay attention to the fact that foods produced using regenerative principles can help with environmental challenges, including climate change.
The phenomenon has become part of the larger consumer conversation and is beginning to shape consumer choices. Some argue that regenerative agriculture has the potential to produce the next generation of foods that are beyond organic. Momentum is growing thanks to recent popular documentaries such as Kiss the Ground and The Biggest Little Farm and widespread coverage of issues like local food security, food safety, global supply chain complexities, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Many large investors, yet another vital party in prompting change, have recently taken special interest in promoting regenerative agriculture. For example, US-based investment fund Farmland LP, a certified B Corporation, invests in converting monocropping-focused industrial agricultural land into organic farmland using regenerative farming practices. The company manages more than US $175 million in assets and more than 15,000 acres of sustainable farmland in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.
Clearly, more businesses need to adopt the principles of regeneration to generate large-scale system change. This requires recognizing the power of ecological knowledge to: (1) fundamentally strengthen an organization’s capacity to manage its relationships with nature more sustainably in the long term; and (2) provide a profitable business model in the short term.
The time is right for innovative tools, metrics, frameworks, and models that can convince businesses, governments, investors, and practitioners that systemic change is both needed and possible. For agriculture in particular, regenerating and revitalizing the entire ecosystem of the farm (from soil biodiversity and organic matters to plants and other species) can and needs to contribute to mitigating climate change effects, strengthening biodiversity, and ensuring a satisfactory livelihood for farmers.
By reintroducing crop-rotation practices, restoring natural pollinators, improving irrigation techniques, and/or reintroducing some traditional crop varieties, organizations can profitably strengthen ecosystems and ensure the well-being of the planet’s entire social-ecological system.
[For more from the authors on this topic, see: “How Ecological Knowledge Can Catalyze System-Level Change: Lessons from Agriculture & Beyond.”]