Regenerative agriculture is a broad term used to describe farming practices that are meant to connote the strengthening of ecosystems and the empowerment of farmers
Regenerative agriculture is an increasingly used term to describe farming – think “organic” or “sustainable” as other categories in the same family. It is meant to convey a holistic approach to agriculture that puts the health of ecosystems as well as human communities next to crop production value. Importantly, there is no current consensus on the exact description or measurement of these practices, and the term's use is growing. As this term is shaped, and its value in the market evolves, it will drive large opportunities for investment in different aspects of the agricultural system, affecting its intertwined ecological and human communities.
The three primary buckets that make up Regenerative Agriculture are outlined below:
Managing Director at Yale Carbon Containment Lab
Soil quality and health
Primarily grass fed, pasture-raised
Animals as an integral part of the farm
Move away from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)
Following the 5 freedoms for animal welfare
Farmer & Community Wellbeing
Economic resiliency of farms
Increased food security
Increasing land ownership for under represented minorities
Recognition of indigenous roots
Food security and access
Why is Soil Health so important?
Improving soil health boosts land productivity, long-term sustainability, and notably helps store a significant portion of carbon - all key in fighting climate change and providing food for a growing global population.
Improving Soil Health is the most agreed upon pillar of Regenerative Agriculture
The main practices included in Regenerative Agriculture strive to improve soil health and biodiversity
Differences Across Definitions
Animal welfare and the social and economic well being of farming communities are often emphasized. However, practices vary widely in degree and strictness across definitions. Some definitions may mention these principles, but they may lack clear guidelines for measuring outcomes.
The scope of recommended practices differ. For example, comparing tillage reduction vs tillage elimination can have significantly different outcomes.
Practices need to be tailored to different types of farming and geographies to produce successful results. This makes it difficult to create uniform definitions and measures of regenerative agriculture, making monitoring and certification a challenge.
GMOs are considered an acceptable part of a regenerative agricultural practice by some definitions, but not by others.
There is also disagreement over organic v/s non-organic practices and what level of synthetic inputs is acceptable.
Examples and definitions of Regenerative Agriculture by non-profit and for-profit organizations
Where does the term Regenerative Agriculture come from?
The term Regenerative Agriculture, as we know it in a western context, was first surfaced by the Rodale institute in the 1980s and became mainstream in 2016 as awareness of the impacts of climate change became more widespread. The Rodale institute sought a term that went beyond organic, and moved away from post-industrialization large scale farming practices. This new term signals the transition from a practice which primarily extracted materials from the ground to a practice which restores and adds nutrients to the system.
This was not the first “new” term for a more sustainable form of agriculture to emerge. Regenerative agriculture represents the next phase of many modern agriculture terms. Ethan Soloviev of HowGood outlined five “lineages” of regenerative agriculture, or practices that influenced the rise of Regenerative Agriculture today. They include Rodale's organic practices, permaculture, holistic management, Charles Krone’s Regenerative paradigm, and the idea of soil profits and no-till aimed at conventional farmers often scared off by organic.
These practices themselves draw from thousands of years of indigenous knowledge. For example, the Iroquois in the Northeast practiced intercropping of the “three sisters” - squash, corn, and beans. The ideas of regeneration, long-term viability, and working with the land rather than against it are core tenets of many indigenous agricultural practices.
Social Inequity and Regenerative Agriculture
Who benefits from regenerative agricultural practices, who gets credit for the creation of these practices, and can this paradigm create a more equitable food system?
The answer to the first of these questions seems to be relatively agreed upon - RA should benefit farmers and farming communities. How to qualify and measure these benefits is not as clear.
In discussing RA, it is important to acknowledge the indigenous roots of many of its practices. While modern discourse frames Regenerative Agriculture as a “new” concept, it is not. Practices of regeneration, long-term viability, and working with the land rather than against it are core tenets of many indigenous agricultural practices that have been around for thousands of years. Many who note these contributions also call for an acknowledgement by companies, of the past and ongoing injustices within the agricultural sector.
The roadmap for modern crop rotation and soil health, a critical component of regenerative agriculture, was provided at the turn of the century by Dr. George Carver, an African American agricultural scientist, inventor, and educator. BIPOC farmers and workers, however, remain underrepresented in discussions about RA and its future.
The Way Forward
Opportunities in the Regenerative Agriculture sector
In 2019, Croatan Institute and Delta Institute reported that a $700 billion investment over the next 30 years could yield almost 10 trillion in financial returns and 170 GtCO2 in emissions mitigation. A more recent report by Polaris Market Research valued the current RA market at $7.74 billion in 2021, projected to reach $23.84 billion by 2030.
Walk into any grocery store today and you will see products labeled “sustainably grown” or “all natural” without any indication of what that really means. In the absence of a clear consensus or guidelines for what regenerative agriculture indicates, its labeling will follow a similar path. This could lead to consumer confusion, mistrust, and ultimately disincentivize customers’ willingness to pay a premium for such products.
Creating a Unified Label for Products
The Regenerative Organic Alliance alongside the Rodale Institute created the first regenerative organic certification program with a focus on soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness. While still relatively new, this program includes products like Dr. Bronners, Patagonia, and Nature’s Path that seeks to establish a rigorous and reliable program for companies to communicate their regenerative practices to consumers.
Here are some helpful resources for further readings:
Does Regenerative Agriculture Have a Race Problem? | Civil Eats
Decolonizing Regenerative Agriculture: An Indigenous Perspective
Regenerative agriculture: Merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably