What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Understanding Regenerative Agriculture
It’s completely understandable if you’re clueless or unsure about the precise nature of regenerative agriculture. Even one of our team members was at this juncture just twelve months ago. She lived and breathed organic and sustainable farming (being raised on a self-sustaining farm block in NZ and growing her own urban organic garden for 10 years) and even biodynamic permaculture (having friends working these systems through her short 2-year involvement as a parent in Waldorf education). Yet regenerative agriculture was just out of view.
The terms “regenerative agriculture”, “regenerative farming”, or “regenerative production” are not yet part of the common vocabulary of Australians unless you work, live or interact in the “progressive” farming sector. This pretty much excludes the majority of Aussies.
That being said, regenerative agriculture is the buzzword in farming circles evoking heated conversations and powerful emotional responses ranging from doubt, cynicism and concern on the one hand, through to hopeful anticipation and wonder of how these “old-new regenerative practices” will create a vastly more healthy and prosperous farming future for many many generations of farmers to come.
So our main reason for writing an entire blog to define what regenerative agriculture is, is twofold. Firstly, to offer a clearer definition of regenerative agriculture, from the perspective of everyday people (rather than the experts). One that people can readily understand and use when they go food shopping, when talking with friends and family, and with grocery shop owners or producers at farmers markets and so forth.
Consumers need information so that they can ask what practices have been used to grow the food they buy, to request proof of these practices, and have confidence that a simple gesture of purchasing regenerative products supports a safer, healthier, carbon-rich soiled landscape that will sustain humanity for millenia to come.
Our second reason for offering a workable definition about regenerative agriculture is that it strikes at the heart of Organichain’s mission :-
“… to provide a trust-based marketplace where consumers and farmers both positively impact the proliferation of regenerative agriculture”.
If we as a business are to be effective in positively impacting the proliferation of regenerative agriculture, then we must educate others. Education about all things regenerative is one of our key priorities!
Origins of Regenerative Agriculture
Development of the term regenerative agriculture is attributed to Robert Rodale, son of the father of the “modern organic movement” J.I. Rodale (creator of the Rodale Institute). After the passing of J.I. Rodale in 1971, son Robert championed regenerative agriculture as going “well beyond sustainable”. Meaning going beyond farming that limits the drain on natural resources, to “[taking] advantage of the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when undisturbed … It is distinguished from other types of agriculture that either oppose or ignore the value of those natural tendencies”.
In collaboration with his daughter Maria, Robert Rodale described the “Seven Tendencies Toward Regeneration”. Those characteristics that when implemented by a farmer, land manager, community group or for-profit business, points towards the presence of regeneration; both in spirit and in practice.
- Pluralism – promoting a diversity of plants, people, cultures, and experiences.
- Protection – preventing bare soil and resulting erosion, increasing the health of soil microbial communities, building resilience in the face of “economic and cultural fluctuations,” and improving agricultural and personal hardiness.
- Purity – avoiding destructive habits such as chemical fertilisers and pesticides which increases the potential for improved health and success.
- Permanence – deeper and more developed root systems results in improved communities, both in terms of perennial plants, businesses and economies
- Peace – weed and pest interference are disrupted, as are systems of violence and crime.
- Potential – regenerative agriculture moves nutrients upwards in the soil profile (a form of grassroots, or “trickle-up” economics” resulting in more productive soil.
- Progress – soil structure and soil life improves, as does the health and wealth of its inhabitants.
The USA Rodale Institute website succinctly sums up regenerative farming thus :
“Regenerative farming methods and practices go above and beyond today’s organic standards to actively regenerate the natural resources used while supporting healthy, thriving communities.”
(Rodale Institute Source: https://rodaleinstitute.org/blog/original-principles-of-regenerative-agriculture/)
Video Explanation by Charles Eisenstein
The following 3:50 minutes video by Charles Eisenstein offers a succinct, easy to understand explanation about regenerative agriculture.
Commentary by Team Agroecologist Gavin Kay
Organichain’s team agroecologist and farming consultant Gavin Kay explains that it is essential now more than ever, to re-imagine the long-range, perpetual future of regeneration and how we define it within the sector and for the public at large.
“The bar has been shifted from no net environmental decline to one where land managers or farmers are aiming for holistic restoration of biologically diverse, ecologically functioning land and food farming systems in every regard”, says Gavin.
Gavin is noticing that regenerative and “transitioning to regenerative” farmers are continually improving their capacity for implementing and upgrading natural systems that work in harmony with the environment. In brief, water, soil and land management systems that tread lightly on the landscape, in order to effectively produce wholesome nutrient dense food for people to eat.
“It’s a tricky place we’re at, at present” says Kay. “Defining regenerative agriculture in a way that’s broadly accepted and understood by sector experts, farmers and the public at large. We have a way to go to get convergence of a single common definition; we are not there yet!”
No One Commonly Used Definition
To prove the point about no one commonly accepted definition of the term “regenerative agriculture” that everyone agrees upon, a US based research team reviewed 229 journal articles and 25 practitioner websites to understand why. They published their results in Oct 2020.
In essence what they found were definitions variously based upon processes (e.g use of cover crops, integration of livestock, and reducing or eliminating tillage), or outcomes (to improve soil health, to sequester carbon, and to increase biodiversity), or combinations of the two. They concluded that it is more helpful for individuals or organisations to define the term “regenerative agriculture” comprehensively for their own purposes and context.
As if to underscore the complexity of no commonly used definition for regenerative agriculture, there’s a community website www.regenerativeagriculturedefinition.com devoted entirely to encouraging contributors to upload their definitions. They define four essential principles which are:
- Progressively improve whole agrosystems (soil, water and biodiversity)
- Create context – specific designs and make holistic decisions that express the essence
- Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships amongst all stakeholders; and
- Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms and communities to express their innate potential.
From these principles they extrapolate ten practices which are:
- No till farming and pasture cropping
- Organic annual cropping
- Compost and compost tea
- Biochar and terra preta
- Historically managed grazing
- Animal integration
- Ecological aquaculture
- Perennial crops
It’s evident to see from the above mentioned list of regenerative agriculture principles and practices distilled by the regenerativeagriculturedefinition.com community website, that each one of these fourteen items would merit at the very least an entire blog, each item having its own list of definitions! But seriously, we do plan to write extensively about each item eventually. The point being, there is no simple shortcut in defining regenerative agriculture that suits everyone’s needs
A Visual Conclusion
If a “picture says a thousand words”, in an attempt to visually draw the various threads of the aforementioned principles, farming practices and definitions together into a coherent conclusion, we propose a highly simplistic visual entitled “The Farming Spectrum” (see Image 1.0 below) that positions regenerative agriculture vis-a-vis other types.
Image 1.0 The Farming Spectrum
Regenerative organic agriculture, with it’s diverse focus on regeneration sits on the polar opposite end of the farming spectrum to industrial agriculture. It’s focus is the holistic restoration of biologically diverse, ecologically functioning land and food farming systems. Nestled between the two lies mass / broad acre organic and sustainable farming.
Our overarching conclusion is this. That it is necessary for Organichain to take a “definition discovery pathway” approach in progressively curating a more and more precise working definition of regenerative agriculture. One which helps our customers understand clearly, what this is and how to confidently ask for the food products, farming production practices, farm certification credentials and evidence of all of the aforementioned, by name.