Regenerative Agriculture 101
In 1980, Alan Savory began the discussion around an organizing framework to put a business into an agricultural landscape.
His insights added a holistic perspective to the business management process. He observed resting lands restore environments. He also discussed matching the environment to the farm business. We knew overgrazing was bad and a focus was needed to shift from on the time grass and soils were exposed to the animals of the business to the time the grass and soils was rested.
By 1989, several academic papers started using the phrase ‘working with nature’ and attempted to define the principles covering soil fertility, pest management, plant breeding and animal-crop systems. The dialogue and discussion were process focused and shied away from outcomes.
Ten years later, papers and authors moved from production and agronomy and started to add issues of food attributes and claiming profitability attributes.
It also got complicated, with several synonymous farming terms describing the same principles as regenerative agriculture:
- Agroecological Farming
- Alternative Agriculture
- Biodynamic Agriculture
- Carbon Farming
- Nature Inclusive Farming
- Conservation Agriculture
- Green Agriculture
- Organic Regenerative Agriculture
- Sustainable Agriculture
Since then, growers have taken this holistic approach and expanded it to social and generational causes. The discussion also moved to outcomes and less on process-based decisions.
From an agronomic perspective, most of the discussion is focused on five approaches:
- Keep the soil covered.
- Have living roots year-round.
- Minimum soil disturbance.
- Integrate livestock.
- Maximize crop diversity.
Why area outcomes important?
Outcome-based definitions attract external stakeholders who are seeking the same outcomes. Authors discuss forms of agricultural practice that actively restore soil quality, biodiversity, water quality, and other attributes.
By 2021, regenerative agriculture is a social movement. Multiple papers and organizations are using the terms. There was overlap depending on the scope – land management to social advocacy. Issues of food quality and lifestyle were also being framed and discussed.
The most frequently asked questions
- Does a lifestyle producing a raw food product translate into a clear understanding of measurable food quality?
- Does an outcome claim enhance or distract consumer trust?
- Does an outcome claim enhance market segregation and product differentiation?
- Does this movement provide quality information for public policy development?
A few caveats and limitations worth sharing
The work completed by researchers and descriptions in peer-reviewed publications, are not matching the work, books and advocacy reports of stakeholders and promoters.
In some cases, process-based production systems have a direct link to a values-based outcome. Certified organic food products are a great example.
Two ideas to think about
- To be valuable and repeatable, the development of any best management practice should have a coefficient as an outcome.
- Outcome-based decision-making can impair values-based processes.
Where can I find more information?
- Special Report on “Climate Change and Land” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/cite-report/
- General Mills has pledged to advance regenerative agriculture. https://www.generalmills.com/en/Responsibility/Sustainability/Regenerative-agriculture
- The Climate Reality Project – Regenerative Agriculture and Municipal Climate Action Plans. https://climaterealityproject.org/blog/regenerative-agriculture-and-municipal-climate-action-plans
- What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723/full#B54