The diverse collection of sponsors of this event
Photo by author taken at the SB’23 SAN DIEGO event
In mid-October there was an annual event in San Diego, California run by the Sustainable Brands organization. The theme of this particular conference was “Regenerating Local” and there were many sessions in which the term “regenerative” was discussed with regard to various business sectors.
On the final day of the meeting there was a stand-alone session called the SB REGEN AG Summit. “Regenerative” is a term and concept that has been rapidly gaining traction over the past 4 to 5 years although it has a much longer history in terms of its underlying principles, particularly when it comes to “Regenerative Agriculture.”
In some ways “Regenerative” seems poised to replace “Sustainable” as the way to describe environmentally and socially desirable business models. In part this is because “sustainable” tends to have the connotation of maintaining the status quo while regenerative evokes restoration and positive change. The long term participants in organizations like Sustainable Brands or the agricultural multi-stakeholder sustainability organizations like Field-to-Market (FTM
) or The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), or Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops have always described sustainability as a “journey, not a destination.” They have also done a great deal of work to define progress in terms of measurable “outcomes.” Thus, there is substantial philosophical and practical overlap between these two terms, but “Regenerative Farming” has more of a focus on soil health, its related crop production benefits and ecosystem services (soil carbon sequestration, climate resilience, water quality improvements, reduced input requirements…).
The Concept Is At A Key Juncture
At this point consumers do not know much about what “Regenerative” means, and at the aforementioned conference and summit there were players articulating what are essentially two very different visions of what that term should mean and how to move forward. One model is being pursued through sourcing commitments by major food brands and is working out ways to aid and incentivize farmers to make the transition to regenerative farming. The other model adds a regenerative certification process over and above the existing USDA Organic certification. Those two paths are likely to have very different outcomes in terms of scale. In any case we are in a stage where consensus would be desirable in terms of the definition of “Regenerative.” There is also the need for validation systems to avoid the erosion of trust that comes with any sort of “green washing.”
The Regenerative Agriculture Summit had an additional set of sponsors
Photo by author during the SD’23 SAN DIEGO event
The Organic Plus Option
A Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) approach was discussed in a session on day 3 of the SB’23 San Diego event (“Leading Certification Labels for Advanced Achievements in Regeneration and Biodiversity”). This particular definition of regenerative farming was developed by the Regenerative Organic Alliance starting in 2017. The working standards for Organic certification were developed by the USDA after Congress tasked them with that role in 1990 when organic standards were at a multiple definition stage analogous to where regenerative is today. The ROC standard now involves aspects of soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. The three brands that gave presentations about this at SB’23 San Diego were Bonterra Organic Estates – a California winery, Nature’s Path and Traditional Medicinals Inc. One speaker acknowledged the degree to which consumers are confused about the difference between organic and regenerative and that there is a degree of consumer “certification fatigue” in general. Thus, education with potential customers was seen as an important step and the film Common Ground was cited as a good summary of what regenerative should mean. The ROC (Regenerative Organic Certification®) is quite involved taking 3 to 5 years to achieve. It is largely defined in terms of specific farming practices although there is monitoring of soil health in terms of compaction and aggregate stability. All of this is overlaid on the exclusion of almost all “synthetic” inputs that comes with the Organic rules. From this author’s long-term agricultural perspective, there was no vision presented for ROC that would lead to a future Regenerative segment with more than niche, upscale market potential, particularly when it comes to broad acreage cropping systems where the organic segment is very small and characterized by low land-use-efficiency.
A Large Scale Option
A much more scalable vision for Regenerative Agriculture was presented in some of the sessions in the main conference and particularly in the RegenAg Summit. Among these presenters there was a reasonable degree of consensus that regenerative should follow several key principles such as those that were developed already by the Field-To-Market multi-stakeholder organization:
· Principles of Regenerative Agriculture
· Minimize soil disturbance (e.g., no-till or other minimum tillage systems)
· Maintaining living roots in the soil (e.g., growing cover crops or “relay crops”)
· Continuously cover bare soil (to prevent erosion)
· Maximize diversity with emphasis on crops, soil microbes and pollinators.
· Integrating livestock where it is feasible.
The Field-to-Market definition of regenerative agriculture as presented to the Summit audience
Photo by author during the SB’23 SAN DIEGO event
That would mean farming practices for any given field/farm need to be very context-specific because of the huge variation between soils, weather, crop rotations and market access that farmers must deal with in different geographies and while producing different crops. As one speaker put it there should not be “prescriptive rules” but rather a menu of options and then it is up to the farmer to find the fit for their situation. As a Walmart
spokesperson put it, they need to meet farmers where they are at. For animal agriculture there are basic principles for “rotational grazing” that lead to what can be considered to be regenerative and/or restorative for pastureland.
While these topics are getting a lot of current attention, these are approaches to farming with a long history in various forms. There are many farmers that have been farming for decades in ways that could now be called “regenerative” including the SB’23 speaker Nancy Kavazanjian who has been on such a journey for 43 years and is also director of the United Soybean board. No-till agriculture celebrated its 60th year of commercial use in 2022 and the No-till and Strip-till farmer communities are already more likely to be implementing other regenerative strategies such as cover cropping or animal integration. There were quite a few actual farmers represented at these sessions and their individual stories reached back over many years. Tapping into their experience is an important component for expanded adoption moving forward.
No-till farming has been practiced for more than 60 years and “no-tillers” have been ahead of the … [+]
There was also a recognition that there are challenges and costs for the farmers, particularly during a transition period, and that growers need advice, support, financing options and incentives to make this work. As grower Mitchell Hora said, “it’s hard to go green if you are in the red.” Speakers from Ernst and Young LLP spoke about the need to be producer-centric and have a market structure that makes this work out economically for the grower through things like tax incentives, relay crop income, selling grazing rights to cover crops and/or getting some share from related brand equity of customers. A spokesperson for Rabo Bank added perspective on the need for conducive financing options. This does not have to translate into large price premiums at the consumer level. There was also discussion about the need to empower women in this process, and a recognition that brands need to stop being negative about “conventional farmers,” shame them, nor tell them what to do. There are certification systems for this kind of agriculture such as Regenified which is farmer led but now getting recognition by many downstream customers. There are other initiatives that are also focused on soil health and verifiable ecosystem services such as Regrow Ag which was also a participant at the SB’23 San Diego event.
Many players described a vision for Regenerative Agriculture that has the scalability potential to have significant impact in terms of Climate Resilience and Climate Mitigation. Purdue and Bayer described a Regenerative Partnership for the grain production to support regenerative soybean oil production and a regenerative supply of chicken feed. The Fieldview digital farming software platform analyzes farm data to this document the Climate benefits of farming activities and that service currently covers 200 million acres of farmland. Walmart and General Mills
are joining in a program that aspires to convert 600,000 acres of regenerative agriculture by 2030. AgSpire is an organization which helps ranchers access public funds to support this kind of transition and Walmart has made a multi-million acre commitment around regenerative beef ranching. By one estimate there are 33 million acres in the US transitioning to regenerative agriculture and 600 companies are talking about regenerative goals in one form or another. The path was described as moving from “Cheerleader to Champion to Catalyst.”
In conclusion there are encouraging signs that the regenerative agriculture concept will evolve into a highly significant and impactful expansion of optimized farming systems and avoid being limited to a niche status. There is also a developing body of research indicating higher nutritional density in both the crops grown regeneratively and for animals fed from such crops. It can be good for farmers, good for the consumer, good for brands/business and good for the planet.