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The State of Regenerative Agriculture: Growing With Room to Grow More

Regenerative agriculture begins here

In Brief

Organic farming means big business, but a burgeoning network of farmers has built on that base with a new set of practices. They are finding ways to improve yields and efficiencies while they make their soil and stock healthier and more durable. They call their practice regenerative agriculture. 

Who's regenerating what in this practice? As you'll see, regenerative agriculture involves techniques to ensure healthy soils, climate, workforces and communities. Investors in these practices leverage data, science and communication across farming communities for constant improvement. It's a lot to track. 

So the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative team has prepared a series of explainer stories. Look in the weeks to come for reporting on the methods, metrics and meaning of a practice that can make farming more durable, equitable and conducive to ecosystem health. 

This article, by The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (RAI) team at the Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY), is the first in a series on key opportunities to accelerate regenerative agriculture in the United States. 

Widespread adoption of large-scale conventional agricultural production over the last century -- including single crop production, heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and intense tillage -- has contributed to substantial greenhouse gas emissions as well as a decline in soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. At today’s rate of soil degradation, some scientists predict the world’s topsoil could be destroyed within 60 years. In contrast to conventional production, regenerative agriculture is a holistic system of practices and principles that seek to improve, not degrade natural resources. Some of the most common practices to achieve this outcome include cover cropping, minimal tillage, long crop rotations, intercropping, rotational grazing, and incorporation of animals. Regenerative agriculture could play a key role in solving the climate crisis, offering a possible avenue to sequester carbon while securing food and water supplies.  To unlock these benefits, widespread investment is needed to catalyze the development of regenerative agriculture markets at scale. 

The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (RAI) conducted a landscape analysis of ongoing efforts to accelerate regenerative markets in the United States. Informed by interviews with more than 60 leaders in the field, including farmers, investors, food companies, nonprofits, and regulators, the team uncovered four main barriers to the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture: insufficient farmer training programs, the cost of farmland, nascent markets for regenerative products, and the current crop insurance system. A year-long process of research and analysis has yielded a four-part article series to address each key barrier. As summarized in the table below, each article will highlight key stakeholders and promising solutions. Cumulatively, the series aims to inform the Conservation Finance Network and other regenerative agriculture proponents on how capital and resources can be strategically deployed to accelerate the adoption of regenerative agriculture to achieve transformative change in the social and environmental outcomes of US agricultural production.

Barriers and innovators in the field

Barrier Opportunity Sample of Stakeholders Interviewed
Farmers lack regionally-specific knowledge, evidence, and models for transitioning to regenerative agriculture. Build regional farmer training programs and peer networks based on trust and visibility. Practical Farmers of Iowa
Mad Agriculture
Gabe Brown, Understanding Ag and Soil Health Academy
Rodale Midwest Organic Center
California State University Chico Center for Regenerative Agriculture
TomKat Ranch
General Mills
Buying farmland is increasingly expensive and can be inaccessible to aspiring, new, and expanding regenerative farmers who lack upfront capital. Invest in conservation-minded farmers and farmland through farmland investment funds and other emerging financial mechanisms to purchase land, equipment, and inputs. Dirt Capital
Iroquois Valley REIT
Frontier Farmland
Cienega Capital
New Island Capital
Breakthrough Strategy Solutions
Delta Institute
BioCarbon Group
SLM Partners
Insufficient financial incentives - farmers face uncertain downstream demand and unwillingness to pay more for regeneratively produced products.  Develop markets and infrastructure for regeneratively-produced products, such as small grains.  Pipeline Foods
Terra Genesis
Farmer Business Network
The crop insurance system provides perverse incentives for maintaining conventional systems that degrade farmland Advocate for crop insurance reform. MidAtlantic Farm Credit
Meriden Institute
AGree Coalition
The Nature Conservancy
Center for Rural Affairs


What Is Regenerative Agriculture? 
The definition for regenerative agriculture is still in flux. What definitions from nonprofits, companies, and academic institutions (including Rodale, General Mills, Danone, and CSU Chico, and the pilot Regenerative Organic Certification) have in common is a focus on a systems-approach to farming that seeks to improve natural resources rather than depleting them. Building on existing definitions and conversations with stakeholders, the RAI developed the following definition of regenerative agriculture, which relies on outcomes-based criteria, rather than prescriptive practices:

Healthy Soils: Healthy soils with high organic carbon content improve erosion resistance, aeration, porosity, water retention, and nutrient provision. These benefits lessen the need for external fertilizer and irrigation, and improve fertility and resilience to drought. 

Healthy Ecosystems: Farms both rely on and contribute to ecosystem services like pollination, biological pest control, hydrological services, soil structure maintenance, and nutrient cycling. Diverse agricultural systems, both above and below ground, are more resilient to diseases, pests, and climate shocks. Regenerative agriculture systems use practices that maintain or improve these services. In addition, health and welfare of on-farm livestock is a key input to a healthy ecosystem. 

Healthy Communities: A regenerative system includes the social welfare of the human actors within it - farmers, ranchers, farm workers, and their families. One key input to the social welfare of farming communities is farmer profitability. If farmers don’t make profits, they can’t invest in better farm management practices, nor can they pay their workers a fair wage and support healthy local communities. The RAI asserts that another key input to healthy communities is equitable access to land and resources. Discriminatory policies have excluded marginalized communities from land access and farmland wealth generation. A regenerative system that promotes healthy communities will address this history and seek more equitable access. 

Healthy Climate: Agricultural land managers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions with practices that store carbon in soils and biomass, minimize nitrous oxide emissions, and reduce deforestation from land conversion. While scientists may disagree on the exact magnitude of agriculture’s climate mitigation benefits, there is consensus that carbon storage practices yield beneficial impacts. However, regenerative agriculture is just one piece of a holistic response to climate change. Absent effective climate policy that limits emissions across all sectors, runaway climate change will impede the effectiveness of regenerative agricultural practices. 

An example of a farm working on developing a regenerative system is White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Southern Georgia. According to the CSU-Chico study we link to here, White Oak Pastures produces grass-fed beef, goats, and lamb, pastured pork, turkey, chicken, duck, geese, guinea, and rabbit, and 60 varieties of organic vegetables, grown with cover crops, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and limited tillage, on 3200 acres. Farmer Will Harris says, “The cows graze the grass, the sheep and goats prefer the weeds, and the poultry species peck at the roots, bugs and grubs. All species naturally fertilize the land. This way, the pastures are grazed and fertilized in three different ways.” Will Harris uses a rotational grazing strategy, which involves subdividing pastures and rotating complimentary animal species amongst certain pastures while others rest. This system encourages grass to grow deeper roots and re-establish quickly, which can increase the biomass, fertility, and carbon sequestration in the soil. A Life Cycle Assessment conducted by Quantis found that White Oak Pastures is "storing more organic carbon in the soil than pasture-raised cows emit over their lifetime," per the study. This carbon sequestered in the soil could offset as much as 85% of the farm’s total greenhouse gas emissions. 

In contrast to a system like White Oak Pastures, conventional, industrial agricultural systems are characterized by monoculture (production of one crop), heavy use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, intense soil tillage, and grain-fed livestock raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

Some readers may be confused about the difference between regenerative and organic. Regenerative agriculture differs from organic in that regenerative is a non-prescriptive, and currently unregulated, approach. Organic is a USDA-regulated labeling term that describes specific growing and handling requirements, including that organic food is produced without synthetic chemical fertilizers or  pesticides or GMOs. Though farmers may adhere to these requirements, it is still possible to produce organic products that are neither sustainable nor regenerative, through poor management practices such as intensive tillage. One initiative for regulating regenerative and collaborating with the organic certification is the Regenerative Organic Certification, which is still in a pilot phase.

Outcome Metrics: A Challenging Proposition 
Consistent outcome measurement remains a stumbling block to the broad-scale investment in regenerative agriculture. These outcomes are important to nearly every stakeholder in the supply chain: investors seek proof of the efficacy of capital deployed, farmers want to understand the most efficient production practices, companies want to quantify carbon sequestered as an offset, policy makers need evidence of enhanced resiliency. Of the different outcomes to measure, quantifying soil carbon sequestration at scale is one of the most salient challenges. Soil is foundational to agricultural health, a key resource to sequester carbon, and paramount to ensuring food security. Scientists and entrepreneurs are actively working to solve this problem; a few promising initiatives include infra-red soil measurement tools like Quick Carbon and COMET-Farm greenhouse gas accounting

An industry-wide coalition, the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC), seeks to launch a national agricultural ecosystem service marketplace by 2022. The coalition is working to create consistent measurement protocols for on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, and water quantity. While entrepreneurs and the ESMC are focused on ecosystem service measurement and market creation, big questions remain about how to measure more subjective components of regenerative agriculture, like community well-being. 

The Future of Regenerative Agriculture? 
In addition to unresolved questions about outcomes measurement, there is a robust debate within the agricultural community about regenerative terminology and standards. Some stakeholders argue that regenerative is simply a new term for sustainable agriculture and existing conservation practices. Others believe regenerative agriculture should supplant the organic certification standard as a more rigorous justification of beneficial environmental and social outcomes associated with growing practices. Stakeholders also debate whether corporate agriculture can holistically achieve the outcomes described above. 

Despite this debate, most practitioners interviewed by the RAI team agreed about fundamental principles underlying environmentally-responsible food production as well as key roadblocks to adoption of regenerative practices. Achieving regenerative agricultural outcomes at scale is paramount for building agricultural resilience and unlocking soil’s carbon sequestration potential. The rest of this series will describe why reforming crop insurance, expanding farmer training models, deploying investment capital strategically, and establishing more diverse agricultural markets are essential to incentivize the transition from conventional to regenerative agriculture.