What is Regenerative Agriculture? Experts don’t yet agree on a precise definition, but they seem to align on the core essences of what makes an agricultural practice or process regenerative—practices that are both ecologically and culturally sustainable, that respect and honor local and indigenous ways of life and cultivating the earth, and that result in food and other agricultural products that contribute positively to the health of both producer and consumer.
Unlike certification processes or standards that check off boxes from a pre-determined list of requirements, regenerative practices take a systems view, understanding that agricultural practices function in relationship with the wider environment. In the midst of growing concern for sustainability practices, climate change, extreme weather events, social and economic inequalities, and destruction of high-value ecosystems and biodiversity, the promise of agricultural practices that not only protect, but also restore and rebalance, holds a certain allure. The idea of regenerative, partly because of its adaptability to diverse cultures, ecosystems, and scenarios, is resonating among the agriculture community worldwide. In a world where crises seem to appear with increasing frequency and lack of food security creates strife even in many so-called “developed” countries, both producers and consumers are looking for new solutions.
As Tim Tensen of Terra Genesis International (a globally recognized expert on regenerative agriculture who is working to help establish consensus around its meaning and measurement) says:
“It is for this reason that I think we are desperate for something we can trust and feel good about. In a time when human systems have been rapidly scaled to global proportions without adequate understanding of the consequences or appropriate checks and balances, we are living through a disconnection and breakdown in the social contract. We need to restore that trust and feel good about our systems and ourselves as participants in those systems. We want things like real cost accounting, transparency, circular economies, and regenerative agriculture. As with the terms natural, organic, and sustainable that have come before it, the term Regenerative Agriculture is a mirror that reflects our own hope for the future of the world.”
The regenerative movement follows on its historical antecedents; the “organic” movement emerged in the 1990s with its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, although “organic” and “natural” have often lost their meanings when applied broadly to food and other agricultural products without adequate assurances of provenance or traceability in many cases. Alongside this consumer doubt, certification practices to achieve the “organic” label are often too expensive or labor intensive for smaller, local farmers. Regenerative goes beyond organic to emphasize the role of these smaller actors that make up a multitude—nearly a third of the world’s population is part of a smallholder farming household.
Tim Tensen describes it further:
“The hidden strength of the regenerative agriculture movement is its lack of a formal definition. While this may sound counterintuitive, the reason for this becomes apparent when one considers the following: not one ecosystem or social-ecological context is the same. In fact, the opposite is the case: each ecosystem is unique in its essence, context-specificity and the ways in which local communities, cultures and other stakeholders interact with it. This means that there simply is no such thing as a cookie cutter approach to regeneration: while some of the underlying principles might be universal, each context requires its own unique regenerative approach, and thus definition.
“It is for this reason that in our work with clients, we don’t deliver a formal definition of regenerative agriculture. Instead, at Terra Genesis, we use a developmental approach that results in collaboration with our clients, farmers, and brand representatives alike. This means we don’t deliver a formal definition of regenerative agriculture, but instead we work through a process of developing a personal experience of regeneration for each person we work with, farms and brand-representatives alike. This process enables that the definitions that each client uses for regenerative agriculture are sourced from their personal context and rooted in potential for ecological healing without having to take the word of an “expert” for it. Perhaps more importantly, this process generates a will and desire among all of the participants to succeed in what we are doing. This will, sourced from our own personal knowledge and inner beliefs, is critical if we are going to succeed in mitigating the challenges we face with regards to our planet and communities, and in remaining resilient to others as we necessarily adapt to an inevitably changing planet.”