The story

Regenerative agriculture is a dynamic and evolving movement. Its role in holistic landscape restoration is large as it offers a wide range of approaches and practices. At the same time, many questions relating to it are still widely discussed. Here we’re addressing four of these questions.  This story intends to provide clarification as well as to open up an honest conversation, learning from each other. So please share your thoughts in the comments, so we can bring the field further together.

Note: this story is a companion story from the 4 Return Guidebook chapter ‘Regenerative Agriculture Practices’, which offers an introduction to Regenerative Agriculture and its role in holistic landscape restoration. You can find it here.

Is there certification for regenerative agriculture?

There are several certification programmes available for regenerative agriculture. These certification programs can be divided into three categories:

  1. First-party certification: This type of certification involves the farmer sharing stories about their farm and their farming practices through transparency. In this approach, the farmer herself- or himself is responsible for demonstrating how they are implementing regenerative and sustainable practices on their farm. This may include sharing data on soil health, biodiversity, and other indicators of sustainability. This type of certification is often seen as the most authentic because it is based on the farmer’s own experience and knowledge.
  2. Second-party certification: This type of certification involves peer-to-peer evaluations, such as participatory guarantee systems (PGS). In this approach, either farmer-farmer or farmer-client evaluation visits are used to assess the quality of farming practices and outcomes. This type of certification is often seen as more collaborative and inclusive, as it involves the participation of both farmers and consumers. Find more information about PGS here.
  3. Third-party certification with standardisation: this type of certification involves an external organisation assessing and certifying farms based on a set of standardised criteria. It can establish clear benchmarks and it is generally more trusted by consumers due to its independent nature. However, standardisation in a context-specific approach may not always be compatible. Additionally, the cost of third-party certification bodies can create a whole new industry that takes money away from the farmer, making it less favourable for small-scale farmers. An example of a third-party certification system is Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), founded by the Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s, and Patagonia, and backed by other members of the alliance. ROC focuses on soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness in addition to organic farming practices.

Certification programmes can help to provide transparency and accountability in the regenerative agriculture movement, ensuring that farmers are following best practices and providing consumers with confidence that they are supporting environmentally and socially responsible agriculture. However, it is important to consider the type of certification that fits your context the best, considering the resources available, and the evidence you’d like to build. Kiss the Ground created a great overview of the various regenerative certifications and verifications available to producers. Read their guide for a brief breakdown of the cost, timeline, and requirements for each certification.

Can regenerative agriculture help mitigate climate change?

The food, agriculture, and land use sectors are one of the largest contributors to human-induced climate change, with ~24% of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, this sector can play a significant role in the solution. The report ‘Farming our way out of the climate crisis’ by Project Drawdown offers an extensive analysis of the opportunities in this sector, which includes an important role for regenerative practices. They distinguish two methods: reducing emissions and removing already emitted greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through the potential of ‘carbon sinks’.

Reducing emissions is an immediate and permanent solution to stopping climate change as it prevents greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. The main ways to realise this, according to the report, are conserving and restoring tropical forests, new methods of animal agriculture, new methods of rice cultivation, more prudent use of nitrogen fertilizers and manure in farming, reducing food waste, eating more plant-rich diets, and increasing the productivity of agriculture.

The second method, carbon sequestration or ‘carbon sinks’ is realised when (agricultural) practices remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them in temporary reservoirs like trees, grasses, and soil organic matter. Approaches to this include restoring forests and planting large areas of trees, using regenerative annual cropping techniques (e.g., no-till cultivation, cover cropping, or compost application), perennializing agriculture through agroforestry systems and perennial crops, and managing grazing lands with regenerative agriculture techniques. Carbon sequestration offers great opportunities but there are challenges. The process takes time, sometimes decades, and the amount of carbon that can be stored is limited by the size of the soil reservoirs. Also, changes in land use can lead to the release of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

“Let’s imagine your home has a bathtub, and it’s rapidly overflowing with water. […] Cutting emissions is like turning off the faucet; it addresses the source of the problem. Carbon sinks are like the mop; they can help clean up the mess you already caused. Both are helpful, but they are not substitutable.” – Project Drawdown

So, regenerative agriculture practices can contribute positively to slowing down climate change. However, we need to take a holistic approach and look at a portfolio of solutions that address both carbon sequestration and emission reduction.

Is regenerative agriculture economically viable?

Can you make a profit from regenerative farming? This is a critical question, in particular for smallholder farmers considering taking the plunge to regenerative methods. These farms are crucial for the global transition (see the next question), as smallholder farms produce a third of the world’s food.

Let’s start with the core business. Here we see that regenerative farming can bring economic challenges. First, in the beginning, farmers need to learn a lot (‘pay school fees’) and good advice is often difficult to come by. Secondly, a farm that is used to conventional agriculture often needs to be weaned off the chemicals for a couple of years before the health of the ecosystem is built up enough that it can start taking care of itself again. During this period the farm is extremely vulnerable to shocks. Finally, regenerative agriculture tends to bring higher labour costs.

Fortunately, regenerative agriculture also brings several economic opportunities. Firstly, in cost reduction, such as the cost of fertilizer and pesticides. Secondly, in decreasing certain risks. Regenerative practices in the long run can reduce the risk of crop failures due to weather events or pests. Also, growing diverse crops through diverse practices increases economic resilience. A final opportunity may be price premiums. See for example this research which explores price premiums for regenerative almonds. The story of farming in harmony with nature will resonate with conscious consumers. What may also interest consumers, is that regenerative food seems to have higher nutritional quality, as healthier soils can produce more nutrient-dense crops (see this study in the Journal PeerJ). In 2018, US researchers showed that on farms in the Northern Plains of the USA, regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over conventional corn production systems, largely due to price premiums received for the products. But whether it will be possible to get price premiums, is very dependent on your market, so make sure to do good market research before betting on this opportunity.

Another potential opportunity might be to sell carbon credits, or more broadly, payments for ecosystem services. To learn more about this, see the chapter on landscape finance).

Figuring out whether the benefits outweigh the costs in your situation can be a complex puzzle. Fortunately, you can draw from existing analyses. Wij.land, for example, works on a thorough methodology for cost-benefit analyses (see here, in Dutch). This analysis shows how this can be done on a landscape scale.

Can regenerative agriculture be applied at the scale needed to meet human and planetary needs?

That regenerative agriculture provides many benefits for the local landscape is quite clear, but can it be applied on a large enough scale to feed our growing world population? Conventional agriculture has been technologically and economically optimised for efficiency. Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, can be labour-intensive, and making the transition requires financial investment. It will take time until the natural and financial benefits emerge, and meanwhile, crop yield may decrease.

First, we should consider here whether increasing food production is our biggest concern when it comes to feeding the world population. The problem of world hunger is not so much a problem of the amount of food that is produced, but rather a problem of food waste and a problem of unequal access to food. The FAO found that every year, one-third of all the food produced across the globe is lost or wasted: 14% between harvest and retail, and the rest at retail or consumer. If we can reduce food waste by only one quarter, world hunger can be ended. On top of that, around 80% of all agricultural land is used directly or indirectly for meat and dairy production. We feed only 48% of cereals and 7% of soy to humans – the rest goes to animal feed, and to a lesser extent, biofuels. Research suggests that if we saw a widespread shift towards plant-based diets, it would be possible to feed everyone in the world a nutritious diet on existing croplands. So, even if switching to regenerative agriculture would slightly reduce the productivity of the land, there would still be plenty of food to go around if the distribution and food waste problems could be resolved.

Having said that, it is still important to examine whether regenerative agriculture could largely replace conventional agricultural practices. According to this report by the Sustainable Markets Initiative (a global sustainability initiative for the private sector), there are three main barriers to scaling regenerative farming. First, the short-term economic case is not compelling enough for the average farmer (read more about this in the question ‘Is regenerative agriculture economically viable’ below). Second, there is a knowledge gap in how to implement regenerative farming (see also lesson for practice 4 below). Third, drivers in the value chain aren’t aligned to encourage regenerative farming (see also the lesson for practice 6 below). In landscapes, we see a fourth socio-cultural barrier, as there is often a culture of ‘keeping clear fields’ and ‘not going the alternative route’ which may result in peer pressure to continue conventional farming.

Fortunately, there are emerging solutions to these barriers. This 4-year research on regenerative almond farms in Spain also showed that different practices have different effects on yield (as well as on ecological measures); while vegetation covers reduced almond productivity, compost improved its productivity. Regarding the short-term economic case for farmers, regenerative agriculture brings unique economic opportunities (see above the question ‘Is regenerative agriculture economically viable’). Regarding the knowledge gap barrier, technology can help break through this by making regenerative farming much more data-informed (see this study) and computational models can help decide which practices would work in specific contexts. Also, case studies of both smaller and larger-scale farms are piling up: see for example case studies from Australia by RegenWA here and 5 worldwide case studies here.

Finally, a solution to the value chain barrier can be to shorten value chains, for example through direct farmer-to-consumer platforms. These platforms give a stage to the personal stories of farmers and allow them to sell products directly.

Start of a conversation

Only by sharing questions, insights, data and resources, we can ensure that regenerative agriculture stays a movement that truly benefits communities and landscapes. So let us know your thoughts in the comments. Which questions are on your mind? Which resources would you like to share with the community?

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