This article is adapted from the Food Weekly newsletter.
One of the most notable developments in 2021 was regenerative agriculture’s move to the mainstream. The concept has come a long way since its origination from the organic community. From early adoption by corporate pioneers such as General Mills and Danone, it is now dominating the sustainability discourse within the industry.
It’s a development I observe with equal parts excitement and skepticism, specifically because of the lack of rigor with which commitments are made and implemented.
Despite the roaring attention across the agricultural spectrum — or perhaps because of it — regenerative agriculture still lacks a universal definition. While there are some common denominators, a shared understanding of practices and outcomes to which stakeholders keep each other accountable has been demanded for too long and has yet to materialize.
Regenerative agriculture certification and environmental outcome verification are two approaches aiming to bring rigor to the space, but with limited success. What are they doing and what’s the missing ingredient?
Regenerative as organic’s woke sister
Let’s start at the beginning. The term regenerative agriculture is often attributed to Bob Rodale. In the late 1970s, he became aware of climate change and thought of ways in which organic agriculture could heal soils and regenerate earth. In a 1989 video interview, he described efforts that merely aim to sustain a planet that was already degraded as flawed. He thought most people would be more interested in working toward a future with an improved (a.k.a. regenerated), over simply sustained, world.
Fast forward to 2017, the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a non-profit which the Rodale Institute brought to life in collaboration with farmers and progressive brands such as Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s, introduced a regenerative organic certification. "It was necessary to build on the USDA’s current definition of organic," said Jeff Moyer, CEO at the Rodale Institute. "[USDA] doesn’t look at soil health, has very weak language around animal welfare and absolutely zero language around social justice."
This meant that consumers who care not only about the environment but also about social justice and ethics needed to look for products with several certifications to ensure fair treatment of the environment, workers and animals. Producers had to bear with the processes and costs of several certification bodies. The new Regenerative Organic Certified label aims to simplify this process and define a gold standard for the future of agriculture. But is this what was needed most?
After decades in the making, organic agriculture only made up 4 percent of U.S. food sales in 2020. This doesn’t discourage Moyer, who says that with a 20 percent yearly growth rate, organic is growing faster than any other sector. He predicts that the organic movement will reach a tipping point at 15 percent market share, after which it will become the norm. He assumes that over time, as consumers get educated, the market grows and more producers and brands adopt the regenerative organic label, regenerative will follow suit.
"It has to happen because conventional agriculture is failing by every measure and isn’t even growing in yield anymore," said Moyer. While I’d love to share his optimism, I have my doubts that most U.S. farmland will be able to transform its practices to the extent that the Regenerative Organic Alliance — or even just organic certification — requires. At least not very soon. As such, most food companies and their suppliers won’t be able to tap into the accountability mechanisms these certifications offer.
Outcomes, not inputs
Most companies investing in regenerative agriculture follow a different theory of change. Rather than serving as a gold standard for the industry that goes beyond organic, big brands look to regenerative practices as a more accessible way for conventional farmers to improve their practices.
In their view, synthetic inputs don’t necessarily stand in the way of improving soil health. Instead, practices such as cover crops, reduced tillage and rotational grazing can reduce the need for external farm inputs while improving environmental outcomes such as water retention and soil carbon storage. Pilot studies demonstrate that soil health improvements are possible and economically viable on conventional farms.
Synthetic inputs don’t necessarily stand in the way of improving soil health.
Doubling down on outcomes rather than inputs may not be such a bad strategy, after all. It’s what Land to Market, a regenerative sourcing certification program by the Savory Institute, focuses on. The underlying principle is to look at the environmental health of a farm over time by quantifying and qualifying multiple aspects of the local ecosystem and allowing farmers to use data-driven insights to hone their practices.
According to Chris Kerston, chief commercial officer of the Land to Market program, the process of measuring environmental outcomes is very different from organic certification. "At the end of the day, organic as a protocol means to have experts decide what inputs aren’t good for the environment or health, and then make sure things on that list don’t get used. In itself, this doesn’t mean that a landscape is healing."
To him, a prescriptive and standardized approach to soil health doesn’t make sense: "What works in one eco-region doesn’t work in others, as practices get metabolized differently in different ecosystems."
Outcome verification for big ag is missing
Still, Kerston is skeptical of the way big ag is using the term regenerative agriculture. So far, the industry hasn’t even adopted a reliable system of outcome measurement and verification. "Regenerative is a buzzword with a lot of FOMO attached to it. But how resilient will this change be if there’s no substance behind it?" Kerston asks.
To differentiate itself from the buzz, Land to Market intentionally didn’t include "regenerative agriculture" in its name, even though it uses the terminology in its marketing efforts. Kerston said that the program would move on to a different term if regenerative agriculture got watered down too much in its mainstream application.
At the moment, Land to Market certification is limited to meat, dairy, wool and leather products, thus serving mostly meat and fashion companies. Applying it to commodity markets such as corn or soy that dominate agriculture in the U.S. will be challenging because of the lack of product segregation in commodity supply chains, where products are traded in highly aggregated markets rather than distinct supply chains. Where does this leave large food and ag companies and their regenerative aspirations?
Many service providers help companies measure and verify aspects of soil health improvements — especially when it comes to carbon sequestration — but they aren’t tracing outcomes from one end of the supply chain to the other. Without traceability and verification, consumers can’t make informed decisions and help divert the market toward better practices. The absence of sociocultural and animal welfare considerations in the corporate buzz is another gaping hole.
This brings me to my regenerative wish list for 2022. Moving from commitments to results, I’d like to see an industry-wide rigorous approach to measuring and verifying on-the-ground outcomes that is adaptive to local ecosystems and helps to continuously improve them over time. Companies need to pay attention to far more than just carbon — everything from biodiversity to water, air, workers’ rights and animal welfare matters.
Brands should also bring consumers into the conversation, communicating the difference between conventional, regenerative, organic and regenerative organic agriculture in a more understandable way. Consumers deserve a transparent system in which they can choose which practices they’re supporting with their purchases.