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Should regenerative agriculture follow organic’s path?

The organic movement forged a path for a federally recognized standard for food. Should regenerative follow its course?

Photo collage of regenerative and organic

Organic and regenerative are sisters, not twins. Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz.

Regenerative agriculture has been the buzzy theme in agriculture for a few years with big investments from big food companies starting in 2020. Big food companies have created programs to engage their suppliers and fund a transition to regenerative practices such as no-tillage, cover cropping, crop and livestock rotation and pollinator-friendly habitats. Private label certifications such as The Savory Institute, the Rodale Institute and A Greener World, have popped up in the last three years, adding a veneer of respectability to such changes. But it’s still the wild west, and these developments haven’t resulted in a shared standard or even a definition that everyone agrees upon.

"Regenerative is a disputed term," said Matthias Berninger, Bayer’s senior vice president of public affairs, science and sustainability. 

There isn’t a consensus on what is considered regenerative, how to correctly enforce those changes and how to measure the effects. For some, like Matthew Dillon, a sustainability adviser with 10 years at Clif Bar, without these guardrails of enforcement and reliable verification, regenerative is nothing more than a marketing activity without the factual claims to back up that marketing. 

But regenerative has an older, more established, type-A sister that could be a path to legitimacy: organic. In the 1980s, organic was the new buzzword for farmers, grocers and consumers. What started as a farm-led movement to reduce the amount of chemical inputs used on crops became a moneymaker for farmers, supermarkets and consumer packaged goods companies, while also supposedly being better for the planet, but even that is disputed. But other studies have shown that organic agriculture emits 18 percent less greenhouse gasses than traditional and increases overall biodiversity by 30 percent and pollinator diversity by up to 50 percent.  

Farmers, companies and U.S. states were jumping in quickly and sometimes thoughtlessly so the government stepped in to create a federal organic standard. 

"One of the main reasons why organic has such a highly regulated labeling and certification scheme is that the organic label serves to justify a premium or higher price on the product," said Berninger. 

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act. It gave the federal government the power to take a patchwork of state organic standards and create a national organic program with a unified standard. And in keeping with traditionally slow government timelines, more than 10 years later in 2002, organic had a legal framework and was booming as companies saw a lucrative market where they could differentiate their products as healthy, better for the planet and tastier.  

That legal framework is still an important part of the USDA. In January, the agency published a strengthening of the organic enforcement for livestock and poultry living conditions. 

According to Dillon, that state-by-state patchwork approach to organic that dominated the 1980s is being replicated now in the regenerative space, but instead of state standards, it’s company specific or private certification specific. Farmers are being asked by each of their customers to perform dozens of different practices, and track and measure them with different verification methods. 

A federal legal framework for regenerative like the one that created for organic could end frustration and confusion for farmers. 

"You can’t understate the importance of a legal framework to provide assurance and comfort," said Wood Turner, senior vice president for impact at Agriculture Capital and a member of the National Organic Standards Board. "You see lots of certifications out there that are attempts. Do they provide some third-party assurance? Sure. Do they have the law behind them? No. And I think that's the heart of the matter."

Dillon went so far to say he doesn’t think there is a single regenerative certification out there right now worth discussing, except for the Rodale institute’s, an organic plus regenerative certification. 

"We wanted to address some other glaring issues that were not being addressed in the National Organic Standard," said Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a certification founded by Patagonia, Dr. Bronner's and the Rodale Institute.

For example, according to Whitlow, companies, and to be honest the planet, aren’t willing to wait the 20 years it took for organic to move through our bureaucratic government system to become something with the power of the national legal system behind it, according to Whitlow. In addition, the national organic standard lacks the capability to address labor issues and social equity, another pillar included in the Regenerative Organic Alliance standard, she added. And there are other dark sides to organic: In the route to becoming a legal standard, organic evolved from a holistic view of farming practices to a reductionist mindset focused on chemical inputs, Whitlow said. 

"I think what we've seen is an unfortunate development of creating any standards or certification, where it became a necessary evil to demarcate who were the ones that were dumping industrial chemicals [and who wasn’t]," said Rebecca Gildiner, Daily Harvest’s director of sustainability, about the evolution of the USDA Organic standard. "And when you do that, it gets reductionist. In order to establish something that can verify that good practices are being used, it's just become more and more focused on inputs."

After organic became a legally accepted standard for farmers and grocery stores, then came the finger-pointing. According to Berninger, in order to justify the higher prices, the organic industry started announcing how it was better than traditional agriculture. 

"As a traditional farmer, it felt like you had to justify why you are not going down the organic route," Berninger said. 

And in some ways, it still feels as if organic’s most fervent admirers, like Turner, still think it is the ideal for all agriculture, with regenerative as an intermediary step towards the final goal. 

"Organic is fundamentally regenerative and regenerative can be a pathway to organic," Turner said. "I do think [organic] is a gold standard, what I believe regenerative can and should be."

Gildiner echoed that sentiment. "We believe an ideal future of regenerative is organic," she said. 

The transition to organic is notably extremely difficult for farmers, who endure lower yields, expensive changes and several years of hardship before they start seeing and possibly reaping the results. These organic evangelists hope that regenerative, as a less intensive standard, could be transitional practice to help ease those obstacles. 

Whitlow and the Regenerative Organic Alliance have flipped that pattern, requiring organic as the base and adding regenerative on top as a bonus. "There's a lot of new regenerative certifications that don't require organic, so therefore, they are tacitly allowing the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers," she said. "Nothing will destroy the soil microbiome faster than those."

Others argue that organic can’t be the end goal due to its limitations in an increasingly resource-constrained future. For example, organic agriculture can’t feed the world’s ballooning population without increasing land use by 16 to 33 percent, decreasing food waste by 50 percent and drastically altering the protein consumption in diets, according to a Nature study from 2017. 

Regenerative agriculture should not make the same mistake that organic did and that is to separate themselves from the mainstream.

Instead, regenerative proponents want an alternative future for these practices that veers from the historical path the organic movement has taken.

"Regenerative agriculture should not make the same mistake that organic did and that is to separate themselves from the mainstream," Berninger said. "I think regenerative practices should be used at scale, instead of siloed off."

The organic enthusiasts are correct that regenerative, at least right now, is less restrictive than organic without a legal government standard, but Berninger sees that as an opportunity instead of a fault. 

"I think regenerative has all the benefits of enlightenment at the fingertip," he said. "Organic is trapped [in] the romantic view on agriculture."

In other words, the USDA organic standard is highly regulated when it comes to what seeds farmers can use, said Berninger, who wants regenerative to take advantage of the scientific progress that has been made in crops using both genetically modified organisms and gene editing. Crops including corn, wheat and soy have been engineered for resilience to droughts, pests and weeds. They’re also better at using nitrogen in the soil, and that help farmers make good on regenerative practices including reducing the use of water, pesticides and fertilizer while adopting no-till agriculture.

"These are all innovations that if organic farming remains opposed to using gene editing will not be accessible," Berninger added. "And that’s limiting for organic farming, but will allow regenerative agriculture to increase yields." 

But according to Gildiner, many of these GMOs have been created in tandem with chemicals from the big chemical companies. She sees a difference between a slightly evolved tomato whether that be by breeding or GMO and the genetically modified corn and soy that covers millions of acres across the country being used for biofuels and ruining soils. 

One of the biggest differences between organic and regenerative is in the carbon sequestration claims. Instead of hiking prices on consumers like organic, regenerative is looking to the carbon market to grab profits. Organic standards have focused heavily on practices, but if the regenerative movement wants carbon and biodiversity results, this can get complicated quickly.  

"There’s been a lot of discussion of regenerative being a measurable, almost product-based standard where we want to see measurable improvements in carbon sequestration so that a farmer can then sell those credits through a carbon market," Dillon said. "And if it's going to be that kind of testing based [standard], it’s going to be way more challenging."

Subsidies are a way for the government to start the complicated process of encouraging an agriculture transition without making the same pitfalls and frustrations of the organic pathway.

You can't treat all farms the same, he explained. No-tillage can work in some places yet not in others. For example, soybeans grow easily in the upper plains without tillage. It's difficult to do no-till tomatoes in California, or to forego herbicides in the Pacific Northwest, where weeds grow year-round.  

"And so there will be a challenge for regenerative," Dillon said. "Are they going to have to create crop-specific standards?" 

Restrictive government standards might not be the ideal approach. Instead the government could focus on subsidies and rewarding farmers financially for moving to either organic or regenerative practices. Right now, the government gives out billions of dollars to traditional farms churning out corn and soy without any regard for the soils, according to Gildiner. Both organic and regenerative need more financial support from the government.

"There are those farmers who were once conventional, but now they are regenerative and they're like, 'Hey, government shifted subsidies. Instead of giving my neighbor money to destroy the soil, give me an incentive to do crop rotation,'" Dillon said. 

This is starting to happen with the USDA and IRA investments but the government also needs to steer away from its traditional subsidies. Subsidies are a way for the government to start the complicated process of encouraging an agriculture transition without making the same pitfalls and frustrations of the organic pathway. 

"It's really hard to capture the dynamic principles of the living system, which is what regenerative agriculture is trying to do," Gildiner said. "And even within the regenerative movement, you're seeing a lot of debate over practices versus outcomes and principles. How do we build a standard? How do we measure this?" 

According to her, the organic movement started with those regenerative principles but the more reductionist system that was put in place by the government standard has inhibited a more holistic perspective. The regenerative movement could push the organic one back to its truer roots.

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

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