A radically new approach to farming is taking the agricultural world by storm, but it is already under attack from greenwashing. This new methodology has the disruptive potential of the first green revolution of 60 years ago, but the new “regenerative” revolution is so diametrically opposed to its predecessor that serious efforts are underway to co-opt it.
The origins of today’s conflict trace back to the late 1950s and early 60s when it became clear that the world needed to double global food production over the next 30 years to feed a rapidly growing population and avert extensive starvation, particularly in developing nations. This spurred the widespread introduction of hybrid seeds, synthetic chemicals and intensive mechanization in farming. Often referred to as industrial agriculture, or the “green revolution,” this historic transformation did indeed result in producing enough additional food to avoid disaster. The unintended side effect is that agriculture now contributes one quarter of the global greenhouse gas emissions fueling runaway climate change.
Fast forward to 2023 and food production once again needs to double over the next 30 years in order to feed a projected population increase of two billion people. This time around we also need to turn farming from a major driver of climate change into a net-positive force in reducing emissions.
To this end there is a new agricultural revolution currently taking shape with the potential to produce this additional food and tackle climate change at the same time. Regenerative agriculture, an often cited but little understood term, is a new approach that centers on replenishing soil nutrients, helping to clean waterways and air, capturing carbon, and creating biodiverse farming systems that function holistically and support the well-being of all forms of life within its boundaries and beyond.
The emerging regenerative movement is rooted in indigenous and ancestral agroecological traditions, while at the same time drawing on decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, holistic grazing, and agroforestry.
Currently in the early adoption stage around the world, regenerative agriculture needs to overcome three major challenges in order to reach its potential.
Despite thousands of practitioners in dozens of countries, the first challenge is that there is no widely accepted definition of regenerative agriculture or agreement on how the outcomes should be measured and how it should be scaled. The Rockefeller Foundation is taking a lead in addressing these issues, and as part of that effort commissioned a series of seven reports which draw on a wide range of smallholder regenerative projects in many countries to explore the clarification, implementation, verification and scaling of regenerative agriculture as these fundamental aspects continue to be shaped at a global level.
The second challenge is the lack of support that is essential from governments, corporations, banks, foundations, NGOs, academia and international institutions.
The precedent for addressing this particular challenge can be found in the original green revolution, however heretical that may sound to proponents of sustainability. It is not the practices that are relevant, but rather the support system that made industrial agriculture the default global farming system it is today. Only a massive investment in research, technology, infrastructure and global transportation could have made the green revolution a reality. It took major changes in development aid, international trade agreements and import and export restrictions. And it involved the widespread introduction of farm subsidies that use taxpayer money to support industrial agriculture in developed nations.
If regenerative agriculture is to be deployed at scale, it will require the equivalent of the enabling support system that fostered the green revolution, albeit with a radically different set of priorities. And it is critical that these priorities be shaped by the ongoing testing and refining of regenerative principles and aims, avoiding the temptation to opt for a static one-size-fits-all-and-everywhere book of rules.
The third challenge for regenerative agriculture is greenwashing. At present more than half of all regenerative applications are supported by companies in the food or materials (cotton, rubber, leather, etc.) sectors. This is both good and bad. On the good side is the Textile Exchange organization which recently issued a Regenerative Agriculture Outcome Framework for the fashion, textile, and apparel industry, with extensive input from the VF Corporation and many others, that represents the highest regenerative standards in any sector. Countering this are companies supporting huge monoculture fields of hybrid and GMO seeds grown using synthetic chemicals and which they are attempting to label as regenerative. This ignores the holistic approach that underpins regenerative agriculture by focusing exclusively on measuring increases in soil carbon to justify the label. And while there is a valid case to be made for sequestering carbon, it should never become the basis for relegating regenerative to a meaningless marketing term in the same category as “sustainable” or “natural.”
The developing world, or the global south, is where regenerative agriculture is likely to have its biggest initial impact. This is where the bulk of planetary population growth will happen over the next 30 years. It is also where one third of Earth’s inhabitants currently live and work on smallholder farms of less than five acres (or two hectares). These smallholders constitute the largest underperforming segment of the global economy, but with strategic support and the introduction of regenerative practices, they have the potential to increase their current output by 50% or more. Increasing domestic production throughout the developing world has the added benefit of improving food sovereignty by reducing reliance on increasingly unstable global supply chains.
The regenerative revolution may still be a work in progress, but it is quickly gaining momentum and has the potential to be a significant force for planetary restoration.
The seminal reports discussed in this article were produced by Smallholder Data Services (SDS), a research and consulting company. The reports are the work of the Terra Genesis regenerative design firm, which is part of SDS and has guided two of the regenerative farming systems that helped to inspire and inform the reports: the Haiti regenerative cotton program being implemented by members of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance in Haiti and the regenerative rubber program in Thailand being implemented by Wanakaset farmers there.