Regenerative agriculture is a hot topic on everyone's lips, including food wholesalers. It's been hailed as the answer to climate change while simultaneously condemned as a buzzword with a race problem.
That said, while the movement is moving into the mainstream, turning the heads of those in the food industry and government alike, its fundamental building blocks, like what the term actually means, appear to be shaky.
So, what does "regenerative agriculture" actually mean? How will it affect food wholesalers, and can it deliver on its promise for a more sustainable future? Keep reading to find out.
What is regenerative agriculture all about?
On a very basic level, regenerative agriculture employs farming principles and practices that seek to replenish and repair farmed land and build CO2 levels in the soil. However, it differs from sustainable farming in that rather than avoiding the depletion of natural resources, it enhances and renews them.
Agriculture is currently the source of 25% of all human-induced GHG emissions globally. Meanwhile, a third of the earth's soil is already degraded. The United Nations forecasts that complete degradation will ensue within the next sixty years without action. So, a practice that seeks to reverse this seems like an incredibly attractive and sustainable alternative to conventional agriculture practices. That said, a significant roadblock is that there's currently no firm definition of what the term actually means.
Research from scholars at the University of Colorado reviewed 229 journal articles and 25 practitioner websites searching for clarity on this. Their study found that a mere 51% of research articles provided a clear definition. Although practitioner organisations did much better, with 84% presenting a definition, these definitions varied widely. Some defined regenerative agriculture as the process of "reducing or eliminating tillage," while others said it involved the usage of cover crops and livestock integration.
There was also a huge disparity when it came to the aims and outcomes of regenerative agriculture. Some said carbon sequestration and biodiversity were the main aims. Elsewhere, others said it was all about increasing yield and profit. Meanwhile, 41% of practitioner websites listed improving communities' social and/or economic well-being as the primary outcome.
While this lack of coherency appears confusing, it makes sense that there are many different definitions and desired outcomes of regenerative agriculture. This is because there are different lineages behind the movement. According to Ethan Soloviev, EVP of Research at HowGood, five main lineages inform definitions and approaches. These include:
- Rodale Organic
- Holistic Management
- Regenerative Paradigm, and
- Soil Profits / No-Till / NRCS
Of course, it's important to recognise that regenerative agriculture is nothing new despite its recent popularisation. It goes back thousands of years to indigenous populations who practised intercropping, agroforestry, and permaculture. Unfortunately, there has been a failure to acknowledge this in the mainstream discourse around the term. This has been a point of contention and controversy around the movement. More on this later.
Ultimately, the key takeaway here is that practice aims to move away from the current ecologically destructive practices of modern agriculture and agrochemicals and strives to restore a more respectful relationship with nature.
Why should food wholesalers take note of regenerative agriculture?
These days, consumers care a great deal about where their produce comes from. According to research by Innova, a global market intelligence company, two in every three consumers in the UK, US and China, believe that companies should invest in sustainability. This includes accountability in the supply chain.
So, it appears that right now, company and corporate success rides on implementing changes that promote sustainability and help fight climate change – or at least the promise to do so. And, while not long ago, ‘sustainability’ was the buzzword integrated into every marketing campaign, more and more people are waking up to the fact that ‘sustainability' is simply not enough. Even big names like PepsiCo, Danone, McCains and Nestle are all committing to launching regenerative agriculture initiatives.
Of course, this emerging trend towards regenerative agriculture, as the ‘new organic,’ is huge for food wholesalers. While it's a relatively new term in the food marketplace, consumer interest is there, according to a 2019 study by the International Food Information Council Foundation. On top of this, young people are up to three times more likely to be aware of the term, and around 90% of millennials are willing to put their money where their mouth is and pay more for organic and sustainable produce. More and more stories are also emerging of these farmers collaborating with big names, such as Natoora and L'Enclume.
Now, globally farms can even prove their commitment to regenerative agriculture with the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) scheme, which finished piloting in January 2020. The certification assesses soil health, animal welfare, and fairness for farmers, and a handful of certifications have already been awarded. This means that as food wholesalers, you can guarantee that the produce you offer is up to scratch and truly regenerative.
So overall, as awareness and demand increase, food wholesalers will have the opportunity to be ‘green leaders’ in the food industry early on, alongside the potential for future strong financial performance.
Overhyped and problematic or saviour of the planet?
The benefits of regenerative agriculture appear numerous, but that's not to say that it's the silver bullet to defeat climate change or that there aren't issues – there are.
Scientists are pretty certain of the ecological benefits of regenerative agriculture. Last year, the largest study ever conducted into sustainable farming concluded that the practice could have a transformative effect on biodiversity without negatively impacting crop yield. Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change outlined that land-based mitigation measures, such as regenerative agriculture could be an effective carbon drawdown solution.
That being said, a significant concern is whether or not this kind of agriculture can be scaled up. This is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing the movement. In an online summit in December 2020, agri-tech experts came together to discuss this challenge. Panellist Anastasia Volkova, CEO and Founder of FluroSat, argued that data on soil health will be key for scaling up and that this data will have to be site-specific and tailored to each farmer and their location. This, of course, will take time, something the world is short on when it comes to climate change.
Elsewhere, a report by Forum for the Future outlined that there are other systemic barriers to scaling regenerative agriculture. The report notes that finance, public health, and agriculture systems work in silos and currently, policy and regulatory frameworks just don't support this kind of agriculture. In addition to this, the study, financed by the Walmart Foundation, noted that the regenerative agriculture sector is fragmented and "without a shared vision and narrative," which is holding it back. Finally, a lack of funding and financial support for farmers also makes scaling significantly more difficult, especially considering that infrastructure has been built around intensive specialised systems.
Silvia Secchi, a natural resources economist in the Geography and Sustainability Sciences department at the University of Iowa, has echoed these sentiments. She says while programs like the Federal Crop Insurance program exist, incentivising agricultural overproduction, it's almost pointless to discuss regenerative agriculture.
Unfortunately, the issues don't stop there. The movement has also been embroiled in a race controversy. When "Kiss the Ground," a documentary that explored and arguably popularised the movement, hit Netflix in 2020, many were astounded at the level of whitewashing.
Writing in Civil Eats, Gosia Wozniacka outlined that the film left many Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) feeling "alienated" and as though their ancestors' contributions to the regenerative movement had been erased. However, this feeling of alienation existed before the Netflix documentary.
Romero Briones with the First Nations Development Institute argues that the current movement is “inherited, guarded, and perpetuated by white men." Filmmaker and director of Gather, Sanjay Rawal, insightfully expanded on this point. Speaking to The Counter, he said: "We who are non-Native came to North America and displaced a functioning system of agriculture and food production that had been here for 10,000 years. And within a matter of 250 years to 300 years, we've destroyed the value of the land. But those Indigenous practices are based on thousands of years of science."
He added: "There's plenty of genetic studies that show the incredible knowledge that it took to breed corn—when folks begin to study Native principles, they realize that they're grounded in modern science. Yet these studies are done with very little participation from Native scientists."
Elsewhere, Leah Penniman is the Co-Director, and Program Manager at Soul Fire Farm commented that being a farm owner and manager is one of the "whitest professions in the US," while being a farm labourer is "among the brownest." This, she says, must be recognised, and exploitation and racism in the food system must end.
Ultimately, the regenerative agriculture movement has a lot of potential and is certainly a step in the right direction; nevertheless, there are quite a few significant kinks to iron out before it is viable on a mass scale. So, can this be done before it's too late, and for food wholesalers, do the pros outweigh the cons?
At Artos, we‘re committed to encouraging sustainability and reaching the same goal that regenerative agriculture is pushing for. Artos Marketplace helps ethical and sustainable brands scale and matches them with thoughtful buyers.
If you have any questions regarding Artos Marketplace or you'd like to discuss a challenge faced by your food wholesaler business, schedule a quick call with us today.