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Four Steps to Transitioning to Regenerative Agriculture

Close your eyes.

Picture a farm where the fields look whimsical—even wild—with maize growing next to beans growing next to squash and native grasses and flowers, sheep grazing freely, beehives nearby, and community members thriving.

A stark contrast to monotonous row upon row of a single crop, right? But this is regenerative farming in a snapshot: farming principles designed to mimic nature with the goal of rebuilding healthy soils to feed the planet’s growing population, increasing resilience to climate change while creating thriving farming communities and empowered landscape stewards.

woman smiling at farmers market holding vegetables
Sara at a local farmers market. (Photo courtesy of Sara Farley)

According to a United Nations senior official, the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years. The Dust Bowl in the 1930s in the United States is one example of how devastating that can be. Globally, nearly a quarter of the globe’s land is degrading due to climate change and human activities, according to the United Nations.

At the same time, estimates compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization show that by 2050, we will need to produce 60 percent more food to feed an anticipated world population of 9.3 billion if we do not curtail food loss and shift dietary patterns.

Two more data points: food systems account for at least one third of greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture coupled with logging has led to a 68 percent drop in mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian populations since 1970.

Taken together, these are daunting numbers. We have no choice but to act. From policymakers to farmers, governments to philanthropists, together we must repair our planet’s soil, nourish our people, and help rebalance our food system with nature and climate.

Regenerative farming principles have been with us for thousands of years, often embedded into indigenous practices the world over. Braided with fresh innovations, they offer direction and hope for a planet grappling with the extremes of climate change and an industrialized food system operating outside of planetary boundaries.

Image is of a south Dakota farm.
A South Dakota farm in October. (Photo courtesy of Masha Hamilton)

Acknowledge the Spectrum

Regenerative agriculture is not just one thing. It covers a range of outcomes, and the practices to achieve those outcomes are as varied as are landscapes.

A shallow regenerative system is designed primarily to cycle and sequester carbon, which enhances crop production, restores degraded soils, increases microbial activity, and reduces pollution by minimizing erosion and nutrient runoff.

Image is of a Kansas farm.
Gail Fuller’s Kansas regenerative farm. (Photo courtesy of Gail Fuller)

This can include practices like no-till, which also decreases fuel and labor requirements, and cover crops, which store nutrients from manure, mineralized organic nitrogen or underutilized fertilizer until the following years’ crop can utilize them, reducing nutrient runoff and leaching. These steps are crucial to reduce our legacy load of carbon; increasing renewable energy sources is not enough to fight climate change alone.

A deeper regenerative system optimizes not only for carbon, but also for biodiversity and water quality. Our ecosystems are shrinking and species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. No small part of that can be traced back to the land requirements of current agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture calls for integrating multiple crops, responsibly grazing animals and supporting insect life with the goal of encouraging microbiological diversity and, through that, building back water quality instead of depleting it. Some have said a truly sustainable food system requires “rewilding” by permitting natural grazing, reinstating key species, and allowing environmental processes to return to landscapes that have been controlled and degraded by humans.

On its deepest level, however, regenerative agriculture supports the lives of individuals and communities and strives for equity, reversing decades of racism, colonialism, and the extractive nature of capitalism.

Are farmers able to not just survive, but thrive? Are indigenous peoples, upon whose shoulders many agricultural practices rest, connected to and able to follow their spiritual traditions on the land? Are communities able to exercise cultural integrity and food sovereignty, so that those who produce, distribute, and consume food also control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution?

Agree on Definitions

To promote thoughtful debates and decisions about how to transition to practices that best heal the soil, enable nature to rebound, and deliver nutritious foods to feed the planet while supporting farming communities, we need clarity around how we define regenerative agriculture. We don’t have that yet.

Some definitions focus on processes, others on outcomes, and others on a combination of the two. No definition has emerged that is widely accepted by legal and regulatory bodies as well as for common use.

So, at The Rockefeller Foundation, we are supporting a consensus-building process to explore the spectrum of shallow to deep regenerative definitions.

Our goal is to marry distinct traditions and perspectives to find common ground. We want to reach broader agreement on an outcomes framework that can unleash initiatives, as well as the financing needed to support communities, producers, and landscape stewards to realize their regenerative goals.

Don’t Get Dogmatic

That’s a distraction, and based on a false premise, because many of the practices are place-specific—is the farm in a landscape where the soil is too dry, or is it too wet? Is the growing season brief or long? How critically is the soil eroded?

woman at the farmers market.
Autumn at a Brooklyn, NY farmers market. (Photo courtesy Masha Hamilton)

Regenerative agriculture is not like switching on a light. It is a process and a transition during which farmers and policymakers alike need information and support, partners, time, and learning.

Regenerative agriculture landscapes across the world are learning laboratories. What works in one environment will need to be tested in another.

The nature of environmental and climate change also means the context in which agriculture is practiced, even in the same landscape, changes is year by year. Approaches will need to shift as well, so we can’t get too wedded to one way only.

What we do need is general consensus on the desired outcomes, and to avail the substantial resources to help producers and landscape stewards through the transition so that producers aren’t shouldering the risks alone.

Follow the Data

This is as important for those working in legislative halls as it is for those in the fields.

We first need to agree on what we are measuring. And then we need to measure it everywhere: on small farms and large farms, on lands held by indigenous people and local communities and by business, across the globe, and in different climates.

Some argue that regenerative agriculture is fine as far as it goes, but it cannot feed the planet. That is more cause for us to earnestly and enthusiastically engage in research that ensures we don’t compromise on productivity while also creating landscape hubs were data on the multiple outcomes of regenerative (from the carbon and biodiversity measures to the sociocultural aspects) can be compared against conventional agriculture.

At the same time, we have to consider food loss as we take steps to support feeding the planet. Globally, we are still losing about a third of our food through loss and waste, which means the co-benefits of regenerative production warrant research at a systems level, taking a more macro view of “high productivity” and avoiding the trappings of optimizing only for a single outcome: crop productivity.

Following the data also means widening the lens on “evidence” to include multiple data types. Beyond quantitative and GIS data, this entails gathering insights on the lived experience and community-led practices that have not been well documented in the Western scientific literature, especially those of indigenous people and local communities.

A Path to Reversing Climate Change

These are urgent initial steps. Doing the work needed to bring regenerative farming underpinned by equity to scale means we can continue to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil while encouraging biodiversity, renewing our water quality, and reconnecting to the cultural dimensions and the people who steward our landscapes.

We must center our support on farmers, indigenous peoples, and local communities. But the benefits of regenerative farming will quickly ripple out to the planet as a whole, with the potential to meaningfully contribute to the reversal of climate change and the restoration of soil, land, biodiversity and cultural integrity over time.

If we can commit ourselves, wild-looking fields full of life and healing may become the norm. It is a vision worth pursuing.

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