Regenerative Agriculture: Shifting Food Systems

Regenerative agriculture represents a major opportunity to improve our food system and tackle climate change. Cropping up in the sustainability plans of big food companies such as Nestle, Unilever, and Danone. A new approach rooted in old ways to solve future problems.  

”Individual action is not enough to create the transformational change needed across the food sector, collective action is the only way to move the industry forward. This ensures that all actors, including competitors, are moving forward in the same direction”. – Bertrand Swiderski, Chief Sustainability Officer at Carrefour 

What is Regenerative Agriculture?   

Regenerative agriculture is defined through a variety of practices rather than by a set term. Broadly speaking “regenerative” refers to a set of practices that aim to promote soil health and reduce soil disturbance.  

Regenerative agriculture sets itself apart from conventional farming by adopting a holistic approach that prioritizes overall success across various performance indicators, as opposed to solely maximizing production. This method recognizes the interconnectedness of ecological systems and aims to enhance them.  Some definitions focus on the processes involved in farming – from the use of cover crops to the integration of livestock within crop cycles and the reduction in tillage – while others focus on outputs – such as restoring carbon content in the soil and increasing biodiversity.  

“Regenerative” methods aim to reverse the trend set by conventional farming. Current conventional agriculture follows a degenerative approach, which makes use of processes that result in the degeneration of the soil organic matter over time.  

The current issues it addresses 

Agriculture represents a major leverage point in the fight against climate change. Agricultural land covers 38% of the land on our planet and utilises 70% of freshwater resources. It employs millions of people and the food security produced is the foundation upon which we have been able to exponentially advance. 

However, concern is mounting over the negative impacts of the current farming system. It is estimated that current “conventional farming” applied globally and characterised as “intensive” accounts for one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions annually and results in the loss of 24bn tonnes of topsoil each year.  

Furthermore, intensive agriculture has significantly reduced natural biodiversity and continues destroying global ecosystem resilience. The European Knowledge and Innovation community estimates that we have a total of 60 quality harvests remaining before the “complete compromise” of our agricultural system.  

Globally consumers are becoming more concerned with the negative picture portrayed by climate science. Consumers want to take responsibility for their impact on the environment. Labels advertising “grass-fed”, “organic” and “free-range” have risen in popularity as informed consumers become more ethical in their decision-making. However, because of “greenwashing” consumers are demanding that retailers go beyond labelling and start to address the problems associated with the system head-on, rather than providing solutions to a few negative symptoms of the food system. 

The prevailing conventional approach to agriculture is characterised by an industrial-productive mindset. This mindset refers to techniques that prioritise the maximisation of output and efficiency across the farm. Essentially farmers try to retain or increase their yield whilst minimising financial costs. This type of farming is characterised by large-scale production, the standardisation of practices and reliance on chemical inputs.  

Regenerative agriculture represents an opportunity to improve upon conventional agriculture and reduce the degradation associated with food production.  

How it works  

Farming through regenerative methods is guided through principles, these help to define processes that then determine practices aimed at establishing a range of ecological relationships across the farm. No Till Growers, an online educational advisory group recommends: Keeping the soil covered as much as possible, keeping the soil planted and planted diversly as much as possible, disturbing the soil as little as possible, and using a diversity of life-promoting inputs such as compost or animals. 

Essentially, Regenerative Agriculture is not a tick-boxing exercise to gain accreditation. There is no prescriptive method to follow. It is a mindset to be applied across farming. Some approaches might work within one agricultural system and not work within another. This is because, unlike traditional methods, the practices that work best depend significantly on the land that is being worked. This is not necessarily the case in conventional Degenerative farming.  

Mark Dunro, an agri-food managing partner of venture capital group “Rockstart” describes regenerative farming as a philosophy, “treating the soil as something that is alive rather than as a blank canvas.” Degenerative practices create these “canvases” using synthetic agrochemicals like fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides. This allows the farmer to manipulate the composition of the soil from which they produce. Regenerative farming replaces chemical inputs and rather makes use of a diverse range of ecological factors to restore the nutrients in the soil naturally. Focusing on developing natural relationships to foster a growth medium that is more resilient and independent of chemicals.  

Farming requires reciprocity: when something is taken from the soil it must be replaced to avoid exhausting natural resources. Most other industries are extractive, when a widget is created, one is not required to replace the resource that created it.  A farmer’s biggest financial concern is balancing the price of the inputs required to achieve reciprocity. Synthetic agrochemicals are historically less risky and more affordable in the short term, motivating farmers to continue with what is conventional. Regenerative farming requires a long-term mindset that understands the value of honouring the efficiency of natural systems.  

Growing forward…   

Now, farmers, retailers, and consumers need to work together to accelerate the sustainability of our food system. Bertrand Swiderski, Chief Sustainability Officer at Carrefour, says it is important to adopt a collaborative approach across all stakeholders within the food value chain. Consumer demand and policymakers are the key to shifting food producers towards more sustainable practices. Regenerative agriculture is not the only solution, but it offers a clear route towards an environmentally positive future for generations to come.