Regenerative Food and Farming: The Road Forward
This article was previously published March 9, 2021, and has been updated with new information.
When asked "What's Regenerative Food and Agriculture?" my typical answer is: It goes something like: "Regenerative agriculture and animal management are the next stage in organic food production and farming. They are free from harmful pesticides, GMOs, chemical fertilisers, and factory farms. Also, they are good for the human health and regenerative to the soil, environment, animals, climate and rural livelihoods.
Vandana Shiva (my fellow member of the Regeneration International steering committee) said that "Regenerative Agriculture provides solutions to the soil crisis and food crisis as well as the climate crisis and crisis in democracy."1
In 2010 Olaf Christen stated, "Regenerative agriculture is an approach in agriculture that rejects pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and is intended to improve the regeneration of the topsoil, biodiversity and the water cycle."2,3 This corresponds almost exactly with the stated principles of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) or Organics International.
In 2014 the Rodale Institute (IFOAM), Dr. Bronner’s, Dr. Mercola, Patagonia, Patagonia, The Real Organic Project, Patagonia, Regeneration International, Navdanya, and other organizations have discussed and implemented organic standards and practices. According to Australian regenerative pioneer Christine Jones:
"Agriculture is regenerative if soils, water cycles, vegetation and productivity continuously improve instead of just maintaining the status [quo]. Together, the soil, people, animals, and plants also experience greater diversity, health, vitality, and longevity.4
Changing the Conversation: Regenerative Food and Farming
In September 2014 when a group of us, including Vandana Shiva, Andre Leu, Will Allen, Steve Rye, Alexis Baden-Meyer and staff from Dr. Bronner's, Dr. Mercola, Organic Consumers Association and the Rodale Institute, organized a press conference at the massive climate march in New York City to announce the formation of Regeneration International, we set for ourselves a simple, but what seemed like then ambitious, goal.
We all agreed we needed to fundamentally change the conversation on the climate crisis in the U.S. and around the world — then narrowly focused on renewable energy and energy conservation — so as to incorporate regenerative and organic food, farming and land use as a major solution to global warming, given its proven ability to drawdown and sequester massive amounts of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, forests and plants.
Today, less than 10 years later, my growing Regeneration Movement believes it has reached this goal. While regeneration has become the hot topic within the organic and natural food sector, climate activists like 350.org and Sunrise Movement (U.S.) regularly discuss the important role that organic and regenerative farming practices play in reducing greenhouse gas emission.
We are becoming more aware that we can reach the Net Zero emissions goal for 2030-2050 through increased photosynthesis and drawdown. If we wish to stop climate change and avoid runaway global warming, nearly all people agree that this is possible.
Identifying Regenerative and Organic 'Best Practices'
Inside Regeneration International, which now includes 400 affiliates in more than 60 countries,5 our conversation has shifted to identifying regenerative and organic "best practices" around the globe.
The goal of our discussions is to help scale up and qualitatively grow regenerative best practice so organic and regenerative become the norm rather than an alternative for planet's current degenerative multitrillion-dollar land, food and farming systems.
The discussions and strategizing we engage in are more than just academic exercises. Our survival as humans and civilizations is at stake. The systemic crisis has decimated our climate, food, environment and every other aspect of modern living.
These mega-crises cannot be solved by small reforms and minor changes, like a slight reduction in fossil fuel usage, global deforestation, land degradation, and increased military spending.
Either we stop treating our planet's degeneration symptoms and create a new system that relies on regenerative farming, agriculture and land use. We will likely pass the point where there is no return (probably within 25-years).
The big problem is to describe global warming and the severe consequences of climate change so that everyone can understand it and implement the solutions we propose.
Enhanced Photosynthesis Is All-Important
The bottom line is that humans have put too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases (especially methane and nitrous oxide) into the atmosphere (from burning fossil fuels and destructive land use), trapping the sun's heat from radiating back into space and heating up the planet.
Because of our destructive farming, forestry and food practices, which have degraded large swathes of Earth's land, it's not possible to draw down sufficient CO2 through photosynthesis.
There is too much greenhouse gas and CO2 pollution in the atmosphere (and in the oceans), and there is not enough carbon in the soil and on our rangelands, living plants, trees and pastures.
The only way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses and CO2 in the atmosphere is by increasing plant and forest photosynthesis. This can be achieved through improved soil fertility, biological life and adequate water.
Photosynthesis is the process by which plants and trees use solar energy to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, produce oxygen, and then transform it into plant biomass or liquid carbon.
Photosynthesis is essentially a way for plants to grow and create biomass. It also promotes plant growth down below the ground. Plants transfer some of their liquid carbon from photosynthesis into the roots to fuel soil microorganisms, which in turn feeds the plant.
It is vital that qualitatively enhanced photosyntheses be improved in order to draw down greenhouse gases and CO2 from the atmosphere, and then sequester them in the soils and biota.
Agave Power: Greening the Desert
As my contribution to the global expansion of regenerative and organic food and farming practices, I have spent the last several years working with Mexican farmers and ranchers, consumer organizations, elected political officials (mainly at the local and state level), and socially and environmentally-concerned "impact investors."
We are trying to create and expand qualitatively what we consider a game changer for many of the 40 percent of world's semi-arid pasturelands. These areas have been difficult to cultivate food crops and too degraded to allow for livestock grazing.
We call this Mexico-based agave and agroforestry/livestock management system Agave Power: Greening the Desert, and are happy to report that its ideas and practices are now starting to spread from the high desert plateau of Guanajuato across much of arid and semi-arid Mexico.
We now are receiving inquiries and requests for information about this agave-based, polyculture/perennial system from desert and semi-desert areas all over the world, including Central America, the Southwestern U.S., Argentina, Chile, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Australia, Myanmar and Oman.
You can learn more about this Agave Power system on the websites of Regeneration International6 and the Organic Consumers Association.7
Primary Drivers of Regeneration and Degeneration
What I and others have learned "on the ground" trying to expand and scale-up regenerative and organic best practices is that there are four basic drivers of regenerative (or conversely degenerative) food, farming and land use.
First, consumer awareness and demand. The critical mass required to implement regenerative techniques is unlikely without an army of aware consumers and massive market demand. The second is the farmer, rancher, and land stewardship innovator, which includes the development of ecosystem restoration services and value-added product designs.
A third factor is policy changes and public financing, beginning at the local level. And last but not least is regenerative finance — large-scale investing on the part of the private sector, what is now commonly known as "impact investing."
All four drivers must be active and work together to increase quality and expand regenerative practices, and to achieve the critical mass necessary to change our degenerative system.
We will now examine four current drivers that cause degeneration: degenerative food, agriculture, and land use. This will help us understand the drivers behind our inability to move forward towards regeneration.
1. Degenerated grassroots consciousness and morale — When literally billions of people, a critical mass of the 99%, are hungry, malnourished, scared and divided, struggling to survive with justice and dignity; when the majority of the global body politic are threatened and assaulted by a toxic environment and food system; when hundreds of millions are overwhelmed by economic stress due to low wages and the high cost of living; when hundreds of millions are weakened by chronic health problems, or battered by floods, droughts and weather extremes, regenerative change — Big Change — will not come easily.
This will also not be possible when endless wars, land grabs, water and strategic resource extraction spiral out of control or when corporates, Big Tech, politicians and mass media exploit crises such as COVID-19 in an effort to impose a "Business as Usual" or "Great Reset” paradigm on us.
People that have been disempowered or exploited and are overwhelmed by everyday life's challenges often don’t have the luxury of seeing the bigger picture.
The job of regenerators is to link the global climate crisis to people's daily concerns, such as food security, employment, and justice. This will allow them to increase awareness and political mobilisation, but most importantly, it will help globalize hope.
Regenerative workers are required to connect personal, public, and planetary health. This includes exposing the truths about COVID-19, its origins, treatment, prevention, and treatment.
The ability to connect different issues and concerns and to identify the best policies and practitioners, and to build synergy among social forces is essential for regenerators. They also need to lobby local governments, businesses, and investors to effect change.
This will take time and it will not happen overnight. Our profoundly destructive, degenerative, climate-destabilizing food and farming system, primarily based upon industrial agriculture inputs and practices, is held together by a multibillion-dollar system of marketing and advertising that has misled or literally brainwashed a global army of consumers into believing that cheap, artificially flavored, "fast food" is not only acceptable, but "normal" and "natural."
Consumers have become addicted to super-processed food and other "food-like substances", after years of being deprived of sugar, salt and carbohydrate-rich, as well as "bad fat"-laden, foods produced by industrial farms, animal factories, chemical manufacturing plants and agricultural facilities.
2. Degenerate "conventional" farms, farming and livestock management — Compounding the lack of nutritional education, choice, poverty, inertia and apathy of a large segment of consumers, other major factors driving our degenerative food and farming system include the routine and deeply institutionalized practices of industrial and chemical-intensive farming and land use (monocropping, heavy plowing, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMOs, factory farms, deforestation, wetlands destruction) today.
These soil-, climate-, health- and environmentally-destructive practices are especially prevalent on the world's 50 million large farms, which, in part, are kept in place by global government subsidies totaling $500 billion a year.
There are very few subsidies available for organic and regenerative farmers. This is especially true for small farmers who make up 80% of all the farmers in the world.
Reinforcing these multibillion-dollar subsidies for bad farming practices are a global network of chemical- and agribusiness-controlled agricultural research and teaching institutions, focused on producing cheap food and fiber (no matter what the cost to the environment, climate and public health) and agro-export agricultural commodities (often pesticide-intensive GMO grains).
Instead, we require subsidies and research to help farmers and ranchers produce healthy and organic food that is sustainable for their local, regional, and national markets. This will also reward them with fair prices for being good stewards of the environment and providing technical and financial assistance.
Monopoly Control — Another driver of degeneration, holding back farmer adoption of regenerative practices and determining the type of food and crops that are produced, is the monopoly or near-monopoly control by giant agribusiness corporations over much of the food system, especially in industrialized countries, as well as the monopoly or near-monopoly control by giant retail chains such as Walmart and internet giants like Amazon.
Foodopoly -- The out-of control "Foodopoly", which controls our food system, is intended to increase short-term profits for large transnational corporations. Patents and monopoly over seeds are protected and maintained by international trade agreements (NAFTA/WTO), which favors large agribusinesses over small farms. Also, factory farms have a higher profit margin than traditional grazing. Agro-exports can be used instead of local or regional market production.
With an annual food consumption of $7.5 trillion, the biggest industry worldwide is agriculture and food. The $4.8 trillion in annual social, environmental, and health cost of industrial food chains is not being acknowledged.8
3. and 4. Degenerate public policy and public and private investments — Agriculture is the largest employer in the world with 570 million farmers and farm laborers supporting 3.5 billion people in rural households and communities.9 In addition to workers on the farm, food chain workers in processing, distribution and retail make up hundreds of millions of other jobs in the world, with over 20 million food chain workers in the U.S. alone (17.5% of the total workforce).
It is therefore crucial to have a public policy regarding food, farming, and land usage. There are thousands upon thousands of laws that are passed each year in every country. They primarily support industrial, factory, and export-oriented GMO (genetically modified organism) farming. But there's very little legislation and resources that promote organic or regenerative farming.
Trillions upon trillions have been invested and are still being invested in conventional food and farming. This includes billions taken from savings or pensions by conscious consumers. They would prefer that their money be used in other ways if it was possible.
Only a small percentage of private and public investment currently goes toward organic, grass-fed, free-range, and other healthier foods that are produced on farms or ranches in the region and local.
Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals, healthy people, healthy climate, healthy societies — our physical and economic health, our very survival as a species, are directly connected to the soil, biodiversity and the health and fertility of our food and farming systems. We can restore balance and create a healthy environment through regenerative organic agriculture and land use.
Degenerate agriculture, land use and energy policies are all unacceptable. It is time for us to change. It's now that we can move past "too little too late" mitigation strategies and sustainability strategies. Before it is too late, it's time for a global mobilization of powerful Regenerators.