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‘Regenerative agriculture’ is all the rage – but it’s not going to fix our food system



Decades of industrial agriculture caused environmental and social damage around the world. Soils deteriorate and plant and animal species disappear. Landscapes are degraded and small-scale farmers are struggling. No wonder we are looking for more sustainable and equitable ways to grow food and fiber.

Regenerative agriculture is an alternative to create much buzz, especially in rich, industrially developed countries.

The term “regenerative agriculture” was coined in the 1970s. It generally refers to agriculture that improves rather than degrades the landscape and ecological processes such as water, nutrient and carbon cycles.

Today, regenerative agriculture is strongly promoted by multinational food companies, advocacy groups and some parts of the farming community. And the Netflix documentary Kiss the ground features famous activists promote the regenerative agriculture movement.

But if our new research shows, regenerative agriculture may not be the transformation our global food system needs.

machines harvest soybeans
Large areas of land have been affected by industrial agriculture.

Agriculture must change

About 20-40% of the global land area has been degraded. Agriculture caused 80% of global deforestation in recent decades and accounts for 70% of freshwater use. It is the biggest driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss and contributes to it considerable to greenhouse gas emissions.

Global companies such as Nestlé, PepsiCo, Cargill and Bayer dominate the food system. About 70% of the global agrochemical market is held by just four companies and 90% of the global grain trade is dominated by four companies. This gives these companies enormous power.

Many small-scale farmers struggle to compete in global markets, especially those in poorer, less developed countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. To keep up, these farmers also often go into debt to buy chemicals and expensive machinery stimulate production.

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is proposed as a more sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture. It may include practices such as:

  • integrating livestock into cropping systems to replenish soil and reduce feed and fertilizer costs
  • leaving the soil undisturbed and covered with plants to retain carbon, moisture and nutrients and reduce erosion
  • moving livestock regularly between paddocks to allow grassland to recover
  • use fewer synthetic chemicals in agriculture.

But can regenerative agriculture transform the global food system? Our research examined this question.

cows graze in the field
Regenerative farming allows livestock to be rotated between pastures to improve soil health.

Our research results

We explored the origins and current status of regenerative agriculture. We then compared this with other sustainable farming approaches: organic farming, conservation farming, sustainable intensification and agroecology.

We found that regenerative agriculture shares many similarities with the first three movements mentioned above. The main thing is that it originated with the wealthy, developed industrially Global Northmainly North America, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Read more: Land of opportunity: more sustainable Australian agriculture would protect our lucrative exports (and the planet).

This means that the movement often fails to recognize the indigenous practices from which it draws. It also tends to overlook the needs of farmers in the South and the broader power imbalance in the food system.

Like some other movements, regenerative agriculture is increasingly being embraced by businesses. Nestfor example, aims to source 50% of key ingredients through regenerative agriculture by 2030.

There are concerns that companies are using regenerative agriculture to “greenwashtheir image. For example experts warn companies could use the term to repackage existing commitments rather than substantially improving their systems.

Agroecology: another way

We also found that regenerative agriculture threatens to marginalize another promising sustainable agriculture movement: agroecology.

Agroecology combines agronomy (agricultural science) and ecology, also seeking to address injustice and inequality in food systems.

The movement is associated with the world’s largest organization of small farmers, La Via Campesinaand is approved by the United Nations.

people marching in protest with sign in spanish
Agroecology is a global movement endorsed by the UN.

Agroecology advocates indigenous knowledge and land rights and support for smallholder farmers. It searches for challenge neoliberalism, corporate domination and globalization of food systems.

Some researchers ask if only agroecology can produce enough food for a growing world population. But 80% of the world’s food, in terms of value, is produced by small family farms. And we already convert enough food worldwide feed ten billion people. The problem is how that food is distributed and wasted, and how much of it is made ultra-processed foods and other products such as biofuels.

Agroecology offers many benefits to farmers and communities. An agroecology project Chololo village in Tanzania, for example, the number of households eating three meals a day increased from 29% to 62%. Average household income increased by 18%. The average period of food shortages shortened by 62% and agricultural yields increased by up to 70%.

But the origins of the agroecology movement in the Global South, and its opposition to corporatization means it is often marginalized. At events like the UN Food Systems Summit, for example, business stakeholders guide policy decisions, while vulnerable farmers can feel offside.

two men are preparing soil
Agroecology focuses on both ecological and social principles.

Transforming our food systems

Despite the popularity of regenerative agriculture and its focus on sustainable food production, it fails to address systemic social and political issues. As a result, the movement may perpetuate rather than transform the normal course of events in the food system.

But our food system encompasses many landscapes and cultures. That means regenerative agriculture can still support more sustainable agriculture in some environments, though it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

And have voices in regenerative agriculture called for a shift in the movement’s agenda, placing greater emphasis on equity, justice and diversity. So there is still hope that the movement can help turn the tide against industrial agriculture.

Read more: Cotton on: One of Australia’s most lucrative agricultural industries is in the firing line as climate change worsens

The conversation

Anja Bless receives funding from the Australian Government’s Research Training Program.

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