Regenerative Agriculture: Its promise and its barriers

If regenerative agriculture is a win-win for farmers and the planet, what is holding the worlds’ producers back from adopting these practices?

Agriculture connects us. The current supply chain disruptions serve as a reminder of just how connected we are: a shortage across the globe sends a ripple through our local grocery store. For most of us, though, we are detached from the laborious work of creating sustenance from the earth. Carrots, coffee, and chicken are products on a shelf; immaculate, packaged and effortless. But farmers know a different reality. Hewn from the ground, plucked from the branch, or reared with care, food is the work of real people and the land they steward.

The relationship between farmer and land is as intimate as it is tenuous: margins are razor-thin for most, and global markets and climate are increasingly volatile. A farmer carries the dual-weight of sustaining food supply without over-taxing their ecosystem. With each seed planted, the farmer balances present demands with future well-being in real time. Yet current needs are for present populations; future demand must meet projected population increases of 50% to 9.8 billion by 2050. If this holds true, food production will have to increase by 56% in crop calories.

At the same time, we can’t simply find more land to produce more crops. The conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of habitat loss, to the tune of 68% since 1970. More land is not the answer. Under this mounting pressure, alternatives are in demand, both from farmers and consumers.

Enter regenerative agriculture

Beyond simply sustaining the land, regenerative agriculture calls for renewing degraded ecosystems while maintaining (or even increasing) production. This begs the ultimate question: Can we grow enough food while regenerating the land?

Robert Rodale (Rodale Institute) coined the term “regenerative agriculture” in the 1980s, observing that sustaining current dysfunctional production systems would deplete resources and ecosystems. Instead, he argued for “a holistic systems approach to farming that encourages continual innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual well-being.” Despite a huge spectrum of application in the world, there are four overarching principles of regenerative agriculture:

  • promoting biodiversity of flora and fauna
  • eliminating or decreasing tillage
  • reducing the use of chemical inputs
  • using regenerative grazing management for livestock

These principles sound novel to our modern ears, but many indigenous cultures have used these practices for generations. In the Colca Valley in Peru, indigenous communities have been farming for 15 centuries, and studies showed their practices actually improve the soil when compared to uncultivated soil. More and more modern voices are seeing the wisdom of these ancient practices.

Regen Network CEO, Gregory Landua, co-writes that regenerative agriculture “aims to reconcile the perceived tensions, by turning human intelligence and innovation towards creating agricultural landscapes that functionally improve ecosystems and communities.”

Innovating to make regenerative agriculture viable for producers is the foundation of Regen Network’s work. This effort centers on connecting regenerative producers (or those that want to become so) to a marketplace of buyers eager to invest in their positive ecological outcomes. Driving this marketplace are open science and transparent accounting on The Regen Network blockchain (imagine a village marketplace where you can see transactions taking place but only online).

In practice, how does regenerative agriculture achieve equilibrium between production and ecosystem health? In one instance, fostering native insects and birds can support the pollination of crops. Supporting grassland birds can mitigate livestock pest pressure. Wildlife can co-exist with and benefit food production. The practice of decreasing tillage can protect soil biota and fungal networks that improve soil fertility and water infiltration, reducing soil erosion. This allows for less chemical fertilizer use, cutting costs. Production can improve at the same time that small faunas are protected. Overall, regenerative agriculture has been shown to use less costly inputs, reduce soil erosion, improve soil health and increase crop yields. By mimicking the natural processes of our ecosystems, these practices tap into the equilibrium that already exists in nature.

Alongside the benefits in production and ecology, regenerative agriculture also boasts the potential to mitigate climate change through sequestering C02.

In grasslands of the southeastern U.S., adaptive multi-paddock grazing was found to increase soil organic carbon by 13%, compared to conventional systems. It’s estimated that cover crops sequester enough carbon globally to account for 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. From agroforestry practices — integrating forestry with farming systems — average carbon storage can range from 1.5 Mg Carbon ha-1yr-1 in the tropics to 63 Mg Carbon ha-1 yr-1 in temperate regions, indicating significant potential in certain eco-regions. This age-old process is a life-line to our warming planet and provides a potentially scalable way to remove and store atmospheric carbon.

But current efforts to monitor and incentivize sequestration through credits has proven to be slow and cumbersome. One of the great benefits of blockchain is its ability to connect ecological assets (ie carbon, biodiversity, water quality) to a broad audience of buyers. For us to get to net-zero, establishing a blockchain-based marketplace can scale change and achieve goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.

If the benefits of regenerative agriculture are increasingly recognized, then why are they not widely practiced? It’s complicated.

There are many barriers to adoption. Only 1% of agriculture in the U.S. is organic, and an even smaller percentage is regenerative. By identifying the many obstacles, we can highlight where efforts are needed and innovations are in demand. Although many, these barriers typically fall into three categories: technical, economic, and cultural.

Technical Barriers

Farmers run complex operations. Unpredictability from nature and the market leaves little room for experimentation or divergence. A farmer runs their business based on their expertise working with the land and collective knowledge and experience. Changing a practice requires significant time and resources, and significant risk is assumed. A farmer must have confidence in the decision and how it will impact their short-term and long-term production. Unfortunately for farmers, a formula does not exist for implementing regenerative agriculture; it remains as much of an art as a science.

To bring regenerative agriculture practices into use, the farmer needs region-specific knowledge from trusted sources. In the U.S., extension agencies exemplify how vetted local knowledge can bring new research and evolving practices to farmers. You call your local extension agency to ask fertilizer-related questions, or your county extension office hosts field days for collective learning. The role of extension as a liaison between scientific research and field application is vital for farming communities, bringing innovative techniques into local view. But even once a practice such as cover cropping or high stock grazing is shown as applicable to a region, discerning how to implement these practices remains complex.

A lack of localized research in concert with the barriers explored below (financial, cultural) can stall extension rollout in support of regenerative practices. Globally, extension agencies are not the norm. Rather, cooperatives of farmers exist who share experience and intimate knowledge of the land.

To bring research and innovation to these farmers, practices must be tested and technical support must be given to demonstrate the potential of regenerative agriculture. Regen Network works to connect farmers to researchers and scientists, who can translate good work to good data to potential incentives. Open source data collection and methodology development backed by the blockchain allow for technical input from a connected and impact-driven community.

Economic Barriers

Whether you’re a farmer in the U.S. or sub-Saharan Africa, the economics of farming rarely leave room for experimentation. Despite the best intentions, the costs of transitioning from a conventional to regenerative operation can be a major barrier.

The specific costs to transition can include acquiring more land to rotate crops or graze livestock or purchasing new equipment. But farmer net income has declined 50% since 2013, and an average U.S. farm in 2017 was $1.3 million in debt (USDA Economic Research Service). In Kenya, the average smallholder farmer makes $1.4 per day per person. To convert to regenerative practices, farm revenues are often further reduced during the transition years. With so little means and room for risk, it can be no surprise that many farmers cannot afford to adopt new practices, no matter how promising.

Paired with a lack of income, the world’s farmers often lack access to financial capital that could support a regenerative transition. In the United States, government-backed conservation incentive programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (SCP) through Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) aim to reward and incentivize practices that protect soil and biodiversity.

However, they often fall short as smaller farmers are outmaneuvered, and payments are not suited to farmers’ specific needs. Similarly, financial institutions are often reluctant to offer loans to farmers to support a transition plan due to a lack of certainty in returns.

On top of these financial barriers, yet another significant economic barrier exists: supply chains. American agriculture prizes high yields from monocropped fields and cheap meat from animals bred, fed and slaughtered on an industrial scale. The food from these systems meets the demand for inexpensive food, leaving farmers in a systemic vice grip in a market unwilling to pay for good stewardship. Shifting expectations around cost — how much should a regeneratively-raised steak cost? — means shifting mindsets. Until the supply chain demands regenerative products, farmers may not see the point in switching.

Regen Network aims to overturn this current economic equation into a one that prizes regenerative practices and ecological health. Turning metrics of positive change into tokenized rewards gives the producers access to much-needed capital.

Cultural Barriers

To survive and thrive over generations, farmers of the world depend on their communities for mutual support and shared knowledge. Within these communities, implicit expectations are set, values and identities emerge. Communities that farm together are also often intimately connected as families and neighbors. Trust and tradition are fundamental tools of survival. So when new ideas surface, cueing a shift from traditional practices, it seems reasonable to question them. But the same sentiments that underpin farming communities can also be the same sentiments — pride and fear — that hinder potential innovations and experimentation.

Farmers who diverge from traditional practices could be seen as judging those practices (and therefore their forebearers). In the How to Save a Planet podcast, they interview a farmer who transitioned to regenerative farming only to find rebuke and isolation. When the positive impacts started surfacing, then curiosity and interest grew.

Beyond the tight-knit cultural barriers, more considerable cultural barriers exist in policy and legal frameworks that inhibit innovation and maintain the status-quo of subsidies and loan mechanisms. Codes, regulations, trade agreements, powerful lobbies, and public policy can either incentivize or obstruct a regenerative future.

As dismaying as these barriers may be, many people are working to reframe them. In a Patagonia-sponsored study identifying barriers to adopting regenerative practices in the United States, authors report in detail the key levers and emerging opportunities for these barriers. Here are a few examples:

In the realm of policy reform, Land Core works with scientists, farmers, lawmakers, and the USDA to develop new strategies and legislation for producer investment in soil health, which includes focusing on the farm bill, funding for soil health programs and verification programs to rebuild healthy soils. They also cite great potential between the National Healthy Soils Policy Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (U.S.’s voice in sustainable agriculture) to build our climate policy on behalf of 100 food and farming organizations.

Supporting early adopters in the voluntary carbon and ecosystem service market is one key way the team at Regen Network aims to address these cultural and policy barriers. We see these early adopters being the first step toward establishing self-governing bodies (DAO) of producers and scientists that make decisions for themselves both on the ground and on the blockchain. Incentivizing regenerative practices and empowering self-governance are powerful levers we can use to shift the global consciousness.

Savory Institute created the world’s first regenerative supply chain sourcing for meat, dairy, leather, and wool called the Land to Market Program for supply chains that support regenerative systems. Their network of farms (“Hubs”) produce these goods from verified regenerative grazing systems and showcases that beef can be instrumental in regenerating degraded grasslands. Imagine seeing a “regenerative” label alongside the organic label in the grocery store.

Beyond restructuring conventional loans and capital investment, bold and inventive financial solutions are critical. Ecosystem service and carbon markets, in their best form, support, reward, and encourage the adoption of practices that regenerate the land, sequester atmospheric carbon and continue to sustain food supply.

This also opens a new revenue stream for farmers to offset the cost of transitioning to regenerative practices. Regen Network believes the need is so great and so urgent that everyone — farmers, scientists, developers, and consumers — is called to catalyze change at scale. How? By mobilizing a groundswell of collective action in the global ecosystem service markets around decentralized decision-making and financial transactions.

Imagine a farmer who no longer needs a bank. Imagine a consumer who can vote for a farmer’s success. Imagine each of us being able to connect directly to ecosystem-saving work. We aim to support and incentivize the adoption of regenerative practices among farmers of the world, propelling these periphery practices to the center stage.

We all stand to benefit from resilient agricultural systems. Resiliency in our food systems no longer depends solely on commodity markets or how much product we can cull from the ground. Resiliency depends on our collective awareness of what is at stake, what solutions are available, and how we support those on the ground to implement them. What is at stake is the balance between humans and earth, present and future. Regenerative agriculture is one tool among many to realize this balance, and recognizing the barriers is the first step to finding a path forward.

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Written by Rebecca Harman, Regen Network’s Land Steward Project Manager

Resources

Full read: Patagonia-sponsored study Barriers For Farmers & Ranchers To Adopt Regenerative Ag Practices In The US

Feeding 9 Billion

Regenerative agriculture for food and climate

Regeneration International Resources

Rodale Institute Organic Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution

17 Organizations Promoting Regenerative Agriculture Around the Globe

Center for Regenerative Management, University of Missouri

Citations

Francis and Harwood, 1985 Enough Food: Achieving Food Security Through Regenerative Agriculture Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA (1985)

Hijbeek, R, Ittersum, MK, ten Berge, H, et al. (2018) Evidence Review Indicates a Re-Think on the Impact of Organic Inputs and Soil Organic Matter on Crop Yield. Cambridge, MA: International Fertiliser Society.

WWF Almond, R. E. A., Grooten, M. and Petersen, T. (eds) (2020), Living Planet Report 2020: Bending the curve of biodiversity loss, Gland, Switzerland: WWF, https://livingplanet.panda.org/en-gb (accessed 2 Nov. 2020)

Chatham Food system impacts on biodiversity loss: Three levers for food system transformaion in support of nature

Mosier, Samantha, Steven Apfelbaum, Peter Byck, Francisco Calderon, Richard Teague, Ry Thompson, M. Francesca Cotrufo, Adaptive multi-paddock grazing enhances soil carbon and nitrogen stocks and stabilization through mineral association in southeastern U.S. grazing lands, Journal of Environmental Management, Volume 288, 2021, 112409, ISSN 0301–4797, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.112409.

Poeplau, Christopher, Axel Don, Carbon sequestration in agricultural soils via cultivation of cover crops — A meta-analysis, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Volume 200, 2015, Pages 33–41, ISSN 0167–8809, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2014.10.024.

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Regen Network aligns economics with ecology to drive regenerative land management. Learn more: https://regen.network. This blog is published by RND inc, the development company building Regen Network

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A blockchain network of ecological knowledge changing the economics of regenerative agriculture to reverse global warming.

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