Can we talk about Regenerative Agriculture?
It's time we had this conversation
As an organisation, we’ve always had a complicated relationship with regenerative agriculture; this is probably no surprise to anyone who has followed our work for any length of time. But in some ways, we’ve shied away from really diving into the conversation, partly just because it’s really complicated and difficult to talk about things that fall into so many grey areas. We wanted to wait until we had found some more of the language to talk about it productively, but with time, we’ve realised that there will probably never be a time where our views on the subject feel ‘complete’ or neatly packaged and ready to share. So why not talk about it now?
Anyone who is even remotely tuned into the food system knows that regenerative agriculture is having a moment. Regenerative agriculture, for those who don’t know, is an idea and set of practices that promise to reverse climate change by returning atmospheric carbon to soil. Worldwide, millions of dollars are flowing into new regenerative agriculture projects. Celebrities are rallying behind it. Organisations have cropped up to promote its uptake. Schools have opened across the world teaching its principles. And it’s not hard to understand why—soil depletion and environmental degradation in agriculture are real and pressing issues, and there’s also something intellectually appealing about ‘regeneration’ as a concept in this particular moment in history. We’re becoming acutely aware of how extractive and degenerative our relationship with the planet has become. An alternative like ‘regeneration’ that evokes renewal, rebirth, and reciprocity is undeniably attractive. There’s a spiritual element to it—the restoration of a severed relationship to the earth—that adds to the appeal. It’s easy to rally behind, partly because the picture it paints is a beautiful one—the dream of living in alignment with the earth’s systems, of restoring ecosystems, of healthy soil, healthy food, healthy lives.
There is really nothing wrong with pursuing the goal of replenishing soil health or promoting more climate-friendly farming practices alone. The practices aren’t the problem. The problem lies more in the discourse surrounding regenerative agriculture; in what it chooses to focus on and what it obscures. And because of the nature of this discourse, we believe there is a problem with regenerative agriculture’s positioning as the key to transformative change in the food system. Let’s look at each of these problems in turn.
Regenerative agriculture’s first problem is representation and compensation. It has become increasingly clear that the knowledge that regenerative agriculture is based on comes, in large part, from the knowledge, experience, and wisdom of Indigenous peoples. This is often acknowledged on organisations’ websites, but that’s often where it ends, which is a problem. The lion’s share of the financial investment goes not into the Indigenous communities who have been marginalised for centuries, but back into predominantly non-Indigenous and white-led organisations. Indigenous peoples around the globe represent less than five percent of the population, they manage or hold tenure over 25 percent of the world’s land surface, but support about 80 percent of the global biodiversity. Indigenous peoples are quite literally carrying the load of preserving our earth’s systems already, and are best-positioned to lead a movement such as this. The fact that they are sidelined dampens the potential for any kind of transformative change.
Regenerative agriculture’s second problem is co-option. Regeneration has become a new buzzword—a ‘Sustainability 2.0.’ With this increase in popularity, we’ve seen a rise in feature films depicting celebrities talking about the importance of soil health, policymakers and scientists talking about its potential, and corporations like Walmart announcing that it’s going to be a ‘regenerative company’ by 2050. The last is the most troubling. Because regenerative agriculture can be reduced to a certain number of hectares of soil ‘replenished,’ it’s very easy for corporations to take the word and run with it, positioning themselves as ‘even more sustainable’ than the others. Of course, proponents of regenerative agriculture can say “We don’t agree with them using the term, we also think it’s greenwashing,” but that doesn’t answer the question of what made regeneration so easy to co-opt in the first place. That brings us to our next problem: regenerative agriculture’s apolitical positioning.
Regenerative agriculture is environment-focused. It doesn’t make claims about rights or really comment on the treatment of the people who are working the land. It focuses on restoring soil health and using farming practices that lower agriculture’s carbon footprint. This makes it inherently easier to co-opt. There’s a reason that we don’t see Walmart or Barilla claiming that they stand behind food sovereignty or even agroecology, because both of these have an explicitly political stance on farmers’ rights and promote their agency and decision-making power as well as advocates for more sustainable agricultural practices. This is important, because much of the discourse around regenerative agriculture ignores the reasons why people use the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are leading contributors to soil degradation.
Either it’s a huge, corporate farm that is driven by profit, or it’s a smaller-scale farm that has chosen to use these chemicals for one of a variety of reasons. But in our experience, very few farmers want to be continually purchasing expensive and dangerous fertilisers and pesticides for their farms; they’ve done so either out of necessity to make enough money to feed their families (because prices are predatorily low and they must increase yields as a matter of survival), or because they were given a subsidised package for these inputs from a corporation that was eventually phased out, leaving them trapped in debt and dependent on using these chemicals that, over time, degrade soil. There’s also some evidence to show that when farmers are revalued, when their contributions are supported by governments and integrated into local economies (e.g. when we don’t leave everything to the market and instead treat food as a human right), the biodiversity and soil-friendly practices employed on their farms naturally increases. That’s why focusing on practices first can feel like putting the cart before the horse; we must look at what systems have created the soil degradation in the first place, otherwise our efforts will help alleviate some of the worst effects but will not get to the root problem.
All of this is troubling because there truly is transformative power in the framing of regeneration. The problem is that the current popular understanding of the term and the movement surrounding it doesn’t tap into that power for all of the reasons we’ve outlined above. The framing we’ve come up with to capture this is in Shallow and Deep regeneration.
Shallow regeneration refers to the current understanding of the term that we’ve outlined thus far, that dominates the popular discourse. It centres whiteness; it does not promote leadership or transfer of resources to the communities who developed the knowledge it is based on; it is apolitical; it is easily co-opted by capitalism. Again, there is nothing inherently harmful about its principles in terms of their ability to benefit the climate. However, shallow regeneration is unfit to transform the food system because of its failure to address legacies of exploitation and colonisation, or to address the difficult political and rights-based questions.
So, the problem is not regenerative agriculture itself; it’s the fact that its shallow version is being presented (and funded) as if it’s the pathway to transformative change in agriculture—as if it’s the answer to food system ailments—when it is simply unequipped to do so.
This is a tension we are always dealing with. We often get pushback for what others perceive as focusing on the ‘negative’ or critique-heavy sides of agricultural discourse—the kind we’re presenting here. “People are just trying to help,” the story goes. “Why are you always pointing out what’s wrong with the ways they’re trying to help? Isn’t all action towards a better food system important, even if it doesn’t line up with your ideological principles?” We do recognize that the kind of change we envision is systemic in nature, and by extension, pretty lofty in terms of its ideals. It’s fair to want incremental change to feel as though we’re taking steps in the right direction.
But we also cannot remain idle when the dominant discourse about food systems change in the most powerful countries in the world is critically lacking focus on questions of justice. Narratives are powerful; they shape what we take for granted, what we are allowed to question, what topics are off limits. They inevitably shape the solutions that are put forth.
Imagine there is a critical housing shortage. A group of people who have recently learned how to build houses come together to start building them to give people the shelter they need. Everyone is excited; money is pouring in to aid their efforts. It’s a good thing houses are being built—people need to be housed, after all. But there are some problems. First of all, the people who developed the knowledge of building houses over thousands of years, who are experts in building houses—and who taught this group of people to build houses in the first place—are not being asked to lead the house-building efforts. None of the influx of money is going to them; it’s all going to this new group. Worse yet, the house is being built on an unstable foundation—this new group was so eager to build the house and get people housing that they overlooked the structural issues underneath it.
Even with these issues, the house might be beautiful; it might provide some people with shelter they desperately need. It’s not bad that this group wants to help provide people with shelter. That is not what we are critiquing. That impulse is admirable. We are simply trying to alert them to the unstable foundation that lurks underneath. To point out the people have deep knowledge of house-building and are ultimately best-positioned to lead the efforts. We are urging the people currently centred to take some steps back; to address the structural issues underneath the house so that it may later on be built on steadier ground; so that it does not crumble in a few years’ time due to the unstable foundation. So that it may one day provide shelter to all, not just to those who have the resources to access it.
Shallow regeneration cries “We need houses! People are without shelter!” Deep regeneration reminds us that no matter how badly we need houses, building them on unstable ground is not going to leave us better-off than we were before. Deep regeneration asks the difficult, inconvenient questions: “Why are people without shelter in the first place? Which systems created this housing shortage, and what are we doing to ensure that they don’t continue to displace people, even after we build the houses? Who should be at the helm of building these houses? Whose building knowledge are we relying on? Are those people being fairly compensated? Whose land are we building these houses on? What is its history?”
Deep regeneration is the kind that goes beyond the soil and looks at the entire system: the people who have been marginalised and oppressed throughout agriculture’s history. The unequal distribution of resources. The role of capitalist extraction. These are all inseparable from the goal of regenerating the earth’s systems. Deep Regeneration is political. It’s confronting. It means giving back resources that have been withheld from Indigenous and agricultural communities. It means redistributing power.
What we are doing is not critiquing the impulse of those who want to help make incremental change. What we are trying to do is remind people of these critical questions that will provide stable foundations for transformative, lasting change. We hope this perspective may add some reflection to the conversation about regeneration. We hope it may spark some dialogue within your communities, that we all might reflect about what transformative change looks like in our contexts, and that we might move forward with intention and optimism.
As always, we encourage you to engage with us in the comments and share this instalment with anyone who may find it helpful. If you have questions about this or anything else, send them over to email@example.com with the subject line “Ask AGC” and we’ll answer them in the next instalment. Thanks for your ongoing support!
This podcast episode from our friend Kamea Chayne’s podcast Green Dreamer featuring Jason W. Moore. It’s a wonderful complement to the discussion we’re having here about how the way we diagnose the problem often shapes how we create solutions. This quote from Jason resonated in particular:
“How we diagnose the origins of a problem in time and space determines, fairly decisively, our political assessments of the present. So, for example, if we think that the key driver of the planetary crisis today is the steam engine—and its successor, the internal combustion engine, the jet engine—then the politics are obvious: get rid of the steam engines, the combustion engines, the jet engines, and replace them with something that is not carbon- and greenhouse gas-intensive. [But] that’s a very limiting view.”
This article from Joe Fassler for The Counter on why regenerative agriculture needs a reckoning. It’s from last year, but we believe it adds an important perspective to this conversation and it’s definitely worth the read.
This podcast episode from Mongabay about Indigenous climate leadership. It features author Michelle Nijhuis and Dr. Julie Thorstenson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. It’s also a great complement to this conversation.
This instalment of Offshoot was written by Thea Walmsley, with editing support from the AGC team.