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The promises of regenerative agriculture: How lessons from the past bring words of warning

A number of sustainable agriculture approaches, and their supporting narratives, have been put forward over the decades in attempts to weaken the stronghold of industrial agriculture in the food system. Recent interest has centred on regenerative agriculture, with some of its proponents seeing in its appeal to farmers and corporations an ability to unite disparate agricultural approaches in a manner that might facilitate increasing ambition. In this essay drawing from recent research, Anja Bless compares the genealogical histories of organic agriculture, sustainable intensification, conservation agriculture and agroecology with regenerative agriculture, finding elements within each that resist absorption under the regenerative umbrella.  

About the author: Anja Bless is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Her PhD research is exploring the politics of regenerative agriculture, with Australia as the national case study. A component of this research project is exploring the origins of regenerative agriculture, in particular the social-ecological factors that have driven its rise in popularity and how it fits among existing sustainable agriculture narratives. Anja holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Government and International Relations and Sociology from the University of Sydney, and a Master of Environment (with Distinction) majoring in Sustainable Food Systems from the University of Melbourne.

A cow grazes out of focus in the distance with long grasses in the foreground

Introduction

The global agri-food system is facing a range of social-ecological threats. Global land degradation, water and biodiversity loss, climate change, and depleting biogeochemical flows are all driven by unsustainable agricultural production1 . Corporate power and influence in global food governance2 , the ongoing marginalisation of smallholder farmers and indigenous peoples and knowledge, and the cost-price pressures for producers are also perpetuating social injustice3 .

One of the key drivers of these challenges is the dominance of industrial agriculture, a type of intensive farming that frames the farm as a factory, extracting maximum production from agroecosystems by using a high level of chemical and mechanical inputs4 .

In an effort to address the impacts of industrial agriculture, a range of sustainable agriculture narratives have emerged over time advocating for different approaches to agricultural production. ‘Narratives’ are the stories and labels that frame and unite agricultural movements5 , principles, and practices, and capture key events and actors6 involved in their creation and development. They bring separate parts of a phenomenon into a cohesive whole7 , and are deployed to help justify particular actions and to create pathways for change8 . However, despite the long legacies of these sustainable agriculture narratives, and their ever-growing number, industrial agriculture prevails.

The latest sustainable agriculture narrative to rise to prominence is that of regenerative agriculture9 , which some view as an umbrella term that can unite disparate visions of sustainable agriculture to finally tackle industrial agriculture10 . New research recently published by myself and my colleagues, Dr Federico Davila and Dr Roel Plant, demonstrates some of the flaws in this assumption and the risks in promoting regenerative agriculture as a catch-all solution.

To contextualise the rise of regenerative agriculture and unpack its potential to overcome industrial agriculture, we undertook a genealogical analysis11 of the ‘narratives’ that have formed around other existing sustainable agriculture approaches: organic agriculture, conservation agriculture, sustainable intensification, and agroecology. A genealogical analysis is a ‘history of the present’, whereby a critical lens – one that seeks to uncover and challenge power structures – is applied to the past in order to question the narratives of the present12 . We explored the origins of these four narratives and their approaches to sustainable agriculture, how these narratives have changed and morphed over time, and their current state in relation to regenerative agriculture.

Organic agriculture

The first sustainable agriculture narrative whose genealogy we explored is that of organic agriculture. This emerged in inter-war Europe, the UK, and the USA as an agrarian response to urbanisation driven by the Industrial Revolution and the mechanisation of agriculture13 . There was concern among farmers and farmer associations around the impacts of industrial agriculture in terms of soil health and chemical pollution, and the ‘de-ruralisation’ of society14 . Better scientific understanding of the role of micro-organisms in soil health helped drive the view that the farm should be seen as a living system15 . When the term ‘organic agriculture’ was coined in 1940 by UK-based Lord Northbourne, he argued for a form of agriculture which did not rely on external inputs or treat the land as an inanimate resource to be exploited. Instead, he stated that “the farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life”16 .

Organic agriculture remained relatively on the fringe through the war and post-war years when focus was on food shortages and maximising agricultural output. But in the 1960s, concerns began to grow around the use of synthetic chemicals in food production, spurred by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring17 . Environment and counter-cultural movements helped drive organic agriculture’s customer base and a series of scandals around false claims of ‘organic’ produce led to the development of organic standards and certifications, which underpin organic agriculture to this day18 . Organic agriculture continued to build momentum over the next forty years, with organic produce now commonplace on mainstream supermarket shelves19 . By the 1980s, Global North producers could not keep up with demand, and the Global South quickly became the main export market for organic produce to European and North American consumers20 . The increased demand and scale of production led to a focus on efficiency, and organic farms ‘conventionalised’ as they became more monocultural and reliant on organic inputs through the 1990s and 2000s21 .

This conventionalisation of organic agriculture, paired with the strictness of organic standard setting that increasingly focussed on avoiding the use of synthetic inputs, embodies what is now labelled ‘Organic 2.0’. In this form, the organic agriculture narrative came to mimic much of what it originally opposed, evolving into a market niche within the industrial regime. In response, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has called for a shift to ‘Organic 3.0’22 which aims to return to the holistic and ecologically oriented principles on which organic agriculture was founded. ‘Organic 3.0’ also emphasises notions of food justice, addressing issues of inequity in the organic supply chain. It takes into consideration social issues beyond the farm-gate by partnering with agroecology, fair trade, smallholder and family farm movements. Organic 3.0’s broader uptake and the impacts of this shift are yet to be seen.  

Conservation agriculture

Conservation agriculture originated from similar concerns to organic agriculture regarding soil health and land degradation. The Dust Bowl Crisis of the 1930s in the USA, where traditional tilling practices implemented on an industrial scale had caused widespread soil loss and dust storms23 , was a prominent source of this concern. Rather than calling for a return to more traditional, nature-based methods however, conservation agriculture instead promoted new technologies as the solution. These technologies came in the 1940s with the invention of 2,4-D, a broadleaf weed killer24 , and direct drilling technology25 , allowing the reduction or elimination of tillage.

The revolution of no-till farming also became the bedrock for some of the world’s most powerful agri-food corporations. Dow Chemical, one of the world’s largest agricultural input firms26 , demonstrated the first successful application of no-till techniques in 195127 . Similarly, John Deere, which has a 20% market share in the global agricultural equipment market28 , worked with US farmers in 1953 to test direct drilling technology29 .

In the 1980s, global concern regarding soil loss helped bolster the spread of no-till agriculture practices from the USA to Latin America27 , and by the 1990s the UN began endorsing what was termed ‘conservation tillage’. In 2001, the FAO adopted the term ‘conservation agriculture’30 , defining it as being based on three principles: minimum mechanical soil disturbance, permanent soil cover, and species diversification31 .

Further calls to address land degradation in the UN’s 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment helped drive the spread of conservation agriculture and its ‘soil conserving’ practices further across Latin America, Oceania, East Asia, and Europe32 . This was also supported by the release of herbicide-resistant genetically modified crops in the 1990s, which further reduced the need for tillage to reduce weeds and improved productivity33 , once again demonstrating the role of agri-food corporations in the spread of conservation agriculture. It is estimated that 12.5% of global cropland is managed using conservation agriculture practices34 , with further support coming from its mitigation potential in reducing soil carbon loss by minimising soil disturbance and maintaining soil cover35 .

The sustainability of conservation agriculture has been questioned by scholars due to the strong involvement of agri-food corporations in driving the spread of this narrative and its technologically intensive and high input practices. Some argue that conservation agriculture is simply industrial agriculture by another name, and that its limited applicability outside cropping systems means it is not a system-wide solution33 .

Sustainable intensification

Another technology-oriented narrative is sustainable intensification, an ecomodernist approach that was triggered by concerns in the 1990s around how to feed a growing world population - a worry that re-emerged during the global food price crisis in 2007/8.

While industrial agriculture had succeeded in producing more food than ever before, the FAO’s World Food Summit in 1996 called for a new round of agricultural intensification to feed the projected increase in global population. There was also increasing interest in sustainability following the publication of the UN-led Brundtland Report in 1987 and its concept of ‘sustainable development’36 . An alignment was sought between improving environmental outcomes whilst enhancing productivity37 .

While the term ‘sustainable intensification’ was coined in 199738 , it remained largely unused through the 2000s until the global food price crisis of 2007/839 . To address food shortages, institutions such as the World Trade Organisation called for a sustainable intensification of agriculture40 . In response, the UK’s Royal Society published a report advocating for sustainable intensification which it defined as “global agriculture in which yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land”41 . The idea of sustainable intensification ‘doing more with less’ was attractive as a means of sparing land from conversion to agriculture and thanks to the biodiversity and mitigation benefits that could bring42 . The call for sustainable intensification was echoed by the FAO43 , and driven by government and private funding, particularly in aid and development programs from the US, UK, and Europe44 .

However, criticisms of sustainable intensification’s high-input nature, its echoes of the Green Revolution in terms of Global North-South dynamics, and the involvement of corporate actors have become louder45 . Sustainable intensification has now been dismissed by many as being too business-as-usual. Since its peak in public and private attention in 2015-16, the narrative seems to have fallen out of fashion46 .

Agroecology

Agroecology emerged out of more progressive scientific understandings of the farm, and in retaliation against the impacts of the Green Revolution. The term ‘agroecology’ emerged in Europe in the 1930s as a combination of the disciplines of ecology and agronomy47 . Viewing the farm as an ‘agroecosystem’ became gradually accepted in the ecology discipline from the late 1960s onwards48 .

Simultaneously, the peasant agriculture movement in Latin America was drawing attention to the social and environmental impacts of industrial agriculture and was calling for a return to the ecological principles of indigenous and traditional agricultural production49 . The principles and practices associated with many sustainable agriculture narratives can be found in traditional and indigenous cultures around the world which understand how social and ecological outcomes are intertwined and interdependent50 . However, the origins of this mindset are not recognised by the Global North narratives described above. Agroecology is distinct among the narratives explored thus far in its acknowledgment of the inherent sustainability of many traditional and indigenous agricultures51 .

Through the 1980s, the agroecology social movement spread across the Global South52 , while agroecology as a discipline began to be taught in Latin American universities53 . By the 1990s, the call for addressing the power relations that underpin industrial agriculture’s dominance was being heard at an international scale54 . This cemented the consolidation of the scientific and social movement arms of agroecology, combining the consideration of justice and equity issues in the agri-food system as well as the integration of ecology and agronomy55 .

Agroecology has attracted a range of supporters as the narrative has risen in prominence, from the peasant advocacy organisation La Via Campesina supporting the role of agroecology in the food sovereignty movement56 , to governments and food agencies in Europe57 , and eventually the FAO58 . While endorsements from Global North institutions may have helped legitimise agroecology in the current world order, the movement’s leaders have been conscious of the risk of co-option, particularly by corporate actors59 . Agroecology advocates for transformation of the agri-food system, including the unequal power dynamics within it. This has led some to question its practicality and palatability in larger-scale and export-oriented farming contexts60 . Its challenge to existing power relations in the agri-food system has also led to agroecology advocates being sidelined at key food governance events61 .

Contextualising the rise of regenerative agriculture

Fig. 1 The current challenges for sustainable agriculture narratives, their overlaps, and the potential gap through which regenerative agriculture has emerged.

What our analysis of these sustainable agriculture narratives makes clear is that they share similarities and differences (see Figure 1). And it is through the gap left between these contestations and overlaps that regenerative agriculture has emerged to prominence.

The term ‘regenerative agriculture’ was coined in the late 1970s by social scientist Medard Gabel, and the term was soon adopted by The Rodale Institute, a prominent organic agriculture organisation in the USA, who viewed it as agriculture that was ‘beyond organic’. However, regenerative agriculture remained fairly niche up until a recent boom from around 2015 onwards, when research and media mentions skyrocketed, particularly in the US, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK62 . The timing of this emergence is interesting as it coincides with the waning popularity of sustainable intensification46 . This may be a coincidence, though it could also indicate that the attention of dominant agri-food system actors, and their conception of sustainable agriculture, has shifted from land sparing to land sharing. The mid-2010s is also when the call for ‘Organic 3.0’ was published63 . The term ‘regenerative organic’ is increasingly being used to distinguish between holistic versus conventionalised approaches to organic agriculture64 .

Regenerative agriculture’s definition is still a matter for debate, though it is generally understood either as a set of practices, such as minimising soil disturbance, integrating livestock, maximising soil cover, rotational grazing, and lowering external inputs65 , or as principles that centre around going ‘beyond sustainability’66 to rejuvenate landscapes and farms through enhancing ecosystem processes such as water, nutrient, and carbon cycles. Sometimes, definitions also include social outcomes such as restoring the health of communities and farmers65 .

There are overlaps and differences between the definitions of regenerative agriculture and the narratives we analysed. For instance, minimising soil disturbance and maximising soil cover align with conservation agriculture. However, regenerative agriculture’s inclusion of livestock and mixed systems gives it broader applicability. This is important in a time when there is increasing focus on agriculture’s contributions to climate change, particularly from livestock, and the mitigation potential of soil carbon sequestration67 . Many regenerative agriculture advocates also highlight the need to reduce external inputs in farming, in line with agroecology and organic agriculture principles, and in contrast with conservation agriculture and sustainable intensification. Unlike those for organic agriculture however, not all proponents of regenerative agriculture advocate for a complete removal of synthetic inputs.

While regenerative agriculture might address some of the gaps or challenges faced by existing narratives, it is by no means an umbrella term that can envelop those narratives completely. There remain clear distinctions and differences between them (see Table 1).

Table 1. Summarising the origins and current status of sustainable agriculture narratives.

One of the clearest limitations of regenerative agriculture as a concept can be seen in its contrast to that of agroecology. While the concepts share similar farming practices and principles, regenerative agriculture is comparatively lacking in terms of its engagement with power relations and issues of social injustice in the agri-food system. Although farmers have been pivotal in driving the growth of regenerative agriculture, there has also been a prominent role for agri-food corporations, such as Unilever, PepsiCo, and Cargill, which has largely remained unchallenged68 . Like other Global North narratives, regenerative agriculture has also been critiqued for not recognising the role of indigenous and more diverse knowledges and practitioners in ecologically minded farming69 . There has been some improvement in this area, for example in the US through the increased acknowledgment of Black, LatinX, and Indigenous regenerative farmers and the legacies of their practices70 . However, regenerative agriculture remains less holistic than the agroecology narrative, and its increasing popularity among powerful agri-food system actors could risk exacerbating the marginalisation of agroecology’s calls for structural changes in the agri-food system.

Conclusion

While our analysis demonstrated that regenerative agriculture may not be the unifying narrative some purport it to be, there is an argument for encouraging a diversity of sustainable agriculture narratives to usurp the dominance of industrial agriculture and encourage a range of locally appropriate solutions71 . For instance, in some contexts regenerative agriculture might be a steppingstone for mainstream farmers to more ecological farming practices68 . Nonetheless, the politics that a plurality of perspectives brings cannot be ignored72 . The genealogies of sustainable agriculture narratives demonstrate that, to establish a truly sustainable agri-food system, there is a need for ongoing resistance against the power dynamics that could neglect marginalised voices or perpetuate injustice and inequity.

 

Header image by Alexander Turner.

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Charles Merfield
08-01-2024 01:10
This is a really great summary of the histories of these alt-ags.
Planten