This hot topic, has been concerning a lot of people over the last couple of years, and I’ve found myself constantly surprised at how caught up people get on the idea that Regenerative Agriculture has no ‘official’ definition. As this topic is near and dear to my heart - as well as the core of my business and working life - I felt it was time for me to attempt to bring some clarity to the matter, perhaps helping move the conversation forwards a little.
In most discussions, the focus seems to almost always shift to 'practices', and how Regenerative Agriculture or "RegenAg" can (or cannot) be defined by them.. which actions are 'good' vs 'bad'. From my perspective however I don't perceive tools or techniques as being inherently good or bad for the most part, only appropriate or not in any given context. Any definition therefore that's focused purely on practices, tools or techniques etc is inevitably going to fall wide of the mark.
In general, the appropriate practice / tool / technique for any given situation can be judged on its ability to help meet the goals and achieve the outcomes that are needed. The important thing here is understanding what the correct outcomes are and how the principles that guide RegenAg illuminate an optimal path towards achieving them.
In the frustration that results from not having to hand an 'official' definition and the inability to find consensus on this matter, many throw up their hands and say "it can't be defined" to which others add their voices proclaiming that it 'shouldn't' be defined - because what makes it special / unique is that it makes some land managers 'feel' a particular way (giving the subject an almost 'self-help programme' status), and that if was defined (like organics) in a rigid way then it would restrict innovation / experimentation / flexibility to respond to situations, limit management options etc.. and take away what makes it special. "Better no definition than a restrictive one!" Some have said. There is nothing wrong with how it makes people feel, (in fact that's positive) however no matter how true or important any of that may be, it is (in my opinion) based on a flawed assumption - that the only way to define it, is the exact same way we defined organics. That, as I will attempt to demonstrate, is not the case.
A description vs a definition
What’s the difference? In practice, the distinction is small but important. You could think of it a bit like explaining to someone what something looks like as opposed to setting out the conditions for what makes the thing ‘itself’ (and not something else). You can describe what France is 'like', but the agreed national border is what makes any given piece of territory 'France' and not Switzerland, Belgium or Spain etc. A border (a literal line in the sand) is one way of defining something. We can (and do) use language to draw lines for more conceptual things.
When we are talking about concepts (like RegenAg) a definition is helpful because we can know when we are talking about ‘it’ and when we are not. We know what is 'inside the boundary' as opposed to outside of it. We can then tell more clearly when something can be ‘it’ or ‘not it’. It can also help us clarify exactly what properties make something ‘itself’, giving us a set of criteria to check against. Definitions are not set in stone I should add, they can (and do) shift over time, but they are undoubtably useful. At the end of the day we need them to convey our meaning to each other and ensure when we want to talk about the same thing we are able to easily do so.
A description of something tends to explain the characteristics of the subject in question. It can be longer, more ‘descriptive’ if you will (there.. I’ve failed to describe a description without using a form of the word describe… it’s hard!). In short, descriptions are what most people give (most of the time) when explaining something, it's just easier. We talk about features, costs and benefits, and how things might makes someone feel etc. All of which are valid and potentially true, but they might also not be necessarily unique to the thing in question, so not a defining characteristic in the sense we might be looking for. Descriptions can be easier to work with, more “user friendly”, and can roll off the tongue better than a dry definition, but it’s nice to have both, and know which one we are using.
In the case of RegenAg, there’s a myriad of descriptions out there on the internet talking about what’s involved, what’s not involved, how it’s done, what it means, what it can offer, why it might be better, and how people feel as a result of doing it and so on… but (while helpful) none of those actually define it.
If you would like a definition, I offer up the following:
"The design and management of productive land use, through mimicry of diverse natural ecosystems, that harnesses and restores ecological function to produce food, fibre & fuel - informed by observation of, and continual adjustment to, feedback."
I have been using this definition for the last 3 or 4 years, and while I don’t believe it to be perfect, I have yet to come across a more accurate one.
You might suggest that it doesn’t exactly "roll off the tongue", and I would have to agree, however I believe it hits to the heart of what RegenAg is and what it is not.
Put simply, I don’t see how a land use system that is extractive, industrial and degrades the landscape could fit within that definition, and I have yet to come across a truly regenerative system that doesn’t fit within that. So for now at least (as far as I am concerned) it stands.
I pointedly include both design and management in there (not just the latter) for a host of reasons (that we can get into in another post), but suffice to say that I would argue that design (or planning) is the ‘what’ and management is the ‘how’ - and both are integral.
Equally, if we are talking about land use for productive purpose then it's not just agriculture, it must also include silviculture, horticulture etc, because if you are indeed being regenerative (and mimicking a diverse natural system), these arbitrary industrial monoculture concepts (created in human minds to simplify activities along practical economic lines) are at best irrelevant, and at worst outright counterproductive.
Another crucial point is the observation and adjustment to feedback. If it’s rigid and is defined by the application of a fixed human pattern on to the landscape (like most of what we have done over the last 80 odd years) in complete ignorance of the landscape context and living systems in question - then it cannot be regenerative, because it’s fundamentally coercive / exploitative / extractive.
If you want a short description (rather than a list of features), then this is (I think) the best way to explain.
"Regenerative Agriculture relies on harnessing the unique capacity of biological systems to regenerate themselves after disturbance - in order to generate surplus for human use while simultaneously regenerating degraded land, restoring natural cycles and nurturing biological diversity. "
If you’re doing that, then you are not reliant on synthetic chemical inputs to grow plants.
You will also most likely see land use moving towards improved:
- diversity of land use patterns (supporting more biodiverse landscapes - including trees)
- resilience (both economically & ecologically) to drought, storms, pests and disease
- soil health, biological function and carbon sequestration
- rainwater infiltration, water flow control and restoration of hydrological function (in turn leading towards better freshwater health)
- health of animals and plants across the landscape
As people evolve their thinking, planning and land management towards this goal, finding the right tools, techniques and methods for their unique context, they begin to more fully harness the power of biological regeneration as the engine for their productivity and move away from systems that degrade the living landscape (underlying resource) upon which they depend.
Sustainable vs Organic vs Regenerative
This is where a lot of the hang ups are it seems.
These terms get adopted and abused by marketing types and thrown around almost interchangeably.
Where I differ from a lot of people it seems, is that I don't think that the abuse of these terms renders them worthless. I am more of the view that we should reclaim them and use them clearly, consistently and deliberately. If people misuse them, then call them out (politely) on it, explaining that it’s important that we get this right and speak as effectively and clearly as we can. (You know, considering that the fate of our society and our childrens’ futures all depend on it).
Sustainable : ‘able to be maintained (indefinitely)’. ‘Pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability’. If we’re talking specifically about living systems (which we are in this instance) then that can only take place if you are harnessing that special ability of biological systems to regenerate. This is worth repeating. To be sustainable, a landscape must be designed & managed in a way that is regenerative. It does not imply standing still or maintaining the status quo. Because biological systems are never static. To put this in oversimplified terms.. an ecosystem is either degrading or regenerating. It can be doing either slowly or quickly but it never stands still. The point of RegenAg (again to simplify) is to have NET regeneration while using disturbance as a tool. This requires knowledge, adaptability and keen observation.
Organic : is an ethos of farming in a way that’s environmentally responsible (and could be described as the theoretical ancestor to RegenAg in some ways). Over time it has been formalised and wrapped up in regulatory certification schemes that differ around the world, but that is primarily defined through practices which are allowed or not. There are things you can do, and things you can’t (depending on where you are and what kind of operation you are running). It sets a bar that is definitely better than the dominant industrial way of doing things, but is not (in and of itself) necessarily 'sustainable'. While there are many growers around the world who exemplify brilliant land stewardship and go way beyond the minimum requirements to comply with organic certification, on the other hand there are many examples of large scale operations around the world who can meet organic standards and get certified, but that are degrading the landscape they manage, are dependent on non-renewable resources and so on. In many ways you could say that organic (while great) is more concerned with what you 'must not' do, than what you should do.
Regenerative : As mentioned above, this is about a system that relies on harnessing the unique capacity of biological systems to regenerate themselves after disturbance - in order to generate surplus for human use while simultaneously regenerating degraded land, restoring natural cycles and nurturing biological diversity. It can be organic - and even go well beyond what is laid out within any given organic certification scheme when done well - but to date has been focused on outcomes instead of meeting regulatory frameworks.
Having a globally-recognised, transparent, outcomes-based framework for identifying which operations are 'walking the talk' will be increasingly more useful as time goes on and more people actively want to support the highest levels of land stewardship in return for the highest quality food. (For the record I think we should do better than the current organic certification model, and design a system where accreditation is, transparent, holistic and where the bureaucratic and financial cost is not worn by the producer).
I've proposed both a definition and a description ..in the hope that it's useful to some people and constructive to the ongoing discussion that's taking place around defining this topic. It's not "official" of course.. but why does a definition have to be official? What makes it official? Having an office? I have an office. It’s at home, it has a nice view out the window when the sun isn’t streaming in to my face making it too hot.
Would it be more convincing if I had a fancy title? It’s very easy for me to go out and register a foundation or association etc and make myself chair of the National RegenAg Association (NRA) or the Institute for Regenerative Agriculture (IRA), but does that make what I am proposing any more “correct”? I'm currently of the opinion that it's a funny Victorian hangover notion of class, respectability and officialdom that underpins this… so it seems a bit silly to get bogged down on what's official or not.
I think the most valuable thing is not whether you define it, but that people actually go out and DO it, however ….at a certain point it’s useful to know when someone is actually practising RegenAg or not. Even for ourselves. We might want to help other people to do it (I do!), but instead of just helping people do ‘better’ than they are currently (which is great), we might also want to zero in on something more specific and outline a set of outcomes to aim for or set of principles to guide us along the journey.
To this end, it would be helpful to have some consensus. It would be great if those of us talking about it, practicing it and advising around it could all agree on exactly what we’re taking about. It helps us communicate it to others better, it helps say what we're for - not just against - and it also shines a light where it's needed, reminding us all of what has been forgotten about and undervalued.. that the design of our enterprises and our land use activities MUST operate within ecological limits or it will end in catastrophe. Same goes for our economies, societies and so on.
This is the reality we're facing. We've pushed too far past the limits of what our planet can support and we need to get back to basics and look again with fresh eyes at how we can design land use patterns and food systems (and afterwards societies and economies) that respect the biological systems we depend upon and take up the call to be better ancestors.