(Note: I’m writing a more complete and expanded version of this article, including graphics and structured analyses of these lineages. Sign up for my mailing list if you want to read the finished version.)
There are 5 primary intellectual and practical Lineages of people who are using the term”Regenerative Agriculture”.
Each Lineage has a different definition, farming philosophy, and approach to growing their community. In the last year, one of them is quickly (but quietly) out-growing the others.
Here are the Five Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture:
1. Rodale Organic
Basic organic agriculture practices promoted by Rodale since the 1970s, re-dubbed “Regenerative Organic” in recent years and requiring the tenets of organic agriculture as a baseline. The focus is soil. CPG brands have been strongly promoting this lineage, most notably through the Regenerative Organic Certification.
In my opinion, this lineage does not really “get” regeneration, and thinks it is achieved by a combination of (very effective!) 40+year old conversation farming practices – cover cropping, crop rotation, compost, low- or no-till. As I often tell people, there is no such thing as a “Regenerative Agriculture Practice” – only systemic outcomes can confirm that a regenerative effect is actually taking place.
Permaculture as a global movement loves the IDEA of regenerative agriculture, but for the most part fails to achieve significant levels of agricultural production. Along with a strong focus on small-scale design and unproven beliefs about reversing climate change, this lineage of Regenerative Agriculture tends towards ideals from the human potential movement, focusing on how to create “thriving” and “abundance” for all.
Regrarians, emerging from but transcending the scale and idealism of permaculture, has for decades integrated Holistic Management, Keyline, and ecological design processes at farm-scale around the world. In my opinion some of the best regenerative agriculture farm design comes from this lineage – they effectively integrate agroforestry comprehensive water-planning, soil-building, and holistic livestock management while building farmer capacity and economic viability.
3. Holistic Management
Promoted by both the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International, focusing on a comprehensive decision-making framework designed for animal-centric ecosystem regeneration.
Over 50 years ago, the term ‘Regenerative’ was developed by Charles Krone to describe a radically different paradigm of approaching human and systems development. Guided by the Carol Sanford Institute, a small but effective community of practice including Regenesis, Terra Genesis International, Regen.Network and others has applied the paradigm to Business, Design, Planning, Education, and Agriculture.
While I began my journey in the ‘Permaculture’ lineage mentioned above, I now firmly consider this the lineage from which I am working and thinking. The most complete explanation of farming from the perspective of this lineage is freely available in my paper ‘Levels of Regenerative Agriculture‘ – let me know what you think.
5. Soil Profits / No-Till / NRCS
Typified and led by Ray Archuleta, Gabe Brown, and others, this lineage draws practices and inspiration from other Lineages but appeals strongly to conventional farmers by eschewing the dogmas of organic agriculture and focusing on bottom line profits through increased soil health.
This final Lineage is the one that I see quietly experiencing exponential growth – dominating the Regenerative Agriculture mentions in middle-America newspapers (which I track, somewhat obsessively, in the monthly Regeneration Newsroom) and actually being adopted by mainstream conventional farmers.
By bypassing prejudices against ‘organic’, and allowing farmers to still use synthetic inputs, this lineage is received openly enough to then show the economic arguments for decreasing inputs and improving soil through good crop rotation, no-till, and grazing practices.
The narrative that something as effective and sexy as “Regenerative Agriculture” is available to conventional farmers is a big deal. While I think this lineage misses opportunities through its incompleteness and dis-integrative approach, I believe it is incredibly important for the world to watch and support its growth and evolution.
My goal in writing up these lineages is to help discern and distinguish the different meanings and philosophies at play when someone says “Regenerative Agriculture”.
There is a significant “Regenerative Hype” sweeping into public consciousness, primarily through the natural products industry, but also pushed by recent climate change reports and global political dialogue.
More and more organizations, individuals, and businesses will start to claim that what they are doing is “regenerative”, without changing how they are thinking or even what they are doing. I think that understanding what lineage they are speaking from will help everyone to discuss, debate, and further develop the actual effects of work in this realm – there is great potential in Regenerative Agriculture, and we are not anywhere close to achieving it.
Epic: First product with ecologically regenerative meat hits the market. As I covered last month, Savory Institute has been hard at work for 2 years prototyping it’s Land-to-Market™ verification program in close collaboration with hand-selected brands. Now you can taste the results. Link
“Turning around 4 disastrous years with regenerative agriculture” – Dakota Farmer. Have I mentioned how important it is that folks are reading this in the Dakota Farmer? Link
Trio of stories on regenerative agriculture in Australia:
1. The Guardian continues its excellent coverage on regenerative agriculture, this time focusing on the potential for Australia. Interesting focus on education and removing vested interests from the industry. “If we don’t go to regenerative agriculture, we will continue to mine soils, particularly of carbon. This is the great loss and it is not being admitted. If you continue to mine carbon, you are shot” Link
2. Restore the Soil, Prosper the Nation. Big-thinking policy paper from the former governor general of Australia. Link
3. Soils for Life Case Study: “Returns in excess of 8% on capital invested per year” on 8900 hectares. Very interesting investment & land acquisition model with a real focus on profit & impact. Link
To round these out, see the recent review paper “Conservation and Regenerative versus Intensive Agriculture” from Future Directions International. While overall the positive and research-directed tone is welcome, the author confuses regenerative and conservation agriculture, citing the paper I covered in August with terrible methodology for defining “regenerative”. Worth a quick skim, though nothing revolutionary here. Link
Very Important: This is the future of carbon measurement. Instead of expensive & slow soil testing, simple reflectometers measure soil carbon based on how dark a soil is. Eventually these will embedded in IoT sensors for real-time data streams. Several outfits are working on this, I like the tone and open source hardware approach of Quick Carbon. Link.
Supermarkets, microorganism trade systems, and super-high-phenolic olive oil. All from… Cyprus? Link and here’s the farm itself Link
This young australian farmer won an award for no-till grain growing, inspired by regen ag principles. Link
Australia: The State of Global Food Security and Implications for Rural Communities. Nice tight summary of the global food security landscape with good references. Link
Apparently, the big General Mills / Gunsmoke project will train young farmers and… robots? Link
Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees every time you search, shares its thinking on regenerative agriculture. Basic, but good. Link
From Andre Leu and the good folks at Regeneration International: “Reversing Climate Change through Regenerative Agriculture.” Good general article, summarizes climate change logic and makes some rather remarkable claims of what soil carbon sequestration can achieve. Main tools listed are composting and grazing; I think de-emphasizing agroforestry like this is a mistake. Link [photo available]
Candidate running with regenerative agriculture as part of their platform. Small-scale politics, but expect to see more of this. Link
Cute little Forbes/Quora mashup: how regenerative agriculture can improve meat. Link
Great in-depth article on the first new perennial starch crop – Kernza. High Plains Journal article highlights some of the real challenges with scaling up supply, especially in the face of skyrocketing demand (which I discuss at length on this podcast). Link
“So what is regenerative agriculture? Though he can easily illustrate the practices and goals, Peterson is reticent “to try to define regenerative agriculture because it’s a way of thinking that is creative, expansive, holistic, open and alive,” he says. “I’m afraid that once we think we have it defined, it will be limited or compartmentalized.”
In contrast, from Alberta, here’s an article on a 2,000-acre farmer who gives a (common) mis-definition of Regen Ag that does not actually describe regeneration: “We’re trying to practise what we would call regenerative agriculture — trying to build a profitable, resilient system that’s maintaining a good level of production while reducing the amount of inputs we’re relying on.” Reducing inputs does not equal regenerative. That said, there are some tactical intercropping gems in here. Link
I love the fiery political commentary coming out of Australia. “The froth and bubble buffoonery of political opportunity… suggests that the National Drought Summit will be largely a waste of time and result in…” Regenerative agriculture?!? Link
Third General Assembly of Regeneration International happened in India. Doesn’t sound like a lot happened? And the organization’s newly clarified mission is to promote organic agriculture? Link
I think the nascent inclusion of regeneratively produced ingredients into health & beauty products is incredibly important. See short interview with the folks at Kaibae over at Beauty Independent – Link
Videos & Podcasts
“A Regenerative Secret” – New mini-film by Kiss the Ground, focused on the science and practice of regenerative grazing on Joyce Farms. Awesome drone shots of rotating cattle, those alone make this excellent 8 minutes worth watching. [screenshot]
What do Baobab, Seaweed, and Cacay have in common? Check out Lost Crops – The Documentary. In just 14 minutes you can see beautiful and important footage from Ghana to Colombia touching the community economic empowerment potential of regenerative agriculture and mariculture. Link
Cute but strange video from Patagonia Provisions. I find it a bit heavy-handed and fear-driven despite the regenerative agriculture message and digitized watercolor. This video is not going to get any large-scale farmers I know to change their practices. What do you think? Link
This farmer’s got 23 more inches of topsoil than his neighbor. From John Kempf, an interview with Gabe Brown. Link
“The Next Frontier in Regenerative Agriculture & the Power of Stories” – Poultry-centric pioneer and Ashoka Fellow Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin offers great insights on his Regenerative Agriculture work. Link
AFR100: The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative aims to bring 100 million hectares of land in Africa into restoration by 2030. Excellent project. Link
California indigenous groups’ revive their fire and agroforestry traditions, upending years of ill-conceived management practices. Yurok and Karuk peoples are collaborating with California and US Forest Service to restore 5,700 square kilometers. Great article. Link
Sweet little Forbes interview with Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, 2018 Ashoka Fellow and creator of the “Tree-Range™” regenerative farming model. Link
Agroforestry gaining traction among mainstream timberland investors. First of its kind Report from leading forest products advisor RISI. Link
Free book from the World Agroforestry Centre on Climate Smart Landscapes. 445 Pages of multifunctional agroforestry in practice. Great academic resource with some fascinating practical details from around the world. Link
Business & Policy
First in the US Carbon Fee – $15 per metric ton of carbon emitted, increasing by $2 per year. Could raise $2.3 billion for clean energy investment and other carbon-reduction measures. – Link
Corporate Carbon: This Australian organization has developed over 100 projects focusing on building soil organic matter. Though it looks like a journal article, this is an interview with the founder – fascinating. Link
This Bangalore-based business just won a Goldman Sachs and Fortune Global Women Leaders Award for making a turning a farming video game into real life. Link
Important Event: The Regenerative Earth Summit is in less than 3 weeks. Leading businesses like Patagonia, North Face, Danone, Epic, Kashi, Lotus Foods come together with the the worlds 5th-largest commodities trader (Bunge), indigenous leader Winona LaDuke, regenerative ag pioneers (Fibershed, Savory Institute, Rodale Institute) and many more! I’ll be speaking on the panel “Growing Traceability and Transparency”. I look forward to seeing you there! Link
Ethan Soloviev’s big-picture interpretation of this month’s news:
As Koen van Seijen and I discuss in our audio highlights, the key trend to watch this month is the role of media in shaping public perception of regenerative agriculture.
With the quickly-growing number of consumer products making “regenerative” claims (see Epic’s product this month, North Face’s last month), more and more people will be looking or bite-sized information in the form of Youtube videos and Text/Image Memes.
Kiss the Ground is at the forefront of this media wave, consistently releasing high-quality and easy-to-digest documentary- and explainer-type videos.
But expect to see larger players with their own particular interests getting into the media game as well. See for example this meme produced (apparently) by General Mills earlier this year… look familiar?
The vast majority of General Mills’ products still come from farms that look like the one on the left. And “protect soil” comes from the Conservative agriculture paradigm, but is masquerading here as regenerative (I’ll write more about the distinctions in an upcoming paper).
Don’t get me wrong – I am overjoyed that General Mills (and soon, I predict) other large agriculture players are beginning to shift their paradigm towards regeneration. I just hope they can help uphold and evolve the integrity of a truly regenerative agriculture, instead of degrading it in their bid to profit from this year’s regenerative hype.
– Ethan Soloviev
Questions? Comments? Leave it below or send me an email – firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Farmer Del Ficke has an emotional story of personal trauma and regeneration that fed his family farm transformation. His awareness of culture is more nuanced and engaged than most I’ve heard about.
2. The story is emblematic of the “new” face of Regenerative Agriculture, the one that is growing the most quickly with large-scale farmers across the heartland of the United States and farming country in Australia. I’ll write more about this in my final note at the end.
Very important: Detailed overview of Savory Institute’s Land to Market™ program, the first outcomes-based regenerative ag standard. I think this is the best standard available and the one I recommend supporting. Link
Australian Farmers Driving Up Profits Through Regenerative Agriculture. “While debt has crippled many farmers over the past 12 years, NSW grazier Martin Royds increased his farm’s profits 230 per cent…” Link
Taking natural and organic cosmetic ingredients to the next level – “The ingredients that sustain and enhance people’s lives should also sustain and enhance their planetary home”. Great 3-article series on tropical regenerative agriculture at Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica – videos interviews included. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Towards Regenerative Fashion: “The North Face Adds Products Made Through Regenerative Agriculture.” I appreciate the clarity that North Face is using to describe the line of Fibershed-sourced wool: They’re still doing a full LCA, but they know the sheep & grazing capture carbon. Link
In case you missed it: The White House’s Deep Decarbonization Plan for the United States, which includes Carbon Farming and Agroforestry. Published 2016… I wonder if anyone in the current White House has read this;) Link
“The Future of Flavor” is regenerative agriculture. I completely agree. Link
“Sustainability isn’t enough” says Minnesota Ranching family. Aiming towards regeneration with no-till, cover crops, and grazing. Also see (despite the reporter’s grimace;) a pretty good video on the same farm on AgWeek TV (skip to 23:14) Link
Regenerative agriculture gets a nod (albeit a strange one sandwiched between techno-fantasies;) in Fast Company: “It’s the year 2038–here’s how we’ll eat 20 years in the future” – Link
Regeneration Canada launches new website, starts planning for 2019 Soil Summit. Link
Conflicting perspectives on drought in Australia – One farmer describes what regenerative grazing and tree planting have done for her land. Link
New book exploring path to regenerative agriculture – I’m looking forward to reading this! Link
Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz practices… regenerative agriculture?!? Link
From the Guardian: “If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer”. While the biodiversity and economic results noted in this piece are impressive, I can only imagine what would happen if the farm used Holistic rotational grazing instead of extensive permanent paddocks. Link
Most people continue to use term “regenerative agriculture” to describe these 3 basic tenets of organic farming. Interesting little video. Link
Verizon Indycars and agriculture? “It will be an organic regenerative farm right outside the raceway gates.” Link
Short and interesting definition of Regen Ag from Modern Farmer, along with a bunch of short and interesting definitions of other ag terms. Link
“We’ve encountered active hostility from conventional farmers; but the regenerative techniques and science are coming out of both the organic and the conventional sectors. This is a huge opportunity to start bridging that gap.” Nice interview on soil, and the potential for transforming agriculture. Link
Regenerative agriculture is gaining momentum in Australia. A state Agriculture and Food Minister officially launched a Regenerative Farmers Network, saying “What I see very much from the farmers in the regenerative space is they’re not out there preaching to other people about what they should do, they are leading by example.” (Plus some harsh zings at Biodynamics;) Link
Tickling Trump’s ear – a fascinating editorial in a small-town USA newspaper tackles national politics, international trade wars, and (!) the promise of regenerative agriculture. Fascinating to see how far and wide the meme is spreading! Link
The Garden at the End of the World – Patagonia’s new piece promoting Regenerative Organic Agriculture in name, though mainly a sweet little story of a biointensive garden in Patagonia, Chile. Link
(Top podcast this month) Investing in Regenerative Agriculture – Follow-up on a story from last month Koen van Seijen interviews Satya Tropathi, chair of the board of the Sustainable India Finance Facility, a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme, World Agroforestry Centre and BNP Paribas. Link
GreenBiz talks to Regen Network CEO Gregory Landua about blockchain and regenerative ag (skip ahead to 29:30 to hear this segment). They’ll be pitching at VERGE 2018. – Link
Exploring the connection between Organic and Regenerative Agriculture – Supplyside West Podcast with Jeff Moyer of the Rodale Institute – Link
Kiss the Ground on Food Startups Podcast – how to reverse climate change! Link
Innovation Forum: Mars, Nestlé, Unilever, Olam, Coca-Cola, and L’Oreal – At least on paper, these companies are beginning to explore regenerative agriculture and agroforestry – as they should be. Any deeper investigation I’ve done have indicated that their aspirations are far beyond their effects, but perhaps things are changing. Many will be speaking at the “Sustainable Landscapes Conference 2018” – Link
Enhancing cacao production through regenerative agriculture. Great to have agroforestry & regenerative agroforestry integrated around a cacao cash-crop. Link
Regenerative Investing & Business
Impact investing plants seeds of growth for small-scale farmers – some decent coverage from the Financial Times, more on ag-tech but with a regenerative farming mention for SLM Partners. Link
Nearly 400 investors with $32 trillion in assets step up action on climate change – Link and Link. Good start.
1/8 of Global Market Cap Now Committed to Science-Based Targets. An international collaboration between CDP, the United Nations, World Resources Institute and WWF independently assesses and verifies company emission reduction targets. Eventually, this group could even assess the positive carbon-sequestering activities that companies will integrate into their systems of supply. Link
With new $35m equity investment, California Olive Ranch says it’s looking towards Regenerative Agriculture. Olive trees do indeed have carbon-sequestering potential, but given the long-term drought situation and the predilection of California olive producers to plant massive monocultures (see photo;) it seems like a stretch. But I’d love to be proven wrong! Link
A new proposal from the editor of ImpactAlpha: Rename ‘Generation Z’ to the “reGeneration”. Plus 6 investment trends to watch – Link
Dear Paul Hawken, I disagree: Regeneration is not “all about meeting current human needs.” Regeneration is much more than that, focusing on the potential of whole living systems. Aiming for people get to some minimum set of needs met is not enough. Nevertheless, I’m excited to see the next book:) Link to Interview
Management & Governance: Do you know how Holacracy is different from Regenerative Business? Link
Ethan Soloviev’s big-picture interpretation of this month’s news:
There are 5 primary intellectual and practical Lineages of people who are using the term “Regenerative Agriculture”. Each Lineage has a different definition, farming philosophy, and approach to growing their community. In the last year, one of them is quickly (but quietly) out-growing the others. I’ll write about these in more detail in another post soon, but here are the Five Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture:
1. Rodale Organic – Basic organic agriculture practices promoted by Rodale since the 1970s, re-dubbed “Regenerative Organic” in recent years and requiring the tenets of organic agriculture as a baseline. The focus is soil. CPG brands have been strongly promoting this lineage, most notably through the Regen Organic Certification.
2. Permaculture/Regrarians – Permaculture as a global movement loves the IDEA of regenerative agriculture, but for the most part fails to achieve significant levels of agricultural production. Regrarians, emerging from permaculture, has for decades integrated Holistic Management, Keyline, and ecological design processes at farm-scale around the world.
3. Holistic Management – promoted by both the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International, focusing on a comprehensive decision-making framework designed for animal-centric ecosystem regeneration. Last month Savory released their Land to Market Ecological Outcome Verification system, with backing of some significant food brands.
4. Regenerative Paradigm – over 50 years ago, the term ‘Regenerative’ was developed by Charles Krone to describe a radically different paradigm of approaching human and systems development. Guided by the Carol Sanford Institute, a small but effective community of practice including Regenesis, Terra Genesis International, and others has applied the paradigm to Business, Design, Planning, Education, and Agriculture.
5. Soil Profits / No-Till / NRCS – Typified and led by Ray Archuleta, Gabe Brown, and others, this lineage draws practices and inspiration from other Lineages but appeals strongly to conventional farmers by eschewing the dogmas of organic agriculture and focusing on bottom line profits through increased soil health.
This final Lineage is the one that I see quietly experiencing exponential growth – dominating the Regen Ag mentions of middle-America newspapers and actually being adopted by mainstream conventional farmers.
By bypassing prejudices against ‘organic’, and allowing farmers to still use synthetic inputs, this lineage is received openly enough to then show the economic arguments for decreasing inputs and improving soil through good crop rotation, no-till, and grazing practices
The narrative that something as effective and sexy as “Regenerative Agriculture” is available to conventional farmers is a big deal. While I think this lineage misses opportunities through its incompleteness and dis-integrative approach, I believe it is incredibly important for the world to watch and support its growth and evolution.
– Ethan Soloviev
P.S. If you’re interested in some in-person learning, I recommend the upcoming Regenerative Earth Summit – I’ll be speaking there along folks from Patagonia, North Face, Eileen Fisher, Savory Institute, Fair Trade USA, Rodale Institute, and the American Sustainable Business Council. I hope to see you there!
If you enjoyed this issue of Regeneration Newsroom, please forward this to a friend that would find the information valuable!
Ever thought about starting a business or building a career in regenerative agriculture? Prepare to get creative—and to get some dirt under your fingernails.
Ethan Soloviev is a founding team member of Terra Genesis, an international regenerative design consultancy. He helps create resilient and profitable businesses by redesigning supply chains to make them regenerative.
How did Soloviev find his way to his current career? Let’s just say that the guy who in his early 20s traveled the world to study apples, didn’t exactly follow a linear career track.
In this interview with Regeneration International, Soloviev covers several topics related to regenerative agriculture, including what types of experiences you might want to get under your belt if you’re contemplating a career in the fast-growing field of regenerative food, farming, and natural products.
This interview has been edited for brevity and readability.
Regeneration International (RI): Tell us about yourself.
Ethan Soloviev (ES): I’m a designer at Terra Genesis International. We grow the field of regenerative supply by working with companies around the world to transform supply chains into networks of resource production. I am also the EVP of Research at HowGood, which rates the sustainability of food, personal care products and cleaning products. We’re working to change the overall direction of the marketplace, and also to empower consumers to purchase and choose the best products that they can.
RI: How did you build your career in regenerative supply networks, agriculture and design?
ES: It’s been 15 years now. I did a degree in biology and afterwards I traveled around the world studying apples. I visited some amazing places—Sweden, Kazakhstan, Japan, New Zealand, Chile, Central America—and I got to see a global picture of how apples are grown. That really woke me up to agriculture and the damage that monoculture chemical industrial agriculture systems around the world are doing. That led me to permaculture. I took a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) and started a permaculture business back in 2005. I grew that business (AppleSeed Permaculture LLC) for a decade. It’s still one of the largest Permaculture Design businesses in the northeast of North America.
We started doing small-scale edible landscapes and eventually built up to larger design work, doing 300-1200-acre farms. I learned a lot about farm design and startup. People would often say, “It’s great to create food forests and ponds and biointensive vegetable gardens but it’ll take time, investment and energy to get this going—can it really make a return?” So we started running the numbers. We schooled ourselves very quickly in agronomics, and built a series of enterprise budgets to check if an enterprise was going to be economically viable. We found that a lot of the brilliant ideas of permaculture need to be checked against the economic reality of whatever place you’re working in to see if there’s something that can be sustained beyond the initial excitement.
RI: Right, the big question in the regeneration movement right now is “how do we scale regenerative agriculture?”
ES: It’s interesting, I go back and forth about whether “scaling” regenerative agriculture is the right thing to do. Part of me really wants to do it and wants to do it as fast as possible. It’s early and we’re heading towards the birth of a new industry. The supply of regenerative goods and massive landscape restoration that regenerative agriculture enables can produce multiple forms of profit. So it is exciting to think, “How fast can we scale this?”
However, another part of me has a different perspective. Regenerative agriculture is not a machine. We’re actually seeking to regenerate whole living systems. All of the language in the startup and venture capital communities is derived from a mechanical paradigm, where “scaling” means adding more machines to do more of the same work. Humans, and landscapes, are not machines. So I don’t think “scaling” is the appropriate metaphor for regenerative agriculture.
At the same time, I think now is a moment when we can and should work to quickly grow the community. How can we reconcile the two perspectives?
RI: What are the biggest gaps in knowledge in the movement right now that young people looking to get into the industry could fill?
ES: The biggest gap is investable enterprise —enterprises that have proven business models that actually capture carbon in the soil, increase biodiversity and generate financial capital returns. Proven business models and experienced teams will be required to metabolize the slow money and venture capital that is out there looking for a place to land.
Most of what I see in the regenerative movement is big ideas and excitement but not a lot of reality about how to pull off those ideas. That’s another big gap. There are many things that we can do to create enterprises worth investing in. Whether we’ll see exponential or linear or logarithmic growth, I’m not sure, but I do believe that working with the current system ofaccepting investment capital is going to be the fastest route to move forward and set the foundation for the real birth of a new industry.
The movement needs people who have depth of knowledge in what they’re doing. We need people who have experience running and growing businesses, or who want to go and get that experience. Even more, we need people who can do the farming. People who can actually get out there and run a holistic management livestock operation with multiple species on multiple pieces of land, who can successfully repair the land and grow food. We also need people with experience growing nut trees and fruit trees—perennial crops have already proven to be profitable, and they are our best bet for rapid global carbon sequestration. Then we need to integrate the two, bring together livestock operations and perennial tree crops—that’s where the fun really starts.
RI: For people who don’t have that in-depth knowledge or experience, where should they start?
ES: People would do well to hone in on what they’re really excited about. If it’s nut crops, great! Go for that. If it’s animals, great! Go for that. If a number of people can get depth in these functional farming enterprises and collaborate with other people who have gone and acquired the business skills along the way, that will lead to the creation of new enterprises. We could call this integrative depth. We’re really going to need teams of people working together to move regenerative agriculture forward.
I think we need about 1000 companies to really take this on. The restraint and challenge with that right now is that there are only about 10 businesses that have even said that they want regenerative supply systems. Those companies are great. Some of them are large and moving in this direction quickly. But they aren’t enough.
The 1000 companies need to be a combination of 1) existing companies who agree to pick up and take on regenerative agriculture, transform their supply systems into regenerative supply, and 2) new ventures with totally fresh perspectives, drawing from fresh investment sources.
RI: What is TGI doing to get those other 990 companies on board? And how does that relate to developing your client base?
ES: Terra Genesis focuses primarily on the natural products industry—food, consumer packaged goods and cosmetics. The exciting thing for our clients is there’s actually a real business case for regenerative agriculture. We carry out risk assessments where we look at a company’s supply chain, which includes all of the ingredients in their portfolio whether it’s 5 or 500. Then we ask, “What are the risks right now?” “What are the opportunities?”
A lot of times the opportunities come from where a company is purchasing from of the commodities marketplace, whether it’s cocoa butter or citric acid or almonds. We hone in on those and look for ways to go directly to producers who are really pushing the edge on regenerative practices. By cutting out the multiple middle-people that are implicit in the commodity supply chain you can get prices that are similar or even better, while simultaneously offering real living and cultural capital profits on the ground for farmers. There are actual cost saving potentials in doing this inside a supply chain! And then we help our clients leverage the story of doing this.
Businesses that take a step in this direction, especially now, they get to be leaders. They’re early adopters and they will fully shine at the top. Patagonia, Nutiva, Lush Cosmetics and Epic are all talking about regenerative agriculture. They have real leadership in the marketplace.
Fortunately there’s a lot of room in a lot of different categories for businesses to step up and head towards regenerative agriculture.
RI: Which categories have the most potential right now?
ES: Cosmetics. Cleaning products. Sunscreen. Clothing. In food, there are so many opportunities! I don’t think there’s a potato chip company that is doing regenerative agriculture yet. How about an ice cream company? Tea. Soda. Almonds. Any kind of fruit. Olive oil. Salt. Bread. Beer. In any category brands are always looking for ways to position themselves as #1 (that’s one of the immutable laws of marketing). I think regenerative agriculture is a powerful tactic for this—it almost creates a new category for brands to step into and lead.
RI: What are your top favourite design courses that you recommend, to help people build the right skills to work in this industry?
ES: If you’re new to this realm, take a Permaculture Design Certification (PDC). You can do that while working your job that you don’t really like, at a bank or at a software company or wherever. The reason I say that is that while it is useful to grow and build skills in certain practices, what’s more useful if you want a career in regeneration is to evolve your paradigm. To do this, you have to disrupt your current paradigm. The PDC will do that. PDCs are an emersion in ecosystem thinking and whole systems design. Go get the certification. It’s a great start.
The next level of depth I recommend is taking a REX course from Regrarians, which is really the best training in regenerative agriculture that’s out there. In the past our team has run Carbon Farming Courses, and we’ll be re-starting some carbon farming education later this year. Also excellent would be any trainings in holistic management, from Savory Institute, or Holistic Management International. They’re different, but both are good.
RI: After taking some of these training courses, what next?
ES: Go work on a farm. You need to actually work, and then ideally manage a perennial agriculture or an agroforestry or a livestock-based system. If you’ve got a great idea and are trying to go out there and pitch people on it and get venture capital to fund an idea, unless you have proven experience and a proven business model, it’s not really going to work.
Go get some experience! Dig in. Spend a year or two on the farming side of things actually farming and producing food or fiber. You could also explore growing crops for the personal care industry. There’s something very interesting about growing for personal care: the margins are much better than they are in food. And for single ingredients (e.g. essential oils or nut butters), if you’ve got a really good story, then you can gain leadership and sales.
L’Oreal has a plan to be carbon negative by 2020. It’s one of the five largest personal care companies in the world. They’re going to need to be purchasing fair trade regenerative agriculture products in order to achieve that goal. But there’s not enough supply for that anywhere on the planet. Maybe 1/1000th of it currently exists. So get to work!
RI: What about supply chain management courses or MBAs to complement on-the-ground experience?
ES: I’m a big fan of on-the-job learning and training. There’s one masters degree I highly recommend, from Gaia University. It’s a global action learning system that encourages people to be working at their jobs while learning and getting accredited while they do it. You could for example do an online supply chain optimization course while working for a personal care or food products company, and get credit for it.
As for an MBA, while I’m not 100 percent sure, I’m going to go ahead and say, “yes.” We need some people who are excited about regenerative agriculture to go get an MBA and report back on how useful it’s been. As we discussed earlier, I think there’s a danger in getting addicted to the “scale or die” mechanical model so popular in current business. It looks nothing like how natural systems actually work. Make sure to take your PDC as you do your MBA. Or volunteer on a local organic farm every weekend to keep it real. If there’s anybody who’s got an MBA who wants to play in this realm, let’s go for it, I’d love to talk to them and hear their experiences. I haven’t seen MBA graduates turn into leaders of regenerative enterprises or regenerative agriculture systems (yet). But I would love to!
There’s an upswell of venture capital seeking to invest in regenerative enterprises but I don’t think there’s enough farm businesses that are ready. I think this asymmetry of demand and supply has emerged partially because it’s easier to invest money than it is to farm. Overall, I think the abundance of capital is a good thing. I see it as an activating force in this whole situation. For example, Renewal Funds, Cienega Capital, Cycleffect are doing excellent work to grow the field. There’s also a handful of family offices that are investing in some of the few regenerative agriculture enterprises that are ready for investment. So there are examples to learn from and work from… but still a ways to go.
RI: What kind of resources people should prioritize studying?
ES: Dirt and trees. Chickens and cows. Spend time in forests. Follow the closest stream to the top of the watershed. Those are really the best “resources.”
Online resources are great for quickly getting content and gaining intellectual capital, but what’s more important is taking the intellectual capital and grounding it into experiential capital. I stopped going to organic farming conferences four years ago because I realized I had gathered more intellectual capital than I had put into use. When I can really and truly say that I’ve put everything I’ve learned into practice, then I’ll go back for more.
That said, there is a difference between gathering informational content and growing your ability to vision, design and execute. There is always room for growth in these realms—especially if we are aiming to regenerate whole living systems. To work here, you need to engage in a community of practice. Ideally, it’s one that can disrupt your current paradigm and help you evolve a new one. And then disrupt your paradigm again.
RI: What “communities of practice” do you recommend?
ES: There are two communities of practice that are effective in this realm. The one I’m closely linked to is the Carol Sanford Institute and the Regenerative Business Summit. Carol Sanford is an incredible mentor and guide and she’s been working in this realm for four decades. Her lineage coined the term “regenerative” more than 40 years ago and put it to work inside companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate Palmolive and Clorox. She’s now working with companies like Google on whole-systems paradigm shifts. Her school is amazing. Joining is by invitation only. You’ve got to make a real human connection with someone who is in the school. Being part of the school is not easy. It’s disruptive, intellectually confronting and definitely not a “comfortable” experience. That said, I would be happy to talk with anyone who wants to learn more.
There is also a simpler path. If you are the leader of a business and you want your company to be one of the 1000 that will move the world, then you can apply to come to the Regenerative Business Summit. It happens every year, in the fall, in Seattle. It’s an amazing event to get a sense of what a new paradigm of work looks like, and feels like. If you want an effective path towards regenerative business, this is a good place to start.
The other group that I recommend is Regenesis. They offer a series called “The Regenerative Practitioner,” which leads to connection with an international community of practice that’s putting the regenerative paradigm to work. It’s more focused on design, architecture and development but there’s great learning you can get there that can be applied to regenerative agriculture.
If you want to head into business, check out the Carol Sanford Institute and Carol Sanford’s books, especially for case studies. The Responsible Entrepreneur and the Responsible Business actually should be called the Regenerative Entrepreneur and the Regenerative Business but the publishing company (many years ago) basically thought that nobody would know what the word means… so they’re called “Responsible” but they’re really about regeneration. They’re the best books out there on the subject.
RI: I remember being introduced to Regenesis in Mexico City last year. They ask you to commit to attend several workshops, at least four.
ES: It’s an amazing group, definitely worth attending—but as I said, not necessarily “easy.” It’s important to commit over time, because regeneration takes a while to get going. It takes some time to disrupt your paradigm so that you can step into a new one. It takes some disturbance in a landscape for a the soil to start holding water and growing trees and really regenerating. Just going to a one-off workshop, you may get some inspiration. Reading a bunch of things on the internet, you may get some cool ideas. But committing to a school of practice that’s actively working on regeneration is a whole different world.
RI: One of the feasible ways to scale up or help the movement grow is to help others replicate frameworks that are working. Is TGI thinking of doing that, of helping other people do what you’re doing?
ES: TGI is definitely growing and adding new clients and team members rapidly. If you want to come engage, let us know. Formal education to train other consultants to do what we do doesn’t really make sense yet. I could see that potentially happening in the future. If anyone is interested in learning how TGI is working with clients, contact us and we’ll look for an opportunity where there’s space to play. Anybody can always come work with us if they bring a client.
I want to push back against the idea of “replicating” as a goal. This stems from that same perspective of a mechanical paradigm. TGI doesn’t do the same work with any client, ever. Every business is a unique business that has its own essence that we reveal. Nobody else has it. And if a company can use that, grasp it and work with it, then they become non-displaceable in the marketplace. There is a process that we use that has internal coherency from one client to the next, but it isn’t “replication”. Part of regenerating whole living systems is that, like real natural systems, you never do the same thing twice.
RI: It’s really skills for facilitating businesses through a process.
ES: Yes, but no. Do you know what the root word of facilitate is?
RI: Facil. To make easy.
ES: We don’t always make it easy for our clients. Making it easy isn’t always the right thing to do. Of course we have to “facilitate” from time to time, but our main work is more in what we call “resourcing.” Resourcing is supporting businesses and executives to re-source themselves: To become the source of their own fresh thinking. This is not based on trends in the marketplace or customer surveys. Using whole living systems frameworks, they develop their own image of what’s emerging in the world and how to head in that direction. That is not an easy process. People don’t like doing it.
Most businesses aren’t willing to do the hard work it takes to be regenerative.
When TGI works with a company we ask them to commit for three to five years. It takes that long to break out of old ruts and really disrupt and innovative. Like the personal growth and development we discussed before, it requires commitment over time.
RI: Any closing words you’d like to add?
ES: You originally asked “how do you find a career in regenerative agriculture?” You can’t. They don’t exist. You have to go make them. And that means you’re either, 1) growing an integrative depth of experience in particular area that you have connection to and real commitment for and then start your own company, or 2) figuring out how to contribute value to an existing business that is heading in that direction.
RI: Anything else?
ES: Let me just make a quick note about NGOs and nonprofits. They’re great, there are lots of them and there are more NGOs talking and thinking about regeneration than there are businesses currently—for example Kiss the Ground, The Carbon Underground, Carbon Drawdown, Savory Institute, Soil Carbon Coalition, Green America, Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, International Living Future Institute, Holistic Management International, Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, Rodale and of course Regeneration International. All these organizations are doing excellent work and we partner with them wherever appropriate. That said, TGI has the belief that business is the most effective route through which large systemic world changes can occur. Therefore, we focus on business.
So… go get that integrative depth! Join a company that’s headed in this direction or start your own.
The key is not to focus on the “practices” of regenerative agriculture, but instead to disrupt, shift and evolve your paradigm and continue to do that in an ongoing way. If we have enough people doing it and taking their own unique paths to do it, then we can head towards the 1000 companies we need focused on regenerative agriculture.
When we do that we’ll be well on our way to birthing a new industry, and that’s really what I think is the bigger direction here for anyone interested in having a career in regenerative agriculture. We have to think big and beyond what’s currently there and work together, intensively, quickly to make it real.
Here’s a short & sweet primer on carbon farming, mislabeled as regenerative agriculture:) Larger and larger venues picking up on the concept, exploring it with great interest and low rigor. – [Link]
Succinct introduction to regenerative agriculture in ‘The Conscious Carnivore Guide’ from the New Food Economy. – Link
There’s slow but steady news of small farms aiming for regenerative agriculture trickling into mainstream press: Like here from western Canada, here from southern Minnesota USA, and here from North Carolina USA.
This industrial greenhouse operation growing growing mostly non-organic with chemicals claims they will go regenerative… I’ll believe it when I see it! – Link and Link
Ben Dobson and the good folks at Hudson Carbon offer a new write-up (kind of like their extended definition) of regenerative agriculture. Includes some interesting ecosystem-derived insights. The group’s practical on-the-ground work and scale are outstanding, though I think their mostly-soil focus misses the deeper layers of Regenerative Agriculture that are possible. – Link
You can now grow monoculture corn, till, spray pesticides, not be organic, not necessarily increase soil carbon, and still be a “Regenerative Farm”. Amazing how fast the watering-down is proceeding. – Link
Aside from the flagrant mis-use and banalization of “regenerative”, the results from this peer-reviewed article are awesome and encouraging! Turns out basic conservation ag practices increase farm profits and have some positive effect on biodiversity. – Link
Some quotes from the article [brackets are my addition]:
“Pests were 10-fold more abundant in insecticide treated corn fields than on insecticide-free [so-called] regenerative farms,”
“[So-called] Regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems”
“Profit was positively correlated with the particulate organic matter of the soil, not yield”
“Simply applying individual regenerative practices within the current production model will not likely produce the documented results.”
Are 20 million acres of land really going to transition to regenerative agriculture? Here’s a UN project scaled with massive government support and an innovative public/private financing system. World Agroforestry Centre involvement; key will be “placing farmers at the forefront of knowledge creation and dissemination.” – Link
(Top podcast this month) Investing in Regenerative Agriculture – My friend Koen van Seijen interviews up-and-coming organic grains powerhouse Pipeline Foods. I recommend listening to his whole series. – Link
Rodale Institute scientists explain their case for regenerative ag. Rodale’s perspective is mostly focused on tried-and-true organic farming practices that produce small increases in soil carbon – there’s a lot more that can be done if trees are added to the mix through agroforestry. – Link
Ecosystem Diversity Prevents Insect Pressure with John Kempf. – Link
A Cattle Farmer & Consultant jam on regenerative ag. – Link
World Bank leads an effort to promote agroforestry for major commodity crops (Corn, Soy, Palm Oil), also explores crops that should be grown in agroforestry systems (Cocoa, Coffee, Shea). – Link
Food Tank interviews Wood Turner of Ag Capital, who have recently adopted the term “Regenerative Agriculture” without any apparent change in their large-scale monoculture operations. The perennial nature of their crops (Hazels, blueberries, citrus) does indeed make them more likely to have a net-positive impact — but as far as I can tell they haven’t documented it, or done anything deeper than using a new word. Nevertheless, this is a good read. – Link
3 Trillion committed to invest in “companies that factor climate risks into their strategies”. While at first glance this might seem great, it will not lead directly to regenerative agriculture or even much change from business as usual – many global petroleum companies put a lot of focus on upcoming climate risks… – Link
Wide Open Ag raises $5m (AUD) in IPO on ASX exchange. Company claims to be doing “diversified, regenerative agriculture”. They use the “4 Returns” Framework developed by the Commonlands Foundation. – Link
$15m Raise – Midwestern Bio-Ag is a stalwart in good organic agriculture practices, products, and support. They’re partnering with General Mills (including a multi-million dollar investment) on the Gunsmoke Farms project, which while touted as “regenerative.” Looks like it will basically be organic. – Link
Six Lessons from Investor Survey As land-grabbing continues and local communities fight back, it is imperative for investors to consider land rights when making agricultural or natural resource investments. USAID surveys the field and presents 6 key findings. (They’re kind of obvious :/ but it’s a good start.) – Link
Related, and more interesting: Indigenous peoples manage or own more than 25% of earth’s land?!? Thank goodness. – Link
Sail Cargo – Here’s a far-out investment opportunity from the past, for the future. Carbon-negative sail-trade of regenerative agroforestry product. I recommend going through the investor booklet. – Link
Leadership is not about motivating or inspiring people. Wait, what? – Link
This business has been rocking it for a while. Great article on Dr. Bronner’s regenerative agriculture work – Link
Herbal infused drink-maker REBBL raises $20 million to continue growing – Link
Competition for regeneration – Still a long ways to go until a functional business sprouts here, but the initial numbers sound good… Link
Ethan Soloviev’s big-picture interpretation of this month’s news:
“Regenerative” Agriculture has within the last 6 months exploded beyond it’s previous audience and advocates, who were primarily in the permaculture and holistic management communities. With its quick expansion has come immediate watering-down, with most people now thinking that regenerative agriculture just a few basic conservation agriculture practices. (I beg to differ – see this white paper for details.) Even non-organic farms practicing tillage, using insecticides, and not certified organic can be “regenerative” – without regard for whether or not they are actually regenerating anything.
Following General Mills’ lead, other Ag & Food business conglomerates will also announce “regenerative” initiatives. I predict that Bayer-Monsanto and others will start promoting “Regenerative” agriculture within 24 months.
What does this mean? The greenwashing will continue to grow in scale and brazenness. The farmers and entrepreneurs working towards deeper levels of regenerative agriculture will continue their work with integrity, but it will be harder for them to stand out and differentiate their offerings. Certifications like the “Regenerative Organic Standard” won’t do much to help, because their checklist-format criteria can’t account for the unique brilliance of individual farms and farmers.
I hope I’m wrong. Stay tuned in the coming months to find out.
– Ethan Soloviev
If you enjoyed this issue of Regeneration Newsroom, please forward this to a friend that would find the information valuable!
I asked 20,000 people for the first 3 videos they would show someone to introduce them to regenerative agriculture. Here’s what they said…
Out of a total of 35 videos recommend, 6 rose to the top. I grouped them into two categories: “Start Here” (~20 minutes or less) and “Go Deeper” (Usually 1 hour or more).
If you want to add your vote (or recommend another video!), check out the “Methodology” section below for a link to the public spreadsheet and original posts.
Videos 20 minutes or less in length
1. How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change
2. Life in Syntropy
3. Greening the Desert
These top videos on regenerative agriculture have been viewed (according to YouTube, and TED) about 7.5 million times. That’s about 0.1% of earth’s population (and if you’re like me, many of those views are repeats;). How could we invite more people to engage with regenerative agriculture?!?
Here are the top videos that are more than an hour long
1. Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective
2. Tomorrow (Demain)
3. Treating the Farm as an Ecosystem
The full set of videos clearly highlight the three primary lineages of regenerative agriculture that are active in the world today: Permaculture, Holistic Management, and (Rodale)-Organic. I’ll write another post soon that covers these in detail.
Of the 36 videos, all (except for 1) are in English. Where’s the regenerative agriculture documentation in Mandarin? Arabic? Spanish? Hindi? Russian?
These videos overwhelming feature men. Where are the feature-length inspirational portrayals of regenerative agriculture leaders like Precious Phiri, Doniga Markegaard, and Daniela Ibarra-Howell? What can the regenerative agriculture community do to support and make visible the incredible work women are doing in this space?
This weekend I gifted a fellow farmer a chestnut tree. As I was driving I was thinking,
“What is this tree worth, really?”
So I did the math. A chestnut tree starts yielding nuts at around 10 years old. (They may produce sooner, but I’ll be conservative here.) Some chestnut trees can live to more than a 100 years old. Again I’ll be conservative and say that this tree will produce 50 years of crops.
Once in production, a chestnut orchard will yield 1,000 – 2,000 pounds per acre per year. Let’s assume the low end at 1,000 pounds. Now, how many chestnut trees are in an acre? With the spacing I use in my plantings on various landowners’ properties, I start with ~50 trees per acre.
That means that over it’s lifetime, each tree will average about 20 pounds of chestnuts per year. Over 50 years of crops, that means each tree will yield 1,000 pounds of chestnuts.
Now, the price of chestnuts varies greatly. Small conventionally produced nuts can go for $5 per pound at retail, while fresh local organic chestnuts can sell for upwards of $16.50 per pound. Nuts.com has a 1 pound bag of dried chestnuts at $13.99 and 1 pound fresh at $9.99; on Amazon you can buy 5.25 pounds of organic chestnuts for $44.99, which works out to ~$8.5 per pound.
I am small farmer with abundant local markets, so I’ll assume a mid-range price of $10.00 per pound. That means, over the 50 years of nuts produced…
This one chestnut tree will generate $10,000 of revenue.
If there’s a glut of local organic chestnuts, I can imagine the price dropping a bit. If I decide to sell wholesale, getting $5.00 per pound is not unreasonable. And it’s not at all hard to imagine selling local organic chestnuts around the holidays for $15.00 per pound. $15,000 of revenue per tree sounds pretty good to me!
In a few years I’ll be able to line out the cost side of this equation, though the maintenance of chestnut trees is pretty darn minimal compared to most tree crops. Basically I just mow (or graze) the orchard, prune in the winter, and harvest. That’s a LOT less work than our permaculture apple orchard, or almost any of the other crops we grow.
Needless to say, I am excited about chestnut trees. I’m planting a them on 5 farms throughout the Hudson Valley, and landowners keep emailing asking if I can plant on their land too. Let’s get a few thousand acres into chestnuts in the next few years, and generate some fresh income for farmers and rural communities. How long until NY has a million dollar chestnut economy? If you ask me, not long.
Gary Paul Nabhan invited me to keynote the annual Food & Finance Forum in Arizona. I took the opportunity to juxtapose different Levels of Regenerative Agriculture with the most-used financing strategies currently available. The result? See for yourself below:
As I say around half an hour in, send me an email if you want to read the full Levels of Regenerative Agriculture white paper.
Here’s a little preview of the 5 paths to financing agriculture that I discuss in the talk. More details starting around 33:30 in the talk.
The Q&A starts at 57:26 – some great questions from the audience. I discuss the problems of ranking & rating systems, how to face the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and why we can’t just “go back” to ancient sustainable agriculture.
Got more questions on this talk? Let me know in the comments below.
‘Define’ literally means, “bring to an end.’ It comes from the Latin verb, definire, composed of de- ‘completely’ + finire ‘to bound, limit,’ from finis, ‘boundary, end.’ This is the opposite of regeneration.
Confining the subject to a single “ending or limit’ would be antithetical to the processes that our discipline seeks to bring into agriculture.
Insisting on a single definition would put a wall around our agricultural landscapes, separating them from the natural world.
Instead of defining Regenerative Agriculture, I would like to offer you a lens through which to explore and evolve your understanding. You can see this lens as a prism: each time light passes through it you can see new colors, new patterns, and new ways to approach the subject.
This prism takes the shape of a continuum.
On one end is “degenerative” – those processes, practices and protocols that decrease the health and wellbeing of a place, person or entity. Ecological and social degradation results from fragmentation, over-simplification, homogeneity, and destructive reactivity. There is a loss of possibility, opportunity, and individual agency.
On the other end of the continuum is “regenerative.” Here the vitality of a farm, a community, or a watershed is on-goingly developed and enhanced. The capacity and capability of the place or entity evolves, growing its complexity, interconnectedness, and ability to express its uniqueness into the world. New potential emerges that has never been seen before.
This continuum can be used to explore any system, from an individual farm to an international industry. Here we will explore it’s application to agriculture. Just as a prism spreads wavelengths of light, the regenerative continuum can be expanded to focus on different aspects of agriculture. Note that this is not “separating” different “parts” of agriculture, but rather seeing into the living whole process in order to discern aspects of how it works and its effects on the world.
I created this initial diagram in 2011 while doing some local volunteer work with the Rondout Valley Growers Association. It emerged from discussions with local farmers, sparked by the question, “What will it look like on the farm of the future?”
The diagram shows a continuum of practices and characteristics of farming, from industrial chemical conventional systems to holistically managed carbon farming polycultures. This is the first rendering I had seen that could be called a “Regenerative Agriculture Continuum.”
But this diagram didn’t just pop out of a single conversation. Part of the purpose of this article is to daylight, acknowledge, and credit the sources that have inspired the Regenerative Agriculture Continuum’s development. Just like the “Books that changed my life” series, I want to show how my thinking has changed over time and invite you to evolve yours.
The first time I saw a ‘continuum’ of any sort was in a 2005 Northeast Organic Farming Association presentation by Dave Jacke, co-author of the the excellent two-volume Edible Forest Gardens. He showed what he called the “Nature-Agriculture Continuum”, which highlights the differences between conventional agriculture systems and untended “natural” systems.
Jacke sites “Farming in Nature’s Image” by Judy Soule and Jon Piper as the source of this concept and the specific characteristics described. Seeing this continuum was eye-opening for me, especially because it explained and distilled the experiences I had in the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan.
One interesting corollary that Dave Jacke explained in his talk is that ‘organic agriculture’ seeks to start on the left side of the continuum and over its practices back towards the right. Permaculture (and some agroforestry) on the other hand, begins on the “nature” side of the continuum and works to move the food production aspect back towards “agriculture”. This insight was undoubtedly a seed of my later work expanding the continuum… but at that point, I hadn’t even heard the word “regenerative”.
In 2009, I saw a talk by Bill Reed of Regenesis. Coming from the realm of green building and architecture, infused with permaculture thinking and the work of Pamela Mang and the rest of the Regenesis Group, Bill presented this Trajectory of Ecological Design:
This was transformative for me. I saw that the “sustainable” ideal that I had adopted for years was simply not sufficient. Sustainability was only the edge of degeneration – barely stopping from doing bad!
Bill shared a metaphor from Zen and the Art of Archery: “If you aim directly at the bullseye on the target, you will inevitably fall short. Instead, you must aim at a spot 200 feet past and through the bullseye. Then you’ll have a better chance of hitting your target.”
Working towards “sustainability” was no longer enough – we would inevitably fall short and be in a slightly less bad version of the current degenerative situation. It became essential for me to aim for regeneration, hoping and working to pass through sustainability along the way.
Around this time we changed the tagline of our consulting business AppleSeed Permaculture to “Regenerative Design and Development.” I asked Bill how I could get involved with the work of Regenesis and he said “We’d be happy to work with you. All you need to do is bring in a client that we can engage together.” It wasn’t until many years later that the offer came to fruition.
In the meantime, working with family farms and new agriculture enterprises in New York’s Hudson Valley, I took the idea of a “Degenerative to Regenerative Continuum” and specified it to agriculture. The concept evolved over many years doing permaculture design around the world, from the mango groves of northern Thailand to the mountain orchards of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
At Terra Genesis International Gregory Landua and I applied the continuum to specific agricultural commodities, laying out the farming practices from degenerative to regenerative for crops like apples, cacao, almonds, honey, jojoba, and cattle. More crops are being explored each year.
The continuum continues to develop. Looking back at the earliest version pictured above, the mistakes and lack of understanding are obvious –especially on the regenerative end of the continuum. I had experienced so few farms that were actually working towards regeneration, and was not farming myself at the time.
Most people have not seen, felt, and tasted the potential of regenerative agriculture. While this is a challenge, it is also an exciting opportunity: As the global Regenerative Agriculture community continues to develop, the ‘regenerative’ end of the continuum will get more specific, beautifully complex, and evolutionary. In fact, we may even leave the continuum altogether.
Where did you first see a regenerative continuum? How has it shaped your journey? Let us know in the comments below.
The term Regenerative Agriculture is cropping up allovertheplace. The annals of the internet are growing almost daily with articles, blog posts, tags, and tweets about farmers, corporations, and foundations shifting their attention toward the new hot thing: Regenerative Agriculture.
It is wonderful to see such a broad-scale conversation happening about agriculture, ecosystem health, and soil carbon. Unfortunately, in all the buzz, many of the definitions of Regenerative Agriculture that have emerged do not live up to its full potential.
Most focus solely on soil carbon, ignoring biodiversity, water cycles, and human wellbeing. And while soil fertility and carbon sequestration are hugely important to our planet’s capacity to grow food, they are the tip of the iceberg as far as what Regenerative Agriculture can mean and do for us.
Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves water cycles, and enhances ecosystem services.
Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming communities.
The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, Holistic Management, agroforestry, and permaculture.
All Regenerative Agriculture Practices are guided by Principles, which are uniquely applied to each specific climate and bioregion:
From these four emerge a diversity of Practices, which have been most extensively defined and studied for the first Principle. This definition presents these most-explored Regenerative Agriculture Practices, leaving space to articulate Practices for the other Principles in the future.
Some of the Regenerative Agriculture Practices that can progressively improve whole agroecosystems are No-Till Farming, Organic Annual Cropping, Compost & Compost Tea, Biochar & Terra Preta, Pasture Cropping, Managed Grazing (HM, Savory HM, AMP, MIG), Animal Integration, Aquaculture, Perennial Crops, Silvopasture, Agroforestry. (Here’s Sheldon Frith’s list for some diversity.)
Regenerative Agriculture develops out of the living system of connection between humans and their ecosystem through agriculture. Like living systems, Regenerative Agriculture will evolve and grow.
This definition is a starting point: We welcome a global conversation to continue developing and improving it so we can effectively reverse climate change and regenerate the planet.
What are your thoughts on Regenerative Agriculture? What will happen if the “definition” only includes soil carbon? What’s the most important action you can take to grow adoption of Regenerative Agriculture in the world?
I gave this talk as part of the “Biodiversity for a Livable Climate” kick-off conference at Tufts University in Boston, MA. We were preparing for the upcoming Carbon Farming Course, and the talk starts with some good basic Carbon Farming and Carbon Sequestration theory.
All of the “Tools for Regenerative Agriculture” described are extremely relevant – if even 5% of farmers globally would adopt these practices there would be a massive change in agricultural livelihoods and carbon sequestered.
However, I’ve since come to realize that just teaching a set of “practices” is not sufficient.
Practices are chosen through principles, and principles emerge from paradigms. Evolving our personal paradigms, and supporting others to evolve theirs, will produce a much greater effect than simply describing, or even demonstrating, “practices”.
I’ve been working more recently with fellow farmers on understanding, “What are the paradigms of agriculture?” and “What paradigm am I currently thinking through?”
The ‘Levels of Agriculture’ workshop I gave recently at the Young Farmers Conference aimed in this direction. The ‘Levels of Regenerative Agriculture‘ white paper is a deeper dive into the regenerative realm.
Enjoy the video and let me know what’s relevant for you!
I had been working for 5 years to develop my capacity to help everyday businesses transform into regenerative businesses. Ever since hearing the term ‘Regenerative’ in 2005, I wanted clear guidance on how to design change – first for landscapes, then for education, then for enterprise. I had read parts of Carol Sanford’s other books (The Responsible Business and The Responsible Entrepreneur), and everything I heard about this book had my expectations high.
How “The Regenerative Business” Changed My Life
Wow. The Regenerative Business did not disappoint. More than any of Carol’s previous books, it offered clear step-by-step processes and a master framework for transforming a business. I immediately put the book’s contents to work in my strategic role at HowGood, and was able to see 30 other businesses applying the principles at the 2017 Regenerative Business Summit… I think this book is going to move the world.
“Supply Chains” are the current dominant concept of how all material goods are exchanged.
It is an out-dated and damaging concept, born in the time of colonization and ossified in the industrial revolution.
Consciously or unconsciously, the term “supply chain” directly recalls the early capitalist era of colonization, where traders and landowners literally used slaves in chains to supply agricultural commodities to their expanding empires.
The term is used ubiquitously now to describe how companies get the materials they need to produce their products, but it contains and encourages several significant errors:
The phrase comes from a mechanistic paradigm, where complex human and ecological systems are treated as if they are machines. Chains do not exist in natural systems. (Reference: The Responsible Entrepreneur).
Chains are linear, made of metal, hold things secure (or in bondage), and facilitate uni-directional movement. These characteristics do not match the complex multi-directional network of exchanges and relationships through which materials actually flow.
Supply chains are mechanisms of one-way extraction: they strip value out of a place and bring it elsewhere, often in an inequitable exchange. Described through the framework of 8 Forms of Capital, financial capital is exchanged for quantities of living and material capital, while simultaneously degrading living, social, and cultural capital.
A global economy incentivizes the movement of agricultural goods and laborers around the world. So in our current world, “supply” still needs to occur.
The first step is to shift from “supply chains” to “supply webs,” with greater multi-directional interconnections, redundancy and resilience.
The next step is to participate in the creation of regenerative supply webs, where suppliers and buyers collaborate to consciously regenerate agriculture systems, and develop and empower communities.
Finally, the concept of “supply” transforms into ongoing value-addition of all entities for all entities. These regenerative producer webs are complex networks of enterprises that produce and exchange goods and services in a way that continuously adds value to each other, their customers, their investors, and the Earth.
What method of supply is your business using? What paradigm are you thinking through? What’s your next step towards regeneration?
This article is an edited excerpt from the white paper Levels of Regenerative Agriculture, available for download from www.terra-genesis.com
In the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains, wild forests of fifty-foot tall apple trees embody an incredible diversity, tenacity, and history. For thousands of years, these mountains have been one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots of the world.
And yet, due to rapid development and shifting cultures, the forests are disappearing. More than 75% have been lost in the last 30 years, and the destruction continues despite international attention and collaboration.
At the same time, the ancient genes of the Kazakh apple trees may hold keys to a truly regenerative agriculture. The drought tolerance, disease resistance, wild polycultures, and ecosystem characteristics of the Kazakh apple forests can provide valuable patterns and strategies for permaculture design and climate change resilience in cold temperate climates around the world.
I have traveled to Kazakhstan three times in the last 10 years, documenting the wild fruit ecosystems and working to preserve them. I’ve had the fortune to work with two excellent Kazakh organizations: the Kazakh Institute of Horticulture and Viticulture and the Institute for Ecological and Social Development.
Both organizations want to carry out a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping project to locate and quantify the extent of the wild apple forests in southern and eastern Kazakhstan. This will aid in further research and preservation efforts. The organizations also are looking for collaborators on projects focused on wild fruit tree propagation, training in permaculture, and new research in organic orchard practices.
If you or your organization would like to help preserve the wild apple forests, please contact me for more information.
This month we released translations of our book Regenerative Enterpriseinto 4 new languages. Potential readership increased by 986 million people; the area in which readers might live increased by 3 billion hectares or 21% of the earth’s landmass.
When we wrote the book in 2013, the terms “Regenerative Enterprise” and “Regenerative Business” were almost unheard of. These days the term is hot, appearing everywhere from SOCAP to Sustainable Brands to the Harvard Business Review.
On this 4-year anniversary, we are pausing to reflect on the evolution of the ideas presented in our book. We highlight one area that has stayed largely the same, explore four areas where our thinking has changed significantly, and conclude with specific learnings about how to create Regenerative Enterprise Ecosystems.
What Has Remained the Same
The unique and essential message of our work remains unchanged:
The Eight Forms of Capital still exist. Financial capital is still the dominant global currency. The continual pursuit of Financial-capital-only profits perpetuates the highly destructive extraction of value from Living and Cultural capitals.
Increasing and evolving the health of whole living systems requires nurturing all forms of capital. To do so, Regenerative Businesses must generate multi-capital profits — especially to cultivate the four “Nurture Capitals”: Living, Social, Spiritual, and Cultural.
It is extremely difficult for any single company to accomplish this alone. Therefore, businesses must mimic natural systems, designing and operating Regenerative Enterprise Ecosystems that integrate and optimize for multiple forms of capital as a whole network.
What Has Changed
Our thinking, and the field we are all working in, has evolved and grown significantly in each of the following four areas.
Change 1. Uplifted Ground
We can feel a palpable shift in the global business community. The “soil” of the worldwide enterprise is enriched and enlivened. Companies are focusing on ecological and social wellbeing, from massive brands like Unilever to multitudes of small and medium social enterprises and purpose-driven businesses. Investment has also grown: Socially responsible and impact investing increased 347% from 2010–2016 (Assets in SRI grew from $2.51 trillion to $8.72 trillion; Source: US SIF)
More than ever before, the business world is ripe and ready for Regenerative Enterprise.
Change 2. Connected to Source
We originally learned the term “Regenerative” from the Permaculture movement and the landscape design thinking of John Tillman Lyle. Unfortunately, we used the term as it’s used in many current contexts: functional, flat, and lacking potential.
It turns out that there is a community of practitioners who have been using and growing the work of Regeneration. Led by author and educator Carol Sanford, the community has pioneered the work of Regenerative Business for over 40 years inside of major companies like Google, Clorox, DuPont, Colgate Palmolive, and Seventh Generation. The work continues through the annual Regenerative Business Summit, hosted by the Carol Sanford Institute and Regenerative Business Alliance.
Since the Regenerative Enterprise was released we have had the opportunity to engage deeply with this community. It thoroughly disrupted our limited understanding of Regeneration, business, and enterprise, as well as our overly mechanistic beliefs about how people and organizations grow.
Working with the Carol Sanford Institute is like stepping out of “flatland” — a cave where everything exists only in a colorless and restricted two dimensions — and into a rich new multi-dimensional world outside of what we thought was possible.
Change 3. Principles & Imperatives
In our book we offer nine principles and three imperatives to help you develop the effectiveness and multi-capital profits of your business:
These principles are excellent. If every business in the world worked by them, we’d be living in a different world. And, we have learned that simply taking someone else’s principles (even really “good” ones) and applying them to your business is not effective or regenerative.
Instead, principles must be generated fresh for each business, from the business itself. Each entrepreneur and each enterprise is thoroughly unique, and can express its uniqueness through developing it’s own set of managing principles. This is similar to the faulty (yet extremely popular) idea of “best practices” — the idea that something that worked for someone somewhere else will necessarily be the “best” approach in your unique situation. It won’t. Blindly adopting “best practices” is the opposite of expressing your own uniqueness — in fact, it squashes creativity and innovation.
The same goes for global imperatives. Working with living systems frameworks like the Eight Forms of Capital, Regenerative Enterprises must articulate their own imperatives. Once clear and fully adopted, unique principles and imperatives are a powerful source of effectiveness for each business to have its desired impact on the world.
Interlude: How to Create Regenerative Enterprise Ecosystems
In the last four years we have designed and grown Regenerative Enterprise Ecosystems around the world. We’ve built them for multi-national corporations, for specific industries (e.g. Regenerative Cacao), and for our own communities (e.g. Finka Aekolado & Cooperativa EcoCacao).
I asked my co-author Gregory Landua to share his thoughts on the strongest forces at play when designing and developing Regenerative Enterprise Ecosystems. Here’s what he said:
The biggest restraints are the interface between modern industrial supply logistics monocultures and the creative polyculture of direct-trade-driven regenerative agriculture.
The economy of scale required for the current monoculture is hard to achieve, but entrepreneurs keep trying. This is not really the pathway towards a regenerative economy.
Pushing against these restraints is the enormous groundswell of people with deep desire to find solutions that address the roots of ecological, social, and economic crises.
2. Businesses should create strong relationships instead of trying to compete on the alienating commodities markets where externalized costs make it impossible to show the true multi-capital damage of “business as usual”.
3. Cultivate reciprocity at the level of the enterprise ecosystem and beyond. This is not possible if everyone is trying to simply extract value from the system. Multi-capital profits require non-linear reciprocity.
Change 4. Beyond the Ecosystem
Building interconnected clusters of businesses that mimic the capacity of natural systems to regenerate the four nurture capitals is important. What has changed in our thinking is that we no longer believe this is enough.
Truly regenerative enterprise ecosystems must take aim at shifting a specific larger system in the world — something larger than themselves, but also concrete — “Optimizing to generate multiple forms of capital” is good, but it is too abstract in to drive strategic business design.
If companies do not clearly and specifically choose which system they want to change (e.g., the criminal justice system, the business education system, the commodities supply system), they will not be effective in generating new potential and possibility in the world.
Focusing on a concrete system to change will help magnetize appropriate businesses to engage with a growing enterprise ecosystem. Regenerative Enterprise Ecosystems must look beyond themselves, and design specific strategies to put their multi-capital profits to work to contribute to larger systemic transformation.
Invite your Spanish-, French-, Italian-, and Portuguese-speaking contacts to read Regenerative Enterprise. If you haven’t read it yet, get the English version. All the books are available in multiple formats at the Regenerative Enterprise Institute.
Translations: The jump from 1.5 billion English speakers to 2.5 billion potential readers is a big step, but it’s not enough.
Who will translate the ideas into Mandarin? Hindi? Arabic? Russian? Bengali?
Who will design and grow place-sourced locally appropriate Regenerative Enterprise Ecosystems in each bioregion of the earth?
After hearing what’s changing for us… what will you change next?
I was working on the pitch decks for Regenerative Real Estate, the unsuccessful GIS-driven agricultural real estate company we started to scale up regenerative agriculture. My business partner at the time called and said, “You have to read this book.” I finally had a chance to dig into Taleb’s third book (Antifragile is part of the ‘Incerto’ Series, written after “Fooled by Randomness” and “The Black Swan”) as I travelled in Viet Nam and Taiwan, perfectly complex and chaotic eco-cultural systems in which to ruminate on fragility, resilience, and regeneration.
How “Antifragile” Changed My Life
I’m going to give away the core of the book right now. Answer this question: What is the opposite of ‘fragile’?
For 99% off people I’ve asked, the responses are invariably “strong” or “sturdy” or “resilient” or “robust”. But none of these are the opposite of fragile. If I drop a beautiful ceramic bowl, and it breaks, then it was fragile. If I drop the same bowl and it stays intact, then it was resilient. (Definition of resilient = able to withstand shocks and maintain function.) But resilience is the mid-point on a continuum, not the opposite!
So what would happen to the bowl if it was the opposite of fragile? When it hit the ground, instead of breaking or maintaining itself, it would get stronger. This is antifragility: systems whose capabilities increase in times of stress or disturbance.
“Antifragile” opened my eyes to an unseen characteristic and capacity of the world around me. Our immune systems are antifragile. Entrepreneurship as a whole is antifragile. Some political and governance systems (e.g. Switzerland, many indigenous cultures) are antifragile.
Going forward, my work was to design systems for antifragility. What does antifragile agriculture look like? How can an antifragile business be designed? What principles and agreements grow antifragility in human relationships?
I’ll write more on all of these. Plus, the relationship between antifragility and regeneration. In the meantime, I strongly recommend you read this book.
I was building the new structure, systems, and impact of Terra Genesis International. We were working with a multinational cosmetics company to transform their supply “chain”, focusing on regenerative agriculture and permaculture farming around the world. It was an immersion into international business and the inner mechanics of the global economy. I needed insight to navigate the complexity, from someone who had deep experience in this realm.
How “The Responsible Business” Changed My Life
With the foreword by the Chairman of Bank of America, it was immediately clear that this book was not written by some small-time startup consultant. The stories of large-scale business transformation gave me striking depth into how global corporations can work at their best. I could see how a focus on business essence could lead to positive systems change. And the book’s core framework (the 5 Stakeholders of a Responsible Business) gave me immediate practical insight on how a company could turn it’s eyes outwards and see how to change its effect in the world.
When I finished the book, I felt empowered to transform any business. The process would not be fast or easy (for my company, or the businesses we were working with), but the path was clear.
Wow. The more ancient Indo-European source of Greek and Roman myths. A historical-mythical missing link from the little-known Caucuses mountains (where we get the word “Caucasians). This book rocked my concepts about “white” ancestry and opened a whole new path of inquiry about the origins of our current situation.
You’ve got to dig deep into the footnotes to grok the significance of these stories, but it’s worth it.