New map of global environmental degradation in a peer-reviewed journal – important up-to-date information for arguments about WHY regenerative agriculture is important – Link
30 for 100: Savory launches a new global campaign to transform landscapes. Link
The four E’s: “ethos, economy, elegance and empowerment”. It’s been curious not to hear much from Joel Salatin in the recent hype around regenerative agriculture. Glad to see he’s making the rounds in North Dakota and beyond –Link (P.S. Joel Salatin and I will both be speaking at the 2019 Living Soil Symposium in Montreal – this will be an awesome event!)
These small but steady mentions of regenerative agriculture are important: Tri-state Livestock News (Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota) promotes the “Western Dakota Crops Day”, which focuses on “Regional agronomy research results, dealing with saline and sodic soils and the latest research on regenerative cropping systems…” Link
Glad to see Pipeline Foods getting Rabobank’s attention. Their notion of “regenerative” is from the ‘Soil Profits’ paradigm and is not particularly nuanced, but their work as a broker for organic commodities is great. Link
Land to Market™ takes another big step: first EOV™ (Ecological Outcomes Verification™) Wool goes to market in South Africa. I think this is important, and worth watching – what will the market say about ecologically net-positive practices?!? Link
Towards Regenerative (Luxury?!?) Fashion – Kering, who owns brands Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, and others, is teaming up with the Savory Institute to develop supply chains for grass-fed Land to Market™-verified leather and other raw materials. With most Gucci purses costing more than $2,300 USD, it would be great for some of that margin to support regenerative agriculture. Here’s the Kering Press Release, and more coverage from Sustainable Brands.
2 million chickens a week: Great and nuanced coverage by Civil Eats on Costco’s move to vertically integrate poultry production – and “RegeNErate Nebraska’s” opposition and proposed alternatives. Link
Also from RegeNErate Nebraska, check out this Resource Guide. As I’ve commented elsewhere, I think the use of “regenerative” to describe many of these organizations is dubious – they are and have been doing great work, but adding the word “regenerative” does not change much. On the other hand, I greatly appreciate the Native American voices and perspectives in this document – more dialogue and cooperative development with indigenous communities could be mutually beneficial for people working towards regeneration.
“Regenerative agriculture is actually a native concept.” –Vincent Bass, Winnebago Vice Chairman
Too good to be true? Nextfuel promises to replace fossil fuels with… Elephant Grass. While it may capture carbon, the whole pitch is from the “extract value” paradigm – there is no shift evident to regenerative thinking. But interesting nonetheless – watch the video! Link
This month on Investing in Regenerative Agriculture, Koen van Seijen interviews Chuck de Liedekerke of Soil Capital. I disagree with how he defines “regenerative ag”, but he’s taking an interesting approach with larger-scale growers. Link
“An Underground Insurgency: Regenerative Agriculture & Human Transformation” – Interview with Charles Massy, author of the number one regenerative agriculture book in Australia, “Call of the Reed Warbler“. Link
David Bronner on Food Tank – apparently Dr. Bronner’s has donated $8 million to regenerative organic agriculture, perhaps through the Regenerative Organic Alliance… Link
Fascinating podcast from John Kempf that breaks the mold of his agronomy-focused offerings – this one explores 5 characteristics of exceptionally successful farm managers. Very interesting. Link
Why Certifications Don’t Work Are you considering one of the new “regenerative” certifications for your product or business? Read this first – a comprehensive dismantling of the underlying reasoning behind certifications. There’s a podcast too if you want to listen. Link
“Value Change in the Value Chain” – New guidance for corporations to track Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions. Put out by the Gold Standard and Science-Based Targets Initiative, there’s just a few small companies who have signed on to try it out – Mars, Danone, Barry Callebaut, Ben & Jerry’s, Cargill, General Mills, L’Oréal, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Target 😉 Link and here’s a Sustainable Brands article with a faster overview: Link
Part of the preceding release but worth it’s own note: Value Change /Gold Standard has realeased a 40-page document to help make decisions about how to design and quantify projects that aim to change Soil Organic Carbon (aka carbon farming, or as most people mis-label it, regenerative agriculture). Nothing ground-breaking, but organized with precision and clarity. Link
Forbes – “How Investing In Regenerative Agriculture Can Help Stem Climate Change Profitably” – (I’m not sure what “stem climate change’ means;) We’ve already covered the Ecosystem Service Valuation Report and the other key farm profitability study cited (NOT regenerative agriculture, despite their use of the term), but if you’re interested to learn more about the Farmland LP Business Model this is not a bad little video to watch. Link
Fast Company – Exclusive interview with Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard. Urgency and action are front and center. Regenerative Agriculture is touted, but primarily related to a project in India growing cotton… this is a very very difficult crop to produce with a regenerative effect. Perhaps the folks running the project (Metawear / RESET) can provide more information? Link
If we have just 11 more harvests to transition the global agrifood system, this 2.8 million ha project in Fiji is not a bad example of how we can organize multi-sectoral financing for regenerating landscapes. Link
Government & Policy
US Farm bill passes with bipartisan support, miraculously containing a new program that will focus on soil health and soil carbon sequestration. Coming from an unlikely coalition of the NRDC, National Corn Growers Association, American Coalition for Ethanol, and Environmental Entrepreneurs, this provision is the best thing I’ve heard about a farm bill in more than a decade. Link
Punjab cabinet approves policies for… Regenerative Agriculture? Link
“How Regenerative Agriculture Could Be Key to the Green New Deal” – Brief high-level policy article, decent, though coming mostly from the ‘Rodale Organic’ lineage and missing the (mostly conventional, industrial, large-scale) farmers who are quickly growing a “regenerative agriculture” that works for them. Link
Here’s a great example of government getting out of the way and supporting citizens to craft their own food systems. And it’s a boon for small business. Will more lawmakers follow Maine’s example? Link
COP24 concludes with a lowest-common-denominator agreement, but an agreement nonetheless. Not a lot of agriculture-specific discussions that I saw covered, though these two side-events each brought their own angle on soil carbonization to “Speed up the cool down”: CGIAR Event and IFOAM / Biovision / Regeneration International / Shumei
Special Section on Blockchain
Report: Navigating Blockchain and Climate Action. Interesting report, a bit more restrained than most of what’s coming out of the blockchain community but highlighting some clear characteristics and opportunity areas. If you read the full report and have deeper analysis to share, let me know. Link
Industrial agriculture digital farm operations carbon market blockchain mashup – Nori (decentralized carbon markets on the blockchain) announces a new partnership with Granular (farm management software bought by DuPont in 2017). I’m very interested to see what comes from this, and which of Granular’s users will want tiptoe in the carbon markets. Link: “Turning Carbon Into a Cash Crop”
Excellent new video from Regen.Network: “The Balance Sheet for Earth”. Regen is a decentralized ledger technology designed to track positive changes to ecological systems. Link
“We’re reinventing the economics of agriculture by realigning short term economic gains with long-term ecological health” – Regen.Network CEO Gregory Landua
Ethan Soloviev’s big-picture interpretation of this month’s news:
Many of this month’s stories came to life for me at the Regenerative Earth Summit, where I spoke along with major brands like Patagonia, Kashi, Applegate, Eileen Fisher, and The North Face. To here my reflections from the event, you’ll have to listen my discussion with Koen van Seijen – available for free at the new Regeneration Newsroom Podcast!
– Ethan Soloviev
If you enjoyed this issue of Regeneration Newsroom, please forward this to a friend that would find the information valuable!
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 – email@example.com
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!
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.
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
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?
In 2008 and 2009, I was part of the organizing & facilitation team for the Financial Permaculture Course in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Convened by the Center for Holistic Ecology, Gaia University, and Solari, Inc, the course brought together permaculture designers, financial planners, entrepreneurs, community activists, complementary currency advocates, farmers and government officials from around the country.
Financial Permaculture goes beyond the traditional permaculture approach to economics and asks the question, “What would it look like if we re-designed the global financial system using permaculture principles?” and “What if our financial system looked more like an ecosystem?”
In 2009, Catherine Austin Fitts presented “Mapping Financial Ecosystems”. We mapped all the ‘capital pools’ in the local community. We explored the flows of money between entities, and discussed how vibrant local economies are more defined by the flows of money rather than by the pools. Something wasn’t sitting right with me. We kept talking about money as if it was the only form of capital, even though there was a growing awareness that acres of land, board feet of timber, and tons of carbon might also be part of an ecosystemic economy.
At one of the open space sessions I began to realize a more complete map of “capital.”
Eight Forms of Capital
The Oxford American Dictionary states that capital is, “wealth in the form of money or other assets” and a “valuable resource of a particular kind.” What are these ‘other assets’? I’ve never seen a whole map of all the different types of ‘valuable resources’. In the Permaculture Designers’ Manual, Bill Mollison offers and expands on a categorization of assets based on their potential: Degenerative, Generative, Procreative, Informational, Conservative (1). These always seem like a good way to think about things, but I don’t use them in any tangible way.
I wanted something that would be more helpful for understanding the complex transactions and exchanges swirling around me as a human being and us as a global community. As I considered the ‘mapping financial ecosystems’ exercise, a bigger picture began to emerge as I thought about the capital pools and flows of the Mayor of a hypothetical small town.
The Mayor might have some money (financial capital). A good Mayor would probably also have many friends in the town and some influence (social capital). The Mayor, who has a degree in economics, knows the stock market extremely well. S/he uses that intellectual capital to generate more money (financial capital) to run a re-election campaign, in which s/he works to transform financial capital into more social capital in the town.
I tried to enumerate all of the different ‘valuable resources’ which an individual or entity could gather or exchange. “Eight Forms of Capital” emerged:
Influence and connections are social capital. A person or entity who has ‘good social capital’ can ask favors, influence decisions, and communicate efficiently. Social capital is of primary importance in politics, business, and community organizing.
Jason Eaton of Social Thread LLC explained to me that Capital can be in the form of equity or debt. In social capital, a person can ‘owe’ favors or decision-making influence to another person or entity.
Non-living physical objects form material capital. Raw and processed resources like stone, metal, timber, and fossil fuels are ‘complexed’ with each other to create more sophisticated materials or structures. Modern buildings, bridges, and other pieces of infrastructure along with tools, computers, and other technologies are complexed forms of material capital.
We are most familiar with financial capital: Money, currencies, securities and other instruments of the global financial system. The current global society focuses enormous amounts of attention on financial capital. It is our primary tool for exchanging goods and services with other humans. It can be a powerful tool for oppression, or, (potentially) liberation.
A precious metal dealer who attended both Financial Permaculture courses advises, “Rather than U.S. Dollars, measure your wealth in ounces [of gold and silver]!” Recognizing that “precious” metals are just another form of financial capital, Catherine Austin Fitts recommends that we diversify and, “Measure your wealth in ounces, acres, and hooves.” Living capital is made up of the animals, plants, water and soil of our land— the true basis for life on our planet.
Permaculture design teaches us the principles and practices for rapid creation of living capital. Permaculture encourages us to share the abundance of living capital rather than the intangible “wealth” of financial capital.
(Note: “Natural Capital” could be a synonym for Living Capital, but the 1999 book “Natural Capitalism” by Hawkens et al. focuses more on a slightly updated system of capitalism than on the true wealth of living systems. The current Slow Money movement is also making strides in a similar direction, seeking to transfer financial capital into the living forms of soil, animals, and agriculture.)
Intellectual capital is best described as a ‘knowledge’ asset. The majority of the current global education system is focused on imparting intellectual capital — whether or not it is the most useful form of capital for creating resilient and thriving communities. Having intellectual capital is touted as the surest way to ‘be successful’.Science and research can focus on obtaining intellectual capital or ‘truth’, though it is often motivated by the desire for financial or social capital. For example, “going to university” is primarily an exchange of financial capital for intellectual capital. It is supposed to prepare people for the rest of their lives in the world.
Experiential (or Human) Capital
We accumulate experiential capital through actually organizing a project in our community, or building a strawbale house, or completing a permaculture design. The most effective way to learn anything comes through a blended gathering of intellectual and experiential capital. My personal experience getting a Master’s degree at Gaia University showed me that experiential learning is essential for my effective functioning in the world: I was able to do projects instead of take classes, and I’m now collaboratively organizing the local permaculture guild and co-running a successful permaculture design firm (2).
I can see that ‘Human Capital’ is a combination of social, intellectual and experiential capital, all facets of a person that can be gathered and carried in essentially limitless amounts. But there’s one more form of capital that a person can gather and carry inside themselves.
As one practices their religion, spirituality, or other means of connection to self and universe, one may accumulate spiritual capital. It contains aspects of intellectual and experiential capital, but is deeper, more personal and less quantifiable. Manyost of the world’s religions include a concept of ‘the great chain of being’, a holarchic understanding of existence where spiritual attainment (in this context, the accumulation of spiritual capital) leads to different levels of being (3).
Buddhism even contains an explicit spiritual currency: Karma! This form of spiritual capital is tallied and accounted for not only in one’s current life, but (taking re-incarnation into consideration) also in all of the past and future lives of one’s soul. In spiritual capital again enters the concept that capital can be in the form of equity (gathering positive spiritual experience/understanding/attainment) OR in the form of debt. In some Mayan cultures (like the Tzutujil of Lago Atitlan), a basic understanding of existence is that humans owe a ‘spiritual debt’ to the magnificent beauty and complexity of existence. According to this worldview, the goal of one’s life in the world is to create works of unspeakable beauty and gratitude, thereby repaying the spiritual debt to existence (4). The Tzutujil also recognize that single human beings can never really be effective at gathering and flowing capital if they are separated from their community.
All the other forms of capital may be held and owed by individuals, but cultural capital can only be gathered by a community of people. Cultural capital describes the shared internal and external processes of a community – the works of art and theater, the songs that every child learns, the ability to come together in celebration of the harvest or for a religious holiday. Cultural capital cannot be gathered by individuals alone. It could be viewed as an emergent property of the complex system of inter-capital exchanges that takes place in a village, a city, a bioregion, or nation.
Properties of the System
These eight forms of capital help us map our understanding of the world. The map clarifies that money is not the only form of capital flowing around and through us. This map expands the concepts of wealth (and poverty) to include the ‘valuable resources’ of personal connections, natural resources, land, knowledge, experience, and more. It provides a language for permaculture designers to communicate the value of healthy soil and healthy communities to people immersed in the current mindset of global capitalism, where financial capital is the only reality.
There are two types of flow between pools capital:
Intra-capital flows, between the same type of capital. For example, using US dollars to purchase a stock or bond, or exchanging heirloom tomato seeds for a carton of eggs.
Inter-capital flows, between different types of capital. For example, paying for a 2-year apprenticeship with a master builder would be an exchange of financial capital for experiential, intellectual, and even social capital.
These properties of capital flow point to another interesting question and feature of this map: What are the mediums of exchange used for each form of capital?
Eight Forms of Currency
Although most definitions of currency focus on financial capital, the Oxford American Dictionary and the Princeton Wordnet (5) both include the definition of “the fact or quality of being generally accepted or in use”. For this map, I define a currency as the generally accepted (or in use) medium of exchange between pools of capital. In many cases, the currency is the capital itself — for example, items of ‘Material Capital’ like copper or steel, can be the medium of exchange. Currencies can also be “complexed” into more interconnected and functional forms, and still used as a medium of exchange.
Here are the eight forms of currency associated with each form of capital:
Earlier this year, as my partner and I designed a four-weekend series of Forest Garden courses, we were having a lot of trouble with the budget. The costs of renting space and paying teachers combined with our desire to keep fees affordable for the local community made the numbers look unfeasible. No matter how we changed things around, we couldn’t figure out how to make a reasonable financial return. Then we realized that our thinking was too narrow — we were only looking at financial capital! When we considered the experiential capital we’d gain by running a course, the social capital gathered by planting forest gardens at a new education center, and the living capital of hundreds of useful plants going into the ground… it became clear that financial remuneration was only one facet of the system. Nonetheless, we still needed to balance our inflow and outflow of this one form of capital.
The eight forms of capital provide a clear path towards a small point of great leverage: Eco-social Investing. We can encourage individuals, businesses, organizations, and governments to mimic nature’s practices of investing: Locally, intimately, diversely, and primarily in living capital. The Financial Permaculture community, Gaia University, and a host of connected businesses and organizations are investing diverse baskets of capital, offering events like the Carbon Farming Course in Tennessee and the thriving eco-social chocolate business BooyaCacao.
I’ve outlined a set of principles for Eco-Social and Ecosystem Investing, which you can find on my blog at www.appleseedpermaculture.com/blog One of the most useful applications of this map is for growing and shifting our own understanding of the world and the transactions we engage in. When I volunteer time working on my friend’s organic permaculture farm, more than just ‘free labor’ is taking place:
I’m gaining experiential and intellectual capital about the farm’s soil, crops, and management,
We’re supporting the growth of healthy living capital in the soil,
My friend gets help producing products to exchange for financial capital (her right livelihood)
We both build social capital through positive interaction and connection with each other.
This amount of clarity can lead to a whole new level of transparency in our work as eco-social-cultural-economic designers. It can guide us towards an ever-deepening practice of the third ethic of permaculture.
The Third Ethic
Although Bill Mollison originally stated the third ethic of permaculture as “Setting limits to population and consumption,”(6) many of us (especially in the more recent waves of permaculture) have been taught different forms of the third ethic. Some learn “Fair Share,” a toned-down and friendlier version of “Limits”. Others learn “Resource Share,” which directs attention away from scarcity and towards re-investment of abundance. And more recently I’ve seen Starhawk refer to the third ethic as “Future Care,” which synthesizes the call for “Fair Share” and “Resource Share” into a focus on creating thriving inheritances for future generations. The eight forms of capital can and should be considered in terms of each version of the third ethic.
When people and the businesses, organizations, and governments understand the eight forms of capital, they may find that financial capital is not the whole system. This can lead to decreased consumption of non-essential goods and services that fuel our infinite-growth-based financial system.
A truly just society requires fair and equitable distribution of all forms of capital. While financial capital is important, non-financial capitals offer pathways to empowerment for the oppressed communities of our planet. In communities I’ve visited (Kazakhstan, Chile, and Latin America), the abundance of cultural capital often outweighs the financial capital, regenerating into a wealth of experiential and living capital that I’ve never seen in my northeastern-USA home. Any of us in the over-developed world can follow this modeling, working to end oppression caused by our current financial-capital-centric systems.
We can use the eight forms of capital to include resource sharing in our projects. AppleSeed Permaculture has set a new Carbon Policy, whereby 5% of our revenues will be dedicated to offsetting our carbon footprint through carbon-farming projects (living capital). The Permaculture Activist’s tree tax functions in much the same way, transforming financial capital into living capital for the good of the planet.
AppleSeed Permaculture is also inspired by our friends Shabazz and Josephine of Greenway Environmental Services, who explicitly donate 10% of every work week back to the community through education and consulting. They share their intellectual and experiential with urban youth groups and rural permaculturists alike, generating social capital for themselves at the same time. As an upper-middle class white male from the northeastern United States, I am seeking ways to transparently and joyfully use my multi-layered privilege to effectively share resources with those who have less power and freedom than I do. This article is one manifestation of my sharing of intellectual capital. I will also approach this goal through my work with eco-social investing. After seeking out leadership from people and communities who have been targeted by the oppressive effects of sexism, racism, and classism, their projects can be empowered through flows of multi-capital investment.
To care for future generations, we need to move beyond finance into living and cultural capital. Of all eight forms, these two have the greatest potential for positive systemic change. Mollison writes, “We should develop or create wealth just as we develop landscapes, by conserving energy and natural resources [and] by developing procreative assets (proliferating forests, prairies, and life systems)”(7). Only through the songs, stories, and shared ethics of cultural capital can a focus on living capital can be sustained for the seventh generation to come.
Some pieces are missing from the map: where does “labor” fit into the picture? What form of capital is “time”? There may be some dangerous implications: this map could commodify ecosystem services, spirituality, and culture. To care for the future, we must think more holistically about our current capital system.
Let this map be a first draft. We don’t know what will happen in the future, but if a complex set of changes and capital flows appear along the way, I offer the eight forms of capital as a new map for the journey.
I offer my deepest gratitude to Catherine Austin Fitts, Andrew Langford, Bill Mollison, Jason Eaton, Gregory Landua, Dyami-Nason Regan, Connor Stedman, Mai Frank, and Rafter Sass for their specific contributions to and reflections on this evolving map.