I am often asked, “What IS Regenerative Agriculture?” “Can you just define it quickly and simply for me?”
The best answer I can give is, “No.” Regenerative Agriculture is neither quick nor simple.
Regenerative Agriculture can not, and should not, be defined. As we wrote in Levels of Regenerative Agriculture,
‘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.