Regenerative agriculture practices emphasize soil health as central to modern farming. Farms using regenerative agriculture techniques might sow cover crops, use no-till practices, and use crop rotation practices designed to keep soil healthy, however, there is very much criticism is being done on this. These practices can have an array of environmental benefits.
But companies are making some awfully big promises on regenerative agriculture’s ability to address climate change; more than it may be capable of delivering.
Criticisms And Regenerative Agriculture
Some members of the scientific community have criticized as exaggerated and unsupported by evidence some of the claims made by proponents of regenerative agriculture.
One of the prominent proponents of regenerative agriculture, Allan Savory, claimed in his TED talk that holistic grazing could reduce carbon dioxide levels to pre-industrial levels in a span of 40 years. According to Skeptical Science:
“it is not possible to increase productivity, increase numbers of cattle and store carbon using any grazing strategy, never-mind Holistic Management Long term studies on the effect of grazing on soil carbon storage have been done before, and the results are not promising. Because of the complex nature of carbon storage in soils, increasing global temperature, risk of desertification, and methane emissions from livestock, it is unlikely that Holistic Management, or any management technique, can reverse climate change.”
According to a 2016 study published by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the actual rate at which improved grazing management could contribute to carbon sequestration is seven times lower than the claims made by Savory. The study concludes that holistic management cannot reverse climate change. A study by the Food and Climate Research Network in 2017 concluded that Savory’s claims about carbon sequestration are “unrealistic” and very different from those issued by peer-reviewed studies.
Tim Searchinger and Janet Ranganathan have expressed concerns about emphasis upon “Practices That Increase Soil Carbon at the Field Level” because “overestimating potential soil carbon gains could undermine efforts to advance effective climate mitigation in the agriculture sector.”
Instead Tim Searchinger and Janet Ranganathan favor “preserving the huge, existing reservoirs of vegetative and soil carbon in the world’s remaining forests and woody savannas by boosting productivity on existing agricultural land (a land-sparing strategy) is the largest, potential climate mitigation prize of regenerative and other agricultural practices.
Realizing these benefits requires implementing practices in ways that boost productivity and then linking those gains to governance and finance to protect natural ecosystems. In short, produce, protect and prosper are the most important opportunities for agriculture.”
Implications for Policy and Practice
Ambiguity or uncertainty about what an individual or organization is referring to when they use the term “regenerative agriculture” may create multiple challenges. First, without a clear, stated definition of regenerative agriculture, it may be difficult or impossible for researchers to test a specific claim about the benefits or outcomes of regenerative agriculture (Goswami et al., 2017).
Clear definitions may be an important component of effective communication and engagement between scientists and practitioners (White and Andrew, 2019). Second, in the absence of a clear understanding of what regenerative agriculture is or is not, consumers may be misled or confused about the significance or truth basis of a claim about food produced using regenerative agriculture. In turn, confusion about eco-labels can lead to consumer distrust and dissatisfaction (Moon et al., 2017).
Third, muddiness around the term may open the door for unscrupulous commercial interests to exploit the term and use it misleadingly in their marketing, potentially diminishing the value of the term to any producer who is more genuinely involved in efforts to enhance the sustainability of food production. That is, there is potential for watering down or greenwashing the use of a term to the point where it becomes universalized and loses value.
For example, many products and practices are now called “sustainable” or “natural” without clarity as to what the claim means or why a consumer would pay a premium for a product marketed as such, allowing for “greenwashing” and other misuses to occur (Northen, 2011; Levinovitz, 2020). Formalizing terms can mitigate these issues to an extent, but it is only part of the challenge and is not necessarily the preferred outcome for all actors (Schaller, 1990; DeLind, 2000).
Finally, the absence of a clear understanding of what regenerative agriculture is, and whether it is or should be the process- or outcome-based, has implications for policy and program development (Goswami et al., 2017). We explore some of these implications below, in relation to the development of certification programs and carbon payments for regenerative agriculture.
Implications for a Certification Program
Sustainability standards can formalize definitions and expectations for a given type of agricultural practice and have gained traction globally (Tayleur et al., 2017). To date, at least one certification program for regenerative agriculture has been created (Regenerative Organic Alliance, 2020). The stated objectives of the Regenerative Organic Certified program (to increase soil organic matter, to improve animal welfare, and to provide economic stability and fairness) are outcome-oriented, but the standards used to define and assess compliance are principally process-oriented (Regenerative Organic Alliance, 2020).
Process-oriented certification programs are common and are perhaps the norm. It is a consumer’s choice whether to buy and support the label and (at least in principle) they can determine their willingness to accept claims or make assumptions about the causal connections between processes and outcomes. But at least one outcome-based certification program that relates to regenerative agriculture is also being developed (Savory Institute, 2019), and may arguably be more robust and generate fewer doubts.
Under this Ecological Outcome VerifiedTM program, farmers will have to demonstrate improvements in particular outcomes (e.g., soil health, biodiversity) over time and also accept the possibility of losing certification if they cease improving along with these metrics (Savory Institute, 2019). While outcome-based certification programs obviate the need for leaps of faith, potentially making them more attractive to consumers and more robust tools for market-based change, they can be more costly to administer (due to assessment expenses) and may therefore result in end-products that are less affordable for eco-conscious consumers.
Implications for Payments for Carbon Sequestration
One proposed mechanism for incentivizing farmers and ranchers to adopt regenerative agriculture is to financially reward them for the ecosystem service of sequestering carbon in soil and vegetation on their land (Lal, 2019, 2020). Such a mechanism would effectively constitute a form of payments for environmental services (PES) program (Wunder, 2005), and has also been proposed under the title of “carbon farming.” Some groups have identified agricultural principles and/or practices that fall under the umbrella of carbon farming (e.g., Carbon Cycle Institute, 2020).
Donors, investors, or tax-payers who might fund any such carbon farming project might reasonably expect the project to be associated with a Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) system to measure and demonstrate the carbon sequestered by a given farmer, project, or area of land.
They may be less willing to pay farmers on the mere assumption that certain processes lead to certain outcomes, rather than the actual demonstration that they have done so. As such, a definition of regenerative agriculture to be applied under such a program may need to be at least partly outcome-based.
Such an MRV system and associated policy might borrow from more well-established efforts in the forest sector, such as the set of programs and policies to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) (Herold and Skutsch, 2009). Principles that have been relatively well-explored and that might equally be important for carbon sequestration PES programs using regenerative agriculture include those of additionality, permanence, and leakage (Murray et al., 2007; Thamo and Pannell, 2016).
Caveats and Limitations
We note a couple of methodological caveats that characterize our research. These relate to the types of publications that we included, and to the challenges of distinguishing processes from outcomes.
First, our review of definitions and descriptions focused on peer-reviewed research articles and on practitioner websites. These were accessible, searchable, and citable. However, we recognize that much of the innovative thinking about regenerative agriculture has been done by farmers and other stakeholders whose ideas and experiences may not be well represented in the publications we reviewed.
Further, much relevant discussion has also occurred in other forums, including books and reports (e.g., Pretty, 1995), policy documents (e.g., Regeneration International, 2016), and public talks (e.g., Brown, 2016). It was beyond the scope of this study to additionally include such publications. It is possible that had we done so, they might have introduced some new dimensions (e.g., novel processes, outcomes, or combinations of these) of regenerative agriculture that we did not capture in our review.
Second, while it was generally straightforward to parse processes from outcomes, in a small number of cases there was some ambiguity or doubt about the most appropriate categorization. For example, Duarte et al. (2019) stated that “Regenerative farming systems can provide organic crops,” which could be interpreted as an outcome (the crops that are produced) but which also implies a process since organic certification in the US is process-oriented. In such cases, we did our best to parse processes from outcomes based on the definitions and context available.
Finally, our methodology reveals what definitions have been used, but it does not reveal anything about why or how those definitions have variously emerged, diverged, or gained traction. Nor does it explain the rise in popularity of regenerative agriculture in recent years. Additional research could usefully explore those questions.
Regenerative Agriculture Being Over-hyped
There may be fundamental issues with just how big a part of the solution to climate change regenerative agriculture can be.
As Washington State University researcher Andrew McGuire puts it: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What counts as evidence are peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals – I have looked for the evidence to support the claims of regenerative agriculture.
What I have found are lots of YouTube videos, testimonials, articles, and interviews. None of these sources are extraordinary evidence.” The lack of evidence for regenerative agriculture’s big claims is a concern also shared by some farmers.
As NBC News reported in 2019, “one much-cited estimate of potential soil sequestration published to date suggests that if regenerative practices were used on all of the world’s croplands and pastures forever — a huge assumption — the soil may be able to sequester up to 322 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” That’s a long way from the one teraton that is sometimes claimed to be possible.
And as David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington, told NBC News, the amount of carbon that can be added to the soil is finite, so there is a natural limit on how large its contribution to addressing climate change can be.
Perpetuates Big Ag’s Damaging Business Model
Big agrichem companies have been marketing a form of regenerative agriculture that could keep farms reliant on pesticides and other chemicals. For example, farmers may use chemicals to kill off crops at the end of a season rather than using tillage. While that may keep the soil in place, the chemicals used can damage the integrity of the soil in other ways. So while it could be good for carbon emissions, it could perpetuate other environmental problems.
The long-term impacts of regenerative agriculture are uncertain
A lot of studies that claim regenerative agriculture can have a huge impact “do not address scientific and practical challenges” involved in employing those practices, the World Resources Institute argues.
There’s a limited understanding of the long-term impacts of some of the strategies. For example, the majority of farmers in the US who practice no-till also plow their soils at least every few years, undoing the carbon storage benefit.
Given that farming is so location-specific in terms of weather, soil type, water availability, and other variables, there are also concerns that regenerative practices that work on one farm may not work on others — limiting the feasibility for large-scale impact.
Too Vague to Regulate
While regenerative agriculture may be in vogue, it’s not well defined. The term “regenerative”, unlike terms such as “organic”, isn’t defined by regulators, and “regenerative agriculture” farmers are not required to show that they’ve followed any specific standards. It’s part of a wider suite of strategies that fall under the umbrella of “climate-smart agriculture”, a similarly ill-defined term, which critics say can be used by companies to greenwash their images while avoiding regulation.
However, to practice regenerative agriculture effectively, many farmers will need to acquire new knowledge and skills, particularly in respect of soil management. And managing farmers’ expectations of results might be difficult, as critics have accused exponents of over-claiming on yield and benefits.
By not tilling the soil, farmers can save between 30 and 40 percent of the time and can decrease the amount of soil erosion in certain terrains, but the disadvantages of regenerative agriculture are, in many cases, that more unwelcome plants grow on the land, and some farmers compensate for this by increasing their use of the herbicide.
And it is possible that the extent of soil degradation is exaggerated too. The degradation of soils is difficult to measure, and there are huge variations between estimates by different bodies.
There is a rapidly growing interest in regenerative agriculture, among a range of actors in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. This includes rapid growth in the academic field of study around regenerative agriculture and the number of practitioner organizations focused on regenerative agriculture. Our review provides an evidence-based understanding of how some individuals and organizations have defined or described the term “regenerative agriculture.”
- Giller, K. E., Hijbeek, R., Andersson, J. A., & Sumberg, J. (2021). Regenerative Agriculture: An agronomic perspective. Outlook on Agriculture, 50(1), 13-25.
- Newton, P., Civita, N., Frankel-Goldwater, L., Bartel, K., & Johns, C. (2020). What is regenerative agriculture? A review of scholar and practitioner definitions based on processes and outcomes. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 4, 194.