Clover on a regenerative farm
Nitrogen-fixing crops like clover help regenerative farmers replace fertiliser. Image Harry Hook.

Regenerative farming: Transforming the system or preserving the status quo?

A regenerative approach must acknowledge the deep dysfunction of the industrial system, writes Schumacher College’s Nathan Einbinder.

At first glance it appears a huge success. Some of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations have agreed to, and are actively promoting, regenerative farming practices.

No longer are we talking about a relatively small number of farms dedicated to building soil health and enhancing biodiversity. We’re talking millions of acres around the world transitioning to practices that encourage soil life rather than destroy it – all the while sequestering carbon.

And who knows what kind of snowball this might create in the long term, as more companies and governments take note of the benefits and incorporate them into their programmes and supply chains.

But before we get too excited, let’s pause for a moment and think about what this version of regenerative means to the future of the concept and movement.

Now I assume we’re all in agreement that scaling-out regenerative soil management practices is a positive thing. But I also imagine that most of us, particularly now, given the multiple crises we face, agree that the entire food and agricultural system needs an overhaul. This means transforming not only the way we farm, but what crops we grow, where, and by whom.

Take, for example, a midwestern farm with ten thousand acres of corn and soy, transitioning to ‘regenerative’ through a process of applying no-till, crop rotations, and mob grazing – all through the help of agronomists and prescriptive manuals.

The harvests, which are slowly rebounding after a few years of lower yields, are purchased by a company (now also deemed ‘regenerative’ due to their carbon offsetting which makes them ‘net-neutral’) and sent as feed to concentrated feedlots, some of them with over a million animals that may never see a live pasture, nor the light of day. In fact, none of the crops from this farm will likely ever be eaten directly by humans.

If not for animal feed, they may become a biofuel, or processed into syrups that make our chips, soft drinks and other foods known to drive the obesity crisis. 

Yet, because of the way the soil is managed – and perhaps more importantly, how much carbon is estimated to be sucked from the atmosphere – it may be considered regenerative.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge advocate of better stewardship practices, and I agree that soil health is fundamental to the regenerative concept. But my argument is that it cannot stop there.

The global food and agricultural systems, rooted in cheap fossil fuels, dependency, inequality, and financial speculation, have generated conditions that make farmer livelihoods unviable.

From my point of view, regenerative agriculture should be a process that views soil health and restoration as an essential entry point to other elements of the food system, with a goal of transformative change.

To this end, a regenerative approach must acknowledge the deep dysfunction of the industrial system, while challenging false narratives about its inevitability for ‘feeding the world’. This will involve asking some thorny questions about corporate control over inputs and markets, and ideas, and the oversimplification and vulnerability it causes at a global scale.

As complicated as this may sound, regenerative principles are naturally positioned to confront these issues. We must remember that farmers are, in general, attracted to regenerative techniques out of exasperation and necessity. The global food and agricultural systems, rooted in cheap fossil fuels, dependency, inequality, and financial speculation, have generated conditions that make their livelihoods unviable.

Climate change has made things even worse. As a result, they are in search of alternatives. Context-specific regenerative practices that draw from local knowledge and resources, experimentation, and peer supports allow for greater control, autonomy, and sustainability on all fronts. Communities and cities are equally attracted to regenerative ideas, as they strive for greater resilience and the rejuvenation of local economies and cultures.

As the mess we’re in becomes more apparent each day, we must question the logic of simplistic solutions that do not attack the root problem.

Regenerative should mean embracing diverse processes and out-of-the-box thinking that connects healthy soils to vibrant human communities, making them inseparable. The time is now to dream and have confidence in new realities – and act boldly.


Leave a Reply

  1. Your argument that the process of regenerative agriculture can’t stop at soil health is surely something that most if not all regenerative farmers and readers of Wicked Leeks would agree with.
    It would be great if regenerative farmers had a big influence over their markets … your example of the midwest farm putting regenerative principles into practice but ending up selling the product for feed for intensively-farmed livestock (always supposing those buyers would pay a premium for a higher quality, lower yield product) is a depressing prospect … yet Practical Action, founded by Schumacher on his principles, has 5 strategies that use market systems to support regenerative agriculture, one of which is ‘influencing the corporate business model’. This has apparently included working with Unilever and Nestle to, for example, ‘directly support the transition to more regenerative practises by paying a premium for produce’. It may well be that these corporations are using regenerative farmers in Kenya, Nepal and elsewhere to greenwash their activities … but maybe it’s a starting point?
    I recently read a Wicked Leeks investigation/report in which an un-named baker seemed to imply that a named person marketing produce from regenerative farming could, by refusing to reveal his suppliers, be greenwashing his activities. Possibly … but he’s also enabling one of my regenerative farming heroes to sell his produce at a premium price. I love to be able to buy my exceptionally delicious vegetables through the hard work and inspiration of another of my regenerative farming heroes, Guy Singh Watson. But I can’t buy Nick Padwick’s grain – unless someone mills it for me.
    I frankly hate the corporate monopoly of the food system. But I want to see regenerative farmers supported – if the only things they do are improve soil health and sequester carbon it’s a great deal more than most of us manage to achieve – and not tasked with too much of the burden of system change. Perfection it may not be: progress it is.

    1. Well said Sgl. Perfection doesn’t exist anyway, does it.

      But it’s a big debate isn’t it: scale vs pace. Do you go slowly with the more purist approach and do it well (but also risk slow progress and low profit) or do you go big and at pace and potentially cut corners?


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