Agriculture as practiced today is arguably the greatest threat to the earth system, so it’s no surprise that many people want to support an ecologically and socially responsible agriculture. But how do we define it? On the consumer side, certification and product labeling has become a primary mechanism. “Organic,” “fair trade” and “grass-fed”- new labels seem to emerge each week. The Rodale Institute has begun rolling out a new set of standards: “Regenerative Organic” which attempt to go beyond and unify standards under 3 themes: Soil Health, Animal Welfare and Social Fairness. A bill just introduced to the Vermont State House aims to support farmers pursuing this standard.
“Regenerative agriculture” is powerful rhetoric: not only minimizing harm, but improving the environment: agriculture for “a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship.” Labelling regenerative agriculture provides a mechanism to pay for its many public benefits. But dividing farming systems into “regenerative” and “not-regenerative” is a complicated task.
The obvious idea is to measure regeneration; for instance, an older, failed bill in the Vermont State House proposed that any farm which increased soil carbon over the course of 3 years could label itself “regenerative.” This has downsides- increasing carbon is far easier on farms that have been mismanaged in the past, farms can increase soil carbon just by importing manure (which could threaten water quality), and farms can have cycles in soil carbon that hide trends.
Because of difficulties like these, the “Regenerative Organic” standard, is “proscriptive”, like most other standards: it tells farmers how to farm, and because it is a higher standard, there are more rules! Certified farmers must reduce tillage, diversify cropping systems and eliminate reliance on manure from factory farms, among many other things.
These are worthwhile goals, but this approach conflicts with a different, relational view of sustainable agriculture: one whose spirit isn’t in precise practices, but in caring, sensitive dialogue with the land. To be truly sustainable, agriculture must be adaptive and evolutionary, like any other component of an ecosystem. In this view, the problem with organic agriculture isn’t just that the rules aren’t strict enough, maybe they are too strict as well! How can standards be written for all farms if the environment and its stewards are so variable?
Bureaucratic agricultural standards can backfire, dealing with the certification process has eroded traditional social structures in some Mexican coffee co-ops, and larger, less-diverse farms have much lower compliance costs than large ones: for large farms, each hectare of paperwork covers more hectares of agricultural land. And any time a firm set of rules is laid down, an army of lawyers can descend upon it to find loopholes. My undergraduate advisor, Philip Ackerman-Leist buys what he calls “neighborganic”- from small farms he knows and trusts: transparency over certification. This system is hard to generalize: most people live in urban areas and the vast majority aren’t professors of Food Systems!
There are a few steps, that can be taken, even in conditions of uncertainty. Taxes, subsidies and technical assistance can be altered to encourage farmers to rely more on ecological processes. For instance, nitrogen fertilizer can be taxed, legume green manure seeds subsidized, and more public research directed to the non-marketed benefits from well-managed agriculture. Technical assistance can be better integrated with monitoring and new technologies for remote-sensing may make actually measuring “regeneration” possible. And there are many positive actions individuals can take that side-step all this complexity: eating more plant-based meals, reducing food waste, and converting lawns to gardens.
It isn’t yet clear how to get to a diverse, locally adapted, regenerative agriculture. But progress is being made, and we can make better progress if we admit what we don’t know. So see if you can take some of the simpler steps above, and try to support not only farmers who are trying to do right by the earth, but especially those who are trying to figure out how to do it better.
Ben is pursuing a PhD in Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. He has an undergraduate degree in Agriculture and Food Systems from Green Mountain College. He continued working there after graduation as a farmer, educator & researcher on energy issues in small scale farming systems. His research investigates the multifunctionality of agricultural landscapes in both producing food and ecosystem services and implications for government policy in supporting farmers.