Take a close look at the packaged foods that line the shelves of your local supermarket, and you'll likely notice a promising uptick in labels that nod to the environmental efforts put forth by the product's manufacturer. While plenty of the marketing claims used are familiar (if nebulous) words like “natural,” “sustainable,” and “climate-friendly” to tout the brand’s commitment to addressing the impact the food industry has on the planet, you may also spot a newer term on both processed foods and produce: regenerative. This is a nod to the significant increase in interest America has seen in the past three years in the regenerative agriculture movement, with even huge corporations like Cargill and Nestlé publicly touting their support for a move to regenerative food systems.
In essence, the term 'regenerative agriculture' means using agricultural practices that help—rather than hurt—the environment, according to Ryland Engelhart, co-founder of Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring participation in regenerative agriculture. It presents a promising way to combat the climate crisis by capturing carbon emissions from the atmosphere and rebuilding soil health. And though the discussions of regenerative agriculture as a potential solution for carbon sequestration, improving water and air quality, and increasing biodiversity are valid, they don’t take into account where these practices originated from, nor the social or racial injustices that are still at play within the agricultural system. This is a huge problem, and one that is only going to continue to grow alongside the burgeoning movement.
To understand why the regenerative agriculture movement is rooted in inequitable practices, we must first take a closer look at what's involved. Regenerative agriculture aims to prioritize soil health and use land management practices that emulate nature and rehabilitate the land, thereby offering a potential solution for feeding our population without depleting the planet's resources in the process. This is extremely important, as today’s agricultural practices are responsible for an estimated one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Clearly, there is tremendous promise in regenerative agriculture. However, as the movement grows and the term becomes more widely used, a key issue is being swept aside in the frenzy to jump on the latest sustainability bandwagon: This "new" way of doing things is actually just a compilation of farming methods long-practiced by Indigenous populations. Regenerative agriculture cannot be perceived as a 'rising trend' for fixing the climate crisis; it is a return to an old way of land stewardship. Until we have a consensus on what regenerative agriculture actually means, where it comes from, and we recognize the human dimension of the agricultural system, regenerative agriculture isn't just at risk of becoming just another greenwashed marketing term—it's at risk of becoming a movement blinded by whitewashing.
Regenerative agriculture is not a new concept.
Perhaps the biggest fallacy about regenerative agriculture is that it is an innovative way of growing food. When you trace the origins of the practices that are now being deemed "new" and "revolutionary," you find that many (including regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, and permaculture, to name a few) have been practiced in Indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Celebrated practices such as seed preservation, eating seasonally, and planting native species draw directly from the methods of marginalized communities.
According to Nicole Civita, vice president of strategic initiatives at Sterling College in Vermont and a food systems transformation agent, ethicist, and educator, few in this newly-minted regenerative agriculture movement prioritize concern for the well-being of those who labor in the food system. (Think farm workers, not farm owners or managers). “Many so-called regenerative farmers are fighting to maintain outdated, racist laws that exclude agricultural workers from basic workplace protections,” Civita says. "Agriculture cannot be truly 'regenerative' if it hinges on the exploitative degeneration of the human lives that power it." Organic, regeneratively grown veggies sold at the farmers' market still fall short if they were picked by workers making below minimum wage without overtime, working without access to water and shade in the heat of summer.
In fact, Civita says that many of the practices that are currently being dubbed “regenerative” are the same as practices that biotech proponents and international development organizations have tried to get small farmers to abandon in favor of more industrial farming methods. “In a turnabout that is simultaneously stunning and predictable, these same practices are being labeled ‘regenerative’ by largely white celebrity farmers,” Civita says. The same multinational corporations that developed their power through conventional agriculture are now the ones hoping to benefit from advancing these “new” regenerative practices.
“Truly regenerative agriculture is about so much more than just creating carbon sinks and improving soil health,” says Devon Peña, a Chicano farmer in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, founder and president of the Acequia Institute, and professor of American ethnic studies, anthropology, and environmental studies at the University of Washington. Actual environmental wellness goes far beyond ideal production practices—in fact, this singular focus perpetuates an agricultural system that has long been devoid of social and racial justice. “A just and inclusive regenerative food system must include robust discussion and action on issues such as community health, cultural resilience, and basic human rights,” says Peña. He says that the current industrial farming system is based on an individualistic approach that doesn’t reward this type of collective action, and therefore doesn’t drive toward equity.
Denying the roots of the regenerative agriculture movement perpetuates the complicated history of structural racism on which much of our food system is based. According to Peña, the invisibility of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers within the regenerative agriculture movement is unjust. “It is very easy to go from dispossession of land to erasure,” he says. "BIPOC farmers and Indigenous populations need to be acknowledged both for their role in the overall agricultural system and for the role they have played for centuries in the regenerative movement. They must not be brushed aside in the quest for the next trend in agriculture and alternative food culture."
A path forward requires a major mental shift.
Both Civita and Peña agree that in order to be able to champion the promise of the regenerative agriculture movement, we need a collective change in mentality. “You can't get to the solutions by just focusing on ecology, or on agro-ecological factors,” says Peña. “You also have to focus on the human dimension, community dimension, and—even more importantly—the institutional dimension that applies to all the institutions that will need to support sustainable regenerative agriculture.” That means improving labor practices and providing credit to (and access to land for) BIPOC farmers. We need collective action that takes care of the people at the core of our food system.
“We should be suspicious about any solutions that reduce our intertwined eco-social crises down to just one component,” adds Civita. The current concern over CO2 levels, while justifiable given the severity of the climate crisis, has led the regenerative agriculture movement in a myopic direction that continues to reward the same people that the current system does. This further perpetuates the invisibility of the BIPOC farmers that the entire structure is based upon, both in terms of origination of principles as well as labor. “Real change will require taking smallholder agriculture and smallholder wisdom seriously when practicing regenerative agriculture. It also involves interrogating why and how so much land wound up in the hands of so few wealthy white landowners and their multinationals. And it means taking political action to support to undo the legacy of colonialism, displacement, slavery, and centuries of discriminatory practices within the United States Department of Agriculture.”
Additionally, we need a clear definition of what regenerative agriculture is, because there is currently no agreed-upon meaning of the term. In fact, a study done at The University of Colorado Boulder found that across 229 academic journal articles and 25 practitioner websites, definitions of 'regenerative agriculture' varied tremendously. "I get concerned when self-interested actors fabulize the term 'regenerative agriculture.' As the phrase gets buzzier, we're seeing many poorly defined—or wholly undefined—ways of using it," says Civita, who also worked on the study. She cautions that this lack of clarity is about much more than mere semantics. "Speaking about regenerative agriculture in such a loose way masks how little some of these so-called 'regenerative' initiatives actually do to improve the health of ecosystems and well-being of communities." Without a clear set of principles that outline what the intended ecological, social, and cultural outcomes are (and who the movement is intended to benefit), there is no clear path forward. There is currently one regenerative agriculture certification program, Regenerative Organic Certified, with others likely on their way, but it will take widespread acceptance and adoption by food growers and manufacturers for these programs to have an impact.
Change also requires that the powerful companies and individuals who have consistently profited from environmental and climate harms that have resulted from large-scale agricultural practices are held accountable through the legal, regulatory, and tax systems. While many large companies do participate in carbon credit programs, these systems essentially just allow companies to continue to emit carbon if they are willing to pay to pollute. While this may cap carbon emissions to a certain point or help sequester some of the carbon into the ground, it does nothing for fixing problematic practices and driving change in the long-term.
These recommended actions may seem beyond an individual reader’s sphere of influence on the regenerative agriculture movement. But as Civita says, “The way we get policy change involves voting whenever we are able, as well as actively defending the voting rights of others who have been on the losing end of these extractive systems, and keeping the pressure on elected officials between elections with calls, emails and demonstrations.” Getting involved with alliances and networks like the HEAL Food Alliance, A Growing Culture, EcoGather, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, and the Food Chain Workers Alliance—or any of their more local member organizations—is a great place to start.
Until we are willing to be as open to the idea of talking about power and privilege as we are to cover crops and tilling methods, the transformational potential of regenerative agriculture will be limited at best. But if we can tap into the collective wisdom of BIPOC communities, advocate for the small stakeholders (and those who have been traditionally oppressed by large-scale, industrial agriculture), and take care of the people at the root of our food system... well, then we might just have hope of regeneration, after all.
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