Regenerative Greenwashing


One frequently made comment is that Regenerative Agriculture has no official definition and consequently corporates can make any claims they decide on in saying they are being regenerative. While this is true it is not at the core of the regenerative greenwashing problem. Regenerative Agriculture is many things to many people but any definition definition worth its salt contains soil and soil health at its core. So any food chain claiming to be regenerative without evidence of soil health improvement / maintenance is lying. You can add more layers to that definition but if you are not regenerating soil while farming you are not practicing regenerative agriculture, whatever other wonderful things you might be doing.

Regenerative Agriculture has the ability to make a profound difference to the healthy functioning of the soil-plant ecosystem and in the process the healthy functioning of farm ecosystems and economics. The positive impact that this can have on the stability of the planet's ecosystems and politics is so big it's difficult to grasp. Farmers touch 60% of the planet's accessible soil and most of it is in a poor state, imagine the impact of restoring the function that soil. This possibility is however under serious threat by corporate interests, their marketing strategies and those looking at Regenerative Agriculture as the next quick money making opportunity. 

With remarkable agility a threat is turned into an opportunity and Regenerative Agriculture becomes about corporate asset value creation rather than restoring the functioning of ecosystems. Right now corporations are scrambling to monetise Nature Based Solutions, create marketing opportunities, claim gains that are not theirs to claim and promoting measurement technologies that don't currently exist. Nature Based Solutions are payment schemes like carbon credits and biodiversity credits which are incentives for land stewards to change their detrimental practices or continue their current good ones. Corporate and government capture of these solutions is the real greenwashing threat to what regenerating soil can do for the future of the human race.

The benefits derived from healthy soil function for all who live on the planet are multiple and critical to our future habitation of the planet. So many of the processes and cycles that maintain the ecosystem in which we live are directly connected to the soil. Photosynthesis, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the nutrient cycle and the water cycle, to mention a few, are all significantly impacted by soil function. This is what makes people so easily able to negatively impact these cycles, the fact that we have direct, mostly negative, contact with so much of the planet's soil and the soil-plant ecosystem. The biological interconnectedness of our planet means that negative impacts are compounded and things can quickly spiral downwards. However conversely as we start to improve things they are also compounded and we can assist them to spiral upwards.

The conundrum that companies in the agricultural food and fibre value chains face is that they are coming under immense marketing pressure to be regenerative. However the only place where changes can be made is on farms. Regenerative changes cannot be made in factories, warehouses, retail facilities or at head office. This pressure comes as wishes - aka demands - down the value chain, wishes for products to be regenerative "by 2025" or "2030". The problem is that those sending the wishes and those along the value chain have little idea of what that means, and little idea of the complexity involved in "becoming regenerative". They do not know that the change that is now being pushed down the chain is a couple of orders of magnitude more complex than the changes that have come down it before.

Standards like Health and Safety and Animal Welfare have also faced "greenwashing problems" but never to the same degree. The regenerative stakes are much higher and the complexity much greater. The changes required by these other standards were totally within the manmade world, 'improve your shed from an animal welfare perspective', 'add more toilets per employee', these changes cost some money but they are not complex. Regenerative changes however lie at the interface of the man made world and nature. They require 1000s of individual farmers who work at the interface with nature to work in such a way as to improve the functioning of those natural systems. This interface of man's linear thinking and natures complex biological web is exactly that, complex. This complexity does not sit well with linear thinking and it does not sit well with short timeline corporate targets.

Agricultural Nature Based Solutions (NBS) were designed as mechanisms to incentivise land stewards to implement good stewardship on their land. Until now the only mechanism we have come up with to do that is higher food prices, but premium food models can only change a small percentage of the market and consequently the land. With NBS non-food payments can be made to farmers and conservationists for good land stewardship, for thus far unrecognised and un-rewarded ecosystem services like water infiltration and retention. NBS were not designed to help corporates in the food chain achieve "net zero" nor to create opportunities for non-land based entities to make large profits. If the money doesn't get to the land stewards the improvements and conservation will not take place. And as explained above that impacts every person on the planet.  One of the fables being pushed by some very big money at the moment is that using satellite imagery interpretation they can measure changes in soil carbon and other elements down to 30 cm in the soil profile. This is not true, it cannot be done. But that is not stopping people claiming it can. If we could do that we wouldn't be taking physical soil tests to work out how to fertilise our agricultural land, its much cheaper to analyse satellite imagery.

All of this behaviour will undermine any chance that NBS have of promoting soil health solutions like Regenerative Agriculture. We cannot regenerate farm soils at scale without investing in primary agriculture, we cannot provide humanity with improved soil health and its associated ecosystem services without systems like NBS. If corporates do to NBS what greed did to the Chicago Carbon Exchange then another opportunity to bring about crucial change will be lost.

Every player in the value chain needs to accept that this change is the whole value chain's responsibility, not just the farmer's. The farmer does not control the value chain, the entities at the other end of the food chain control it, the individual farmer has the least control and yet that is where the fingers are being pointed. Farmers are being told to "move the cheese" but they are not in charge of the location of the cheese. If you push a chain you just end up with a pile of links! Secondly farmers don't have the resources to make the changes on their own farms let alone along the whole value chain. The damage that will ensue, if this push for change from above doesn't come with a helping hand and a collective mindset, will be incredibly destructive.

Any regenerative standard cannot just be a tickbox exercise, a list of doos and don'ts, regeneration is a continuous, complex process and it needs to be measured on a continuum. Regenerative standards need to be stepped, we need to encourage farmers to move along a continuum and not discourage them by saying you didn't get a A therefore you got nothing. Regenerative standards need to include on farm measurements - soil tests, water infiltration tests, etc. However regenerative standards also need tick boxes to provide evidence of practice change - there is already a gathering body of evidence that shows a high correlation between regenerative practice and regenerative outcomes. Regenerative standards require both tick boxes on practice and on farm measurements on outcomes, as the quality of implementation is a major factor in achieving the outcomes.

Players in agricultural value chains have to decide whether this regenerative thing is the next big marketing opportunity or whether they are going to work with farmers and others in the chain to do it properly. Are we going to do what is best for all of us or are we going to take short cuts? It is in all of our interests that all participants in agricultural value chains understand this. It is also critical that they understand what is involved at a farm level when a remote, boardroom level decision is made to "become regenerative by 2025".

If Regenerative Agriculture becomes a greenwashing, marketing exercise and money making exercise in a decade's time there will be limited progress on moving farmers to regenerative practices. If this happens then make no mistake the blame lies on the whole food chain and least of all the people at the bottom of the chain. If Nature Based Solutions are morphed for corporate / government benefit and the money from them does not make its way to the land stewards this will hobble our ability to bring about widespread improvement in soil-plant ecosystem function. Improvement requires investment, you can't invest a "net zero food chain" in your farm.

An example of the changes required at a farm level to become regenerative:

We will start with a fairly basic example, a farm with only one enterprise, beef cattle. Let's assume the farmer has already decided to change to regenerative grazing and engaged with what that entails and focus just on physical and financial changes that are required. In order to regenerate the soil-plant ecosystem on the farm the entire grazing system of the farm needs to be changed. To do this requires multiple steps, including significant change management for all the people on the farm and it requires investment.

1. Water distribution. Most farms have very poor water reticulation systems as when the camps were set up getting water around the farm was difficult and expensive. But in order to graze regeneratively water is required to be available all over the farm so that all the veld can be precision grazed, a sizeable investment is required in setting this up.

2. Fencing, most camps are large and not suited to regenerative grazing, more fencing is required and/or a conversion to portable electric fencing.

3. Then the cattle need to be grouped into bigger herds. This presents cultural and practical problems and can't be achieved unless points 1 and 2 have already been resolved.

4. Next some of the cattle are not going to perform well in this new system - they have been selected to perform in the old. This will require these cattle to be sold and replaced with adapted animals.

5. Then the numbers of animals on the farm will need to be increased in order to create the herd impact that is required for the change to the grass and soil.

As you can see significant on farm change is required. Mind set change, cultural change, financial change and a lot of work. This will not happen overnight just because a marketing department further down the value chain has decided it must. Much is being asked of the farmers and they are being expected to take on significant risk to bring about these changes that are beneficial to all.

The Regenerative Agriculture Association of Southern Africa is happy to work with any participants in agricultural value chains to work out what the best road forward to regeneration is. Including engaging with others along the value chain to unbundle what the process of regeneration too that chain entails. In terms of regenerative certification we are working with various product producers to develop a local, three tier based certification system.