Reflections from debates on Regenerative, Organic, Agroecology

Regenerative. Organic. Agroecology. Like any ecosystem—there is both mutality, collaboration and competition. Sorting out where there is mutuality, shared principles and purpose, and where there are conflicts and competition, was the task of several innovative debates and “fishbowl” discussions at the world’s largest organic food expo, BIOFACH. Some 40.000 companies, farmers, organizational leaders, researchers, and policy makers were gathered there.

I want to share some points from my input, speaking as board member at  IFOAM – Organics International, and some gold from debates:

Stand together

First, my “sense of the room (s)” was that we can all draw inspiration from each other. And above all, organic, agroecological and serious regenerative actors and movements must stand together. For together we are THE alternative and primary challenger to current degenerative food systems.

Organic, agroecological and serious regenerative actors are kin

  • Serious regenerative farmers and actors are natural kin and allies for the organic and agroecology movements. Regenerative principles are at the core of organic. At the level of principles and goals there are no regenerative principles, in the many definitions, that are not already included in the internationally agreed and codified organic principles, and the worldwide principles and elements of agroecology.
  • For this reason, the “beyond organic” narrative from some regenerative actors is neither accurate nor useful. And it is often unnecessarily sectarian and divisive. These claims are always based on comparisons between organic MINIMUM standards and regenerative ASPIRATIONS and principles for soil health, biodiversity and carbon draw down. Principles embraced fully in organic farming. True, organic is no to pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and GMOs, but it is also YES to the multitude of regenerative organic practices pursuing all these goals for soil, nature and climate. Regenerative is not “beyond organic,” it’s beyond some organic standards, but so is organic production.

Regenerative is not new, but can help renew organics

  • But even if regenerative mindsets and most practices are far from new, our serious regenerative friends can help us “renew” and rededicate ourselves to our own organic principles, and regenerative thinking is more easily translated to other spheres than our organic, ecosystem thinking when we talk about human relationships, communities and leadership, for example. While many organic farmers are among regen pioneers and the term “regenerative agriculture” was coined by organic pioneers at Rodale Institute, we also know that we have many newer organic producers that farm with eyes fixed more on organic standards, than principles. So all organic farmers can be inspired by the regenerative movements focus on not least soil health and nutrition density. Don’t panic. Develop organic! And as we have our own cases where corporate capture of supply chains and influence on messaging and standards is an issue, we can also, as we say in Denmark, “sweep our own (organic) stoop” as we criticize others.
  • The organic movement should also be inspired by regenerative communications which focus more on aspirations, for creating more life, and using a warm aesthetic close to soil, nature and people who grow our food (great initiatives like Regenerative Organic Alliances “Farm like the world depends on it” and IFOAMs We grow your food! and others notwithstanding). The organic movement itself reinforces an idea that organics is just standards and rules when this is what we communicate. We can communicate more about our principles and ambitions for creating and protecting life. Healthy soil. Healthy people. Healthy planet as we used to say. Thank you to Mwatima Juma, Chair of Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement (TOAM) for encouraging us to be inspired by the Swahili term for organic farming “Kilimohai,” “agriculture alive” or living agriculture.

What is driving regenerative momentum?

  • Momentum (and hype) around use of “regenerative” has to do with many things: not least, the attractive aspirational nature of the term, the passion of serious regenerative farmers, the igniting of farmers interest based on farm craftsmanship. All good. But “regenerative” is also driven forward because it is attractive for actors against transformative change. Attractive, because of the ease by which corporate interests (including many global degenerative actors in the pesticide and food industries) can utilize the ambiguity of the ill-defined “regenerative” term, to make small changes and re-brand themselves as regenerative good-guys. Small steps are also good. But painting small steps as great aspirational leaps is classic greenwashing that must be called out. And will be, also in court.
  • Likewise, a small army of consultancies have a shiny new product for sale, as “regenerative potentials” can be analyzed, hyped and sold to policy makers and conventional farm and food interests as the “new win-win-win solution” for the climate and biodiversity disaster that much of agriculture is today.
  • Adding regenerative practices to conventional farming is good news. But the danger here is that a small bundle of regenerative practices becomes the new, dominant policy agenda and platform for sustainability, pushing aside more holistic solutions like regenerative organic and agroecology that represent more transformational change. This is a natural goal for the chemical industries that want to maintain their grip on farmers and farm policy. They need their own green messaging, that allows business to continue largely unchanged, and regenerative provides this. The same is true for  politicians.
  • As “regenerative” captures the imagination of funders—both public and philanthropic—researchers, policy makers and non-profits quickly change their language, using “regenerative,” sometimes as a “search and replace” for agroecology or organic.
  • I prefer more inclusive terms like “regenerative and agroecological approaches” or precise terms like “regenerative organic agriculture” bringing the aspirational nature of regenerative and the well-defined principles and successful practices of organic or agroecology together, while excluding many decidedly degenerative practices.  Regenerative Organic Alliance has a growing Regenerative Organic Certification that many companies find as a natural step, where regenerative claims build on a base of solid organic standards. Several speakers at BIOFACH spoke for this model in the work in California in establishing a definition of regenerative.
  • As a stand-alone term “Regenerative” begs the question: “which regenerative definition are we talking about? Syngentas? Bayers? Nestles? Or that of credible actors like Climate Farmers  or Regeneration International  ?” We must ask this question wherever “regenerative agriculture” is proposed as the solution. Just as we have with “Sustainable.” Andre Leu, International Director at Regeneration International has found one solution: “When uncertain if practices are regenerative or degenerative, we use the descriptions of organic principles of health, ecology, fairness and care.” The legions of well-meaning regen promoters in media, politics, markets, conferences and on LinkedIn must distinguish between regen definitions, or risk promoting degenerative practices and actors. They must take responsibility for some order in their own house, or risk that “regenerative” goes the way of “sustainable.”
  • Pablo Tittonell’s research team has documented in Regenerative Agriculture: Agroecology without Politics?” that most regenerative definitions and solutions in research represent more a tweeking of conventional agriculture, not transformative change, and particularly not transformative in the social dimension.
  • The hype and corporate capture of the regenerative narrative is very provocative — enraging actually — but my advice to organic and agroecological actors is, don’t get mad, get busy. We must strengthen our organisations work to position organic and agroecology in new policies, research, media, farm communities and markets. We must strengthen our work with our farmers to continually improve organics and agroecological practices to make them more regenerative. The best defense is a good offense.

Organic has given unique access to markets and livelihoods.

  • We must also remember that only organic has built a global infrastructure of standards inspections and certifications that give a real guarantee for consumers and protect producers interests and livelihoods. We spent decades building this unique platform. There are downsides to the inflexibility of standards across contexts, and the bar on organics needs to be lifted higher on climate, soil, fairness and biodiversity, as our best private certifiers do. It has also been necessary for the organic movement and allies to create grower group certifications more affordable and accessible to small holder farmers, and to create more accessible non-third-party certifications like Participatory Guarantee Systems, that have spread to 77 countries. But organic standards are also a very strong card, not quickly built by regenerative or agroecological actors. While the agroecology movement and many organic actors have a strong focus on building resilient local and territorial markets, as an alternative to global commodity markets, the organic movement provides both lessons and strong platforms benefitting farmers, processors and consumers. As one tool, among others. Or as John Garcia Ulloa, Biovision Foundation, put it: “Organic agriculture will undoubtedly play a crucial role in creating markets for agroecology. There are numerous collective principles of agroecology—such as participation, co-creation of knowledge and governance —that may be challenging to market or incorporate into standards for individual farmers.”

Agroecology inspires on fairness, justice and food sovereignty.

  • The agroecology movement excels more in work with fairness, justice and food sovereignty. The organic movement is a part of this work, and northern organic actors need only look to organic leadership in the global south for inspiration. From East Africa to Mexico to the Philippines and India, and so much in-between, organic producers and organisations are protecting seed rights, fair pricing, accessible markets and smallholder influence on policies, practices, land rights and food culture. Many organic companies lead in work for fairness and equity. But we need more companies like Tradin Organic that increased the prices on smallholder products across a nation, Sierra Leone, just by paying a fair price to their partners. The principle of fairness is not built into organic minimum standards today. We have to fix this.  And the organic movement and organisations, including IFOAM Organics International must redouble our work in solidarity with small-holder farmers and marginalized groups, as in the global fight for farmers rights to land and local, indigenous non-GMO seed, and our fight for grower group certifications, and continuing support for equal market access for smallholders and cooperatives in the global south. Together with our allies in the agroecology movement, that show so much leadership for social justice and equity.

Outcomes matter, also for payment for ecoservices, but show caution

  • The regenerative focus on documenting outcomes—as opposed to documentation for organic practices that research shows give outcomes—reminds us of the importance of having facts on impact for soil, biodiversity, equity that our farmers and companies can communicate. And not just from organic research, that already documents benefits of organic for all these areas, but from the specific farms where products come from. Some organic companies are excellent at this. There were two warning flags though: that we don’t want small producers or all supply chain actors burdened by a costly measurement regime that raises food costs and makes markets less accessible for small holders. A second was to remember the long experience with corporate dominance in decisions about what is measured, and how.
  • Documentation of outcomes is also central to some approaches to badly needed payment for eco-services, though others focus on subsidies or credits for practices. Some seem to think that these technical solutions will redistribute risks and rewards in the food value chain, helping farmers. It can help. No question. But we do need to remember one thing: this is not just a technical issue, it’s a political issue about power, influence over decisions and distribution of resources. Actors benefitting economically from current power relations in the supply chain will fight to maintain the status quo. A technical fix wont be enough. The lack of this social dimension is why Pablo has called (most) regenerative agriculture “agroecology without politics.”

BIOFACH 2024 was massive commercial success. But also a rich harvest on a whole range of issues and conversations that we need to have in the organic movement. The need to stand together with our inspiring allies in agroecology and (serious) regenerative agriculture is one of my clear takeaways!

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