When regenerative agriculture becomes a selling point, what exactly are consumers and restaurant companies buying?
The term has gained cachet in the past five years, and agricultural businesspeople are hashing out metrics to make it meaningful.
We spoke to leading participants about their intentions, their reality, and the press to unite the two.
Food companies have started to incorporate regenerative agriculture into their sustainability strategies and supply chains - it’s an important buzzword today for companies, but how are they defining it? And what are they doing to support farmers in the transition? I spoke with Daily Harvest - the plant-based meal delivery service - and Dr. Bronner’s, two companies that are leading their own regenerative agriculture projects, about how they’re derisking this transition for the farmers they source from.
Regenerative agriculture is a defining term for sustainability in our food system - while there is no one true definition of regenerative agriculture, the concept has been around for centuries, taking root in Indigenous growing practices. Regenerative approaches can bolster soil health and watershed health. They can also add to climate mitigation and potentially tie into regulatory or commercial incentives for a more sustainable diet. Techniques include crop management - such as the use of cover crops to reduce soil erosion or crop rotation to support soil microbe diversity - and soil management such as conservation tillage which minimizes the plowing of lands and reduces soil disturbance.
You might ask how regenerative agriculture is different from organically grown products – in the United States, organic is a specific labeling term federally regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An organic product has been grown with strict specifications laid out and protected by the National Organic Program, ensuring the integrity of the USDA Organic Seal that you’re likely familiar with. However, countries around the world have their own organic certification programs - such as the EU organic logo or the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) - and not all are equivalent. Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, is not currently regulated and does not have a standardized definition.There are some verification and certification systems in place, which we’ll explore later. The term “regenerative” generally focuses more on the health of the overall ecosystem, rather than the USDA Organic Seal which regulates specific practices and substances.
Some companies are partnering with nonprofit conveners and certifiers. The Savory Institute is one such partner, convening producers and brands around regenerative agriculture and more holistic land management practices.
In a sea of regenerative programs, the Savory Institute’s Land to Market sets itself apart with the Ecological Outcome Verification™ (EOV) framework – an outcomes-based approach with short-term and long-term indicators over practice-based benchmarks. Land to Market connects growers and brands, serving as a verification program for products in the marketplace that have been grown using regenerative practices. The program was developed to let the land speak for itself by showing improvement through both leading and lagging functions such as plant diversity and water holding capacity. There are now thousands of products that have been Land to Market verified, with over 80 brand partnerships with companies such as Epic Provisions, Eileen Fisher and Applegate. Members are supported in telling their story of regenerative agriculture, and verified products are labeled with the official Land to Market seal. The Savory Institute is also partnering with Daily Harvest to bring holistic practices to the California almond industry.
Daily Harvest is approaching regenerative agriculture through the lens of organic, building off the established, regulated marketplace and momentum to help their farmers transition to regenerative agriculture practices. Organic is a regulated term defined by USDA. The company sees organic certification as the first step towards being regenerative - with that, they also understand that the biggest barrier for growers is the three-year transition period to becoming organic. That transition period represents the time from when growers begin to move from conventional growing practices to organic - after three years, they can sell their certified products at an organic price premium. Daily Harvest is giving growers in that space three-year contracts as well as markets and price premiums for the transitional crop. It's focusing on that transitional organic process as a stepping stone toward a regenerative organic food system.
Daily Harvest’s Almond Project creates an alliance with the Savory Institute and a group of stakeholders - including Simple Mills and Cappello’s - to bring regenerative practices to almonds in the Central Valley of California. This project takes into account the need for a farmer-centric, crop-specific approach to regenerative agriculture. Practices include animal integration, multi-species cover crops, and increased compost. These companies are working with Treehouse California Almonds, their shared almond supplier, to lead soil health research on 160 acres of farmland. Over five years, the Project will focus on measuring outcomes around the ecosystem and soil health of regenerative practices – comparing those side by side with neighboring conventional baselines.
“We need industry partnership; we need pre-competitive collaboration,” says Rebecca Gildiner, Director of Sustainability at Daily Harvest, of the Almond Project. “Sustainability cannot be competitive. We are all sharing suppliers, we are all sharing supply – rising tides truly lift all boats. The industry has to understand our responsibility in investing, where historically investments have disproportionately focused on yields with a sole focus of feeding the world. We know this has been critical in the past but it has overlooked other forms of capital, other than financial. We need to look towards experimenting in holistic systems that have other outcomes than yield and profit - instead of saying organic can’t feed the world, we have to invest in figuring out how organic can feed the world because it’s critical.”
The team is hoping for improvements in ecological indicators, but managers aren't being prescriptive about what success means – overall, they’re just looking to learn and gain an understanding of what feasible, scalable regenerative practices look like on the ground. Rebecca Gildiner shared: “it’s important we understand the economic impacts of this project for growers and what it looks like for their operation, because nothing is going to be regenerative if it’s more of a burden on farmers.”
Cappello’s will then test the adaptation of Land to Market’s Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) framework to almonds. EOV has never been used on almonds before, and the trial will potentially support a verification program for almond growers.
As a values-driven company, Dr. Bronner’s has been incorporating organic and fair trade principles into its soap supply chain since the early 2000s. Their team has been focusing on organic certification as a point of entry for their farmers - it’s the biggest challenge for farmers and it provides a financial boost through the organic price premium. Dr. Bronner’s also pays their farmers a fair price, covering production costs as well as providing a margin for farmers, in addition to a 10% Fair Trade Premium fund which goes towards community development projects.
Dr. Bronner’s was also a founding member of the Regenerative Organic Certification ® (ROC). Established in 2017, ROC uses the USDA Certified Organic standard, or an international equivalent, as a baseline and then adds additional regenerative benchmarks. Ryan Zinn, Dr. Bronner’s Regenerative Projects Manager, discussed how this partnership came to be. “In 2015, as we started to look at the intersection of climate change, agriculture, and rural poverty, the buzzword ‘regeneration’ started popping up. We teamed up with other stakeholders like the Rodale Institute and Patagonia to create our own definition of regenerative organic using organic certification as the baseline, but including fair trade and animal welfare elements.”
The Regenerative Organic Certification has three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. It’s different from the organic standard that you’re familiar with through those pillars, promoting practices that (1) increase soil organic matter and sequester carbon, (2) improve animal welfare, and (3) provide economic stability and fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers. To date, ROC has 82 licensed brands and certified 129 farms across 721,844 acres.
Daily Harvest is also working to challenge the narrative around regenerative agriculture by working with the American Farmland Trust and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) to invite historically underserved farmers to the table. They’re hosting community-based outdoor events that include financial and technical support for farmers looking to make the organic transition. This partnership is looking to improve access and agency for those farmers in regenerative farming, focusing on education and language-specific resources for the Central Valley and Central Coast of California. The company recognizes the need to make agriculture more equitable and invest in communities that have historically lacked access to services and resources.
Companies must also consider the regional, crop-specific nuances that are required for implementing regenerative agriculture practices. In a webinar leading up to March’s Regenerative Agriculture & Food Systems Summit, Jess Newman, Senior Director of Ag & Sustainability at McCain Foods described their strategy: “We’re sourcing potatoes in seven regions – what makes sense in one region is different in another. Within those regions, we’re amplifying proven practices, and putting money on the line to de-risk practices that aren’t proven. For example, while moving away from fumigation in the Pacific Northwest, we’re asking growers to trial new products, and [ready to mitigate] it might have a material risk to their financials. We’re putting resources on the line to get the agronomic and economic data on these practices."
Without an agreed definition or framework, regenerative agriculture is a difficult concept to explain to consumers. “We’re working towards making more consumers aware,” Jim Snyder, Chief Financial Officer at the Savory Institute shared. “Even if we aren’t distinctly defining regenerative agriculture, we’re talking about it. We’re letting people know with the Land to Market seal that there’s a difference between food products grown and raised well, and food products grown and raised destructively.”
With the potential burden of more administrative requirements from farmers, cross-company initiatives help ease some of that potentially redundant reporting. Currently, there are different reporting specifications company-by-company or through private certifications. Certifications are still largely in the early stage, but there is an almost overwhelming amount of programs attempting to bring regenerative agriculture to market. This article briefly highlights two of the certifications being used to measure and market regenerative agriculture – the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) and the Savory Institute’s Land to Market initiative. However, there are a multitude of other organizations supporting a regenerative approach and certification to farming, including Leading Harvest, A Greener World (AGW), Soil Carbon Initiative, and Regenified - to name just a few.
Ideally, no matter what certification is being used, regenerative agriculture will help the system move away from extractive practices to those that consider soil and human health. Bobby Gill, Communications Director at the Savory Institute said: “Regenerative agriculture is a common ground where folks can celebrate their shared ideals around what it means to have a good meal with reciprocity and relevance for the land. It’s a bipartisan issue that the world needs – people can have these conversations because both the consumer and the producer believe in this.”
The conversation around regenerative agriculture is ongoing, especially as companies continue to incentivize the adoption of these practices – PepsiCo just announced that it's investing more than $200M in regenerative agriculture in the U.S. Companies are learning from and growing with their farmers, and ultimately working towards a transition to a more sustainable, resilient system that can harmonize with nature.
As that conversation continues, be sure to look out for some additional reporting from the Network coming out of March’s Regenerative Agriculture & Food Systems Summit.