Decades of industrial agriculture have caused environmental and social damage across the globe. Soils have deteriorated and plant and animal species are disappearing. Landscapes are degraded and small-scale farmers are struggling. It’s little wonder we’re looking for more sustainable and just ways of growing food and fibre. Regenerative agriculture is one alternative creating a lot of buzz, especially in rich, industrially developed countries.
The term “regenerative agriculture” was coined in the 1970s. It’s generally understood to mean farming that improves, rather than degrades, landscape and ecological processes such as water, nutrient and carbon cycles. Today, regenerative agriculture is promoted strongly by multinational food companies, advocacy groups and some parts of the farming community. And the Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground features celebrity activists promoting the regenerative agriculture movement. But as our new research shows, regenerative agriculture may not be the transformation our global food system needs.
Farming must change
About 20-40 per cent of the global land area is degraded. Agriculture caused 80 per cent of global deforestation in recent decades and comprises 70 per cent of freshwater use. It is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss on land and contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Global corporations such as Nestlé, PepsiCo, Cargill and Bayer dominate the food system. Some 70 per cent of the global agrochemicals market is owned by just four companies and 90 per cent of global grain trade is dominated by four businesses. This gives these corporations immense power. Many small-scale farmers struggle to compete in global markets – especially those in poorer, less developed countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In an effort to keep up, these farmers also often go into debt to buy chemicals and expensive machinery to boost production.What’s regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is proposed as a more sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture. It can include practices such as:
Agroecology: a different path
We also found that regenerative agriculture is threatening to marginalise another promising sustainable farming movement: agroecology. Agroecology combines agronomy (agricultural science) and ecology, and also seeks to address injustice and inequity in food systems. The movement is associated with the world’s largest smallholder farmer organisation, La Via Campesina, and has been endorsed by the United Nations. Agroecology advocates for indigenous knowledge and land rights, and support for small-scale farmers. It seeks to challenge neoliberalism, corporate dominance, and globalisation of food systems.
Some researchers question if agroecology alone can produce enough food for a growing global population. But 80 per cent of the world’s food, in value terms, is produced by small family farms. And globally, we already grow enough food to feed ten billion people. The problem is how that food is distributed and wasted, and how much is made into ultra-processed foods and other products such as bio-fuels.
Agroecology brings many benefits to farmers and communities. An agroecology project in Chololo village in Tanzania, for example, saw the number of households eating three meals per day rise from 29 per cent to 62 per cent. Average household income increased by 18 per cent. The average period of food shortage was shortened by 62 per cent and agricultural yields increased by up to 70 per cent. But the origins of the agroecology movement in the Global South, and its resistance to corporatisation, mean it is often marginalised.
At events such as the UN Food Systems Summit, for example, corporate stakeholders guide policy decisions while vulnerable farmers can feel sidelined. Despite regenerative agriculture’s popularity and its focus on sustainable food production, it fails to tackle systemic social and political issues. As a result, the movement may perpetuate business-as-usual in the food system, rather than transform it.