Agriculture is the world’s largest industry and an immense emitter of greenhouse gases. While the evolving alternative — regenerative agriculture — mitigates the industry’s negative environmental impact, it lacks a legal and regulatory definition.
Regenerative agriculture is commonly described as a collection of practices that mitigate the impact of climate change and sustain natural habitats. It emphasizes ecosystem health through increased carbon sequestration and improved water quality, soil health and natural habitats.
Despite this, only 51 percent of research articles that reference regenerative agriculture define it, according to a review published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. And although 84 percent of practitioner organizations also define the term, when it is defined its meaning varies drastically. The lack of global consensus poses a challenge to advancing these practices and measuring the impact for growers, policymakers and researchers.
Protecting biodiversity and sustaining natural habitats is no easy task. The practices under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture require study, a trial-and-test method and, ideally, documentation — all of which pilot projects provide.
As the regenerative agriculture market grows, its challenges grow, too. Consumers’ have limited knowledge on best practices. And there is limited scientific understanding of some of its concepts such as carbon reduction and the potential of cover crops. Other challenges include production cost, resource cost and the high demand for low-cost goods.
Pilot projects are the best initial step in understanding and expanding regenerative agriculture practices to overcome these challenges. By creating standardization and communication, the projects help consumers understand and support the system. These projects help solidify successful practices and metrics to consider, provide insight to growing specific foods, and foster important partnerships between governments and companies. As definitions and results are solidified, more industry players can work together to overcome costs of regenerative agriculture and encourage its adoption.
Global interest in regenerative agriculture is growing — particularly in the private sector — as numerous companies engage with its practices in different ways. General Mills pledged to expand regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. And groups like the Regenerative Organic Alliance have established certificates for regenerative agriculture. While all engagement with this concept is positive, pilot projects in particular hold tremendous opportunities to advance the practice.
Regenerative agriculture pilot projects require resources, financial support, and a solid relationship between growers and project leaders.
Caitlin Birkholz, regenerative agriculture pillar lead at Kind Snacks, explained what is lacking in the regenerative agriculture industry and its pilot projects during an in-person tour of the Kind Almonds Acres Initiative plot. The company is working with one of its top almond suppliers, Ofi, to test six innovative agriculture practices across six plots within a 500-acre space in Fresno, California.
Similar projects often face challenges when growers aren’t included, Birkholz told reporters at the Fresno plot last month. "Something that is incredibly important when designing a regenerative agriculture project is to get close to the grower,” she said. “The grower is your most important asset. They know everything.”
Omitting growers from pilot projects often limits their ability to scale, Birkholz said. “A pilot can be really great. You can be really excited about a pilot. But if you don’t include the grower and the local community, it’s really hard to get those practices to be adopted by growers around the region.”
No location or environment is the same. These projects develop the location and growing-specific knowledge critical for regenerative agricultural practices. And align with broader industry interests and goals. All of which requires transparency, innovation in supply chains and relationship-building.
In addition to commitments and research, this industry requires testing. It is time for leaders to deliver.
Image credit: Zeno Group
Editor's Note: Travel and accommodations to California’s Central Valley were provided by Kind Snacks. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.
Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.