Indefinite sustainability

2019-11-04 ☼ AgricultureRegenerative agricultureDesignStrategySystems

Over the weekend, I was out in deep Cornwall for a conference about regenerative agriculture. The term is more and more in use, but the meaning is fuzzy. It seems to be associated with an equally fuzzy term— sustainability”—and also with carbon sequestration. The panel I chaired was intended to put some parameters around regenerative agriculture by contrasting several different specific approaches to regenerative agriculture to highlight areas of convergence and diversity. It consisted of two market gardeners (one also farming heritage wheat), a soil specialist, and a pasture specialist.

For me, there was a clear take-away from that panel discussion—and the others on both days of the conference. Regenerative agriculture is a way of thinking, not a specific approach or set of approaches. This way of thinking can be identified by goals which clearly contrast with conventional agriculture.

In contrast with conventional agriculture, regenerative approaches:

  1. Explicitly aim to be net non-extractive from the ecosystem. This means that the ecosystem is left with more in it at the end of the agricultural activity than before. (Net extraction is the implicit norm in conventional systems.)
  2. Explicitly aim for low or zero material inputs. This means gradually reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and water through a design process. (Conventional agriculture depends on continual and heavy inputs of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and water.)

The non-extractive and zero-input goals of regenerative methods mean that they can aim for indefinite sustainability—the ability to continue farming using those methods. And the boundary around sustainability” is expanding to include not only the ecosystem (the local and broader systems of soil, air, and water) but also social and personal dynamics. This means developing business models that allow agriculturists to pay themselves enough to continue farming and make it structurally viable for intergenerational agricultural transitions.

Some observations about specific approaches to regenerative agriculture that deserve much more consideration:

  1. Market access matters: The specific approach taken needs to be a mindful response to who the customers are and how the product gets to them.
  2. Climate and geology are essential: The specific approach must be appropriate to the land and climate to have the potential to be regenerative.
  3. Growers must do what they love: The specific approach cannot be personally sustainable unless the grower is personally invested in it.
  4. Business models must be diverse: Specific approaches that are diverse (anything from diverse plantings to multiple micro-businesses count) can weather unpredictability in the climate and in the market.
  5. Value-added products can help: Specific approaches that add a premium to what is produced are more likely to be economically sustainable.