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UN Food Systems Summit Independent Dialogue: Mainstreaming regenerative agriculture
Executive summary

20th Jul 2021

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On the 30th of June 2021, 77 experts and stakeholders from the food supply chain gathered to debate on the concept of regenerative agriculture and its implementation. The conversation revolved on its definition and scope, its measurements, and the means to its expansion. Co-organized by the Forum for the Future of Agriculture, the main findings of the discussions were officially submitted to the UN Food Systems Summit.

Findings

Currently, there is no precise definition for regenerative agriculture that is recognized and approved by the entire food chain, academia, or public authorities. As a concept, regenerative agriculture focuses on how to ‘restore and enhance the capacity of soil health and biodiversity’. Regenerative agricultural practices look at the positive impact on the natural assets, as well as the social and economic dimensions of agriculture.

Understanding the baseline from which the farmer can start applying regenerative practices is crucial to measuring progress. Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to farming that considers the biophysical environment of the soil, but also the broader efficiency of land use. It is looking at multiple ranges of public goods production, and involves practices looking at soil protecting and regenerating systems, biodiversity-friendly operations, integration of better water management systems, restoring soil life, and more. As knowledge about regenerative agriculture continues to grow, farmers and the value chain are learning that practices must be flexible to take into consideration the region-specific, and climate-specific context of the land. Only with a strong legislative framework, orchestrated efforts upstream and downstream of the food value chain will farmers be able to adapt and change practices. But if the legislators, buyers, and processors don’t recognize the need for change, it will fail just like past attempts to implement widely nature-friendly agricultural systems.

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There was a large consensus on the need for a common language among all stakeholders of the food system to agree on terminology and to avoid greenwashing. One clear finding is that regenerative agriculture happens at local/regional level. Trying to set strict, rigid standards for larger scales can only fail, due to the complexity and variety of systems at scale. Further, farmers need to be placed at the center of the food systems, by listening to their needs and supporting them with proper advisory systems that would come from independent bodies. The latter seems to be a key trigger to support the transition towards sustainable practices at scale.

Possible solutions could include organizing independent payable grassroots advice and developing new tools to help farmers to understand the impact of their practices on climate, environment, and health. By ensuring long-term relationships among the food chain actors, this builds trust and gives the farming community the long-term security they need to be able to be economically viable. Most importantly, regenerative agriculture needs to be easy to understand for farmers and lower levels of administrative burden by building the reporting and data collection systems into the existing ones rather than creating new reporting grids. This would help them to communicate their work and raise public awareness while transferring their knowledge; it would accelerate the consumers’ education, motivate them to make better choices, provided the food distributors reflect the farmers’ efforts and processors equalize prices.

The major current challenge is socio-economic. How can we integrate these practices, while continuing the business and be profitable? Current processed food sourced from Regenerative farms are mostly premium products; the challenge for many processing companies is to make those products mainstream. To do so, costs of production need to be reflected and somehow shared among the value chain in order to secure farmers in this transition.

Hence, local systems need to change holistically if it is to be mainstreamed. Trying to set strict, rigid standards for larger scales can only fail, due to systems’ complexity and variety.

Recommendations

Data collection and centralization are at the center of the success of implementing Regenerative agriculture. One way would be in establishing European, National, and Regional food Councils that can be a centralized body for advising all and creating protocols to guide food systems transitions including data measurement and certification. Also, building coalitions around specific outcomes objectives such as resolving the many certification schemes in harmonizing requirements, outcomes, or moving toward healthier diets would support knowledge exchange and education of stakeholders, and would allow stronger communication campaigns being picked up by the various bodies engaged in the process.

Step up the dissemination of expertise, both information, advice, and best practices through the creation of Communities of Practice. Lots of knowledge has been built up and introduced to farmers, but processors, retailers, and consumers must be educated as well. Public authorities could create an investment fund for communication and awareness-raising.

Public and private collaboration should be more strongly supported and reinforced; this should become a backbone in organizing farmers in communities of practices, promoting the ambassador role of first movers. Other actors of the food value chain would also benefit from closer collaboration in public-private partnerships. This would help to close the gaps and misinterpretations of today’s farming systems.

Subsidy schemes, farmers’ incentives (price premiums), sustainability outcome (carbon) markets, and differential taxation systems could mitigate true transition costs and pricing; products produced by nature should be less taxed than processed ones. Further, regenerative agricultural practices could be used as the backbone of carbon farming standards delivering carbon certificates to buyers and processors, as an indicator to show applied practices’ impact.

The evolution of farmers’ profession over the past forty years calls for a crucial adaptation of their training; redefining the focus of already-existing public-private training systems would enable farmers to progress on sustainable practices. Agronomic schools and universities should systematically integrate those practices in their educational programs, for the next generation of agronomists, farmers, advisors to be ready to solve today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

There is a need to speed up radical rethinking of our food policy framework, towards an integrated food system policy that is able to rebalance forces. Redefining consumption from owning to using; redefining production from mass sales to providing efficient functionalities; redefining core economic incentives such as taxation and subsidies. It would also mean making integrated wellbeing, including natural capital accounting, the objective across all policies; measuring sustainability with a lifecycle perspective, and looking at innovation in categories of economic ecosystems that provide societal functions, rather than in categories of production sectors.

Areas of Divergence

Given the diversity of the participants, the emergence of a number of areas of divergence was to be expected during this dialogue on regenerative agriculture. These mainly focused on issues related to the benefits of regenerative agriculture, how to measure these, who captures or shares in the value, and how to ensure that the grower is both at the center of the movement and is fully supported during the transition process. All of these elements reveal how complex it is to make regenerative agriculture mainstream and scalable.

Benefits

One of the key areas of divergence lay in the definition and evaluation of the benefits. Some participants felt that the primary benefit of making regenerative agriculture mainstream and scalable lies in the acceleration of low environmental impact farming with a specific focus on the greater adoption of biological inputs and processes like precision farming.

Others saw the primary benefit in regenerative agriculture as supporting a systemic transformation based on the principles of circular economy but also encompassing carbon farming or the recycling of raw materials.

In addition, there was a view that the benefit actually lays in the creation of increased value for regenerative agriculture production techniques which could be shared across the food chain although, not surprisingly, there was a question about how much would filter back to the primary producer – the farmer.

Finally, there was a question about whether regenerative agricultural practices should solely focus on improvements in soil health when monitoring progress, or whether it should be broadened to embrace biodiversity, livestock, and sustainable water use.

Measurement

The divergence on benefit was subsequently reflected in the discussion about what and how to measure outcomes both to understand the impact and drive continuous improvement. Most of the criteria mentioned in order to measure progress were oriented towards environmental measurement and even social impacts but it was impossible to ignore the economic dimension given the important role it plays in incentivizing and sustaining behavior change.

It is clear that building a consensus on the key benefits to include in the scope of regenerative agriculture and an effective and holistic criterion for measuring progress will be essential if the goals of mainstreaming and scaling are to be achieved.

Finally, there was limited or no agreement on whether measurement should be exclusively outcome- based or also include action-based approaches.

Transition and the role of the farmer

The question of benefit and what and how to measure progress was clearly linked to the role of the farmer. There were, at times, passionate exchanges between participants who felt that growers were being asked to respond to the latest protocol from public and private sector actors who may not fully understand what works at the farm level. And, inevitably, this catalyzed a further discussion about the extent to which the farmer (bearing all the transition risk over an extended period of time) would be rewarded for making and sustaining changes by public or private actors (who may only be interested in one or two aspects of the benefits matrix).

This clearly showed up in relation to soil protection where some participants argued that an exclusive focus in one area could lead to a negative impact on others (e.g. yield).

There was a very strong view, articulated by some participants, that mainstreaming and scaling regenerative agriculture needs to start with the farmer at the center of this. Several participants argued that only lip service is being paid to this and that the change or innovation model still serves the interests of the established agri-businesses.

Although none of these areas of divergence are insurmountable, they do seem to touch on the fundamentals of how to mainstream and scale regenerative agriculture.

There is a need to speed up radical rethinking of our food policy framework, towards an integrated food system policy that is able to rebalance forces. Redefining consumption from owning to using; redefining production from mass sales to providing efficient functionalities; redefining core economic incentives such as taxation and subsidies. It would also mean integrating well-being across all policies; measuring sustainability with a lifecycle perspective and looking at innovation in categories of economic ecosystems that provide societal functions, rather than in categories of production sectors.

To watch videos from the dialogues click here.
To read the full summary of each session click here.

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