This event was hosted by TABLE and WWF on 11 January 2024 and took the format of a panel discussion with:
Dr Tara Garnett (director of TABLE);
Matthew Ryan (Nestlé);
Melissa D. Ho (WWF-US);
Sara Farley (The Rockefeller Foundation);
Jyoti Fernandes (Landworkers' Alliance).
A decade ago, few people had heard of the term “regenerative agriculture”, let alone used it to describe their work. But over recent years, the concept has become increasingly popular amongst food systems actors. Once the purview of farmers and conservationists, regenerative agriculture has recently gained interest from food corporations and big business.
It seems regenerative can now be used to describe a dizzyingly broad range of practices and visions for agriculture and food systems. Is it possible to pin down the different definitions and find commonalities or clear distinctions? Can regenerative agriculture be meaningfully adopted and practised by major food corporations, or are the goals and practices shaping corporate food systems diametrically opposed to the ambitions of regeneration?
A Pool of Meanings
On 11th January, in the first of two events, TABLE posed these questions to four stakeholders from across the corporate, agriculture and charitable sectors: Matthew Ryan (Nestlé UK & Ireland), Melissa Ho (WWF-US), Sara Farley (The Rockefeller Foundation), and Jyoti Fernandes (Landworkers’ Alliance). For Ryan, opening the discussion from Nestlé’s viewpoint, increased interest in regenerative agriculture stemmed from a recognition that “business as usual” is no longer an option. Given the stress placed on the earth’s ecosystems by conventional agriculture, he suggested that regenerative agriculture offered a positive path forward. What does Nestlé actually mean by the term, though? According to Ryan, regenerative agriculture “aims to restore farmland and the ecosystem it depends on and thrives in.” Beyond that, it’s a relatively loose idea, which takes “a middle ground” by drawing from more defined approaches, including “conservation agriculture”, “precision farming”, and “agroecological principles.”
Ho, speaking for the WWF, pointed out that when it comes to food and farming, this isn’t just about mitigating the impacts of agriculture on the earth’s ecosystems, but also providing ways to cope with the instability in food systems created by climate change and ecosystem degradation. She argued that regenerative food systems have “potential to be part of the solution” if a “holistic” definition is used, which includes a broad set of social goals including impacts on human health, livelihoods and economic impacts, as well as the concerns of “planetary health, climate, and nature.” The WWF defines regenerative agriculture “very broadly in that regard.” For Ho, regenerative agriculture welcomes corporate engagement, but sees change as starting “on the front lines” with producers.
How restrictive is the WWF’s conception of regenerative agriculture? “It’s a journey we’re on” says Ho, using a metaphor that’s common to these discussions. Anyone that subscribes to agroecology, nature-positive frameworks or nature-based frameworks is part of that movement, but what’s needed now is to “create the shared vision of what good should look like.”
These somewhat expansive definitions of regenerative agriculture, which conceive of it in terms of a pathway to be joined, are not incompatible with corporate engagement. But for Jyoti Fernandes, policy lead for the UK-based Landworkers’ Alliance and a smallholder farmer, “corporate control of the food system” is creating conditions that undermine the pursuit of agroecology, where that includes the wellbeing and livelihood of farmers, access to nutritious and affordable food, and equitable access to land. Fernandes suggests that there is a competition for resources globally that doesn’t make sense for a good food system. For the Landworkers’ Alliance and other members of the global peasant movement, La Via Campesina, the aim is to protect and augment the “agroecological food webs” of production, distribution, and consumption. “We juxtapose that against the industrial food chain”, which is enormously resource intensive. It doesn’t make sense to talk about transformation of the corporate model, when it “feeds into a system” that competes with and undermines small scale farmers and indigenous peoples’ access to the resources of food production.
If these three interpretations seem to operate at different degrees of depth and robustness, a good analogy for that was offered up by Farley, speaking for The Rockefeller Foundation. We might think of the current state of the debate in terms of a swimming pool, with a shallow and deep end. At the shallow end, definitions of regenerative agriculture entail “a greater focus on soil and carbon sequestration”. In the middle, definitions involve a “broader suite of environmental outcomes”, including building back biodiversity loss and water retention in the landscape. At the deep end, “deep regeneration” largely means agroecology, and it means putting concerns of equity, and the wellbeing of farmers and communities at the centre of the discussion.
A complementary way to parse these three tiers is suggested in TABLE’s explainer on the topic: the first is about regenerative agriculture as a set of practices; the second understands regenerative agriculture in terms of a set of outcomes; and the last sees regenerative agriculture as a mindset which holds at its centre the potential “co-vitality of humans and nature.”
For Rockefeller, the aim is to get to this deep end, but the challenge is that farmers “by and large are being asked to figure this out” without support from governments or corporations. Ryan, meanwhile, is content to agree that Nestlé is “jumping into the shallow end with our floats on.” But while this neat image of a clean blue pool suggests a silky, frictionless transition from shallow to deep, Ho is sceptical that corporations’ heavily processed, globalised products can be meaningfully integrated into the “journey” of regeneration. “When we holistically define” a good food system to include human health, “food security should be food inherently delivering nutrition.” If global funding and resources are going to corporations in the shallow end who are still producing unhealthy ultra-processed products, rather than to essential foods, that is a poor use of finite resources. What’s more, adds Ho, many ultra-processed foods produced from just a handful of key crops are feeding into a “dependency on monocultures” that are “driving down” the world’s agrobiodiversity. In other words, perhaps it’s not possible for global corporates to thrash about in the shallow end without losing water from the middle and deep ends of the pool.
The distribution of resources is undoubtedly one of the key challenges for regeneration, says Farley. Rockefeller and other philanthropic organisations have calculated that a transition to regenerative agriculture would cost between 250 and 430 billion dollars a year for at least a decade. That may seem like a shocking number, but more than 650 billion dollars a year already go to food and agriculture subsidies. For Farley, this is a “perverse incentive” structure that entrenches conventional agriculture, where it could be repurposed to fund the regenerative transition.
Regeneration and the Politics of Knowledge
While the discussion came back several times to this question of the politics of resource distribution, the debate over regenerative agriculture is also a question of the politics of knowledge: whose definition of regenerative agriculture is taken seriously, who gets to decide what counts as evidence or proof, and who gets recognition and funding for their research?
For Fernandes, the most important experimental research is happening with peasant farmers. They are the “best innovators on the planet”, working with over 2 million varieties of seeds. Meanwhile, the industrial food system, “which gets most of the research and development money”, focuses on just 137 crops, with almost half of the research budget going to maize alone. What’s needed instead is systematic and strategic support for grassroots open source research to enable ongoing work and the dissemination of important knowledge.
Farley, meanwhile, took the view that there needs to be an “agenda of radical inclusion” on discussions around food systems, and that the aim should be to create “the broad table that we’ve never created before to think about food systems transformation.” Ryan, meanwhile, pointed out that Nestlé’s work increasingly recognises the value of bringing diverse actors to the table, and of incorporating farmer knowledge and demands into discussions. “We aren’t going to get anywhere if we are prescribing”, he said, suggesting that decisions need to be made in conversation with multiple stakeholders rather than taking a top-down approach. The corporation’s Landscape Enterprise Networks (LENS) attempts to do just that, brings together a wide range of businesses and farmers operating in a specific landscape to develop a coherent set of environmental demands and requirements on both sides.
While there is an increasingly widespread recognition that top-down knowledge and decision making isn’t a viable way forward, the question remains whether bringing a greater diversity of agents and expertise to the table amounts to a genuine ceding of power and control. Fresh from the discussions at COP28, Fernandes suggested that these multi stakeholder discussions operate as “an unlevel playing field” that serve to benefit the reputations and agendas of the most powerful actors. In loudly celebrating major food corporations’ social responsibility programmes, “the greenwash shines so bright” that it obscures the fact that the same corporations are actively “dismantling” existing sustainable food systems. Competition for carbon markets is now aggravating these problems, she added, since there’s now “a lot of competition” for land on which to plant trees, while organisations aren’t taking meaningful measures to reduce their emissions.
With time running out on the discussion, there were still many questions to discuss and explore further. Are the current debates over regenerative agriculture actually operating within the same swimming pool of ideas and hopes, or does this apparent common language mask deeper and more intractable differences? If corporations are welcomed into this space, does that push others out, or is it a sign of a genuine shift in the agenda? How do we engage with the challenge of corporate greenwashing in this space? Can ultra-processed foods be meaningfully located within a framework of regenerative agriculture? And finally, can there be any such thing as a “shared vision” amongst such different food system actors? What, if any, are the minimum basic principles of regenerative agriculture upon which everyone might agree?
All these questions and more remain open for the second part of the discussion on 7th February.
Event summarised by Hester van Hensbergen. This is TABLE's account of the event and any commentary included is our own and does not imply endorsement by the panellists participating in it.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of resources mentioned during the event and referenced by the panelists during pre-event planning:
- Explainer: What is regenerative agriculture? (TABLE)
- Explainer: What is ultra-processed food? (TABLE) (Summary version)
- Event: Can nature-based solutions deliver on their promise? (TABLE)
- Explainer: What is agroecology? (TABLE) (Summary version)
- Blog: The promises of regenerative agriculture: How lessons from the past bring words of warning (TABLE)
- Report: Farming with Biodiversity (WWF)
- Perspectives Paper: The Role of Regenerative Agriculture to Drive Food Systems Transformation (WWF)
- Op-Ed: Diving into the Deep End of Regenerative Agriculture (Sara Farley, The Rockefeller Foundation)
- Zero-Draft Outcomes Framework (Regen10)
- The Politics of Knowledge: Understanding the Evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways (Global Alliance for the Future of Food)
- Tool for Agroecology Performance Evaluation, TAPE (FAO)
‘Regenerative Agriculture’ is a concept now commonly referred to in discussions about food system transformation. Along with the farmers and agronomists who have been contributing to the regenerative movement for some time, large multinational agribusinesses, politicians, and food marketeers are now also deploying its language. Their arrival is potentially changing what it means to practise regenerative agriculture, with greater emphasis being placed on measurement, accreditation and marketing, and less on its credentials as a farmer-led movement organised around the redistribution of power in the food system. Whilst some welcome this ‘broad church’ approach, others are worried that regenerative agriculture will be co-opted by corporate interests, with its fundamental principles diluted.
This ‘broad church’ approach to regenerative agriculture raises the possibility (for some) of doing away with definitions altogether. Indeed, the lack of a clear definition of regenerative agriculture may be the very thing that has catalysed such a diversity of ideas as to how food production systems might be redesigned.
But the arrival of large commercial actors in the regenerative space raises questions as to whether more politically radical goals, such as the revitalisation of relations between farmers and buyers, will remain part of the regenerative model into the future.
Some proponents of regenerative agriculture, particularly farmers, are suspicious about the utilisation of the regenerative term by large agri-businesses, and wary about what will happen to aspects of the regenerative model that are less amenable to corporate dilution, accreditation and greenwash. These aspects include the importance of farmer-led knowledge networks, attentiveness to context and site-specificity and the prioritising of processes and mindsets rather than on more simple and measurable outcomes, such as tonnes of carbon stored in the soil.
Large corporate interests are not necessarily uninterested in these social and political aspects of the regenerative project. Although in their nascency, the regenerative strategies these companies are developing engage with the importance of farmer-led innovation, peer-to-peer learning, and the need to employ context-relevant practices. In the main, though, corporate versions of regenerative agriculture tend to offer a relatively status quo political vision for the future of food, with the dynamics between consumer, producer, distributor and processor largely unchanged.
Join TABLE for a two-part event with panellists from different sectors (the regenerative agriculture movement, civil society, industry).
Part 1 discussion (11 January, 4-5:30pm GMT):
- Definitions of regenerative agriculture.
- Compatibility with corporate agendas in the food system.
- Policies that could support credible commitment to regenerative agriculture.
Part 2 debate (7 February, 4-5:30pm GMT):
- A continuation of the previous event to explore:
- Takeaways from Part 1.
- Principles of regenerative agriculture.
- The conditions for credible corporate engagement in regenerative agriculture.
Matthew Ryan is Regeneration Lead for Nestlé UK & Ireland. Matt is responsible for delivering Nestlé's regenerative agricultural commitments in the UK & Ireland, with a specific focus on the dairy and cereals supply chains. Matt has been with Nestlé for 7 years, and in previous roles oversaw water resources management and initiated a number of collaborative water stewardship initiatives across the UK. Prior to Nestlé, Matt spent 10 years in environmental consulting working for clients in Australia and in the UK across a number of sectors including water, agriculture, mining and energy. Matt currently sits on a number of advisory boards and working groups for UK nature restoration and regenerative agriculture programmes.
Melissa D. Ho, senior vice president for Freshwater and Food at WWF-US, leads an integrated team working on place-based and market-based initiatives that aim to protect freshwater resources, conserve critical landscapes, and strengthen regenerative, resilient food systems. Melissa has over 20 years of experience as a scientist, policy advisor, and development professional and takes a system’s approach to address the two biggest threats to nature and climate: agriculture and infrastructure. Throughout her career, Melissa has leveraged a keen focus on the intersection of water and agriculture, and the connections to health, energy, and development. She has worked at the landscape level, with large-scale irrigation systems, agricultural value chain development, and community-based water resource management, as well as at the household level driving water technology adoption through the private sector and addressing gender inequity and child malnutrition through nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions. In 2021, Melissa was appointed to the National Academies Climate Security Roundtable. She currently serves on the board of several domestic and international organizations. She has a PhD in plant physiology from the Pennsylvania State University, an MSc in soil science (plant-water relations) from the University of California, Davis, and a BSc in environmental systems from Cornell University.
Sara Farley leads the global portfolio for The Rockefeller Foundation’s food team, leading such signature initiatives as the Food Systems Vision Prize. In this capacity she is driving the Foundation’s inaugural regenerative/agroecological food systems strategy and its big bet on food+climate in addition to leading the diet quality portfolio, expanding the good food purchasing portfolio, and scaling the true cost accounting work globally with the aim of shifting the diet quality of 500 million underserved people by 2030. Previously, Sara co-founded the Global Knowledge Initiative, which she led for a decade, nurturing it from a concept to an organization designated as one of the "Top 100 Social Innovations for the next century.” Sara graduated with honors in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University’s School of Engineering where she also earned a Masters degree in International Policy Studies. Following her time at Stanford, Sara did post-graduate study in Technology Policy and Management at the Universidad de Buenos Aires on a Rotary International Ambassadorial Fellowship. Sara’s list of publications includes more than 70 monographs, studies, and papers.
Jyoti Fernandes is an agroecological smallholder farmer with a micro-diary based in Dorset. The farm is part of a local smallholders’ cooperative that shares processing facilities and markets the products of the members’ smallholdings collectively. She coordinates the Policy, Lobbying and Campaigning work of the Landworkers' Alliance and is a co-founder. She is also a spokesperson for the global small-scale farmers coalition La Via Campesina, which represents over 200m people in more than 180 countries.
Chair: Dr Tara Garnett, Director of TABLE