How might we preserve the meaning of “regenerative agriculture”?

Thoughts on two approaches: certifying practices vs. measuring outcomes.

A sudex cover crop after being rolled.

Many terms have been used over the years to describe different approaches to farm management and the environmental impact of farming practices. “Regenerative agriculture” is the latest of these terms to become popular but, without clear guardrails around its use, the term is at risk of being green-washed. The principles of regenerative agriculture are a big step in the right direction, so how might we preserve the meaning of this term and use it to hold farms and food companies accountable to their environmental and social impact?

Two paths are being considered: (1) certifying that a farm follows a playbook of regenerative practices or (2) measuring the progress that a farm makes towards regenerative outcomes.

This is the approach that has been used to define most other terms. To use the “USDA Organic” label, for example, a farm must provide management records and be inspected by an accredited certifier to show that the farm’s practices are in compliance with the National Organic Program standards. Certifications give a farm’s customers the comfort of knowing that the farm’s practices meet some environmental threshold.

That’s the catch with these certifications: they define a minimum level that farms must achieve. The organic certification, for example, has been criticized for overlooking soil health. A certified organic farm may not use any inorganic inputs, but they may rely heavily on tillage to control weed pressure on the farm. It’s challenging for farms to explain the extent to which they exceed a certification’s minimum requirements.

The Rodale Institute has developed a certification that defines how a farm may operate in compliance with regenerative principles. This certification builds upon the organic certification and requires farms to use regenerative practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and minimal soil disturbance. Unlike other certifications, this one offers three different tiers that acknowledge that farms may be at different points in their regenerative journey.

The divisions between these tiers are rather rough, however. For example, a bronze certification requires year-round vegetative cover on 25–50% of cultivated land. Silver requires that number to be 50–75%. This starts to beg the question: how much better is a silver or a gold certification?[1] This is where a different approach comes in; one that places the focus instead on measuring the outcomes of regenerative practices.

Soil carbon has received the lion’s share of attention when it comes to regenerative outcomes. Companies like Indigo and Nori have launched carbon marketplaces that pay farms for sequestering carbon in their soil [2]. To participate, a farm must register with the marketplace, provide documentation about their practices, and have their soil tested to establish a carbon baseline.

Rather than telling farms which practices to adopt, these carbon marketplaces give farms a scorecard and the freedom to innovate to learn what works best on their land. Carbon is just one potential metric to track. Our neighbors at Hawthorne Valley Farm have invited their community to participate in a biodiversity study that records the different species observed on their farm. Other potential outcomes to measure include the nutrient density in the food we produce and farms’ water consumption or conservation (especially in regions like the western U.S. where water is increasingly scarce).

There are valid critiques of this approach, of course. The measurement and observation required to give a farm different scores across carbon, water, biodiversity, nutrient density and other potential outcomes is too expensive for most farms to afford. There’s also some risk that we place too much focus on just one number, encouraging farms to game that number at the expense of other desired outcomes. Lastly, it’s difficult to normalize the data across different soil types and operation types.

Like most things, the best solution here may be some sort of hybrid.

Over the years, our customers at Greig Farm have always asked if we are an organic farm. Without the certification, we’ve always had to say that we aren’t. If I have the opportunity to speak with these customers, I always try to tell them about how our farming practices have a positive environmental impact in different ways.

In conversations with customers, the simple answer will always be easiest. A certification establishes some baseline that helps farms say “yes, we’re doing the right thing.” I believe that it’s important to also hold farms accountable beyond these certifications. A framework to measure regenerative outcomes provides a more objective review of their impact.

Neither option is accessible to most farms today. The certification process requires significant investment to transition from conventional practices to organic, and further investment to transition to regenerative practices. The certification itself requires a lengthy application process and detailed records. Once certified, the accredited certifier then charges a small percentage of all accredited products sold, so the farm has to be able to charge a premium to justify that added cost. The sum of all of this time and investment to earn a certification prevents many farms from starting the process.

To measure carbon, the farm either has to pay tens of dollars for each soil sample (and multiple samples are required per acre to get started), or they have to work with one of the carbon marketplaces. These marketplaces charge several thousands of dollars to get started and typically only work with large (more than 1,000 acres) row crop operations.

Farms and brands instead use the “regenerative agriculture” term to rather loosely define activities that involve building soil health. To preserve the integrity of this term, we need to make either the certification or measurement process more accessible.

The USDA has an opportunity to play a role here. The only farms that are testing soil carbon today are the small minority that are participating in carbon marketplaces. To hold farms accountable to their regenerative claims, farms need to be able to access their soil carbon data. The USDA could subsidize the cost of soil carbon testing to make this data more accessible, in addition to expanding funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OOCSP) to help more farms overcome the financial barrier of conservation and certification activities.

This post was originally published on our farm’s blog. Greig Farm is a diversified family farm in New York’s Hudson Valley founded in 1942. Follow our farm on Instagram to keep up to date with our experiments in different farming practices.

[1] The Regenerative Organic Certification does require regular soil sampling and the farm’s GHG emissions and sequestrations are then estimated using a modeling tool (e.g. COMET- Farm Voluntary Carbon Reporting Tool). These measurements, however, do not seem to be a core piece of the Regenerative Organic Certification.

[2] These marketplaces have made claims that soil carbon sequestration has the potential to reverse climate change, but these claims have met plenty of skepticism.