What you need to know about Regenerative Agriculture

This article was co-authored by Cato Koole (NewForesight), Eric Rahn (CIAT),
Dominique Gangneux (South Pole) & Samuel Vionnet (South Pole)

NewForesight, CIAT and South Pole have formed a unique coalition to support and accelerate the transition to Regenerative Agriculture. With complementary expertise and a solid track record in diverse disciplines, the consortium presents a critical look into Regenerative Agriculture and its potential for innovative and pragmatic investments towards more sustainable markets. This consortium started during a collaboration with IDH, and will continue to work with other partners and like-minded organizations to support them in the transition towards Regenerative Agriculture. This note presents insights the team distilled from its learning journey.

What are the 3 most interesting opportunities for adoption of Regenerative Agriculture in your value chains?

In the post-COVID era, it is essential to adopt better approaches to production and towards resilience. This is particularly imperative in agriculture, where there is increasing demand for food given the projections for growth population to 9.7 billion in 2050.[1] At present smallholders operate 12% of agricultural land, and average farm sizes are expected to decrease in Africa and Asia towards 2050.[2] Smallholders increasingly face challenges like droughts, infertile soils while struggling to profit from their farms.

Regenerative Agriculture is a holistic approach to agriculture that aims at restoring ecosystems to a healthy and resilient state by improving soil functions and management of agrobiodiversity whilst providing sufficient return to build up impact in different dimensions such as the economic dimension (by enhancing productivity and quality), social (by ensuring improved livelihoods to farmers because of the diversity and resilience), and environmental (by sequestering carbon and increasing biodiversity). Basically, it is the transition from a less diverse crop-landscape to a multifunctional landscape.

While regenerative agriculture in developed countries focuses mainly on increasing agrobiodiversity on farm level and decreasing external inputs through improved nutrient cycling, smallholder farmers in the tropics often already work with substantial crop, tree and livestock diversity on a relatively small area, yet face constrains of low yields and lack of biomass and nutrient availability. Transitions towards more regenerative practices in smallholder systems are often limited by resource endowments and the difficulties to identify relevant entry points to the heterogeneous farming system realities and navigate inherent trade-offs. Hence, the challenge remains in the adoption of regenerative agriculture at scale in smallholder driven value chains such as coffee, cocoa, spices, fruits, vegetables and other commodities produced in the global south.

Whatever the value chain you work with, there are three key aspects that you must consider when considering the adoption of Regenerative practices:

  • Profitability can match or exceed traditional farming. There is a very good long-term business case for transitioning to regenerative agriculture, however, only limited documented evidence is available so far: some of the ongoing trials in commodities such as cacao and coffee report great productivity impact after 3-6 years. However, to get there, the investment that is needed for the transition and the change in practices can be quite knowledge and labor intensive. Even though there might be mechanisms that can support the transition (e.g., carbon finance, other payment for ecosystem services), the business case needs to be clear for all the players in a value chain. This means that the market should recognize and incentivize it, and that starts by building the business case and tapping into other opportunities, such as branding, synergies, etc.
  • Regenerative agriculture is all about improvement and is applicable all farming systems. Regenerative agriculture is an outcome-based approach -this means it is not constrained to specific practices or prescriptive outputs. There are different pathways for transitioning towards a more regenerative state, depending on variables like the state of the soil, the farming practices, regional characteristics and type of crops and livestock under management. Also, the pathway towards regenerative agriculture must be into a stepwise approach, promoting affordability of adoption and would typically start with identifying soil related deficiencies limiting crop growth and adjusting inputs application to the needs of the crops. This is done in combination with the enhancement of the functional diversity (and circularity) in the farming system to increase the complementarity of ecosystem functions.
  • Knowing the farmers in your supply chain is key to successfully transitioning towards a regenerative business case. Depending on factors like the commodity, farming system, landscape and state of the soil, regenerative transition pathways can take time -think mid-term time horizons such as 3, 5 or more years. To enable the transition, you need highly committed, motivated (and entrepreneurial) farmers that can go through the regenerative trajectory successfully. A data driven approach is key to help you understand performance, loyalty and professionalism, and to create a segmentation strategy for a transition.

NewForesight, CIAT and South Pole have combined their strengths to better understand what regenerative agriculture means in different contexts, in particular the implications of transitioning towards regenerative agriculture for smallholders, private sector and other key actors in global value chains. We aim to support and accelerate learnings in this area for increased impact across the agricultural sector.

Contact Silvana Paniagua if you are interested in exploring what regenerative agriculture means for your value chains and how regenerative agriculture can help you deliver your sustainability goals.

[1] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Prospects, 2019

[2] Lowder et al., The Number, Size, and Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms,and Family Farms Worldwide, 2016

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