Sustainable Vs. Regenerative

When Words Matter…& When They Don’t

When it comes to farming, “regenerative” is having a bit of a moment. For example, Cargill wants to help farmers convert 10 million acres of row crop farmland to “regenerative practices,” and General Mills has said it is committed to advancing “regenerative agriculture practices” on a million acres of farmland by 2030.

There are plenty of questions around whether these and other initiatives, which will supposedly focus on helping farmers adopt such practices as no-till, cover cropping, and diverse rotations, are just so much corporate greenwashing. But this is also a prime example of how the term “regenerative” is gaining traction. These days, the media is full of stories of how farmers are using innovative ways to regenerate the land’s natural processes, thus reducing reliance on practices that harm the very elements we rely on to produce food — soil, water, the carbon cycle.

This isn’t just a brainchild of a savvy marketing department — “regenerative” is now part of the agricultural lexicon. In fact, many farmers interested in a more ecologically-based approach say they aren’t satisfied with the status quo connotation of its predecessor: “sustainable.” “I have no interest in just sustaining this farm. I want to regenerate it,” farmer Kaleb Anderson recently told me while standing in a field where his cattle were rotationally grazing a cocktail mix of cover crops in southeastern Minnesota's Goodhue County. Hannah Bernhardt, a pasture-based meat producer in Pine County who uses social media to promote her product, finds that when she uses the term “regenerative,” her posts trend up — a sign this word resonates not just with farmers and PR departments.

This has spawned a bit of a debate over which term — “sustainable” or “regenerative” — better describes innovative, environmentally-friendly farming systems. It turns out this is similar to a debate Dana Jackson was in the midst of over four decades ago. Dana co-founded the Land Institute, which has been a Kansas-based eco-farming mecca since 1976. Dana later served on the Land Stewardship Project's board of directors and worked for the organization for a quarter-century, serving as LSP's associate director, among other things. Throughout her career, she has written and spoke frequently about ways to advance a more sustainable form of agriculture.

Her involvement in discussing what was truly sustainable and the best way to make it part of our food and farming system started in the 1970s, when Jackson and others were casting about for a term that described a “permanent” agriculture, rather than one based on short-term mining of resources. Some eco-farming pioneers favored the term “regenerative.” However, others argued that “sustainable” offered a broader definition of the type of system we should be striving for: support of the land, as well as people and rural communities.

“We were talking systemic agriculture,” she recalled recently during an LSP Ear to the Ground podcast interview. “We weren’t just focused on systems of soil regeneration.”

Eventually, the term “sustainable” won out, mostly because it was already loose on the culture. Since then, the term has been a driver behind innumerable NGOs and government programs. We now have the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, as well as the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Indeed, part of LSP's mission is to "foster an ethic of stewardship for farmland, to promote sustainable agriculture, and to develop healthy communities." We define sustainable agriculture as a system that is "ecologically sound, socially just, financially viable, and humane."

Now, “regenerative” is back, and its resurgence is being spawned by farmers, rather than academics or environmental advocates. I first heard the term used by soil health pioneer Gabe Brown while visiting his North Dakota farm in 2012. In fact, one often sees the word mentioned in connection with particular soil building practices, which could narrow its ability to be applied to the big picture view of a type of farming that, again, does not undermine the very elements it relies on, including people. A big picture, holistic approach is needed, especially now that the pandemic has revealed how our conventional food and farm system undermines everything from soil health to the safety of meatpacking laborers.

But there are signs the concept of “regenerative” is broadening. The Minnesota-based Regenerative Agriculture Foundation puts it this way: “…any practice that makes the land, community and bottom-line healthier year after year is regenerative.” Also, if someone is focused on building the health of the soil, that’s not exactly a reductionist approach. Living soil produces healthy land and healthy food, which supports healthy communities. That’s pretty big picture. And if non-farmers seeking a clean Minnesota River, carbon sequestration, and viable economies support soil-building systems with their food dollar and through policy changes, then that’s sustainable.

Precise, technically correct definitions aren’t always a prerequisite for spawning positive change — words that fire the imagination are important too. When I hear a farmer using the term “regenerative” to describe a practice or system, I detect a special spark. Partly that’s because regenerating something hints at unearthing life, activity, health — that’s exciting. As conservation icon Aldo Leopold wrote decades ago: “The most important characteristic of an organism is that capacity for eternal self-renewal known as health.”

So what to do when agribusiness and food giants co-opt the word? Demand proof that the practices being touted are truly producing regenerative, sustainable results — for land and people. And that means, through public policy and the marketplace, supporting the very people who must make it a reality on the ground, day-in and day-out.

In the end it may not be so much what word we use, but who uses it. As Dana Jackson says, “Maybe that’s one of the ways regenerative has the advantage now in that it’s being spread by and among the right people to make changes — the farmers.”

Brian DeVore, author of Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic, is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.