The Definition of Regenerative Agriculture and How it Relates to Organic Agriculture

As “regenerative” becomes a buzzword to qualify just about everything these days (agriculture, finance, policy, medicine, business, etc.) there has been a clamor to define the term in each of these sectors. I sometimes joke that everyone with a warm and fuzzy feeling in their heart is now self-proclaiming that their thing is regenerative. We can tell you how I define it, and how we consider the definition for our work in regenerative agriculture with our services to the marketplace via Land to Market. 

Land to Market’s definition of regenerative agriculture and grazing

Regenerative is synonymous with “net positive.” For our purposes here, with agriculture, and our entity’s specific focus on grasslands and grazers, we narrow that focus to be about net positivity related to the environment. If someone is going to say that the environment has improved positively, we believe they need to measure that change to make such a claim. This is why we utilize the scientific protocol Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV), developed by the Savory Institute. It’s like an MRV (measure report verify) protocol for environmental health, not just GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. EOV measures an aggregate of ecosystem performance, looking at all the variables together, rather than focusing on single variables in a vacuum — such as just measuring water by itself, carbon sequestration, soil health, or biodiversity. Instead, looking at them altogether and tracking the overall ecosystem function we can get a much better assessment of what is happening. You can think of these different variables, not as silos like they are often treated in sustainability accounting, but rather as multiple windows into the same room. Together they become a voice for the land that grows our food and fibers.

To recap:

  • Regenerative is about net positive change
  • We are talking about the environment
  • Such claims need to be measured and outcome-based
  • We measure an aggregate of ecosystem services rather than looking at single variables

What others are saying about the definition of regenerative agriculture:

World Economic Forum Definition of Regenerative Agriculture

Savory Institute’s Definition of Regenerative Agriculture

Michigan State University Center for Regenerative Agriculture

California State University Chico Center for Regenerative Agriculture

How society will achieve these regenerative results:

Anyone with any chops in the regenerative space is talking about a new global focus on soil health. This is fantastic! The world is finally paying attention to the soil. How does soil get healthy though? There are a number of principles, but if you had to boil it down to only one thing it would be to maximize photosynthesis. If we are talking about net positivity, where does that extra energy come from to create a positive delta? The law of entropy, aka the second law of thermodynamics, tells us that things inherently get worse — not better — unless outside energy is provided. So where does regenerative agriculture, or nature for that matter, get the extra energy to make the environment better? The answer is the sun, and through the power of photosynthesis, plants can take that energy, which comes from outside our natural system, to combine carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, with water in the soil, to form carbohydrates. This fuels life in the soil and, more broadly, on this planet. So, we want as much photosynthesis as possible. In that process, we create healthy soils.

And how do we maximize photosynthesis? It depends, but the key is that it is all about management (or you might be more familiar with the term “stewardship”). The deeper down the rabbit hole a person goes on this adventure, the more one realizes that the tactics utilized to achieve regenerative outcomes vary not only across a land brittleness scale (from arid deserts to permanently humid jungles), but also these tactics vary from neighbor to neighbor. The context of each operation varies enough that it goes beyond just geography. Once you truly embrace the complexity inherent in stewarding a natural ecosystem, while growing something for human benefit, you realize that the complexity runs deep, and no standard recipe is going to get you there. Embracing such a formulaic outlook is, instead, likely to run this movement backward not forwards.

If you are looking for a list of regenerative practices or “carbon gold stars,” as we sometimes jokingly refer to them, we highly recommend that you read the following blog post, “There are no regenerative practices.”

Creating regenerative results takes an ongoing intentionality and commitment to optimizing management. There is no list of silver-bullet practices that work for everyone and across ecosystems. There are no shortcuts and no thresholds to be reached, but rather it is a journey of testing, collecting feedback, and optimizing towards what works. The strategy changes every year with all of the dynamic changes that are inherent in agriculture. Long before founding the Savory Institute, Allan Savory's work started with his work to develop a decision-making framework that helps producers navigate this complexity. That framework is called Holistic Management and it is used widely in the world of regenerative agriculture. 

My farm is better than my neighbors — buy from me!

Regenerative agriculture holds within it great hope for the future. I’ve seen it in my own personal life in more ways than I can account for. However, my fear in this movement as a whole is that the rhetoric will devolve into a place where producers are pitted against each other and one is saying they are better than the other and therefore as the superior producer, they are regenerative. This spectrum-based approach has many inherent flaws and dangers in it. Think about all the current energy being put into contrasting “conventional” vs. “progressive” producers. Where does that really get us? Seriously, if we are in great need of change on this planet, how does creating a small tribe of heroes and putting a circle around them and a large tribe of villains and putting a circle around them really help? 

Regenerative must and can only be about improvement in one’s own journey and the landscapes someone stewards. Like must be compared to like and the best way to do that is to track the journey of one landscape over time. Every land steward and every landscape has the potential for improvement. This also means there is an onramp for literally everyone, from the most attuned and seasoned stewards to those just beginning their journey. Each one can continue to improve and thus contribute to the greater good. 

Organic agriculture’s relationship with regenerative outcomes

I’ll come right out and say that organic agriculture should not be a precursor or substitute claim for regenerative results. That being said, I give huge props to the organic movement and all that it stands for. Organic spent decades paving the way for other elevated claims. What it stands for is incredibly important and still imminently relevant. The heroes in that movement are true pioneers; they helped cultivate a world of choice and the idea of a food democracy for consumers. People can choose foods that were grown without prohibited chemicals being applied to the actual foodstuffs themselves or the soil. This matches many people’s values, and that’s a good thing!

Organic agriculture aims to ensure that chemicals, which could be dangerous to human health or the environment, are not utilized in production methods. While the merit of this has been established, it does nothing to inherently improve the land. Of all the fantastic movements out there from Organic, Non-GMO, Grassfed certifications, Animal Welfare, etc. none of them were actually a voice for the land. While they still have tremendous value, they do not speak to land health and ongoing improvement. Land to Market was created to be a voice for the land in the marketplace, carrying all the way from the farmers to the consumers. To demonstrate to the world that we can grow things in a way that actually mimics nature and improves the land. For livestock sectors specifically, our entity was created to show that there was a critical mass of livestock agrarians around the world who are doing things right and healing vast swaths of the earth. That story was getting lost in the anti-livestock zeitgeist of the day. 

Organic takes a step forward to make sure that lands are not further harmed by chemical usage and that humans have a potentially lower risk of harm due to ingested chemicals. It does not demonstrate land health improvement. 

Some would say that organic should be a precursor to regenerative. This is an understandable thought process. However, there is a democratic and journey-based approach to the regenerative movement which is being embraced widely by producers. Many farmers that might be turned off by the concept of organic, maybe because they feel politically misaligned with it, or they detest the idea of “tools being taken out of their toolbox,” are very open to the idea of an outcome-based approach. They feel comfortable letting the data speak for itself. The democracy of the data and the outcomes will naturally drive producers towards processes that improve life not detract from it. The “cide” in insecticide, fungicide, biocide means “to kill.” Does this mean that a producer cannot use glyphosate on their driveway to kill dandelions and get regenerative results? Such an application would be unlikely to show up with any significance in the data. However, you cannot continually improve your land if you poison it. This journey-based approach of continual improvement is likely to achieve a similar result of fewer chemical inputs used over time. Any significant impact will most certainly show up in the data. 

Additionally, there is a sentiment that organic has not served the livestock industry well. The organic standard was set up to focus on plants, which don’t move or migrate. The livestock supply chains move animals across vast landscapes made up of a quilt of different ownership structures. This often involves leased land, rented land, public land, and owned land. Sometimes these animals cross state and country lines during the animal’s life. Sometimes this is chasing feed and avoiding weather, much like the migratory patterns of wild animals. Other times it is chasing economic imbalances to try to get better prices. Either way, it is a complex supply chain, even before anything has been harvested. Some would say that the way organic is structured makes this provenance challenge difficult for producers. However, at the same time, feedlots are allowed in organic, and many feel that doesn’t align with consumer values. This creates frustration for many ranchers and livestock farmers. 

Land to Market’s view of organic agriculture

Regardless of any potential frustrations, the organic movement has done a great deal of good for this world. We applaud the countless individuals who have fought tirelessly to make that happen! We actively recommend producers participate in both programs and as people, most of our staff are values-aligned with both programs. We also frequently get inquiries from crop growers that come our way and we typically send them to the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) which has its own approach to weaving organic and regenerative concepts together. 

What about 100% grass-fed and grass-finished?

The same question could be asked of grass-fed. Are 100% grass-fed and finished ruminants inherently regenerative? The answer is resoundingly no. You can overgraze the heck out of the land while feeding nothing but grass. In fact before World War II, grass-fed and organic were the de facto norm, and tremendous damage was done to landscapes. However, 100% grass-fed ruminants have been shown in studies to have increased nutrient density, better fat profiles, and other benefits. Certified Grassfed programs are wonderful and like organic, they align with many consumer values. A number of the team members who founded the Savory Institute and those involved in the creation of Land to Market were also ranchers, certified both organic and grass-fed. To be abundantly clear, these are not initiatives that we are at odds with. 

What does everyone get from investing in regenerative agriculture?

What is the benefit of promoting a world that shares the aim to produce food and fibers in a way that makes the environment better, that works with nature instead of against her? Countless resources can be found on this subject, but we’ll leave our readers what we think of as the greatest hits album. 

  • Reduction, mitigation, and possible reversion of climate change impact
  • More water availability and cleaner water
  • Better food security and availability
  • Improved rural economies
  • Reduced impact of natural disasters and potentially fewer of them (droughts, floods and fires)
  • Thriving populations in tune with their supporting environment