Regenerative Agriculture: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Author’s Note: This article builds on Regenetarians Unite, my call-to-action for our industry that was published March 7, 2018 and helped lay out the vision and path to the formation of the Regenerative Organic Certified® standard that brings together the best of soil health, animal welfare, and fair labor & fair trade practices, into a single consumer facing standard.

Over the last couple of decades, we at Dr. Bronner’s have become students of regenerative agriculture in our quest to produce our raw materials in both an ecological and socially sustainable way, working with farming communities around the world. Along with our allies at Patagonia and Rodale, we helped design and launch the Regenerative Organic Certified® standard and have transitioned our certified organic and fair trade supply chains to comply with Regenerative Organic Certified standards. Regenerative farming takes the approach of farming in nature’s image, where ecosystems like forests regenerate without synthetic inputs.

For me, creating a better and ecologically sustainable world means that we must figure out how we can produce our food, fiber, and agricultural-based raw materials in a way that doesn’t destroy the Earth. Conventional industrial agriculture with its factory farms and synthetic fertilizer and pesticide-intensive supply chains of soy, corn, and alfalfa grown for feed, is a major driver of climate change as well as the current great extinction we are living through—the sixth extinction event in Earth’s history. In the case of our own major raw materials—coconut, palm, and olive oils mainly—other companies often source these ingredients from monoculture plantations where they are grown using huge amounts of synthetic fertility and pesticides, destroying virgin rainforests.

Regenerative organic agroforestry plot at Serendipalm

Truly Regenerative versus “Regen-washing”

I am a strong believer that we need to shift our dietary choices and agricultural practices to support truly regenerative farms and ranches. Adopting a plant based or plant forward diet, that reduces and chooses food only from regenerative organic farms and high animal welfare regenerative pasture based operations, is crucial for our planetary health.

The Regenerative Organic Certified standard was built with organic as a baseline. We wanted to lock down a strong definition for the term “regenerative” in agriculture—to mean farming without synthetic fertility and pesticide inputs, along with the adoption of a suite of regenerative farming practices [1]. A farmer or rancher can turbo-boost their soil biology, build their on-farm or ranch fertility to the point they no longer need to rely on synthetic nitrogen and other fertilizers, and increase natural pest resistance to eliminate dependence on synthetic pesticides. Regenerative farming and ranching sequesters atmospheric carbon into soils, building soil carbon, which in turn helps soils absorb and retain more water, making farms and ranches drought resilient. At global scale, regenerative agriculture can be a significant strategy to sequester excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and help mitigate climate change.

However, for “regenerative” farming and ranching to fulfill its promise, standards and stakeholders need to address off-farm feed and synthetic fertility inputs, just as much as on-farm practices. It doesn’t matter how great your soil carbon is on your ranch, if you rely on conventionally-grown feed that is stripping soils of carbon elsewhere, effectively transferring synthetic fertility from those feed farms via poop on pasture. Chickens and pigs can supplement their diets on pasture but are still reliant on just as much soy and corn as their factory farm counterparts. Many supposedly “regenerative” farmers still rely on synthetic nitrogen in significant part. Synthetic nitrogen is the single greatest greenhouse gas contributor to climate change in conventional agriculture. Focusing only on soil carbon on a given farm or ranch, without taking account of the GHG footprint and impact of off-farm fertility and feed inputs and how that feed was grown, creates a “regenerative” illusion that practiced at global scale would do little to nothing to shift the disaster of our current industrial agriculture on the planet. This “regen-washing” reminds me of the Great Leap forward in Maoist China, where party officials would have farmers transplant crops into fields right before communist leadership would visit, to give the illusion of productivity and yields that weren’t based in reality, weren’t generalizable, and led to a disastrous famine [2].

It’s crucial that those of us dedicated to making agriculture truly regenerative and preventing us from going off the climate change cliff, separate the “wheat from the chaff” in standards and certifications that make “regenerative” claims. We need to highlight those that not only focus on regenerative on-farm practices, but also focus on imported feed and fertility inputs.

While I’m biased in my opinion that Regenerative Organic Certified is the “one standard to rule them all,” we benefited greatly from our former board chair and recently deceased Paul Dolan’s deep biodynamic expertise. While Regenerative Organic Certified goes far beyond with its fair labor and animal welfare criteria, we respect biodynamic Demeter certification as the original regenerative certification, which treats a farm or ranch as a living organism or ecosystem, promoting on-farm feed and fertility flows, and disallowing off-farm synthetic fertility and pesticides, where any off-farm feed must itself be certified. Biodynamic certification is a great on-ramp to Regenerative Organic Certified.

Regenerative Organic farming at Serendipol

I’m also sensitive to “meeting farmers where they are” but then take them on a credible regenerative journey, and respect Gabe Brown and his team’s new “Regenefied” standard. In a sea of weak greenwashed standards and claims, their approach accounts for off-farm feed and synthetic inputs in a meaningful way, as well as focuses on regenerative practices on-farm. Regenified takes a five tier up to ten year approach, where a farmer or rancher must graduate to the next tier or lose their certification over time. And ideally they get to tier 5 in much less than ten years. There is a progressive requirement to reduce synthetic fertility and pesticide inputs, and use more and more on-farm feed, and any off-farm feed be itself increasingly Regenefied certified. But at tier 5 there’s still allowance for a “replacement” rate of synthetic fertility which is too bad, and it won’t be easy to track and verify declining annual amounts of synthetic inputs. Gabe himself has long since stopped using synthetic fertility and pesticide inputs on his own land, and he grows all his own feed, but is concerned that putting in a hard cliff at tier 5 will scare off farmer and ranchers.  He wants them to “discover for themselves” they can graduate and evolve to the kinds of higher integrity practices he has himself embraced. Regenefied does not have criteria addressing animal welfare or farm labor practices.

Recently the California Dept of Agriculture (CDFA) has been working to define regenerative agriculture. In this context, I had a good discussion with Gabe Brown, Rick Clark, and the Kiss the Ground team, about aligning on a span of time within which a “regenerative” farmer or rancher would need to graduate to no synthetic inputs. I consider Rick a living legend in our movement, along with Gabe. Rick has shown how a large integrated farm and ranch operation can get to regenerative organic  level with a no till approach on his 7,000 acres in Indiana. Rick’s example, his website, and “Farm Green” consulting service show that there is no excuse for any true “regenerative” standard to not require graduation off synthetic fertility and inputs at some point; Rick himself advises five to seven years is plenty of time. The Kiss the Ground team proposed that a definition we could potentially all align on as a movement would include language to the effect that:  “…as the regenerative and biological processes of life in the soil builds it reduces the need for synthetic inputs, allowing for their eventual elimination.” [3]

I appreciate this approach and hope it gets traction with other key stakeholders, including regulators who can implement an incremental requirement that over time results in eventual elimination of synthetic fertility and pesticide inputs, as otherwise  “regenerative” agriculture will continue to be co-opted by big ag-chemical and corporate farming interests, to mean adopting some regenerative practices while still blasting fields with herbicide and relying on huge amounts of synthetic fertility and conventionally grown off-farm animal feed. Just measuring carbon on a particular farm or ranch’s soil without taking account of the potentially massive off-farm feed and fertility inputs, with their huge GHG footprint, is regen greenwash and will not change the world for the better.

We need to “farm like the world depends on it,” and I celebrate and applaud all my fellow Regenerative Organic Certified stars—the farmers and the brands who are bringing their Regenerative Organic Certified products to market—thanks for setting the example and blazing the path!

[1] Regenerative practices include diverse smart crop rotations, dynamic ag-forestry planning and planting, keeping soil covered with “roots in the ground” as much as possible (not leaving fallow), utilizing nitrogen fixing cover crops to feed the soil, integrating ruminants and managing their grazing, composting and minimizing soil disturbance. And crucially, regenerative means minimizing and reducing synthetic fertility and pesticide inputs over time to zero. This is the “graduation test” of whether a farmer or rancher is truly farming and ranching in a regenerative way, versus cherry picking regenerative practices but still relying in significant part on synthetic fertility and pesticides.

[2] Another way of making the point, is at Dr. Bronner’s HQ, our primary product is liquid and bar soaps; what if we only made a big deal about all our sustainable ecological practices at our factory HQ (our “ranch”) making our soaps, but still bought in conventional raw agricultural materials (coconut, palm, olive and mint oils primarily) as feedstock for our soaps. And took no account of how those raw ag material feedstocks were grown or the condition of the soils? The rubber meets the road in our agricultural supply chains, the lion’s share of our impact in terms of land, people, and nature; similarly for farming and ranching operations, the nature and amount of off-farm “feedstock” and how that feed was grown in “supply chain” farms, along with the amount of synthetic fertility and pesticide inputs, makes or breaks their regenerative impact in the world.

[3] Speaking of Kiss the Ground, I very much enjoyed the recent film “Common Ground” (sequel to the excellent “Kiss the Ground” movie), that focuses on indigenous and African roots of regenerative agriculture, and features Gabe and Rick as modern regen superheroes. Josh and Rebecca Tickell, the directors and creators of the films, have put out a 100 million regen acre challenge, noting Regenerative Organic Certified, Savory’s Land to Market, and Regenefied as the high integrity regenerative certifications out there. Whole Foods Market is taking a similar approach with the same suite of standards defining “regenerative” products in their stores. My word of caution and advice to them and the larger movement, is that no other standard should be considered regenerative if it does not focus BOTH on on-farm regenerative practices, AS WELL AS off-farm feed, fertility, and pesticide inputs, reducing and eventually eliminating the latter and making sure any off-farm feed is itself regenerative certified. I personally count Biodynamic as also meeting this bar, and have huge respect for Savory / Land To Market’s groundbreaking approach with ruminants and land, but think they should do a better job closing the loop with off-farm feed for mono-gastric chickens and pigs on pasture, which most often comes from conventional farms.  Further, I believe Real Organic to be a good standard and a useful on ramp for operations to become Regenerative Organic Certified. Good organic farmers utilizing the best practices of organic are already regenerative, but it’s also true that too many big corporate organic farms engage in too much tillage, not enough cover cropping, and rely on bought-in factory farm manures for fertility (“input substitution”), versus truly building fertility on-farm through regenerative practices as they should.

Author Profile

David Bronner

David Bronner is Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) of Dr. Bronner’s, the grandson of company founder, Emanuel Bronner, and a fifth-generation soap maker. He is a dedicated vegan and enjoys surfing and dancing late into the night.

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