Scaling Up Regenerative Agriculture: a report by Kate Cacciatore
On 24th September 2022, the Business Alliance for Regenerative Agriculture was launched in the Netherlands by Eosta, Climate Farmers and a group of global change leaders. Kate Cacciatore, Head of Sustainability at FigBytes Inc, a Canadian company specialised in ESG data consulting, attended the summit and wrote an extensive and insightful report on it, which we include below.
Scaling Up Regenerative Agriculture: A New Business Alliance Leads the Way
On 24th September I attended the launch summit of the Business Alliance for Regenerative Agriculture (BARA) in the Netherlands, where a group of global change leaders in the agrifood business and ecosystem service markets came together to envision and co-create a transformational approach to scaling up regenerative agriculture. Recognizing the fundamental role agriculture plays in determining our planetary future – considering the tremendous potential it offers to sequester carbon, preserve water and biodiversity, and sustain and nourish human life – the group’s intention in coming together was to launch an initiative designed to co-create and prototype ways to incentivize and reward farmers for their ecosystem services and accelerate the shift to fully regenerative agricultural methods worldwide.
Over the course of the day, I was able to learn a great deal about this compelling and increasingly popular field of regenerative agriculture, the challenges faced by its proponents and the great opportunities that it offers at a time when a renewed sense of urgency within the global community is putting the spotlight on the need for nature-based solutions for the climate and for food security. As a non-specialist and relative newcomer to this very technical field, I set myself the objective of understanding the fundamental dynamics and tensions at play and sketching them out in broad strokes for the benefit of a wider audience of business leaders and sustainability practitioners.
From my perspective, the following overarching questions emerged through the course of the day, shaping the contours of the discussions in explicit and sometimes more subtle, implicit ways. Is there a common definition of and vision for regenerative agriculture that can embrace the diverse perspectives of the myriad actors in this space? How should this community see its relationship to mainstream industrial farming - which is dominated by the use of pesticides and invasive practices - and how should it engage (or not) with those actors? What are the underlying assumptions and mindset that have led us to the widescale degradation of farmland and nature generally, and how can this newly formed community and initiative help us shift to a new mindset based on principles of stewardship, interconnectedness and care for people and nature?
Before going any further, and without attempting to give a definition of regenerative agriculture, but just to get a sense of what we’re talking about here, think organic farming (no pesticides) + some combination of the following according to the specificities of the local context and farm activity: no tilling; planting of diverse species of plants and crops on the same land (sometimes referred to as agroforestry); presence and rotation of crops and livestock on the same farmland. For those who are interested, the acclaimed documentary, Kiss the Ground, narrated by the actor Woody Harrelson, offers some compelling examples of regenerative agriculture.
Setting the scene and defining the aspiration
It was a drizzly, grey Saturday as groups of participants tumbled out of taxis and filed into what looked at first glance to be a fruit & vegetable warehouse, and which turned out to also be the headquarters of our host, Eosta, a pioneer in the global distribution of organic (working towards being regenerative) fresh produce. A real wood fire crackled gently in the entrance of the elegantly furnished office space, which combined a multitude of diverse spaces for working, meeting and congregating into what felt more like a cosy mountain retreat than a place of business.
Eosta CEO, Volkert Engelsman, began the day’s proceedings by cheerfully welcoming the 80+ participants – now seated on the comfortably-designed steps of the sweeping oak staircase and on chairs arranged in the open-plan working area – to this exotic location with glorious Dutch weather at the intersection of the A12 and the A20. Getting straight to the point of why we were meeting, Volkert told us that the crises we are currently experiencing in the world are a mirror of our own disconnection from ourselves. Today, profit is achieved to the detriment of people and planet. The solutions we need lie in the wholeness of who we are and a holistic approach to the social, environmental, economic and spiritual dimensions of our human experience.
So, how can we redefine our indicators of success to achieve systems change with the purpose of being in service to people and planet? The momentum appears to be here now, he went on, to draw on the co-creative powers of a coalition of the willing in which we reward growers for their ecosystem services, not just their yield. To do this, we need a level playing field with the right incentives, paying attention not to reward the offenders. There is no point waiting for government, he said. We need pioneers, prototypers and thought leadership so that we can build this bridge at the same time as we are crossing it.
In a nutshell, Volkert explained, the new Business Alliance aims to build on organic agriculture and to go further by co-creating ideas and a community of practice for regenerative agriculture, exploring metrics, certification schemes and rewards. While there is the risk, he added, that large companies using GMOs and pesticides will hijack the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ to mean whatever best suits their business (for example, continuing to use harmful pesticides but avoiding tilling of soil), it is important for this community not to stay in its own green bubble. We have to find a way to open this up to scale. We want to move!
Setting the foundation for a shared vision & guiding principles
After this passionate speech, which clearly resonated with the audience, we were introduced to our co-hosts for the day, Ivo Degn and Johannes Ebeling from Climate Farmers, who explained how our interactions would be structured so that the outcome of our dialogue and collaboration would be, for starters, a charter and manifesto with which to launch the Alliance. The intention was also to identify clear, common themes which could be transformed into work streams that would dovetail with what participants are already working towards in their respective companies and organizations. While many participants were quietly wondering how on earth all of this would be possible with so many voices and perspectives in the room, we were introduced to Ilana Wetzler, whose masterful facilitation skills would soon work their magic and dispel any concerns.
We were then invited to engage in groups of two and three for a series of questions designed to get the creative juices flowing and to tease out our individual visions for regenerative agriculture, what we each felt we could contribute and the blind spots we might have. We were also invited to connect with our feelings as we engaged in these reflections and exchanges. Between each group discussion, participants were invited to share their answers with the full group, allowing a “vision of visions” and a mosaic of our different responses and sentiments to emerge and settle into a blueprint for a set of guiding principles.
Key words included sense of urgency, science-based, scalable, circular, profitable and outcome-driven, but also reconnection, holistic, context-specific, life-affirming, community-focused and farmer first/ human first. There were references to transparency, protecting and enhancing land-production capacity, to being inclusive and embracing difference as well as learning from each other and staying open to co-creative play and serendipity. The emotional soundtrack that emerged in the form of key words to accompany the more rational side of our brainstorming was composed of a range of different notes and tones: urgent, stress, nervous and powerlessness were balanced by hope, responsibility, healing, balance, whole, collaborative.
After a mid-morning coffee break, participants were divided into eight groups of ten and given the opportunity to perform a deeper dive into the principles that would guide the Alliance in its work. In the group I joined, we had to resist the temptation to talk about technical definitions of regenerative agriculture, but we soon had a steady flow of what felt like fundamental principles emerging through our dialogue. One of these was the importance of defining the vision of what we want rather than what we don’t want. For example, fertile soil vs. no pesticides, and effective water management vs. clearing up water pollution. Another was the notion of health, both in terms of the nutrient quality of the soil and its ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, as well as the health and resilience of the local communities who are stewards of the land, and of the customers who eat what it produces.
This led on to the importance of closing the awareness loop between food producers and food eaters by shortening value chains and generating loyalty through a more conscious approach to what we consume. We were also reminded of the gist of Albert Einstein’s words that "we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, and of the need to question our assumptions collectively and replace them with new ones when we realize they are outdated and no longer serve us.
A final plenary session before lunch to harvest the results of these deeper dives revealed many common principles mixed in with emerging themes and topics. We heard about the need to have an outcome-driven approach based on sound business principles and the importance of putting natural capital back on the balance sheet by integrating the true cost of farmers’ ecosystem services into a real consumer price, shared fairly with the farmer. There was strong emphasis on the need for sensitivity to local context, since there is no one-size-fits-all approach to regenerative agriculture, and the need to empower all actors to contribute to the transition. Compelling storytelling across the value chain and to the public would be key to achieving a critical mass of understanding and desire to make this shift, uniting the ‘head, heart and hands’, standing symbolically with our bare feet in the soil.
A musical interlude
Our break for lunch was the opportunity to listen to and learn from each other more informally as we dined on a wide selection of beautifully prepared salads, soups and sandwiches in the restaurant on the top floor. Amazingly, lunch was accompanied by classical music played live on a grand piano by a student of the local music conservatory. This was in fact a weekly practice, we were told, and Rachmaninov and Beethoven were frequently blasted over the loudspeakers into the warehouse for workers there to enjoy. It was another personalized feature of Eosta’s unique company culture that actively seeks to put humanity, nature and the arts firmly at the centre of its business.
Through the conversations I had, I learned about the complexities of growing and trading organic bananas and the challenges of achieving fair prices for growers due to the nature of global supply chains dominated by powerful market players and retailers. I also heard several people talking about the recent conference held by mainstream agriculture giants on the theme of regenerative agriculture, reinforcing the awareness of the tensions between big business interests that benefit from the status quo vs. those like this community seeking to bring about radical systemic change and nature-based solutions.
Self-organizing for regenerative action
After lunch, participants were invited to step forward if they had an idea for collective action on any of the major themes and topics that had emerged during the morning session. After a two-minute pitch for each proposal, the fifteen or so original ideas were reconfigured down into six groups, which promptly dispersed into different meeting rooms to discuss and come up with a common foundation for an active workstream.
The group that I joined was ‘Beyond Carbon Methodologies’, where the focus was on figuring out how to reliably measure the positive impact of regenerative agriculture practices that lead to increased soil quality, water retention and enhanced biodiversity. Transparent, practical, and scientifically proven methods of measurement are crucial, we heard, to enable payment of a fair price to farmers for ecosystem services. A key technical challenge here was what unit of measurement to use since both measurement by product and by farmland were important but each had their disadvantages. The solution could be to begin measurement in terms of farmland and then convert to a product view to enable companies further downstream to report on the positive impact of their products in an effective way.
The conversation also focused on the question of smart incentives that are tailored to the very context-specific nature of regenerative agriculture. If farmers receive subsidies for monoculture, they are much less likely to diversify their crops. It will be crucial, therefore, to engage policy makers in a way that harmonizes advocacy efforts. We heard again that the elephant in the room was the dominant use of pesticides. Someone pointed out that if you’re a farmer, it’s hard to improve when the system is against you. To get round this, it is important to design the outcome-driven parameters linked to regenerative good practices and outline the government policies needed to achieve them. A library of best practices and context-specific guidance would enable farmers to pick the practices that best suit their specific region and farming activity as they experiment and learn. Ultimately, the goal would be to develop a common framework based on the best available methodologies and farming practices so as to support farmers in their journey and scale the mindset shift from extractive to regenerative.
Another key area of work that the group identified was the unification of data infrastructures. There are a lot of actors in the regenerative space and much has already been done to come up with relevant indicators. Collaborative efforts are needed, therefore, to match effective methodologies and related indicators to emerging definitions and standards.
The self-conducting orchestra plays its first tune
As the various groups returned to the plenary staircase and began reporting back on their discussions, I had the distinct feeling that what we were witnessing and experiencing first-hand was the equivalent of the first jazz-style improvised creation of a self-conducting orchestra, a metaphor often used by those who experiment with ‘Teal’ or ‘self-managing’ methods of organic collaboration (see Frédéric Laloux’s bestselling book, Reinventing Organizations for more on that).
The first to report back was the ‘Super-spreaders’ group, which painted a vision (based on work that is already underway) of 1000s of model farms across Europe inspiring and mobilizing grass-roots action, cross-fertilized by honey-bee ambassadors in the form of students trained on the farms. The ‘Farm in Ethiopia’ group jumped in next and proposed to use a real farm in Eosta’s value chain in Africa to develop a prototype blueprint for how to apply best practice, measure impact and scale up, co-designing and implementing the project with local actors like NGOs (representing biodiversity) and government (supporting food security). Picking up the super-spreader theme, the Ethiopia Farm group acknowledged the importance of an ambassador-like figure to follow day-to-day progress and harvest key-learnings.
The ‘Transforming a Region’ group put the emphasis on experimenting with emerging best practices at the level of an entire region, creating a hospitality experience for consumers that connects them directly with regenerative farmers in a similar way to the Slow Food movement. It was suggested that this region-focused initiative (already underway in Germany, for example) could be a testbed for other work streams.
The ‘Consumer Awareness’ group went next and made the link with the theme of positive contagion, highlighting the importance of visual storytelling and filmmaking to focus the narrative on what this regenerative revolution will look and feel like, taking the lead from the ‘doomsday’ narrative, which is important to highlight the need for action, but can have a dampening effect on people’s morale and motivation to act. The objective of this work-stream would be to stimulate a mindset shift among consumers and inspire them to join in and make a difference through their own behaviour.
After the ‘Beyond Carbon Methodologies’ group had presented the fruit of our discussions, it was over to the ‘Trading Positive Externalities’ group to outline their proposed solutions for financial mechanisms to incentivize farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture. Their idea revolved around prototyping market solutions for packaging and trading positive externalities (i.e., the ecosystem benefits of regenerative farms like carbon sequestration, water retention and biodiversity) and coordinating advocacy efforts to enable smart policymaking in this direction. Clearly, to achieve this, it would be necessary to fulfil the “Beyond Carbon” group’s goal of harmonizing the measurement, validation and certification of positive impact at farm level.
Popping the cork on the launch of BARA
Throughout the day, our graceful facilitator, Ilana, had been playfully motivating us through each session with the promise of coffee, lunch, more coffee and, finally champagne to celebrate the de facto launch of this bridge-under-construction to a more sustainable future, the Business Alliance for Regenerative Agriculture. As Johannes, Ivo and Volkert whisked us nimbly through the emerging plans for next steps - including the drafting of a formal manifesto and the activation of the workstreams that attract a critical mass of collective leadership - the audience giggled as we heard multiple champagne corks popping behind the scenes, apparently as impatient as we were to be rewarded for our creative efforts.
As we thanked our generous hosts and toasted the collaborative leadership we had experienced together, there was a distinct feeling of appreciation and positive expectation in the room. We had given birth to something new and exciting, an open-source initiative that could now invite and embrace the innovation and contributions of other actors out there who share this vision and want to be part of the solution.
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