Regenerative confusion and the kaleidoscope of food

I went to an Exeter Food event at the university recently where Jake Fiennes spoke on ‘balancing food security and self-sufficiency for a better environment’. He shared examples of nature-friendly farming on the Holkham Estate, where he leads the conservation team. I met Jake when he was a supportive voice early in our regenerative transition at Deepdale Farm, and through his involvement in the North Norfolk Coastal Group of farmers.

The word salad of sustainable farming

Jake Fiennes stands in front of an audience speaking with a slide on a projector screen behind him showing a range of confusing terms used in farming and land management
Jake Fiennes at Exeter University

Jake referred to the ‘confusion of language’ around farming and land management: regenerative, conventional and a plethora of terms in between, known to most in farming and land management, a mystery to many others. Rewilding, agroecology, organic, agroecosystems, agroforestry. There are so many others.

All of those terms mean different things to different people, carry more or less baggage, overlap or in some cases contradict each other. These are names for approaches that are variously science, technical approach, set of rules or social movement. They influence farming and land management practice, often affecting local economies, communities, health, biodiversity and resilience against climate breakdown. Mention some and they can evoke strong emotions (rewilding is a prime example).

I first became aware of the word ‘regenerative’ in a farming context when I started work at Deepdale Farm and various farmers and landowners were enthusing about Gabe Brown’s book ‘Dirt to Soil’. In the book, Brown, a rancher in North Dakota, described his journey into regenerative agriculture following a series of disasters on his ranch. He offered five principles of soil health:

  1. Limited Disturbance – minimizing physical, chemical, and biological disturbances to soil promotes its structure and health.
  2. Soil Armour – keeping the soil covered with crops or crop residue protects it from erosion and helps retain moisture.
  3. Diversity – a variety of plant species promotes a diversity of soil organisms, which can enhance soil health and fertility.
  4. Living Roots – having living plants in the soil as much as possible through the year to provide food for soil organisms and keep the soil ecosystem active.
  5. Integrated Animal Management – incorporating animals into the farm system to mimic natural processes and cycles, improving nutrient cycling and soil fertility.

At Deepdale we were driven to conserve and recover soils after a wet winter led to flooding and erosion when we lost tonnes of topsoil from fields. We started off by using cover crops for the first time on the farm to stabilise easily eroded sandy soils, and moved on to reduce cultivations, diversify crops and to try grazing sheep. When we started we weren’t calling it regenerative, but the cap fitted, so we quickly wore it.

I can see why regenerative appeals as a concept, because beyond the basic soil health principles it opens the door to knowing your soils better and finding a way to farm that works in your context. One significant impact of the regenerative movement is that it has given farmers the power to take charge of their own practices and techniques, understanding their soils better and asking more questions. Many farmers over many years have been relegated to glorified tractor drivers, taking instructions from agronomists working for chemical companies in a system that emphasised yield above all other considerations.

Regenerative – vague, but catchy

Gabe Brown’s soil health principles are only one interpretation of what ‘regenerative’ means in farming, with the word in use since the 1970s, applied to organic and other farming methods. The word ‘regenerative’ is now liberally applied in farming and land management. Food processors are starting to use the word, such as McCain, who have made a commitment that 100% of their potato crop will involve regenerative agricultural practices by the end of the decade. Other major agribusinesses and retailers talk about ‘scaling regenerative’.

Regenerative agriculture has become all things to all people.

Bobby Gill, How do you define regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative is now used outside agriculture, from placemaking to fashion, design and leadership development. It has become an umbrella term for doing anything that repairs, renews, isn’t extractive or destructive, or just makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.

To paraphrase Father Ted Crilly, that’s the great thing about ‘regenerative’; it’s so vague and nobody really knows what it’s all about.

Proponents of agroecology suggest that regenerative agriculture isn’t a panacea for our food system, and organic bodies like the Soil Association point out the potential for regenerative agriculture to be used for greenwashing; it isn’t codified in the way that organic standards are, and if you’re farming regeneratively you may as well go one step further and be organic. Organic certification bodies appear perplexed that regenerative agriculture has seemingly gained greater traction in the zeigeist than organic, perhaps as it is unregulated, less restrictive, and allows farmers to keep tools like glyphosate in their back pocket.

Looking into the kaleidoscope

I’ve had many conversations about regenerative approaches as well as finding my own interpretation of the terms when I took the farm through organic conversion. I don’t know all of the different approaches intimately and I’m still learning. Amongst farmers, the different terms help to spark discussion of methods. They reflect the diversity of thought and approach. And like so much else in farming, how you define what you do can be very personal. There’s even space for those who describe what they do as good sustainable farming without any of the labels, thank you.

Visual evaluation of soil structure. I’m continuing my regenerative learning journey with a skills bootcamp run by the Apricot Centre.

Context plays a vital role in every aspect of farming. Your location, identity, soil type, climate, the type of crops you cultivate, the preferences of your community or customers, and your personal goals for your business all contribute to the equation. Approaches to farming can differ greatly between countries, counties, farms, and even individual fields. A farmer might practice no-till farming in one area while ploughing in another.

At the Exeter Food event, Jake Fiennes was talking to a room of farmers, third sector organisations, academics and others with an interest in food systems. What do all those terms mean if you’re looking across farming, marketing, supply chains, procurement or health? What do they mean if you’re a consumer?

Jake suggested a simpler way to deal with the confusing language – to talk about what was sustainable, nature-friendly and economically viable. A similar simplification might be made for you as a marketer, buyer, processor, nutritionist or consumer, but it won’t be the same as anyone else’s, because looking at food systems is a little like looking into a kaleidoscope. There is no one definitive picture and it looks different for everyone.

The global food system, of which we’re all a part, is really, really, really complex. How we eat presents a captivating puzzle. We’re bombarded with information, opinions, polemics and scare stories, all while navigating intricate issues of health, affordability, and sustainability.

There is no One Approach that works for all of us, despite what the loudest advocates for any one of them might say. We all need to look in the kaleidoscope and see our own version of what good food looks like, ask questions, and challenge our assumptions and our preferences.

Regenerative how?

In whatever sphere you’re using the word regenerative, but particularly when it comes to regenerative agriculture, we need to ask what that means – regenerative how?

Saying that food is regeneratively produced doesn’t really mean anything on its own. It might mean that a grower is not using the plough, which may have benefits for the soil, while they still use glyphosate and pesticides. It may mean they use livestock, but not how the livestock are treated.

When someone says that your lunch is “regeneratively grown”, ask them what that means, and don’t settle for vagaries.

Guy Singh-Watson

We all need to ask more questions about farming and food. Farmers are way ahead here – at farm walks, events and conferences, farmers and land managers learn from each other. We’d all do better to be more curious about how our food is produced, and ask questions without leaping to judgement.

Demystifying the food system, one question at a time

In our complex food system, there are a lot of questions we can ask about what we eat; where did it come from, how processed is it, is it good for me, was the farmer paid enough to grow it? Was it produced in a way that supports biodiversity, strengthens communities and goes some way to reversing climate breakdown or could producing it pollute rivers, drive deforestation and destroy habitats?

For many, the most important questions will be “can I afford it?” and “can I prepare it?”. Recent research by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission suggests that 80% of us believe healthy food is something that everyone should be able to have, yet only 8% think it is affordable to most people. Food insecurity is now endemic in the UK, affecting a wider range of people than ever.

No food choice gives all the right answers to these questions, particularly when food involves everyone from farmers to manufacturers, retailers, consumers and government. Responsibility for food policy within the English government involves 16 different departments.

Going back to that word salad of different farming approaches, their beauty lies in their flexibility – they allow farmers to adapt their practices to their specific context. However, this also creates confusion for consumers trying to understand where their food comes from.

Here’s the key takeaway (no pun intended): ask questions and don’t make assumptions.

Farmers themselves are constantly learning and innovating. They’re eager to share their knowledge. By engaging in open conversations, we can build a more informed and sustainable food system together. A nation literate in the rich language of food and farming. Wouldn’t that be something?

Further resources and reading

  • I’ve joined a Skills Bootcamp in Regenerative Land-Based Systems being run by the Apricot Centre at Dartington in 2024. Applications are still open for 2024 cohorts.
  • Six Inches of Soil is a new documentary feature film following British farmers on their journeys into regenerative agriculture.
  • The fourth Agroforestry Open Weekend runs 17-20 May 2024 and is a great opportunity to see trees used in cropping and pasture systems on farms, walk around the farm and ask the farmer questions.
  • Open Farm Sunday on 9 June 2024 is another opportunity to visit nature-friendly farms, see exhibits and demonstrations and ask questions.
  • Jake Fiennes’ book ‘Land Healer‘ offers a blueprint for sustainable farming alongside nature recovery.
  • Henry Dimbleby and Jemima Lewis’s book ‘Ravenous‘ argues that our current food system is broken, harming both our health and the planet, and calls for a radical change to create a more sustainable and nourishing food culture. The book includes the recommendations given in the National Food Strategy and progress made so far (or lack of it) in implementing them.
  • The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission have commissioned research and convened citizens’ assemblies looking at issues with our food system. Join The Food Conversation.