Regenerative food systems: a new primer

Sheep on the Burren, in Western Ireland. Farmers in the Burren are known for its traditional rgeenerative grazing practices that are many thousands of years old. Photo by the author.

There is widespread agreement that global food systems are failing us and need to be radically transformed to meet today’s pressing social and environmental challenges. Among the strategies being widely discussed is regenerative agriculture; but while the concept excites many, others see it as a new vehicle for greenwashing and meaningless — in the same bag as offsets and net-zero accounting.

In an attempt to cut through the confusion and misleading marketing, I’ve crafted a new framework for understanding regenerative food systems. Just published in Agriculture and Human Values, the paper argues that the regenerative potential of food systems is linked not to specific technologies or practice, per se (though they do matter), but instead is driven by how our food systems are organized.

I’ll get into the framework in a moment, but first some additional thoughts on what people mean when they say regenerative agriculture. In a nutshell, regenerative agriculture refers to a collection of integrated practices for food production that emphasize soil health, carbon sequestration, ecosystem resilience, and nutrient-dense foods. At the heart of regenerative agriculture is a commitment to improving the ecological (and sometimes social) outcomes of agricultural practices, usually starting with soil health as a foundation for addressing issues related to climate change, water quality, land productivity, and biodiversity conservation.

John Ikerd argues that at the heart of regenerative systems is a question of energy. He rightly notes that whenever we use energy, for example eating food, we are transforming that energy from more useful to less useful forms. Living systems are adapted to return energy from less useful to more useful forms, so whether our food systems are regenerative depends on whether our food systems are organized in a way that works with, or against, this capacity.

Flexibility and diversity are two of the most important organizational features of food systems. In this paper I present a framework for making sense of the various possible configurations of food production systems based on the intersection of these features. I identify four archetypical food system configurations: degenerative, impoverished, coerced, and regenerative.

Degenerative regimes are rigid in that they focus on only one or a few resources until they’re overharvested. “Fishing down the foodweb” is a degenerative pattern well known in fisheries

Impoverished regimes are often left in the wake of degenerative ones, for example where colonial settler states come in, degrade resources, and move on, leaving local people to contend with the impoverished and marginalized conditions left behind.

Coerced regimes are among the most common, I think. These are systems like monocultures that actively favour and cultivate one or a few highly valued resources. They can seem sustainable, but in fact require high levels of subsidization and they can become very vulnerable.

Finally, we have regenerative systems, where people are flexible and work with a diversity of resources and accept natural cycles of variability and change. Many regenerative systems, like swidden agriculture, regenerative ranching, and Indigenous fire management, are designed to mimic, or even enhance, the natural cycles of regeneration on the landscape.

The paper explores numerous examples of these regimes, and then offers suggestions based on existing research for how to transform degenerative, coerced, and impoverished regimes into regenerative ones. Hopefully, this new framing provides some clarity and helps address the greenwashing of the regenerative concept that is clearly well underway in the private sector.

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Human ecologist and storyteller. Author of “Finding Our Niche” and host of The Second Transition Podcast

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Philip A. Loring

Philip A. Loring

Human ecologist and storyteller. Author of “Finding Our Niche” and host of The Second Transition Podcast

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