Regenerative agriculture doesn’t replace organic

two coffee beans at a party
  • Regenerative agriculture is gathering speed in the coffee sector
  • However, only 19% of people surveyed know about it — compared to 59% who know the organic label
  • Regenerative agriculture is more of a holistic approach than a certification

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE is on a fast track to becoming another sustainability buzzword. Like organic, the regenerative label promises consumers a commitment to environmental protection.

Whilst regenerative practices focus on a holistic approach and soil health, organic agriculture has specific goals to refrain from using any synthetic chemicals. 

Unlike the arguably straightforward and well-defined concept of organic certification, regenerative agriculture is more of an umbrella term that pertains to crops (including coffee), livestock, and a combination of sustainable agriculture techniques. This makes it difficult to evaluate with concrete, quantitative indicators.

The term was first mentioned in the 1980s, by the Rodale Institute, and it referred to the practice of farming with care directed towards soil health and regenerating soil nutrients, whilst also taking into consideration animal and worker welfare.

Today, we’re seeing it splashed everywhere. It has now become a vague, broad term, with some attempts to formalise it through certification, and – inevitably – some associated greenwashing.  

Companies like Nestlé have embraced the trend, visibly outlining their goals on their platforms. The multinational aims to have at least 20% regenerative-sourced ingredients by 2025, and 50% by 2030. This includes educating farmers about regenerative practices, and aiming for specific regenerative certification or regular monitoring and reporting. 

Other big players like Starbucks, Illy, and Lavazza are also starting to actively support regenerative agriculture initiatives, through investment and formal commitments to its development, often under an organised framework with structured regenerative agriculture goals for collective farms. 

Numerous definitions and regulations surrounding the principle have emerged meanwhile. The Regenerative Organic Alliance and A Greener World, for example, offer fairly new certification programmes, though they seem to leverage other existing certifications – including USDA Organic – and appear to be standards that aren’t yet formally recognised beyond the US. 

Regenerative agriculture is a catch-all term that can be difficult to grasp

With food production responsible for nearly 25% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, governments and agencies began placing goals for more sustainable agriculture, from which emerged the concept of regenerative agriculture. 

At the United Nations Food Systems Summit and the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (more commonly known as COP26) it was referred to loosely without any specific definition

Since then, regenerative agriculture has become increasingly prominent in corporate-led sustainability schemes. Irrespective of its noble goals and real potential for sustainable food systems, it has become a convenient catch-all term for soil conservation and greenhouse gas mitigation practices in the agricultural sector. 

Its appeal could derive from its emphasis on the regeneration of natural resources – a strong but simple concept to grasp by most. However, consumer awareness of the concept still remains low.

In fact, a study conducted by the International Food Information Council on how well consumers understood regenerative agriculture revealed that only 19% of respondents were familiar with the term, compared to 59% who said they knew the organic label. The holistic practice is too multifaceted to position itself under a single label, which can be confusing.

The PRF: Farm Summit Colombia 2024 from October 17-18 in Santander, Colombia, will make a deep dive on regenerative and organic agriculture to seek clarification on the distinction between the two and and dispel confusion.

“Certifications are a way to create trust with the end consumer,” says Luisa Mejia, owner of Cafe del Cielo coffee farm in Colombia.

“However, it is not mandatory to be certified. I personally use regenerative practices by first focusing on restoring life in the soil, by restoring the microbiology, bacteria, fungi, and insects by applying natural manure, and compost to the soil. I also plant legumes that fix Nitrogen in the soil and maintain large trees to create habitats for local species, promoting biodiversity.”

Many coffee farmers, the bulk of whom are smallholder growers indigenous to the land they cultivate, have been promoting regenerative agriculture for generations, including soil health maintenance, soil erosion control, natural fertilisers, and a duty of care towards their surrounding ecosystems – even though they didn’t refer to it as such. This also reflects a failure to credit Indigenous Peoples food systems that prefigured its practices.

A label that is still nascent means room for manipulation

Saying a product or farm performs regenerative agriculture could be a form of greenwashing if the practices are not certified, regularly monitored, or reported. With lack of a formal, transparent process to enforce and report on various practices involved, this is rapidly becoming a concern with regenerative agriculture. 

In response to this issue, Climate Farmers and the Savory Institute have attempted to create a Minimum Reporting Framework for farmers and consumers to better understand regenerative agriculture and whether or not farms are maintaining the practices correctly. 

A FAIRR review of 79 global agri-food firms found that 50 of them, or 63%, refer to regenerative agriculture as a solution to the climate and biodiversity crises. Of those, only four companies – Nestlé, PepsiCo, JBS S.A. and Sodexo — have financial commitments in place to support farmers in their supply chain to incentivise uptake of regenerative agriculture.

Of the companies with pledges in place, the report finds that 64% do not have any quantitative company-wide targets to achieve those goals. Without success indicators or quantitative goals, it seems difficult to assess whether a farm has achieved the goals of regenerative agriculture or not.

In that light, attempts at certification to offer some form of formal monitoring and evaluation makes sense, but it is often too costly for farmers to consider, especially without financial support.  Some producers monitor results carefully, but without a formally recognised system in place it becomes difficult for them to prove effectiveness to buyers and consumers.

“The soil on my farm is consistently tested to understand what nutrients are needed, whilst also monitoring the health and resilience of my trees and the overall biodiversity of the land,” says Luisa. 

“Unfortunately, soft KPIs like biodiversity or resilience are difficult to measure and monitor.”  

Despite the difficulties, Luisa feels that there is no future for coffee without regenerative practices. Beyond removing the use of artificial fertilisers, like organic – which are harmful for the soil and surrounding biodiversity, as well as farmers’ wallets – they also seek to rebalance farms’ entire ecosystems for the sustainable, long term transformation of growing spaces.

The fact that global agri-food firms are promoting regenerative agriculture as an effective solution to unsustainable food systems is a positive step forward. 

However, without financial investment to support farmers’ transition towards this practice, and without formal systems of monitoring and evaluation, this indigenous transformative approach runs the risk of becoming one more outlet for “sustainability” marketing and greenwashing.

Coffee Intelligence

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