Written by Mishma Abraham

The urgency of food system transformation has never been greater. We need to move away from sustaining less harm, to regenerating and building resilience of the food system itself. An agenda-level alignment of principles and outcomes on regeneration will strengthen the business case for the private sector to adopt and take action on regenerative practices.

From sustainability to regeneration in agriculture
Over 30 years ago, the term ‘sustainable development’ was popularized through the Brundtland Report where it was defined as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The concept of sustainability has subsequently been widely used across industries and sectors to define the bounds of intersection between social, economic, and environmental dimensions.

However, the recent decade has also seen growing concern over this ubiquitous term, especially within the food and agriculture industry for its underlying philosophy of simply doing less harm. Many in the industry are calling for a paradigm shift – from limiting harm to the environment and society, to focusing on building resilience and enhancing regeneration of the system itself (as seen in the figure below). The need for resilient and regenerative systems has been repeatedly highlighted, but serves a greater importance now more than ever, as we live and work in the midst of a global pandemic.

Figure 1: The relationship between sustainability and regeneration from Savory Institute’s Land to Market program

The growing movement of regeneration in agriculture
Forum for the Future defines regenerative agriculture as ‘an approach to farming that puts more back into the environment and society than it takes out’. In most cases, this involves an increased emphasis on enhancing soil health and improving the resilience of ecosystems and social institutions that support it – the key criteria that will allow natural systems to regenerate and replenish. Soil health is currently in major decline, with over a third of the planet’s soils already degraded, and the proportion expected to exceed over 90 per cent by 2050. However, restoring just 12 per cent of degraded agricultural land by 2030 has been estimated to lead to increases in smallholders’ income by US$35-40 billion annually and feeding an additional 200 million people per year.

Governments, civil society organizations and companies themselves are taking steps to ensure that their activities support the renewal of healthy soils and natural systems. The 4 per 1000 initiative launched at COP21 brings together public and private sector actors to support management of lands and soils to ensure resilient agricultural systems. Similarly, the OP2B coalition of food and agricultural companies and research organizations are working towards supporting biodiversity and systemic change in the agricultural industry, with one of their key pillars dedicated to supporting regenerative practices.

Need for alignment to regenerate natural systems
Currently, there are many approaches that fall under ‘regenerating’ the agricultural system, from holistic concepts such as zero budget natural farming, agroecology and circular farming, to specific techniques such as no-till and cover cropping, among others. Regenerative agriculture, through these various approaches and techniques, is unique as it does not rely on a standard set of siloed techniques, but a combination of practices based on the context of the land and its ecosystems, type of farm, industry and region. However, an agenda-level alignment of regenerative principles and outcomes needs to be established in order to define the business ask for companies, and focus efforts from the private sector.

Nevertheless, there has been some progress for alignment with programmes, such as the Soil Carbon Initiative, that is developing a verifiable standard for regenerative practices, and the Ecological Outcome Verification initiative, that is working to certify food and fiber companies on their regenerative activities. As more companies begin to adopt regenerative practices, the need for a standard framework of principles and outcomes of regenerative agriculture is vital to ensure real progress on the ground.

What’s next?
As part of the World Benchmarking Alliance, the Food and Agriculture Benchmark will be the first of its kind to assess leading companies across the entirety of the food system, from farm to fork. The benchmark will gauge 350 companies on multiple topics across the environment, nutrition, and social inclusion dimensions where urgent private sector action is needed. Through research and engagement, we aim to work with experts to understand how we can align on regenerative means of production and further strengthen the case for a food system transformation.

The methodology framework for the benchmark, launched at the sidelines of the High Level Political Forum, highlights the key dimensions where businesses can step up and contribute towards a resilient food system transformation. We look forward to engaging in consultations and dialogues with key stakeholders from the Food and Agriculture space to guide us through the next stages of methodology development and engagement activities.