Is Regenerative Farming Just a Buzzword or a Blueprint For Restoring Soil Health?

By Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton. This opinion piece was first published by Reuters Events on 9 March 2022.

Irreversible ecosystem collapse is looming. If nothing is done to stop it, farming systems face a potentially catastrophic future, with severe implications for society the world over. 

This isn’t hyperbole. It’s the verdict of hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, as recently expressed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report. The writing is already on the wall. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over one third of the world’s soils are already degraded due to erosion, salinisation, compacting, acidification and chemical pollution. The result? An absence of the diversity of life that is integral to nourishing plants and crops. 

The core idea of regenerative agriculture is that farming can give back to, rather than take from, the soil and society.

As every farmer knows, healthy soil is the foundation of productive agriculture. Not only does it help cycle nutrients and filter water, it helps increase resilience to climate change by returning carbon to the ground. Cue the new buzzword on the block, “regenerative agriculture”. From one day to the next, the phrase seems to be everywhere, from the mouths of climate advocates to the speeches of leading politicians. Not since the “Green Revolution” of the 1950s has a farming-related buzzword gathered so much pace so quickly. As ever, critics have not been slow in coming forward. Their arguments follow conventional lines. Some say the term lacks rigour – “regenerative”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “carbon-smart”, all spawn from the same woolly basket. Others maintain that it’s an old idea rehashed in modern clothing. What were the earliest agriculturalists of the Fertile Crescent if not regenerative farmers? 

Such criticisms hide more than a little truth. The term regenerative agriculture can certainly mean different things to different people. And, yes, it does embrace concepts such as reduced tilling, crop rotation and cover crops that, in some cases, go back millennia. But to gripe about terminology is to miss the point. For one, the vagaries of definition are not nearly as great or problematic as some like to claim. The core idea of regenerative agriculture – namely, that farming can give back to, rather than take from, the soil and society – is hardly controversial. 

Fuzzy terminology can confuse consumers and, worse still, facilitate greenwashing.

Secondly, farming techniques vary enormously, meaning specific methodologies are always going to be hard to pin down. Practices pursued by farmers in west Africa, where the soil is notoriously infertile, for instance, will be different from those adopted in India, where pests and erratic weather are chief concerns.   

Thirdly, lack of complete consensus doesn’t necessarily lead to a complete lack of action. Take the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals; the specifics of each goal may not please everyone, but they please people enough to amass a huge amount of collective energy.    

In a similar vein, fresh terms can refresh our thinking. A decade ago, conversations about soil health and crop yields tended heavily towards the technical. A little less fertiliser here, a little more fallow time there. Today, with talk of regenerative agriculture increasingly widespread, extractivist agriculture itself is now on the table for debate. 

Of course, clear definitions are important. In their absence, misunderstandings can arise in practice that slow or even undermine the transition to more sustainable farming. Likewise, fuzzy terminology can confuse consumers and, worse still, facilitate greenwashing. In this regard, Textile Exchange’s recently published Landscape Analysis of regenerative agriculture marks a valuable and timely contribution. Built through dialogue at all levels of the farming community, it establishes an important set of basic principles that all major players can get behind.   

We especially welcome the report’s acknowledgement of benefits beyond carbon storage and emission reductions – important as both certainly are. Regenerative agriculture is not a one-trick pony. Improvements to soil health, habitat protection and water systems are just some of the other ancillary environmental benefits it delivers. 

We see the fact of regenerative agriculture now being on everyone’s lips as a huge positive.

Likewise, as an organisation committed to improving the livelihoods of millions of cotton producers, the emphasis on social outcomes is also to be applauded. As critical actors in the agricultural system, the voices of farmers and workers are fundamental to deciding how regenerative farming is framed and what outcomes it should aim for. 

To reiterate, we see the fact of regenerative agriculture now being on everyone’s lips as a huge positive. Not only is the unsustainability of today’s intensive, input-heavy farming increasingly well understood, so too is the contribution that regenerative models can make to turning this around. The challenge going forward is to turn growing awareness into on-the-ground action. The issues that regenerative farming seek to address are urgent. At Better Cotton, we’re big believers in continuous improvement. Rule number one? Get out of the blocks and get started. 

One key lesson we have learned over the last decade or so is that effective action won’t happen without an effective strategy to back it up. That’s why we encourage our participating field-level partners to establish a comprehensive soil management plan, spelling out tangible steps for improving soil biodiversity and preventing land degradation. Another crucial impetus to action is telling a convincing story. Farmers won’t transition from what they know on the basis of anecdotes and promises. Hard evidence is required. And, for that, investment in monitoring and data research is needed. 

Fashions, by nature, move on. In the case of regenerative agriculture, expect definitions to be refined and approaches to be revised. As a basic concept of how we ought to farm, however, it is firmly here to stay. Neither the planet nor farmers can afford it otherwise. 

Learn more about Better Cotton and soil health

Read more

Better Cotton and Regenerative Agriculture: Our Approach

By Chelsea Reinhardt, Director, Standards & Assurance

Regenerative agriculture seems to be on everyone’s radar these days. From new regenerative agriculture certifications to sourcing commitments from big brands, the concept is gaining traction.  

Chelsea Reinhardt

Many regenerative practices are already woven into the Better Cotton Standard System, and as the research and conversations around regenerative agriculture evolve, we are working to deepen our impact along with it. 

Below, we discuss regenerative agriculture as it relates to Better Cotton — from how we define it to our approach moving forward. 

What is Regenerative Agriculture? 

While there is currently no universally accepted definition of regenerative agriculture, it is generally related to practices that promote soil health and restore organic carbon in the soil. These practices may include reducing tilling (no-till or low-till), use of cover crops, complex crop rotation, rotating livestock with crops and avoiding or minimising the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides — practices that have the potential to turn agricultural soil into a net carbon sink.  

Regenerative Agriculture in the Better Cotton Standard  

We don’t currently use the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ in the Better Cotton Standard. However, what is considered regenerative agriculture today is aligned with many of the sustainable farming practices that form the basis of our Standard. Our on-the-ground Implementing Partners in 23 countries around the world support farmers to implement these practices, which can be found throughout the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria. 

Regenerative Agriculture in the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria

  • Principle 3 on Soil Health: Better Cotton Farmers are required to implement a multi-year soil management plan which covers enhancing soil structure, soil fertility and improving nutrient cycling, which includes processes such as breaking down of organic matter and soil respiration that facilitates uptake of soil nutrients like carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous. Farmers are encouraged and supported to identify practices that are most appropriate to their local context. These typically include cover cropping, crop rotation, mulching and other regenerative methods.  
  • Principle 4 on Biodiversity and Land Use: Better Cotton Farmers must adopt a biodiversity management plan which explicitly encourages crop rotation and the restoration of degraded areas. 
  • Other Better Cotton Principles: Due to the interconnected nature of sustainable farming practices, regenerative agriculture practices are embedded within other principles as well. For example, principle one on crop protection introduces an Integrated Pest Management Programme to help farmers reduce their pesticide use and principle two on water stewardship details soil moisture practices such as mulching and cover cropping. 

How We’re Diving Deeper into Regenerative Agriculture for Greater Impact 

While we recognise the value of regenerative agriculture practices and support the growing awareness of the role of farming in combatting climate change, we are cautious about making promises about soil carbon contributions while the science in this area is still evolving. For example, although no-till agriculture has been shown to improve carbon sequestration in the short term in many cases, in the long term, the outcomes are less certain. Some studies have shown that even periodic ploughing can reverse years of carbon benefits. Other research points to mixed impacts on soil organic carbon, depending on the content and depth of the soil layer. 

Regardless of the long-term carbon benefits of regenerative agriculture, we will continue to focus on supporting farmers to improve their soil health. This is crucial to enhance long-term soil fertility, reduce erosion and adapt to climate change. It also plays a key role in improving yields and livelihoods for farming communities. 

What’s Next

Climate-smart agriculture practices will play a more prominent role in the Better Cotton Standard after an upcoming revision of the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria. They will also feature strongly in our 2030 Strategy and connected climate change strategy, which will cover how Better Cotton Farmers and communities can become more resilient by mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, reducing carbon emissions and measuring their progress. 

An approach of continuous improvement is at the heart of both regenerative agriculture and our 2030 Strategy. To that end, we are currently in the process of finalising outcome targets and associated indicators to act as drivers of change for Better Cotton Farmers. The outcome target issue areas will likely include climate change mitigation and soil health. These targets will enable progress to be measured towards the Better Cotton mission and incentivise farmers to find new ways to enrich the environment in and around their farms.  

Stay tuned — we will be sharing more information on these targets and launching our 2030 Strategy at the end of the year.  

Learn more about how the Better Cotton Standard addresses soil health and climate change mitigation and adaptation

Read more

Share this page