Redefining Value and Risk in Agriculture
Policy and Investment Solutions to Scale the Transition to Regenerative Agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is a systems-based approach to farming and ranching that, in response to climate change, loss of farmland, and widespread disparity within the food system, seeks to achieve long-term productivity and resilience of agricultural landscapes and communities through building soil health, fostering on-farm and ecological biodiversity, and improving water use-efficiency. Despite its potential, regenerative agriculture has not yet been widely adopted in the United States. While minimum tillage practices and multiple crop rotations are implemented in fields that account for at least 30 percent of US major cash crop output, less than 5 percent of US agricultural land operators employ the full suite of soil health practices promoted at the federal level by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (although rates of use of some specific practices are higher). Failure to fully transition more land to regenerative stewardship represents a missed opportunity, especially during a global pandemic and recession, when this shift could otherwise drive greater economic, environmental, and food system resilience.
In June 2020, the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI) and the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) at Berkeley Law convened a virtual roundtable of stakeholders—farmers, researchers, investors, and policy experts—to identify critical barriers to regenerative agriculture adoption, as well as solutions with high potential to effect change. Participants envisioned a paradigm shift in which farmers, policymakers, researchers, and investors treat farms as systems and agree on ecological benchmarks that prioritize adaptive management processes over a regimented checklist of practices. Rather than pursuing the extractive approach that dominates industrialized agricultural systems in the United States, farmers would actively promote the biodiversity and ecological processes that improve soil health and deliver ecosystem services, while the public and private sectors provide economic and technical support. A regenerative system would also reduce risk to farmers through greater resiliency, resulting in improved economic livelihoods, better land security, and help for marginalized growers.
There is no single, shared definition of regenerative agriculture, and stakeholders debate whether principles, practices, environmental indicators, outcomes, or whole-farm process plans are the best basis for designation. This report will utilize the definition offered here in the Executive Summary and also provide guidance on how the definition can be interpreted to suit different types of applications—from policy incentives to private investment.
Participants identified five critical barriers to achieving this vision:
- Economic constraints that limit farmers’ ability to finance upfront costs while creating opportunity costs associated with a transition, such as for seeds, labor, equipment, and infrastructure
- Misaligned policy incentives including, but not limited to, crop insurance, loans, technical assistance, and other incentive programs that directly and indirectly prevent farmers from adopting regenerative practices
- Structural racism and concentration of market power that prevent people of color, women, and working-class people from controlling financial resources and farm-level decisions related to regenerative transitions
- Lack of consensus and knowledge around regenerative farming, which stems from inadequate resources for research, co-optation by major retailers and agribusinesses, entrenched institutional support for conventional agriculture, over-emphasis on urban rather than rural priorities in policymaking, and the absence of strong support for regenerative agriculture within peer-to-peer farming networks
- Challenges of achieving land tenure due to prohibitive land prices and the tight financial margins of farming, which disincentivize long-term investments in the land
The roundtable and interviews yielded strategies for lowering these barriers that draw on and coalesce existing efforts by nonprofit organizations, research centers, investors, and policymakers. To overcome these priority barriers, the following recommendations summarize the most critical opportunities to support farmers in their transition to regenerative agriculture:
- Develop a More Robust Research Base
Research institutions should advance the scientific case for regenerative agriculture and standardize measurement protocols
- Reform Crop Insurance
Congress and the US Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency should reform crop insurance to reflect the risk reduction benefits associated with regenerative practices
- Redefine Risk
Federal and state governments, banks and investors should account for the risk reduction benefits of regenerative practices and reflect those benefits in financing and direct payments
- Advance State-Level Policies
State governments should expand investments in effective existing policies like incentive programs and peer-to-peer support network initiatives
- Prioritize Equity in Agricultural Policies
Government at all levels should develop more integrated and equitable systems to serve farmers, such as streamlined technology platforms and more robust technical assistance
- Urge Landowners and Supply Chain Actors to Enable Regenerative Production
Landowners and supply chains should help promote regenerative farming among tenants and farmers by incorporating flexibility into contracts and removing barriers