Trends in Sustainability: Regenerative Agriculture

soil
Soil erosion model used to explain to farmers that maintaining ground cover helps prevent erosion and water contamination.

By Kerry Scanlon, Markets Transformation Senior Associate

You may have noticed a lot of buzz around “regenerative agriculture” recently, and in more specific terms, the importance of soil health. Regenerative agriculture is one of the most prolific and growing trends in sustainability. Also known as regenerative farming, the concept is at the forefront of many new sustainability initiatives in the food and beverage industry. While not a new concept, interest in regenerative farming has exploded in the past year, leaving many companies (and consumers) wondering, what exactly is it, why are companies concerned with it, and how does it compare to existing programs like Rainforest Alliance certification?

The theory and science backing regenerative agriculture is centered around soil health and productivity. Often tied to organic farming practices, the program aims to reduce or eliminate synthetic fertilizers, increase crop productivity and yields, promote biodiversity, conserve water, and sequester carbon in soil. It achieves this through practices focused on soil health- including crop rotation, elimination of (or at least decreased) pesticide use, and rotational livestock grazing, among others. Some regenerative agriculture programs propose going a step further and developing a certification that encompasses animal welfare and social responsibility, in addition to soil health and related practices. These same programs see the certification as a way for companies to go a step beyond traditional organic certification, participating in a more comprehensive sustainable agriculture scheme. Some of the prominent companies recently engaged in this space include Rainforest Alliance partners Patagonia and Justin’s Nut Butter, and large multi-brand companies such as General Mills are beginning to invest in soil health best practices on farms.

For companies interested in exploring regenerative farming in their supply chain, the Rainforest Alliance program incorporates many of the core tenants of regenerative agriculture. As part of the extensive audit process farms undergo to earn Rainforest Alliance certification, they must meet the criteria in the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard (SAS). Included in the standard are many criteria that follow the key principles of regenerative farming, including (but not limited to):

  • Reducing pesticide use through comprehensive integrated pest management (IPM) plans.
  • Improving soil health through crop rotation, planting of nitrogen-fixing ground covers or cover crops, and/or the application of mulch.
  • Reducing soil compaction through no-till or reduced-tillage farming.
  • Avoiding the (excessive) use of synthetic fertilizers and promoting precision farming through the use of soil samples as a guide to decide the amounts of organic and synthetic fertilizer to be applied, promoting the use of organic fertilizers above synthetic fertilizers.
  • Designing irrigation systems to optimize crop or pasture productivity, while minimizing water waste, erosion, and salinization.
  • Ensuring crops grown on Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms do not consist of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • Preventing soil erosion through ground cover, mulches, limited herbicide use, and other techniques.
  • Promoting biodiversity through the protection of natural ecosystems and regeneration of high value ecosystems, and the prohibition of hunting on endangered species

The Rainforest Alliance SAS also includes social components that are part of some of the current regenerative agriculture discussions such as  Capacity Building, Democratic Organizations, Fair Payments for Farmers, Freedom of Association, Good Working Conditions, Living Wages, No Forced Labor and Transparency and Accountability. In fact, independent studies referred to Rainforest Alliance’s criteria as one of the most stringent among standards. ¹

Criteria such as the those listed above help ensure that on Rainforest Alliance Certified farms soil is healthy and productive, resulting in increased yields, better adaptation to climate change, decreased emission and increased capture of carbon, decreased pesticide use, and a healthy and safe environment for farm workers, their families, and communities. While there are differences between some of the more popular initiatives in the regenerative agriculture space, most notably that limited use of pesticides is allowed on Rainforest Alliance Certified farms (provided they are applied in tandem with an IPM plan that gradually reduces pesticide use, and that no banned pesticides are used on the farm), there are plenty of synergies with our program and the concept of regenerative agriculture. Our holistic and integrated certification standard helps ensure that farms are operating in a way that respects the environment, farm workers, their families, and local communities – resulting in a thriving landscape and a restored ecosystem, achieving the same goals commonly stated in the regenerative farming movement. Rainforest Alliance certification is a proven, reliable tool to help ensure that the farms in your supply chain are following many of the principles of regenerative agriculture and are improving soil health. We look forward to following this movement, as more companies embrace the ethos of responsible farming in their supply chains.

[1] https://www.iisd.org/sites/default/files/pdf/2014/ssi_2014.pdf#page=27

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