What are your thoughts on regenerative farming?

I ask because I can’t decide myself whether it’s a new and exciting paradigm-shifting approach to the way we run our businesses, or if it’s nothing more than an up-cycling of some traditional practices by companies and organisations keen to give themselves a fresh coat of 'greenwash'.

Like a lot of things, I guess the movement first began in the US – and it only seems to be a few years ago the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ first began to hit the headlines.

But, over the course of those few years, these practices now find themselves being widely touted as offering the solution not only to climate change, but also to pretty much everything which is currently wrong with agriculture.

If you would believe some of its more vociferous adherents, regenerative practices have the power to restore the balance between human beings and nature, offering a solution big enough to pull our beleaguered planet back from the precipice upon which it is currently precariously perched.

It is an area which harbours strong opinions. Some are buying into the idea, while others remain sceptical of some of its claims – and it an area which can provoke heated debate. While it seemed to have its origins in a grass roots movement, the raising of its profile has been suspiciously precipitous in recent years.

For this movement has been well and truly thrust into the lime-light by everyone from small-scale farmers, all the way through large-scale agribusiness and the practice has even become the latest marketing buzzword in the corporate world, too, with companies like McDonald’s, Pepsico and even a number of leading clothing manufacturers all getting caught up in the scramble to pledge that they will source their goods from farms adopting regenerative practices.

But despite this meteoric rise to consumer consciousness, there seems to be one little problem lying at the heart of this growing movement.

That is the fact that – certainly as far as I can ascertain – there is no certification body to oversee adherence to the practice; no widely accepted and recognised set of standards; and hence no way of auditing compliance by anyone claiming to be adopting the approach.

So, with innumerable newspaper and magazine articles, books, documentaries and even a Netflix film on the subject, it’s more than a little surprising that this slight issue hasn’t been raised.

Now, it can’t be denied that some aspect of the approach probably have the makings of a promising idea. Those touting the system claim that agricultural land can help tie up carbon deep under the ground, offsetting the disastrous climate effects of burning fossil fuels – and that potential promise is a central part of its appeal.

This is leading some of its proponents to claims that it’s wrong to settle for sustainability when the practices they preach go one step further and redress the environmental damage meted out by humanity.

Min-till and no-till drilling are seen as regenerative farm practices, but are some other measures not just teaching your granny how to sook eggs?

Min-till and no-till drilling are seen as 'regenerative' farm practices, but are some other measures not just 'teaching your granny how to sook eggs'?

But, I stumbled upon a recent research paper which looked at how regenerative agriculture was defined across several hundred academic journal articles and dozens of websites devoted to the practice.

They found that only half of research articles that used the term supplied any sort of definition and while organisations promoting the approach were more likely to do this, the details varied dramatically.

Most, but not all, of the sources surveyed said that 'regenerative' was about improving soil health, or sequestering carbon – but there was no widespread agreement on how this should be done.

For some, the term meant using no-till practices, or planting cover crops. For others, it was about integrating livestock with crop production, or even improving animal welfare practices.

The study found that for yet another 'branch', it was about improving human health, or food access, or food safety.

While some said it was about supporting small-scale systems, others said the focus should be on improving the social and economic well-being of communities, regardless of farm size.

Some said it was about improving yields, some said it was about increasing profit, while others focused on the environmental benefits.

But maybe we should cut them some slack here because it took the organic movement decades to come up with an accepted set of standards and even with that there are points of contention which remain between some of the different schemes in different parts of the world.

While there might be no overseeing body for regenerative agriculture, as noted above, there seems to be some broad agreement around the areas of making use of cover crops, reducing tillage, integrating livestock and their manures into arable systems and making use of crop rotations. All of this has a focus on looking after soil health.

Of course, it can’t be ignored that these principles have a fair old similarity with a lot of traditional practices. I think that’s what rankles me just a wee bit with the regenerative movement – it seems to be laying claim to a series of traditional practices, many of which are still alive and well in various parts of the world, including mixed farming in Scotland – and repackaging them as something new.

The worst of it is that we’ve largely been encouraged or forced through simple economics to move away from these sustainable practices by the urgings of advisors, consultants and the big companies involved in manufacturing fertilisers and sprays. And that's all in order to meet the needs of the increasingly multi-national food groups and supermarkets – the self-same set of groups which are now trying to sell them back to us!

One of the big food groups which has publicly nailed its colours to the regenerative agriculture mast is Pepsico. It recently announced that it will spread the adoption of these practices across 7m acres – which is, approximately, equal to PepsiCo’s entire agricultural footprint. It estimated the effort will eliminate at least 3m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade.

As well as producing cola, Pepsico also own Walkers crisps and Quaker Oats, the latter of which we supplied for a number of years.

I asked David Wilkinson, the company’s senior director of European agriculture how compliance with regenerative practices would be audited and if there was a certification body or an accepted and recognised set of standards for regenerative farming he replied: “There isn’t currently such a body, however we are advocating for the establishment of industry-wide regenerative agriculture standards and measurement.

“In the absence of such standards, we will measure progress towards the 'Positive Agriculture' goals by tracking acres and people engaged in the initiative and, over time, the impact toward outcomes, including: building soil health and fertility; sequestering carbon and reducing emissions; enhancing watershed health; increasing biodiversity; and improving farmer livelihoods.”

He recognised that farming was a ‘hyper-local’ business and that crops were grown in different ways in different countries – and that allowances need to be made for that:

“This presents an exciting challenge to work with farmers to design bespoke solutions which will work for their businesses. We’re exploring how we create the toolboxes and capabilities to build knowledge with all our farmers, sharing that through a virtual farmer network and then helping them choose what works in practice for them,” said Wilkinson.

He added that the company was also engaged with leading organisations, like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to develop a method for setting science-based targets for water, that considered the benefits of regenerative and resilient farming systems and practices on water quality, and water quantity.

So, who knows, the regenerative movement might be onto something – but like a lot of practices which suddenly find themselves the centre of attention, it needs to make sure that it gets its core principles sorted out and doesn’t make the mistake of being swallowed up by its own publicity.