What is “Organic Regenerative Agroecology” in the Context of the Global RESTORATION Project?

An Introductory Essay

Author: John W. Head (posted here January 2021 with persmission of the author)

The Global RESTORATION Project incorporates into its name four key elements: “Responsible Energy, Smart Technology, Organic Regenerative Agroecology, and Territorially Integrated Operational Networks”. In this context, what do we mean by “organic regenerative agriculture”? Are there differences between the three components of organic agriculture, regenerative agriculture, and agroecology?

Let’s start with that second question. Yes, there are differences between organic agriculture, regenerative agriculture, and agroecology, but the differences are largely matters of emphasis, not of substantive disagreement. All three stand in stark contrast to what is largely referred to (variously) as “industrial” agriculture or “modern extractive agriculture” – especially in its reliance on synthetic forms of inputs, such as fertilizers and a wide array of pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.). In contrast to such “modern extractive agriculture”, all three of the alternatives that we emphasize at the Global Restoration Project – that is, organic, regenerative, and agroecology – rely on mimicking natural ecology systems and landscapes.

In January 2021, the Oxford Real Food Conference featured a panel presentation on precisely this topic – the definitions and comparisons of organic agriculture, regenerative agriculture, and agroecology. I offer below a slightly amended paraphrasing of the definitions offered in that panel presentation, beginning with “agroecology”.

Agroecology briefly defined

Michel Pimbert, a Professor of Agroecology and Food Politics – and also the Director of the Centre for Agroeocology, Water, and Resilience – at Coventry University (see here), offered this definition of agroecology:

Emphasis on mimicking natural systems. At the heart of agroecology is the idea that agricultural systems (agroecosystems) should mimic the structure and function of natural ecosystems. So we’re talking here about biodiversity which appear in the form of agroforestry systems, intercropping, polycropping, genetic mixtures, mixed farming, and agro-silvi-pastoral systems. These more natural productive ecosystems mimics, like their natural models, can be productive and nutrient conserving. That’s the first point.

Building on practice. It’s interesting to note that scientists have developed the science of agroecology in the last 90 years, but the practice of agroecology is much older, with deep roots in many indigenous and peasant societies, in various parts of the world. Although those societies never adopted the term “agroecology”, their time-tested practices in growing food and fiber incorporated many principles of modern agroecology. In fact, AE today builds on the knowledge of peasant farmers and indigenous peoples, adding new insights from ecology and the science of complexity. It’s important to note that unlike most conventional agricultural research and development, agroecology approaches constantly seek to combine the knowledge of farmers and indigenous peoples with the latest in science and the science of ecology and complexity. In fact, good agroecology values and builds on people’s knowledge and farmer-led experimentation to develop appropriate agroecological solution along the rural-urban spectrum.

Social dimensions. The third point to stress is that today agroecology considers the ecology of the whole agrifood system and no longer focuses just on the farm plot or on the ecologist’s vision of sustainable agriculture. In addition to these, agroecology focuses on the equitable and sustainable production, processing, distribution and consumption of food and fiber. Viewed from this perspective, we can think of agroecology as the ecology of agrifood systems.

Now as to different usages and meanings of the term agroecology. Agroecology has become a bit of a contested idea. Simply put, there are two views of agroecology that compete for funding and policy support today. The first is an agroecology that largely conforms to the dominant agrifood systems. The second is an agroecology that aims to fundamentally transform the dominant system and the power relations that sustain it.

Agroecological practices that conform include sustainable intensification and “climate smart” agriculture – approaches that are presented as solutions to the current crisis in farming. Climate smart agriculture, it is true, does sometimes incorporate some genuine agroecological practices such as crop rotations and intercropping, but still it continues to be committed to the technology of modern extractive agriculture. An example would be the use of no-till farming with herbicide inputs that are dangerous to health and the environment. Likewise, climate smart does not explicitly reject GMOs and gene-editing techniques but relies on an eclectic mix of technology … and within that you can find a bit of genuine agroecology. Generally these types of agriculture – that is, under a conception of “agroecology” that conforms to the dominant agrifood systems – aim to increase the efficiency of resource use, as by better targeting fertilizer application in order to use less of it, or to promote import substitution … in other words, leaving unchanged the monoculture system of farming even if it involves toxic pesticides. And they are linked into global value chains. In short, these so-called alternatives (to what I am portraying as more genuine or transformative forms of agroecology) are locked into the productivist, growth-oriented paradigm of conventional development. They essentially seek to deal with the symptoms rather than to tackle the root causes of problems that face agriculture and food systems. In particular, agroecology as a science is, under this approach, made to fit and conform with the dominant paradigm.

In sharp contrast, the more transformative form of agroecology promotes radical changes based on the redesign and diversification of agroecological systems through the use of agro-forestry, agro-silva-pastroal systems, and the like – farming, in other words, much more in the image of nature, imitating the structure and function of natural ecosystems. And this transformative version of agroecology really seeks to reconnect biologically diverse farms with local and regional markets – linking producers and consumers in relations of proximity and greater solidarity. I’d say that a transformative agroecology intends to re-embed agricultural production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food and fibers in a specific territory. This focus on territory is very important. And the aim here is not only to develop a diversity of production as well as short food chains; it’s also about rebuilding local infrastructure such as micro-dairies, mills, small abattoirs, community food processing, and distributed renewable energy systems and water-storage structures within the territory.

This relocalization of food systems is based on an agrarian-industrial neutralism that aims to reduce carbon and ecological footprints while creating local livelihoods, jobs, wealth, and culture within territories. Moreover, this kind of agriculture combines science with the knowledge-rich practices of farmers and involves a fusion of social movements working for social and environmental justice, including decolonization and racial justice. A transformative agroecology also promotes developments that really enhance farmer-citizen control over the means of production as well as possibilities for democratic governance within the territories.

In short, the kind of agroecology I refer to here explicitly seeks to transform the existing system and find ways of exiting commodity capitalism and reducing the dependence on corporate supplies of external inputs and distant global markets. And there’s a clear commitment to seeing agroecology simultaneously as a science, as a set of practices, and as a social movement, with a holistic integration of these different dimensions. For many social movements and farmer organizations, agroecology has become explicitly linked with food sovereignty, which is an alternative paradigm to the dominant neo-liberal framework.

In these ways, the term agroecology is now being used and reworked by different actors as part of a normative vision of the future that either seeks to conform to the dominant industrial food and farming system or to radically transform it.

From this elaborated definition of “agroecology” offered by Professor Pimbert, it should be obvious that our aim in the Global Restoration Project is to focus on what he refers to as the transformative version of agroecology. Mimicking natural systems, avoiding synthetic inputs, relying on a blend of science and practice – all these elements figure importantly in our view of agroecology. orated definition of “agroecology” offered by Professor Pimbert, it should be obvious that our aim in the Global Restoration Project is to focus on what he refers to as the transformative version of agroecology. Mimicking natural systems, avoiding synthetic inputs, relying on a blend of science and practice – all these elements figure importantly in our view of agroecology.

How does this relate to “organic agriculture” and to “regenerative agriculture”? I turn to those terms now, and then I return to “agroecology” to consider what the Food and Agriculture Organization uses as a definition for that term.

Organic agriculture briefly defined

A second panelist at the Oxford Real Food Conference panel presentation referred to above was Louise Luttikholt, who is the executive director of IFOAM – Organics International (see https://www.ifoam.bio). She offered this brief definition of “organic agriculture”, which she described as having emerged from a participatory process:

OA is a production system that sustains the health of soil, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. OA combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved.”

As Ms. Luttikholt pointed out, this definition of “organic agriculture” is similar in many ways with the definition offered by Professor of Pimbert (above) for “agroecology”. Both emphasize ecology, fairness, and health. She also explained that there are of course many other definitions of organic agriculture. Indeed, some such definitions appear in national or local legislation, especially in connection with certification regulations – by which a certain agricultural product can be reliably identified as emerging from “organic” agricultural processes.

For those of us most closely involved in the Global Restoration Project, the key concern involves a need for “re-centering” all of efforts relating to energy, to technology, to agriculture, and to governance – and specifically a shift from a predominantly anthro-centric view to a predominantly eco-centric view. Given this concern, we place slightly less emphasis on the social aspects of both agroecology and organic agriculture than reflected in the definitions offered by Professor Pimbert (for agroecology) and by Ms. Luttikholt (for organic agriculture). For us, the breathtaking ecological degradation that humans have brought to our shared planet requires urgent action now to restore the kaleidoscope of Earth’s ecosystems – particularly those that have been converted to agricultural production. For these reasons, we include also the notion of “regenerative” agriculture as a central element of our mission. Indeed, it is the central element in our very name, positioned as it is in the middle of the acronym RESTORATION. The “R” in the center of that acronym stands for “regenerative”.

Regenerative agriculture briefly defined

The third panelist at the Oxford Real Food Conference panel presentation referred to above was Kris Nichols. According to one biographical sketch of Dr. Nichols, she is a leader in the movement to regenerate soils for healthy crops, food, people and the planet. She is the Research Director at MyLand Company LLC in Phoenix, Arizona and also the founder and principal scientist of the KRIS (Knowledge for Regeneration and Innovation in Soils) Systems Education & Consultation firm. I offer this lightly edited paraphrasing of the definition she offered for “regenerative” agriculture:

Regenerative agriculture – which is sort of the “new kid on the block” in terms of ways of labeling agriculture – is really focused on soil health and the need to regenerate soil. Regenerative agriculture had some origins in the “sustainable agriculture” movement, but many people were concerned that sustainable agriculture was not focused enough on addressing the problem we have of degraded resources. For us, the principal degraded resource we have is the soil. So regenerative agriculture looks at regenerating the soil. Doing this, of course, involves looking at how our planet’s soil originated. The Earth didn’t just immediately have soil that came somehow from space dust. Instead, we have a long-evolved landsape emerging from countless interactions of the microbial community, the fungi and the other evolutionary precursers to modern plants – interactions that essentially work together symbiotically to actually evolve soil. Soil is a conglomeration of organic matter – carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – bound to sand, silt, and clay. That is how soil is created.

Accordingly, in regenerative agriculture we study these regenerative practices. Regenerative agriculture is incorporating a lot of things, of course, from organic practices and from agroecology, but again the focus here is on regenerating the soil itself. The overriding aim is to understand and utilize those integrations between the microbial community, the plants, and the animals in order to be able to have robust soil regeneration. Doing so enriches the soil environment in order to continue producing food on the landscape.

Dr. Nichols also addressed the close connection between regenerative agriculture and water-resource issues. She explained how the soil acts as a natural filtration system for water in particular (but also in other ways), through its organic matter.

If we build up and regenerate and build up the soil, we’re going to insert more organic matter – because that’s what makes soil – into that environment and some of the best filters that we have are carbon-based filters. Water filters and air filters have a carbon base to them, and that’s because carbon is really good at binding various types of elements, and so that allows us to have clean water. Bear in mind, though, that regenerative agriculture contributes not only to water quality (clean water) but also to water use efficiency. Although our planet is mostly water, we are running into water scarcity on land, and this is accelerating with climate change. So, what we need to do is maximize the process of enhancing microbial communities flourishing around the plant roots, allowing for a good exchange of nutrients and carbon in order to be able to keep that activity going. This exchange enhances the efficiency in the use of water.

Other definitions of “regenerative agriculture” also appear in various contexts, of course. The 29 December 2019 issue of Life & Thyme carried Julie Kunen’s article “The Roots of Regenerative Agriculture”, explaining some background to the concept:

Regenerative agriculture refers to an agricultural system that actually improves the natural resource base, leveraging practices that go beyond the current standard of sustainable agriculture. The distinction is subtle, yet important: sustainability means not depleting natural resources, while regenerative practices strive to improve the condition of those resources. In a video about regenerative agriculture on Patagonia Provisions’ website, Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber explains that agriculture is responsible for 30% of global carbon emissions, 70% of water use, and 60% of global biodiversity loss.

Given these statistics, it is no longer enough to strive for neutral impact. Agriculture must generate positive impact—for people, for the planet, and for food itself. And the key is soil.

In the video, Faber is pithy, saying, “we have now sucked all the life out of the soil.” Modern agriculture destroys soil both mechanically (through tilling that causes erosion) and chemically (through pesticide and herbicide use). Scientists estimate that 30% of the world’s arable land has now become unproductive due to soil erosion. Meanwhile, farmers use chemicals that kill off the biological life in soils and then attempt to replace what crops need with synthetic fertilizers. But the interactions that link soil carbon to planetary health, the soil microbiome to plant health, and crop nutritional content to human health are more complex.

The goal of regenerative agriculture, according to a 2019 Agfunder report [see https://agfundernews.com/regenerative-agriculture-is-getting-more-mainstream-but-how-scalable-is-it.html] is “to rebuild soil organic matter, which consists of carbon in the form of decaying roots, micro and macro organisms, through holistic, closed loop practices.” Soil rich in organic matter retains more water, making crops more resilient in the face of drought. Well-structured soils reduce erosion and prevent nutrient runoff. And soils with healthy microbial populations are better able to break down decaying plant matter, which is how new topsoil is created.

In sum, the term “regenerative agriculture” focuses on restoring the Earth’s soil, especially in those landscapes that humans have converted to agricultural production. This focus appeals to us at the Global Restoration Project, and it is for this reason that we have placed “regenerative” as a value (and a term) sitting literally and figuratively at the heart of our mission.

Further context- the FAO definition of agroecology

The panel presentation in which Professor Pimbert appeared was chaired by Emile Frison. Dr. Frison is a leading advocate of the importance of agriculture in promoting biological diversity, a role he now administers as a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), and previously as the Director General of Biodiversity International, one of the 15 Future Harvest Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

During the panel discussion, both he and other panelists made reference to other definitions of the term “agroecology”. One such definition has been offered by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Indeed, the FAO offers a wide range of definitions drawn from various contexts; they can be seen at the FAO “Agroecology Knowledge Hub”: http://www.fao.org/agroecology/knowledge/definitions/en/. (The FAO also provides in its “Agroecology Knowledge Hub” a survey of national legislation regarding agroecology, at http://www.fao.org/agroecology/policies-legislations/en/). But the FAO’s own “official” definition of the term includes ten elements, which are summarized by the FAO in this way (at http://www.fao.org/agroecology/knowledge/10-elements/en/):

In guiding countries to transform their food and agricultural systems, to mainstream sustainable agriculture on a large scale, and to achieve Zero Hunger and multiple other SDGs, the following 10 Elements emanated from the FAO regional seminars on agroecology. The 10 Elements of Agroecology are interlinked and interdependent. As an analytical tool, the 10 Elements can help countries to operationalise agroecology. By identifying important properties of agroecological systems and approaches, as well as key considerations in developing an enabling environment for agroecology, the 10 Elements are a guide for policymakers, practitioners and stakeholders in planning, managing and evaluating agroecological transitions.

  • Diversity: diversification is key to agroecological transitions to ensure food security and nutrition while conserving, protecting and enhancing natural resources […]
  • Co-creation and sharing of knowledge: agricultural innovations respond better to local challenges when they are co-created through participatory processes […]
  • Synergies: building synergies enhances key functions across food systems, supporting production and multiple ecosystem services […]
  • Efficiency: innovative agroecological practices produce more using less external resources […]
  • Recycling: more recycling means agricultural production with lower economic and environmental costs […]
  • Resilience: enhanced resilience of people, communities and ecosystems is key to sustainable food and agricultural systems […]
  • Human and social values: protecting and improving rural livelihoods, equity and social well-being is essential for sustainable food and agricultural systems […]
  • Culture and food traditions: by supporting healthy, diversified and culturally appropriate diets, agroecology contributes to food security and nutrition while maintaining the health of ecosystems […]
  • Responsible governance: sustainable food and agriculture requires responsible and effective governance mechanisms at different scales – from local to national to global […]
  • Circular and solidarity economy: circular and solidarity economies that reconnect producers and consumers provide innovative solutions for living within our planetary boundaries while ensuring the social foundation for inclusive and sustainable development […]

The FAO provides this overview of its definition of agroecology:

FAO’s framework of 10 elements on agroecology is derived from the common principles articulated for agroecology, including a combination of bio-physical and socio-economic elements that are grounded in the three pillars of sustainable development – the social, the economic and the environmental. Different elements may come into play in various configurations, with a strong blend of social, economic and environmental aspects.