As a movement, regenerative agriculture finds itself having to address many challenges. One such challenge relates to a question I get asked frequently: "Can we certify regenerative agriculture?"
While I understand consumers want a guarantee that the product they purchase has not damaged the environment, when you ponder the certification path from a holistic context, you can soon see that it is at odds with the fundamental principles that underpin regenerative agriculture.
You cannot certify a set of practices which are ever-adapting and evolving as part of a complex adaptive system. Farmers conduct their work within ecological systems that behave in complex, adaptive and often unpredictable and dynamic ways. These systems are constantly evolving. It is also important to see the earth as alive. By certifying regenerative agriculture you are slipping straight into the old paradigm of putting everything in a box. Nature is a complex adaptive system and doesn't understand the concept of 'in' or 'out' - certified or not certified.
Regeneration is in part a self-organising quality inherent in nature, which many practices consciously or unconsciously encourage. This is a quality where every living system has inherit within it the possibility to move to new levels of order, differentiation and organisation. Whilst sustainable systems must maintain productivity, regenerative systems go a step further in restoring what has been lost and improving what is currently there.
We cannot 'certify' regenerative practices because these practices are about continuous improvement and knowledge and therefore prescribing what is 'in' and what is 'out' goes against the basic principles of inclusiveness and continuous transformative learning and evolving with our landscapes.
Regenerative agriculture is about being comfortable with ambiguity. Not trying to control things. Letting ecological systems self-organise and accept that we don't have all the answers, and probably never will. This also means not attempting to 'define' or 'certify' how regenerative agriculture is understood in different contexts.
We must mirror the reflexivity of our ecologies by continuously evolving as they do. For example, one regenerative practice may not be relevant in another few years because you might find something you can do better for a particular environment, in a particular bioregion, at a particular time.
By certifying regenerative agriculture you also run the risk of ostracising those who are on the path towards regeneration. There are lessons in the failures of the organics sector over the past 30 years. Certified organic is not a guarantee of environmental stewardship at all, in fact it can be the opposite.
Most farmers are already using some form of regenerative practice. They maybe reducing their use of chemical inputs, adopting time controlled grazing, or experimenting with multi species cover cropping. Where do you draw the line and at what cost for those who fall just short of that line?
We don't want a 'them-and-us' scenario which certification fosters. It's about us all going on a journey together so we can be more resilient. It's about farmers expanding their toolboxes and trying techniques that might work well in their specific bioregions.
That's why we should look to 'verification'. Whilst certification has the ability to stop us from evolving in the way we work with our landscapes, verification supports continuous improvement in landscape function through managing holistically.
The verification process identifies improvements to the environment and recognises land stewards who are committed to an evolving regenerative journey for the long haul. As the consumer appetite for regeneratively farmed food and fibre increases, we have to walk the fine line between encouraging demand with a trusted and transparent brand while also ensuring regenerative agriculture stays true to its principles.
- Lorraine Gordon is Southern Cross University's Director of Strategic Projects at the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance and Farming Together Program. She is also an Associate Director at Southern Cross University's Centre for Organics Research.