Definition of

Regenerative Agriculture

An approach to defining regenerative
agriculture based on outcomes

1. The current agricultural crisis

Since the 1960s global food production has made remarkable progress. Its rate of increase eventually surpassed population growth and gave us food security. This increase in yield and food security however has come with a cost.

The global food system currently releases about 25% of annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, causes about one-third of terrestrial acidification and is responsible for the majority of global eutrophication of surface waters (Poore and Nemecek, 2018). Four of the nine planetary boundaries have been crossed: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, and altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

If our food system continues with current practices, using synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, fossil fuels and producing food waste, the carrying capacity of the planet is likely to be surpassed (Campbell et al., 2017).

The current crisis in modern agriculture is made visible by physical manifestations in the climate and landscape. Erosion, more frequent extreme weather events, increased susceptibility to infections, loss of micro-diversity in the soil, pollution of waterways, and the economic pressure on farmers, as well as distance between consumers and farmers, makes the need for a change in agricultural practices and policies clear.

The key challenge is how we can make agriculture a solution to the problem.
With a growing population, we can not withstand a decrease in food production nor can we further increase the land area and resources we use.
How can we modify agricultural practices in a way that restores soil health and environmental quality while simultaneously meeting the caloric and nutritional needs of the growing world population? (Rattan Lal, in interview)

“The importance of producing food within the carrying capacity of the planet is (…) increasingly acknowledged in policies – for example, the EU Circular Economy Action Plan (European Commission, 2015), the Paris Climate Agreement (United Nations, 2015) and the Common Agricultural Policy (European Commission, 2019a).” (Schreefel et al. 2020)

The primary purpose of agriculture is its ability to produce as much safe and nutritious food as necessary. Good agricultural practices focus on that. Beyond that, agriculture contributes to a number of ecosystem services and soil functions which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

The capacity of agriculture to fulfill these purposes is increasingly at risk.
“About a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area is subject to human-induced degradation (medium confidence). Soil erosion from agricultural fields is estimated to be currently 10 to 20 times (no tillage) to more than 100 times (conventional tillage) higher than the soil formation rate (medium confidence).
Climate change exacerbates land degradation(…) (and) can exacerbate land degradation processes (high confidence) including through increases in rainfall intensity, flooding, drought frequency and severity, heat stress, dry spells, wind, sea-level rise and wave action (…).
Climate change has already affected food security due to warming, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of some extreme events (high confidence). ” (IPCC 2019)

Bonnie Waring, senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said: “Across the globe, over 80% of calories consumed come from just 10 crop plants, including rice, maize, and wheat. Although a few staple crops – like soybean – may do better in a warmer future, warming temperatures and increasingly frequent droughts are likely to reduce yields of these key crops across many regions of the globe.” (Guardian, 2021)

With extreme weather events likely to occur more frequently, monoculture agriculture will put food security at risk. We will need to adapt in order to maintain high yields and food security.

2. Need for a definition

A number of scholars have pointed out the lack of a definition for regenerative agriculture and its effect on research, policy-making and industry efforts to scale regenerative agriculture.

“The term Regenerative Agriculture has actually been in use for some time, but there has been a resurgence of interest over the past 5 years. It is supported from what are often considered opposite poles of the debate on agriculture and food. Regenerative Agriculture has been promoted strongly by civil society and NGOs as well as by many of the major multi-national food companies.” (Ken. E. Giller et al. 2021)

But:

“Despite widespread interest in regenerative agriculture, no legal or regulatory definition of the term “regenerative agriculture” exists nor has a widely accepted definition emerged in common usage.” (Newton et al. 2020)

In this position paper, we want to propose a process to arrive at a shared definition of regenerative agriculture.

“Clear definitions may be an important component of effective communication and engagement between scientists and practitioners.” (White and Andrew, 2019)

“Second, in the absence of a clear understanding of what regenerative agriculture is or is not, consumers may be misled or confused about the significance or truth basis of a claim about food produced using regenerative agriculture. In turn, confusion about eco-labels can lead to consumer distrust and dissatisfaction.” (Moon et al., 2017)

“Third, muddiness around the term may open the door for unscrupulous commercial interests to exploit the term and use it misleadingly in their marketing, potentially diminishing the value of the term to any producer who is more genuinely involved in efforts to enhance the sustainability of food production.
That is, there is potential for watering down or greenwashing the use of a term to the point where it becomes universalized and loses value. For example, many products and practices are now called “sustainable” or “natural” without clarity as to what the claim means or why a consumer would pay a premium for a product marketed as such, allowing for “green washing” and other misuses to occur (Northen, 2011; Levinovitz, 2020). Formalizing terms can mitigate these issues to an extent, but it is only part of the challenge and is not necessarily the preferred outcome for all actors.” (Schaller, 1990; DeLind, 2000)

“Finally, the absence of a clear understanding of what regenerative agriculture is, and whether it is or should be process- or outcome-based, has implications for policy and program development (Goswami et al., 2017).” (Newton et al. 2020)

3. Similar concepts

3.1 Agroecology

Agroecology is an applied science that studies ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems. The term can be used to describe a field of science, a movement, or an agricultural practice. (Source)
There is a strong overlap between practices described within agroecology and regenerative agriculture. Agroecology often has a stronger scientific basis, depending on the country and context in which it is used. 

3.2 Carbon Farming

“Carbon farming is a name for a variety of agricultural methods aimed at sequestering atmospheric carbon into the soil and in crop roots, wood and leaves. The aim of carbon farming is to increase the rate at which carbon is sequestered into soil and plant material with the goal of creating a net loss of carbon from the atmosphere.” (Source)

Most practices contained within carbon farming would also be associated with regenerative agriculture, though the latter goes beyond soil organic carbon in its objective.

3.3 Conservation agriculture

“A farming system that promotes minimum soil disturbance (i.e. no-till farming), maintenance of a permanent soil cover, and diversification of plant species. It enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface, which contribute to increased water and nutrient use efficiency and to improved and sustained crop production.” (Source)

The principles of conservation agriculture are fully aligned with and to some degree identical to those of regenerative agriculture. The difference appears to be in the mindset or objective expressed through its denomination – to damage as little as possible (-> “conserve”), or to actively improve (-> “regenerate”).

3.4 Climate-smart agriculture

“Climate-smart agriculture is an integrated approach to managing landscapes to help adapt agricultural methods, livestock and crops to the ongoing human-induced climate change and, where possible, counteract it by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, at the same time taking into account the growing world population to ensure food security. Thus, the emphasis is not simply on sustainable agriculture, but also on increasing agricultural productivity.” (Source)

Here the focus is on adapting to climate change. In its principles, there is full alignment with regenerative agriculture. However, it doesn’t explicitly take a full-ecosystem approach to increasing climate adaptation. 

3.5 Permaculture

“Permaculture is an approach to land management and philosophy that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing natural ecosystems. It includes a set of design principles derived using whole systems thinking. It uses these principles in fields such as regenerative agriculture, rewilding, and community resilience.” (Source)

Permaculture is a design approach to land management, which is fully compatible, and mostly complementary to regenerative agriculture, as the source states.

4. Current state of debate on defining regenerative agriculture

A number of commendable metastudies have been undertaken to summarise the current state of research on regenerative agriculture. In this position paper, we’ll focus on the work of Schreefel et al. 2020 and Newton et al. 2020.

“We reviewed 229 journal articles and 25 practitioner websites to characterize the term “regenerative agriculture.” Our review revealed that there were many definitions and descriptions of regenerative agriculture in usage. These were variously based on processes (e.g., use of cover crops, the integration of livestock, and reducing or eliminating tillage), outcomes (e.g., to improve soil health, to sequester carbon, and to increase biodiversity), or combinations of the two.” (Newton et al. 2020)

Schreefel et al. summarise that the peer-reviewed articles converge on the following set of objectives and practices for regenerative agriculture:

Objectives

Enhance and improve soil health

Optimise resource management

Alleviate climate change

Improve water quality and availability

Improve (soil) biodiversity

Improve soil carbon

Improve soil physical quality

Improve nutrient cycling

Activities

Minimise external inputs

Mixed farming

Minimise tillage

Crop rotation

Use of manure and compost

Use perennials

(Schreefel et al. 2020)

The authors come to the conclusion “that there were many definitions and descriptions of regenerative agriculture in usage. These were variously based on processes (e.g., use of cover crops, the integration of livestock, and reducing or eliminating tillage), outcomes (e.g., to improve soil health, to sequester carbon, and to increase biodiversity), or combinations of the two.”

5. Process-based approaches

Process-based approaches, also known as practice-based approaches, focus on the concrete processes and practices used in order to achieve a given goal. This approach hinges on the “inclusion or exclusion of one or more agricultural principles and/or practices (e.g., the integration of crops and animals, the use of no-till agriculture, the use of cover crops) that define what types of agriculture may be considered regenerative.” (Newton et al. 2020)

5.1 Benefits

Our interviews showed that process-based approaches are a well-regarded way of defining agricultural systems. Most frameworks of organic and ecological agriculture give farmers a clear set of prescribed practices. Similarly, EU subsidies are based on e.g. the implementation of practices included in eco schemes.

“It can be surmised that action-oriented approaches continue to dominate (agro-environmental) schemes for a number of reasons: they are relatively easy to implement and monitor (no complex indicators required), are, in general, acceptable to farmers (often because they involve little actual change to farming practices – e.g. Wilson and Hart, 2001), they comply with WTO requirements, and, to put it simply, we currently lack any feasible alternative.” (Burton, Schwarz, 2013)

 

5.2 Risks

However, scholars have identified risks associated with a purely process-based approach.

“Worryingly, these practices are generally promoted with little regard to context. Practices most often encouraged (such as no tillage, no pesticides or no external nutrient inputs) are unlikely to lead to the benefits claimed in all places” (Ken. E. Giller et al. 2021)

“An implication of definitions that are entirely process-based may be that advocates or users of such definitions are open-minded about the possible outcomes of those processes. That is, unless one can be absolutely certain that a particular practice always and without exception leads to a particular outcome, a definition of regenerative agriculture that is based on process(es) may imply agnosticism about the outcome(s).”(Newton et al. 2020)

“USDA Organic agriculture is also an excellent demonstration of the principle that defining an agricultural approach by which processes are allowed or disallowed is not always a good proxy for its outcomes. Many proponents of organic agriculture claim or assume that it is universally or consistently advantageous in terms of environmental outcomes, but many studies and meta-analyses have now demonstrated this not to be the case (e.g., Seufert and Ramankutty, 2017).”(Newton et al. 2020)

““No-till?”  Check.  “Cover Crops?” Check. “Grazing plan?” Check.
The problem is that we get so bogged down on specifics that we force some people into doing things that don’t make sense while having others avoid doing things that do.
(…) some of this is unavoidable. You have to have sideboards and guardrails if you are going to have programs and markets. There has to be some direction on what does and doesn’t qualify.
At the same time, we shouldn’t lose sight of the need for flexibility and site-specific approaches when dealing with soil health. Different crops, geography, eco-regions and economic realities dictate that one size will not fit all.” (Clay Pope, 2021, Article)

If we suppose that the fundamental idea of regenerative agriculture is its capacity to produce food while enhancing the land and local ecosystem’s capacity to fulfill its functions into the future.
In that case, we propose that any workable definition focuses on the outcomes in terms of (1) producing food and (2) enhancing said capacity.

6. Outcomes-based approaches

According to Newton et al. 2020, outcome-based definitions focus “on one or more agricultural outcomes (e.g., carbon sequestration, changes in soil health, changes in biodiversity) that define what types of agriculture are considered regenerative.

An implication of definitions and descriptions that are entirely outcome-oriented may be that advocates or users of such definitions and descriptions are open-minded about the processes that may lead to those outcomes. That is, it is possible or likely that any given outcome of interest can be generated in multiple different ways.”

6.1 Benefits

One of the main benefits of an outcome-based definition is the lack of rigidity for farmers, enabling them to implement their context-specific knowledge and experience to accomplish the outcomes needed.
Farmers are enabled to collect feedback on their own results towards the regeneration potential of their site, therefore increasing the value of their operation.

European trials show that an outcome-based approach can be more cost-effective than a process-based approach, as Burton, Schwarz, 2013 detail, even though monitoring processes in these pilot programs are still quite costly.

For policymakers, an outcome-based approach enables financial incentivisation and compensation instruments towards farmers, which at the same time reduce externalities and ensure long-term sustainable production.
The context-specificity of an outcome-based approach reduces the conflict of regulators with land managers who feel over-regulated. 
Burton, Schwarz, 2013 argue that “result-oriented schemes create common goals between farmers and conservationists, leading to cooperation between two conflicting groups (Musters et al., 2001; Matzdorf and Lorenz, 2010).”

For private industry, an outcome-based reporting system shows genuine effort and allows for consumers to track the impact of their purchases through the value chain. Research shows that the willingness of consumers to pay more for sustainably produced products rises with the possibility of building relationships with the place of production. 

For researchers, such a definition would enable a real debate about the potential of regenerative agriculture, as it includes the context-specificity which has limited the research of regenerative agricultural practices in research for too long.

For farmers an outcome-based approach returns the decision-making power and creativity to the agricultural profession. Producers receive feedback on their results on an ongoing basis and are rewarded for their performance, not based on rigid regulation.
“Change may also occur in the relationship between farmers and the public. In particular, result-oriented schemes can communicate the extent to which farmers contribute environmental services to society and, consequently, help to justify financial support to the farming community (Matzdorf and Lorenz, 2010).” (Burton, Schwarz, 2013)

Overview of benefits: 

  • Transparent and measurable
  • Context-specific
  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Empowering for farmers
  • Bridging gaps between stakeholders

6.2 Use cases

There are four concrete use cases which experts have identified for an outcome-based definition of regenerative agriculture:

  1. For farmers to be able to assess the effectiveness of their practices for ensuring long-term productivity
  2. For private industry to assess the security and long-term productivity of their land assets
  3. For the public sector to incentivise farmers effectively in order to secure long-term productivity and reduce externalities
  4. For watchdog organisations to ensure that claims about regenerative agriculture go beyond greenwashing

Given the risks inherent to continuing degenerative agricultural practices in relation to exceeding our planetary boundaries, the need for deeper research and further application of regenerative agricultural practices becomes more and more pressing.

6.2.1 Requirements

“(…) three dimensions that have been shown in the literature to be important building blocks of results-based approaches. These are
(1) selecting measurable results
(2) setting up payment and verification mechanisms and
(3) providing support to the incentivised actor.
” (Heiner Janus, Sarah Holzapfel, 2016)

6.3 Robust approach to measuring outcomes

6.3.1 Frameworks

Regenerative agriculture, as we have discussed, is agricultural practice which leads to enhancing the capacity of soil to fulfill its soil functions and ecosystem services.

  • High-quality food production
  • Reduction of damage and degeneration to future productivity
  • Enhancement of ecosystem services and soil functions
  • Enhancement of the resilience of productivity capacity, and said ecosystem services and soil functions

We propose to build upon existing and recognised frameworks for ecosystem services and soil functions. Any definition and measurement framework needs to be integrated into the larger policy and private-industry debate around climate change mitigation and adaptation.

6.3.2 Ecosystem Services

Schreefel et al. point out that Regenerative Agriculture contributes to “a resilient ecosystem that enables the provision of ecosystem services, such as provisioning, regulating, habitat and supporting services.” (Schreefel et al. 2020)

In the past decades, the concept of ecosystem services, i.e. the services which our planet’s ecosystems render to human society, has received increasing attention.

“the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA 2005a) recognized four categories of services:

  • supporting (e.g. nutrient cycling, soil formation and primary production);
  • provisioning (e.g. food, fresh water, wood and fiber and fuel);
  • regulating (e.g. climate regulation, flood and disease regulation and water purification); and
  • cultural (aesthetic, spiritual, educational and recreational)”

(TEEB: ECOLOGICAL AND ECONOMIC FOUNDATIONS, 2010)

Soil is an integral part of providing these ecosystem services.

6.3.3 Soil Functions

Whereas ecosystem services refer to the services provided by the ecosystem as a whole, “soil functions” has become a way to refer to the contribution of soils to the wider ecosystem services. Going forward, “soil functions” is shorthand for “soil contributions to ecosystem services”.

Schulte et al. (2014) propose the following five main soil functions on which agricultural practice have significant influence:

  1. Primary productivity: the provision of food, feed, fiber and fuel;
  2. Water purification and regulation: the ability of soils to
    a) purify and regulate water for human consumption and
    b) maintenance of ecosystem integrity
  3. Carbon storage and regulation: the ability of soils to store carbon for
    a) partial offsetting of GHG emissions and
    b) regulation of biological and physical soil processes
  4. Provision of a habitat for biodiversity, both below-ground and above-ground diversity
  5. Cycling and provision of nutrients, specifically the ability of soils to provide a sustainable home for external nutrients such as those derived from landless farming systems (e.g., pig and poultry farms), as well as sewage sludge and other organic waste products.

These aspects are critical for the earth system and are the focal points of a definition of regenerative agriculture.

We suggest therefore that regenerative agriculture is to be defined as agricultural practices which enhance and improve soils’ capacity to deliver upon the above soil functions, and increase the long-term resilience of its functions.

7. Challenges of a purely outcome-based approach

7.1 Sensitivity of indicators

In interviews, experts have pointed out that indicators for improved soil functions need to be sufficiently sensitive to agricultural practices. Also, such indicators would have to be measured at sufficient accuracy in order for their influence to be taken into account.
Soil organic carbon has been mentioned as a difficult indicator in that sense, as, according to some experts, it is relatively insensitive to changes in agricultural practices and difficult to assess to the level of accuracy needed.

7.2 Monitoring costs

An outcome-based approach necessitates regular monitoring of outcomes. Such monitoring would have to be accurate enough, independent and cost-effective. Lab tests are generally seen as too costly, while satellite remote sensing shows great promise in some areas, but isn’t always accurate enough yet and lacks ground-truthing.

7.3 Increasing risk for suppliers

Outcome-based approaches increase risk for farmers in a number of ways.

Firstly, an outcome-based approach requires results on the ground in order to validate the approach taken as regenerative.
Given that soil is a complex organism and sensitive to climatic changes as well as agricultural practices, the time frame to validate a given approach is likely to be at least a couple of years.
For an incentivisation approach based on the definition discussed, practitioners would be taking a lot of risk before receiving financial compensation. 

Secondly, as Burton, Schwarz, 2013 point out, “the outcome of farmers’ actions is dependent on factors outside their control – in particular, climatic conditions (Westerlink et al., 2008; Latacz-Lohmann and Schilizzi, 2005), the behaviour of neighbouring farmers (e.g. providing a seed source for decolonisation – Aviron et al., 2010), and, for mobile species, life-cycle stages such as breeding, feeding, and migrating (Westerlink et al., 2008).
Consequently, while action-oriented agri-environmental schemes may be regarded as a steady source of income to support the farm, result-oriented approaches offer no such security. This additional risk led Westerlink et al (2008: 25) to question the fairness of result-oriented schemes asking “whether it is fair to hold a farmer responsible for the outcome of his measures, while he is greatly depending on natural processes and the surrounding environment, including the behaviour of his neighbours.”

8. Conclusion

The presented arguments make it clear that the defining element of regenerative agriculture is its effect in restoring the capacity of soil to deliver on its functions.

No general statement can be made regarding the regenerative effect of any practice.

Methodologies for assessing the regenerative effect will be discussed in the annex. 

If the regenerative effect can only be assessed after the effect, it leaves land managers and stakeholders with the question how to undertake the transition to regenerative management. 

The same challenge exists for stakeholders looking to finance and incentivise such a transition to lower risks for land managers.

For general orientation and instruction, we therefore suggest a framework of principles and practices which need to be adapted to the local geological, climatic, social and economic context.

8.1 Principles & Process-based frame

8.1.1 Principles

In the absence of existing best practices for a given context, land managers should have access to a set of principles to guide their decision-making process. 

Different sets of principles already exist:

Rattan Lal, 2020 suggests  

“Therefore, the goal of RA is to apply the concept of more from less (McAfee 2019) to agriculture and produce more from less (Lal 2013):

  • less land area, 
  • less input of chemicals,
  • less use of water, 
  • less emission of greenhouse gases, 
  • less risk of soil degradation, and 
  • less use of energy-based inputs”

Another set of principles has been suggested and adopted by a number of actors. The original source is not clear. They are often quoted as:

  1. Work within Context
  2. Reduced chemical and mechanical soil disturbance
  3. Keep the soil covered as much as possible
  4. Keep living roots in the soil as much as possible
  5. Create as much diversity as possible 
  6. Integrate livestock into the system

While these principles are not all-encompassing, they provide a workable framework for land managers.

8.1.2 Process-based frame

For stakeholders interested in incentivising or financing the transition to regenerative practices, it will be necessary additionally to model future regenerative effects.

Models for regenerative effects, esp. regarding soil carbon sequestration, exist which adapt to context. Models which don’t include soil type and climate in the equation can not be used to model regenerative practices.

The challenge of modelling regenerative agriculture lies in its inherent multi-system approach, wherein e.g. perennial plants, cover crops, livestock and main crops necessarily influence each other.
An inherent risk of modelling therefore is its preference for simple and clear-cut management systems to avoid this complexity. Any stakeholder aiming to connect payments with models needs to be wary of this risk.

8.2 Outcome Verification

The essential element of any verification of regenerative effects on the land and ecosystem is necessarily a measurement of outcomes. 

As outlined above, outcomes should be clear indicators of the capacity of the given land to deliver upon its soil functions. Regenerative agriculture is agricultural practice which contributes to the soil’s capacity to deliver upon its soil functions and ecosystem services.

Methodologies for assessing the effectiveness of a given set of practices need to be adapted to the purpose and target group. 

Target group

Preference for

land manager or consultant

Low-cost, pragmatic

private industry stakeholders

Scalable, standardisable, cost-effective

public sector stakeholders

Scalable, standardisable, cost-effective, justiciable

scientific researchers

Accurate

We suggest the creation of a baseline approach with modular expandability for other target groups. The development of methodologies should be done in an open-source process, leading to a common reporting standard on regenerative agriculture.

Annex I: Operationalising an outcome-based definition

1. Choice of indicators

The objective of regenerative agriculture is to enhance the soil’s ability to deliver upon its main soil functions:

  1. Primary productivity
  2. Water purification and regulation
  3. Carbon sequestration and climate regulation
  4. Provision of functional and intrinsic biodiversity
  5. Provision and cycling of nutrients

To measure the influence of a given set of agricultural practices on these soil functions, it is important that the influence of external factors, such as weather variations or potential influences from neighbouring activities are taken into account and not added to or subtracted from the results for which the land manager is responsible. 

Burton, Schwarz, 2013 suggest these characteristics of “good” indicators:

Indicators should be measurable and identifiable.
Measurability and identifiability are critical requirements for selecting indicator species. Measurability is necessary to promote ease of monitoring (e.g. Gerowitt et al., 2003; Höft and Gerowitt, 2006; Matzdorf et al., 2008; Zabel and Roe, 2009) and should, according to Matzdorf et al. (2008) be comparable over the contract period. Species should be easily identified as, in the majority of result-oriented schemes, farmers have a role in monitoring their levels of provision (e.g. Gerowitt et al., 2003; Wittig et al., 2006; Matzdorf et al., 2008; Zabel and Roe, 2009). To make this easier, it is beneficial if the species’ appearance is consistent throughout the year (Höft and Gerowitt, 2006).

Indicators should not conflict with agricultural goals.
To be acceptable to farmers and fit in with conventional farming systems it is beneficial if indicator species do not damage conventional agricultural production (Kaiser et al., 2010) and, particularly where the species are considered ‘weed species’, they are easy to reduce if required (Höft and Gerowitt, 2006).

Indicators should be consistent with ecological goals.
Indicators should be consistent with the ecological goals of the project as far as is possible (Kaiser et al., 2010). For example, indicator species known to host beneficial insects should be selected above those that, while representative of the desired habitat, do not play an important ecological role (Höft and Gerowitt, 2006). 

Indicators should reflect the effort of participating farmers.
As with crops, some indicators are likely to be more difficult to propagate than others. Thus indicators (and payments for indicators) need to reflect the management effort required for production (Zabel and Roe, 2009; Kaiser et al., 2010). An additional factor noted by some, is that indicators need to be attributable to a single producer (Gerowitt et al., 2003). However, as we outline below, there are potential benefits to employing indicators that cross geographical boundaries.”

Expert interviews have indicated another characteristic:

Indicator sets should be well-balanced.
An essential element of an outcome-based approach is the selection of a well-balanced set of indicators. Any single indicator is prone to represent perverse incentives. Too many indicators overcomplicate the assessment. 

1.1 Sensitivity to agricultural practices

A primary deciding factor is the sensitivity of the given indicator to agricultural practices. In this sense, soil microbial activity could be seen as a good indicator, while bulk density is likely a bad indicator. 

1.1.1 Different levels of lag in indicators

Some soil parameters react more readily to changes in agricultural practices than others. By tendency, soil biology is more sensitive to changes in practices than soil chemistry is. That makes it a better indicator in the early stages of a transition, but also more prone to climatic and other influences. 

1.2 Ease of measurability

The tolerance towards complexity of sampling and cost of measurement will be different depending on the target group for which outcomes are verified. Nevertheless, it is an important factor to be taken into account. 

Indicators with a relatively high ease of measurability, repeatability and low-costs should be prioritised, without compromising accuracy and/or relevance.

1.3 Relevance

The set of indicators chosen need to enable a full reading of the soil functions and the influence of agricultural practices.

1.4 An open-source indicator list

The research of the past decades has given us a wealth of indicators to measure soil functions. Whereas some indicators will point at specific parameters, others allow for a more general assessment of soil functions. 

We have an opportunity to bring the expertise from a range of ecoregions together and collect the most fitting indicators for changing ability to deliver upon soil function.

2. Methodologies of measurement

Methodologies will have to be developed in order to give operators clear instructions on how to measure and report regenerative effects. Within diverse contexts, different indicators or measurement approaches might be most appropriate. 

These methodologies would provide a clear reporting standard, comparable to the one within the voluntary carbon markets, for land managers and private industry. These frameworks might serve to aid future policy on a regional, national or European level. 

2.1 Benchmarking

For each soil function, we can assume a certain maximum potential. Bouma et al, 2016 explore this concept as “soil capacity”, primarily regarding the primary productivity function. 

Dinerstein et al, 2017 have assessed the state of the global ecological heritage by mapping 846 terrestrial ecoregions.
Using a similar approach, benchmarks of soil capacity per soil function would need to be created for each ecoregion. Land managers and consultants could use those to assess the state of their land with the potential stated for their ecoregion, and adapt practices accordingly.

Designers of payment systems could take advantage of such a framework in order to offer weighted payments, taking into account the relatively easier task of improving soil functions in the early stages as compared to at their later stages. 

Such a benchmarking system also allows payments to continue once regeneration has reached a plateau. This addresses a major concern of many experts regarding such payment systems. Land managers would be incentivized to raise the level of their soil functions up to the capacity level and maintain it there as best they can. 

2.2 Measurement events

Measurement events need to be balanced between target group needs and measurement costs.
Changes in soil chemistry will hardly be measurable beyond expected error margins for the first years. Even then, attribution needs to be done carefully and other factors need to be taken into consideration. 

3. Payment-by-result schemes

An outcome-based approach suggests itself for a payment-by-result scheme, i.e. an incentivisation system based on the results delivered towards ecosystem services. 

The incentives must be designed to outweigh the risks outlined in point 7 of the position paper, in order to be effective.

“Researchers have suggested a number of means of reducing the risk including 

  • offering a base payment to compensate for actions, and a bonus payment for outcomes (Bräuer et al., 2006) – a measure that Schlizzi et al. (2010) note is particularly effective when dealing with risk-averse landowners; 
  • making remuneration dependent on a combination of the agent’s actions and a weather variable (Loisel and Elyakime, 2006);
  • allowing farmers to undergo subsequent checks to avoid sanctions after extreme weather events (as is currently the case for the MEKA project – Matzdorf and Lorenz, 2010); and 
  • the careful choice of (multiple) performance indicators that spread the risk that any particular species will fail in one year (Zabel and Roe, 2009).” (Burton, Schwarz, 2013)

To enable farmers to undertake changes in management, upfront payments may be a good option. In that case, a combination of practice-based and outcome-based approaches might make sense.
Modelled results of planned agricultural practices could be used as a base-payment, to be verified by later results.

Signatures

As signatories of this proposal for an outcome-based definition of regenerative agriculture, we express our support to the further development of this approach. We see the large potential of regenerative agriculture and believe that it needs to be permanently removed from the realm of greenwashing. Through a common understanding we will be able to further understand and develop its potential.

Name, role, institution, date

  • Ivo Degn, CEO, Climate Farmers, 24.08.2021
  • James Pittman, Ecological Economist, Real Value Group  24.08.2021
  • Sophia Leiker, Geospatial Environmental Researcher, Regen Network Development 24.08.2021
  • Fabio Volkmann, Impact Assessment Coordinator, Open Soil Atlas, 24.08.2021
  • Anne Trombini, Managing Director, Pour une Agriculture du Vivant, 25.08.2021
  • Léa Lugassy, Scientific Coordinator, Pour une Agriculture Du Vivant, 25.08.2021
Contributors

Through their support in the form of expert interviews, these individuals have contributed greatly to the development of this paper.

  • Sophia Leiker, Regen Network
  • Petrissa Eckle, sus.lab / ETH Zurich
  • Howard Koster, Soil Biology Group, Wageningen University
  • Christian Hiß, Regionalwert AG
  • Prof. Rachel Creamer, Soil Biology Group, Wageningen University
  • James Pittmann: Regen Network
  • Prof. Dr. Hubert Wiggering, University Potsdam
  • Raquel Luján Soto, CEBAS-CSIC
  • Martin Erbs, DAFA
  • Asger Strange Olesen, Forest Stewardship Council
  • Franz Rösl, IG Gesunder Boden
  • Loekie Schreefel, Wageningen
  • Pablo Borrelli, Ecologic Outcome Verification
  • Prof. Rattan Lal, Ohio State University
  • Daniela Russi, British Ecological Society
  • Tobias Bandel, Soil & More
  • Dr. Axel Don, Thünen Institut
  • Harriet Mella, Independent Researcher
  • Felix Prinz von Löwenstein, BÖLW
  • Wolfgang Zornbach, BMEL
  • Martin Stuchtey, SYSTEMIQ

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