Some agricultural terms—such as “organic”— seem pretty straightforward. There is a certification process, in which farmers need to show each step of the production cycle, and there can be regular audits to ensure a level of quality control.
But other terms are fuzzier. What does “environmentally friendly” mean? What about “eco-conscious” or “green” or “natural” or “sustainable”? While we each may have a general idea of what those words describe, there’s no exact definition and little, if any, regulation of them. And that could lead to problems, says Ivo Degn, co-founder and CEO of Climate Farmers. The nonprofit organization, based in Germany, helps farms across Europe transition to a regenerative farming model in an effort to reverse climate change.
But Climate Farmers doesn’t just prescribe one specific method of production. Instead, it argues that regenerative farming should be defined by its outcomes. This, Degn says, will help prevent larger conglomerates and companies from co-opting and greenwashing the term.
To find out why clear definitions of agricultural terms are crucial for farmers—and the food industry—Modern Farmer caught up with Degn to learn more about his outcome-based approach.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Modern Farmer: There is no real clear definition of regenerative agriculture. Why is coming up with a definition of the term a first step forward?
Ivo Degn: On the one hand, regenerative agriculture doesn’t have a definition, and that’s a very interesting part that allows for a lot of innovation within this space. It’s not a closed up system where you can only do one thing; there’s still a lot of openness around it. So that is something great.
On the other hand, in research, we’re working on the questions: What is the effect of regenerative agriculture? What does regenerative agriculture really do for biodiversity? What is the effect of regenerative agriculture on the economic situation of farmers? You can’t do that research if you don’t have a complex definition of regenerative agriculture.
We have huge commitments from food corporations for regenerative agriculture, which is a very optimistic sign, a very positive sign, but only if those commitments are accountable to something. And right now they aren’t.
MF: When looking to define regenerative agriculture, why do you focus on outcomes rather than farming practices?
ID: For one, the situation for the farmers is different. The climate and soil situation is different. So, to just prescribe throughout Europe, or honestly, around the world, one set of practices that make up regenerative agriculture is terrible advice. Some of them are going to work in some context and some of them won’t.
It’s also to avoid greenwashing. We know a number of actors in the field have claimed [to use] regenerative agriculture, but [they] do it from a practice-based approach. So, [to them], if you do no-till farming, you’re regenerative. That’s just not true. The regenerative effect does not necessarily come through if you don’t till the ground anymore but still use loads of herbicide.
If we want to avoid greenwashing, then the best way to see if agriculture is regenerative is to see if we [can measure] regenerative effects. Then it doesn’t matter whether the name is conventional, organic or agri-cology or permaculture or whatever you want.
MF: When talking about regenerative effects, what are you actually looking to measure?
ID: We had loads of conversations with experts in agriculture and also the economic and policy space to figure out what would be the best framework to use. And we settled on the framework that has been developed at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, which is focused on the five main soil functions.
The functions look at primary productivity, of course, and then we have habitat for biodiversity. We have rainwater infiltration, carbon capture, storage capacity and, lastly, nutrient cycling. The way we approach this is what’s going to maintain agricultural production over the long term. If you improve these types of functions, we can say that you’re regenerating the soil’s capacity to function.
It’s a framework that also fits into a lot of other conversations in the political and economic space. And at the same time, it’s very usable for farmers—and for industry policy and research.
MF: If you work with an outcome-based approach, that means those outcomes need to be collected and monitored. How do you propose we do that?
ID: That’s probably the most important question. This can be compared with other reporting practices in the industry already. When we talk about sustainability, especially when we talk about carbon, there are reporting standards. When we say we are offsetting a ton of carbon, there’s a specific methodology that you have to follow in order to prove that. We can do that for regenerative agriculture.
Carbon is the most sought after of the soil functions right now. We had difficulty, as carbon’s really only measurable after five to 10 years. Basically, that step in between, where we actually look at the soil biology, that is responsible for the capture of this carbon. If we see the appearance and improvement of the soil biology that we know leads to carbon capture, we know that we are on a good path.
There’s more and more technology being developed, which really makes it so much easier to measure regeneration. In the coming years, it’s going to become much easier using satellites and using other technologies.
MF: Are those measurements standardized, and who collects them?
ID: There’s already a system, the Ecological Outcome Verification from the Savory Institute. It can be applied very easily by farmers, without high-tech equipment. However, the system can be subjective. So, if we develop these methodologies, then there will be different institutions to certify this. And then food corporations will prove how they have done it, and then somebody else can go and check it.
MF: How do you see regenerative agriculture working within a corporate system?
ID: I think it works perfectly to the benefit of these corporations. The situation we have right now is a crisis of trust between producers and consumers. We see all this nice packaging, we see nice labels on it, and we don’t really trust it. But at the same time, we see that consumers are very willing to pay quite a lot more at the farmer’s market, when they buy food directly.
For food corporations, it’s also a matter of making sure that businesses can reduce their carbon footprint and communicate that transparently to producers for a huge opportunity to resolve the environmental crisis.
MF: On your website, farmers can sell carbon credits to fund their own regenerative farms. Doesn’t that perpetuate that carbon-dependent system?
ID: Good question. We have gotten into this space rather reluctantly. But we do it for two reasons. First, because it is trending, and there are a lot of carbon certificates out there being developed right now, but I don’t know of one that is at the quality we need. We wanted to prove it is possible to create a carbon certificate that’s fully compliant with the highest-quality standards out there.
And secondly, when money comes into this space, we want it to be in a meaningful way. The carbon certificates are a great tool to help farmers in the transition. Most farmers have five to 10 years of transition period from conventional farming to regenerative, and that’s extra costs. Our responsibility is to only sell carbon offsets to companies that have demonstrated that they are in the process of reducing their emissions.
MF: What do you believe is at stake if we do not adequately define regenerative agriculture?
ID: The immediate thing that is going to happen is that the word is going to become meaningless very quickly, and the word is going to go the same way of “sustainable.” And it’s going that way quickly. If it does, we’re missing a major opportunity to use this moment, this momentum, the financing behind it and the interest behind it, and sort of the alignment of policy, industry, research and consumers, and to shift this major system into one of natural regeneration. If we don’t do that, nothing is going to change.