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A definition of Regenerative Agroforestry

What we mean when we talk about regenerative agroforestry

You might have seen us use the term ‘Regenerative Agroforestry’ in several of our previous articles. Even though we’ve dedicated this webpage to explaining the practices that it describes, why we use them, and why they are beneficial, the term itself deserves more attention. The agricultural world encompasses a variety of terminologies describing practices, approaches or principles that may leave not only the layman in confusion. For instance, how is regenerative agroforestry different from just agroforestry? And how is regenerative different from organic? Does regenerative always imply multi-strata agroforestry? This article will dive deeper into both the terms ‘regenerative’, and ‘agroforestry’, and why we at reNature think the power lies with the combination of both.

Regenerative Agroforestry – what does it compass?

Regenerative: Beyond sustainability

You might or might not have heard the term ‘regenerative’ in relation to agriculture before. Either way, we think there’s an increasing chance that you will see this combination of words more often. At reNature, we believe that ‘regenerative’ will become the new ‘sustainable’. What does that mean? How is ‘regenerative’ different?

‘Sustainability is a bridge – regeneration is the destination’ describes well how we think of ‘regenerative’ versus ‘sustainable’ in relation to land and agriculture. By definition, sustainability aims at maintaining a certain state. Yet, in current times we inhabit a world that has already been significantly altered by human activities. Regeneration, on the other hand, describes the notion of replenishing what has been exploited and repairing what has been damaged.

In practical terms, this difference can best be visualized by the example of agricultural soils. Since the green revolution starting around the 1950s and 60s, agricultural practices have been widely intensified which led to the ongoing exploitation of soils. By now, about 38% of global cropland are affected by degradation. Whilst a sustainable approach to soil management would imply maintaining a steady state without further damage, a regenerative approach would aim to actively replenish soil health.

Sustainability is a bridge – Regeneration is the destination. In the coming years, we at reNature expect a paradigm shift from the concept of ‘sustainable’ to ‘regenerative’ – most certainly within agriculture, but likely also in other sectors (Source: Savory Institute).

In the paper “Agroforestry Standards for Regenerative Agriculture”, the authors identify 5 goals of regenerative agriculture:

  1. Soil: Contribute to building soils along with soil fertility and health. 
  2. Water: Increase water percolation, water retention, and clean and safe water runoff
  3. Biodiversity: Enhance and conserve biodiversity
  4. Ecosystem health: Capacity for self-renewal and resiliency
  5. Carbon: Sequester carbon

In sum, whereas sustainable means maintaining what’s there, regenerative acts upon the need to actively improve soils, water cycles, biodiversity, ecosystem health, and carbon cycles.

Don’t panic, it’s organic?

And how is ‘regenerative’ different from ‘organic’? Well, first of all, organic indicates that the production meets a certain certification. Big certification schemes include the USDA Organic certification and the European Union’s organic logo

Arguably, organic farming tends to focus on not doing things; not using chemical fertilizers, not using antibiotics, not using pesticides; whereas regenerative focuses on proactively improving; building soil, inviting functional biodiversity, and increasing farm resilience to disruptions such as climate change.

This difference between organic and regenerative is not black and white, and there are overlaps between organic farming and regenerative farming, but the concept of regenerative moves far and beyond that of organic. Although it promises to perform better on environmental impact than conventional agriculture, organic agriculture often still implies a monoculture of crops or livestock, with little more benefits for farmers, biodiversity, and climate than conventional agriculture. Using less pesticides, fertilisers, and antibiotics is not enough – we need to do more.

Therefore, the phrase ‘Don’t panic, it’s organic’, is one that we hope will be eventually outdated (and, that someone will come up with a better catch-phrase that revolves around regenerative).

Organic agriculture can still imply that crops are grown in massive monocultures (Source: Rasmus Landgreen / Unsplash).

What about certified regenerative?

Currently, there are organisations working on developing certifications for regenerative farming, similar to those certifications that farmers can obtain to become acknowledged organic farmers. Below, we will discuss two of them.

Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC)

Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) is, in the organisations own words, ‘a revolutionary new certification for food, fiber, and personal care ingredients. ROC farms and products meet the highest standards for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness.’

The ROC is overseen by the nonprofit Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) chaired by the Rodale Institute. The ROC just underwent a pilot program in 2019 with 19 farms and brands producing a large diversity of commodities in a large geographical range. The lessons learned were fed into the latest version of the ROC framework released in June 2020.

Apricot Lane Farms, in California, USA, is one of the farms that has received the ROC certification in the ROC pilot program (Source: Keri Oberly / Patagonia).

The goal of ROC is to promote holistic agriculture practices in an all-encompassing certification that:
• Increases soil organic matter over time and sequesters carbon below and above ground, which could be a tool to mitigate climate change;
• Improves animal welfare; and
• Provides economic stability and fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers.

ROC consists of three pillars: Soil Health and Land Management, Animal Welfare, and Farmer & Worker Fairness. ROC has three levels: Bronze, Silver, and Gold, where each requires a different number and scope of regenerative organic practices used.

Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV)

Another certification within regenerative agriculture is the Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) developed by Savory Institute. One strength about the EOV is the fact that it is outcome-based, whereas many other certification schemes are based upon an inventory of farmer practices. With those certification schemes, the use of practices or tools does not necessarily guarantee that regeneration will take place. The EOV framework acknowledges that outcomes depend on how and when practices and tools are used, and that depends on contextual variances in cultural, environmental, and economic conditions.

Savory Institute’s video on Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV).

EOV currently focuses on the impact of management on:

  • Soil health, focussed on absorbing more carbon, retain more water, and are richer in fertility;
  • Biodiversity, seeking to establish plants that are more varied and resilient, that domestic animals and wildlife are more plentiful;
  • Ecosystem functioning, where water, minerals, nutrients and energy are continuously cycled

EOV currently focuses on land bases of livestock operations, namely meat, dairy, wool and leather, but perhaps the EOV will expand to further product categories in the future.

With increasing attempts to capture regenerative farming in certifications, such as ROC and EOV, the term ‘regenerative’ is undergoing the process of increasing maturity.

Agroforestry: #NothingBetterThanATree

We’ve now discussed what we understand to be ‘regenerative’. Up next: what is agroforestry? Very simply put, agroforestry is defined as ‘agriculture with trees’. A more elaborate definition of agroforestry is ‘the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits’

Agroforestry can comprise trees on farms, in agricultural landscapes, and farming in forests and along forest margins. Agroforestry practices include alley cropping, windbreaks, It commonly includes crops including cocoa, coffee, rubber and oil palm, and also livestock such as cows, goats and chickens.

A driving idea behind agroforestry is that by introducing trees on cropland, pasturelands, and rangelands where there were previously none or little, we can generate benefits for that system as a whole: positively impacting the production of the cultivated crops or kept livestock, as well as simultaneously ensuring environmental protection. Generating benefits for people and nature at the same time, in the same space. This understanding has for instance led to our Verstegen project for diversification of white pepper systems in Indonesia and our Pasto Vivo project serving to transform traditional cattle ranching in Brazil.

Another driving idea is that standing forests can be very productive systems in terms of food production and that these forests can provide livelihood for its inhabitants. This is the understanding that led to our Tivoli project that serves to preserve 26,000 ha of Amazonian rainforest by assigning an economic value to it.

Trees provide many unique functions that are beneficial not only directly for the direct purpose of food, fibre, fodder and fuel production, but also other functions, such as bringing back nutrients to the soil, capturing rainwater and improving infiltration, reducing erosion, creating habitat and food for biodiversity, and much more. 

Only some of the benefits of trees. #NothingBetterThanATree

Interactions between trees and other components of agriculture may be important at a range of scales: 

  • In fields or pastures, where trees and crops are grown together or where trees are integrated within livestock’s pasture or ranging lands
  • On farms, where trees may provide fodder for livestock, fuel, food, shelter or income from tree products such as timber
  • In landscapes, where agricultural and forest land uses combine in determining the provision of ecosystem services

Agroforestry systems typically search for an optimal balance and to create synergies between the following goals:

  • Production of timber, fruit, nuts, and other commercial tree-products
  • Production of a diverse and adequate supply of nutritious foods contributing to farmers’ food security
  • Protection of the natural environment so that it continues to provide resources and environmental services to meet the needs of the present generations and those to come

All in all, trees provide a range of holistic benefits that can improve the farming system as a whole for the advantage of people and nature. A report by member organisations of the Agroforestry Network provides evidence of how agroforestry can contribute to implementation of 9 out of the 17 SDGs, with the strongest impact potential for poverty reduction (SDG 1) and hunger alleviation (SDG 2), as well as for climate action (SDG 13) and life on land (SDG 15).

Combining indigenous and scientific knowledge

Although agroforestry is a relatively new term, the practice could be as old as agriculture itself. Many traditional systems make use of the multifunctionality of trees.

There are numerous examples of traditional agroforestry systems. Some of them include: the indigenous cultivation of breadfruit, which has taken place over millennia – and up to the present day – in highly biodiverse multistory perennial agroforests in the Pacific Islands; coffee systems with coral tree shading them and providing a climbing structure for black pepper in India; apple-ring acacia with cereals, vegetables, and coffee underneath in Ethiopia. 

A traditional Samoan breadfruit agroforest that integrates crops including banana, noni, cocoa, poumuli, and coconut. The system can serve as an example for regenerative agroforestry (Source: Graig Elevtich / Elevitch et al., 2018).

Agroforestry science builds upon traditional knowledge by studying these systems and applying the lessons learned. Science can help to make traditional systems more efficient in terms of ease of harvesting and can help to make them economically viable at larger scales.

Is it the same as a food forest?

Whilst food forests also include this diversity and regenerative aspect, the more simple-to-manage regenerative agroforestry allows farmers to have planting arrangements that are not too disruptive to their current systems, that facilitate efficient harvesting, and enable economies of scale.

In addition, much research needs to be done on food forests whilst evidence-base for agroforestry systems is much stronger – there are more successful examples of business cases with commonly traded commodities.

Alley cropping in agroforestry systems, such as in this hazel-potato system makes it easy for farmers to mechanically harvest (Source: ORC/AGFORWARD Project).

The best of both worlds: Regenerative Agroforestry

By mimicking how natural systems work in our agricultural systems – learning from nature’s self-enhancing and resilient functioning – we can generate a range of holistic benefits. 

Whilst trying to omit being too prescriptive in which practices should be applied, but rather focus on the desired outcomes, we acknowledge the regenerative potential of agroforestry practices such as alley cropping, contour hedgerow, forest farming, living fences, multistory cropping, riparian forest buffer, silvoarable systems, silvopasture, and windbreaks.

Initiating the discussion on what can be called ‘regenerative agroforestry’, Elevitch et al., 2018 propose several ‘criteria’ for what they think might be able to develop into an acknowledge certification standard around the following elements:

  1. Integration
  2. Density
  3. Multistory
  4. Multiple species
The four criteria as proposed by Elevitch et al., 2018 – Integration, Density, Multistory, and Multiple species – explained (Source: Elevitch et al., 2018).

The authors acknowledge that out of these four characteristics of regenerative agroforests, by definition, only the first is inherent to all agroforests, whereas the other three can be implemented to various degrees, suggesting minimum measures be developed for plant density, number of layers, and plant diversity.

At reNature we strive towards including these criteria within our projects since we believe that they are good metrics representing what Regenerative Agroforestry systems involve.

Elevitch et al., 2018 also propose thresholds for these four criteria based on tree cover, planting density, number of layers, and species diversity. Although the authors state that the numbers themselves should be seen as initial values to be subject to further evaluation and research, we strive to meet these thresholds in most of our projects.

The proposed criteria including a threshold based on tree cover, planting density, number of layers, and species diversity (Source: Elevitch et al., 2018).

We’ve seen some definitions of regenerative, some definitions of agroforestry, and definitions of regenerative agroforestry. With certifications under way, the definition is likely to undergo further scoping.

Contributing to the scoping of definition, we at reNature propose five core principles of regenerative agroforestry:

  • Keep soil covered
  • Increase crop diversification
  • Ensure food security
  • Knowledge exchange
  • Economic viability
reNature’s 5 core principles of regenerative agroforestry

All in all, we define Regenerative Agroforestry as an agricultural approach that combines the vision of regenerative – moving beyond sustainability – with the practice of agroforestry – harnessing the multifunctionality of trees – to improve a wide range agricultural production systems in a smart, efficient, and holistic way.

Our reNature Tropicália project in Brazil – a multi-strata agroforestry system focussed around coffee, also integrating mahogany, banana, macadamia, and a variety of cover crop species. The newly-planet system is maturing rapidly.

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