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Net-zero is just the start. What does it take to be 100% Regenerative?

In most of our conversations with our partners and clients we get to a point where people want to know; “can we reach 100% regenerative?”. The short answer is; it depends. It depends for a large part on your definition; ‘regenerative’ in itself cannot be captured in something as simple as a fixed point–it is not a box that can be checked… It is so much more. 

Regenerative implies a flow state; a system that is constantly striving to improve itself. In this sense, regenerative agriculture mimics nature, where continuous improvement and adaptation to changing conditions are the keys to success. This makes regenerative agriculture as a concept difficult to pin down. According to many, it is a collection of practices & principles, for others, it’s a set of outcomes to strive for. In our eyes, it’s both. 

Being 100% regenerative means that you are applying regenerative practices & principles to ensure that you are ‘net-positive’ on specific outcomes–across social, environmental, and economic impact areas–and continuously improving your approach to reach these desired impacts based on results & lessons learned. 

Since this is still quite broad, let’s unpack reNature’s definition of ‘100% regenerative’ a bit more.

Key Impacts Areas and system health

The definition of 100% regenerative first of all begs the question; “what are these impacts we’re working towards?”. 

Our basis is familiar Impact Areas related to regenerative agriculture, such as soil health, carbon sequestration, biodiversity (above- and belowground), and the hydrological (water) cycle. To this, we have chosen to add a stronger focus on socio-economic impacts such as Food Security, Resilience, and Empowerment of Women & Youth. This selection of Key Impact Areas (KIAs) creates a framework to monitor overall ‘system health’. 

Main KIAs to monitor the ‘system health’

These KIAs can be further defined as a list of desired outcomes & outputs, as well as the activities and practices linked to it, tracking progress on multiple levels. This is of course the area where regenerative agriculture is the most immature, and reNature’s Science Partners and Science Advisors are working hard to develop and share scientifically-backed definitions and measurement protocols.

Finally, since we strongly believe that no one can change the system of food & fiber production by themselves, we advocate an approach that has a high degree of flexibility, allowing continuous improvement and the addition of impact areas in line with our clients’ and partners’ ambitions, and with the developing scientific fields that underpin regenerative agriculture.

The Regeneration-Curve 

Using these KIAs as a guide, we can conceptualize different dynamic states that a particular plot of land or ecosystem can be in, as it is affected by human activity. 

Plotting these along a path, we can visualize the Regeneration Curve. Yes, this grossly oversimplifies the intricacies of natural systems, the local ecological and social context details, and the hard work required to organize the transformation. But it helps to visualize why ‘sustainable’ and ‘net-zero’ are only steps towards regeneration, not an end in themselves.

Conventional: the most practiced form of agriculture, a degenerative, negative spiral of depleting the land until there is nothing left but the barren ground. This is our theoretical lower limit. Sustainable: sometimes defined as ‘net-zero’, a steady state where no more harm is being done but the situation doesn’t necessarily improve. Regenerative: positive impacts on people, planet, and profit. The system becomes resilient, self-supporting, and continuously improving.

In the same way, degeneration has a lower limit, where all life is gone and all resources are exhausted, regeneration has a theoretical upper limit. There is only so much carbon that can be captured, an optimal level of biodiversity, and the desired level of social empowerment, and we will start to see trade-offs between different optimized states. More importantly, the practical limit of what we can reach is created by the ‘law of diminishing returns: at some point the investment of time & energy becomes unmanageable, taking away from having an impact in other locations; we run into unforeseen consequences or trade-offs, or we need to come up with innovative approaches for new problems; all of which slow our ability to improve. 

It’s good to note here that reaching the upper limit should be considered an achievement in itself, and a challenge for the future; most agricultural land is still in a degeneration state and so the Regenerative Revolution is much needed!

The Transition to Regenerative 

Bringing together these key elements, we can move to a definition: 

“For 100% of your agricultural production or supply-base, you are net-positive on Key Impact Areas”. 

For organizations sourcing agricultural products, this leads to four checkpoints that should be passed in the journey to 100% regenerative. You need to:

  1. Know your supply chain. You need to realize maximum transparency & traceability of your supply chain; this will allow you to understand the realities of the farmers that supply your raw materials and create the incentives to drive the transition. 
  2. Design the transition. Identify your KIAs, map the longer-term transition that you want to realize, and design and implement regenerative practices for the specific supply chain, commodity, farmer archetype, and geography. Prototype and learn through the use of Model Farms, and continuously improve based on measurement & evaluation of progress.
  3. Scale up. Utilize a cost-effective approach to roll out regenerative practices and Technical Assistance to 100% of the producers, through train-the-trainer approaches using a Capacity Building Center, and building on the real-world example of the Model Farms. Scaling up these approaches to the full supply base. Milestone: 100% of producers apply regenerative practices.
  4. Regenerate. Guide effective implementation and improvement to ensure that regenerative practices actually lead to net-positive outcomes in Key Impact Areas. Milestone: 100% of producers apply regenerative practices, which demonstrably lead to net-positive results on all KIAs.

Do you want your organization to reach 100% Regenerative?

Let us help you.

reNature works with front-runners in the world of food & fiber production to design, implement, and scale. Find out how we can help you achieve both your impact goals and your organizational targets. 

To contribute to our mission directly, and help us realize the regenerative revolution for the more than 80.000 smallholder farmers in our network, please support our work!