When marketing becomes policy: the trouble with regenerative agriculture

Tillage radish seeded into soybeans at leaf drop. Photo credit: Darren Robinson.

Agriculture is a big tent covering many different facets of food and commodity production. From coast to coast, there are so many different farm types, sizes, production systems and end use markets. How we describe ourselves within agriculture usually involves farmer, producer or grower, and for some, rancher, but at the end of the day we all have the same goals.

When you have such diversity in soil types, water availability, and crops grown it’s difficult to say “this is how you should farm.” The standard operating procedures (SOP) handbook on agriculture would be biblical in length, and often never referred to based on the annual variables thrown the farmer’s way. This doesn’t mean that there are not best practices, but it creates significant challenges versus the standardized SOP’s of a car manufacturing plant, for example. Based on this, best practices are broad and tend to be outcome-based.

The vagueness of best practices has resulted in buzzwords being attached to production ideologies which are then used to market to consumers. Words like artisan, craft, sustainable, and now regenerative are used to promise something better to the consumer, but at the end of the day not much really changed.

Agricultural practices have changed over the last 100 years substantially without buzzwords, based on the need to conserve soil, water, and improve soil health. In the last 40 years, farmers have incorporated no-till on the Prairies to limit soil disturbance, embraced herbicide traits to avoid weed control by cultivating, initiated adaptive grazing systems, and started using cover crops for agronomic benefits.

Meanwhile some farmers and food companies have latched onto to the word and suggest that the buzzword of the day will save food production, the soil, and the environment. Many farmers resent the use of these flashy words when it would be easier to just embrace them and maximize the opportunity they may create with the consumer. At the end of the day, marketing seems fluffy, impractical, and inaccurate in claims, but for the same reasons athletes drank litres of Gatorade in the 90s to “Be like Mike”, consumers have their heart strings tugged at by sustainability and regenerative marketing.

I agree with Antonious Petro of Regeneration Canada when he says that regenerative agriculture is a journey, but so is just plain old agriculture. The difference is that we all have varied scales of practicality and required tangibility to truly believe in something. We are all in this industry for different motivations and that’s okay. Agriculture is about improvement.

I love the passion that some in regenerative “movement” have for farming, in fact I tremendously respect it.  We need more people interested in being farmers as the numbers continues to decline. Similarly to the current roster of farmers, new entrants are all not going to agree on the best way to grow a crop or raise a calf. Heck, long-time farmers can’t even agree on the best colour of tractor or 15 inch vs 30 inch rows.

Similar to early adopting hardcore no-tillers of the 80s or the first farmers that moved from horse-powered to engine-powered or the first farmers that used auto steer; the masses think they are insane and eventually they will come back to the way the industry has historically done things. Some of the practices being promoted in regenerative agriculture will hang around. In certain geographies, cover crops will gain more traction, grazing systems will improve, and we may see the return to more mixed farms for agronomic reasons and not just economics.

The danger is not whether “regenerative farmers” find niche markets and focus on local food supply, but instead the real danger is in governments being indoctrinated and believing that there is only one way.

As the current governments in the U.S. and Canada strive to create policies across departments focused on climate change, the sound of “regenerative agriculture” sounds like something they can wrap their head around and want more of.

Policies that ban or limit practices instead of encourage outcomes could have a serious negative impact on agriculture. Policies like significantly reducing synthetic fertilizer use, curbing use of crop protection technology, or assuming cropping systems are constant across the country have reared their ugly head in Europe and are finding their way to North America and here in Canada.

You truly cannot implement regenerative agriculture like Hunter Harrison implemented precision railroading or Henry Ford introduced the assembly line. The diversity in agriculture does not allow for it. A sound agronomic practice in Ontario is not necessarily possible in Saskatchewan and vice versa. Governments don’t seem to understand this — they look at agriculture as if it is airlines, railroads, or auto plants.

And that’s the concern. Large companies hopping on the regenerative farming bandwagon will make demands on production today and chase the next buzzword tomorrow, but government policy sticks around for much, much longer.

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