It is clear that the term ‘Regen ag’ is now becoming as confused and meaningless as ‘min-till’. The question of ‘what is Regen’ now happens with regular occurrence. Worryingly there now seems to be, in the UK at least, organisations who are keen to control the narrative and take ownership of the term regen for there own aims.
What is regen? What is it we trying to regenerate? The origins of the term are believed to stem for Robert Rodale who was principally referring to regenerating the soil and if we are truthfully honest to ourselves this is the fundamental aim of regen. “It’s about the soil, stupid”. More recently we have become familiar to the Gabe Brown version of 5 (now 6) principles of regen.
The regeneration of the soil brings immediate benefits to the farmer, and a wide range of other outcomes. These externalities, while mostly positive, and very welcome and necessary, are still secondary to regen’s core principle of regenerating the soil.
Does this even matter? Well, yes it does. These externalities are all adding to the confusion voiced by farmers about regen and are being used to take control of the narrative by outside forces. Then chuck in the barrage of governmental policies and agricultural philosophies and it’s no wonder that the term regen has become lost and confused. Regen has become conflated with net-zero, emerging carbon and biodiversity-net-gain markets, pressures and fears over inputs, SFI and ELM, the list is long.
The media is now awash with stories about how some farmers are cutting all inputs to become regen, with no loss of income, while others, and most of the released academic research, shows the exact opposite. What do you believe, or where do you turn?
Now the battle for control of the has begun. In recent weeks I have sat through several seminars where organisations are laying the groundwork for further interpretation of Brown’s five principles. Why would they do this if it isn’t to exact some form of control? Are we being lined up for another layer of bureaucracy, inspection and certification? Why is this even necessary, surely the guiding principles which underpin the philosophy are clear enough. Or to put it another way; It’s not organic; you can use fertilisers; you shouldn’t be employing intensive tillage every year; if you can see the soil, you’ve failed.
One organisation even mentioned the need to measure the outcomes and ignore the adherence to the principles. The only outcome should be a direct improvement in the quality and functionality of the soil, be that chemical, physical or biological. An increase in carbon storage is a useful indicator but not all soils are going to achieve that.
And what of the externalities, where do they come in? To my mind these are all separate, which all farmers should be striving for. They are all to be commended, some should even be rewarded and need to be rewarded. Regenerating soil should lead to enhanced biodiversity, after all the soil provides the life at the bottom of the terrestrial food chain. Better soil structure allows greater water infiltration rather that run-off, greater aggregate stability and soil organic matter can reduce soil loss and nutrient enrichment of water courses.
What of the wider social interaction and promotion of agriculture within the local community? Again the philosophy facilitates a story which can be told, and should be told but this is not a requirement to be regen, its simply a nice add-on.
Functioning soil can enable a phased reduction of inputs over time, although I feel the complete removal of them is not sensible or necessary. This contributes to the sustainability and net-zero we are told we must achieve but again it is because of the system, not a requirement of it. Be clear that you can enjoy the best of soil health whilst still using fertilisers and pesticides, there are plenty of examples of farmers that have done so here in the UK.
We need to ensure that the message is clear, no-one owns or defines the system or it’s outcomes, the principles of the philosophy are enough.