Embarking on the journey of regenerative agriculture is akin to slipping into a swimming pool. Initially, farmers and corporations alike wade into the shallow end, implementing relatively simple and inexpensive techniques such as cover cropping and minimal tillage to optimize for soil health and carbon sequestration.
As we venture further into the pool, farmers may achieve increased biodiversity and water quality by incorporating more complicated strategies and Indigenous approaches like diversified crop rotations and agroforestry.
In the deep end, outcomes are sought to benefit the farmers and stewards of whole landscapes themselves. Here, investments focus on tools and tactics that prioritize local and regional food sheds or the well-being and profitability of farmers and communities.
At this point, farmers often face resistance from systemic barriers, including financing gaps to support new business models, a policy landscape that rewards the status quo, and a lack of understanding of accessible alternatives.
Learning to tread water in the face of these obstacles is no easy feat. But this is when the lasting benefits of holistic regenerative approaches accrue—soil becomes a thriving ecosystem, biodiversity flourishes, carbon is sequestered, water quality is renewed, and landscape stewards’ well-being and dignity is restored.
The Rockefeller Foundation is calling on private, public, and philanthropic actors to help farmers and landscape stewards navigate from the shallow to the deep end. Together we need to build a food system that replaces damaging practices with those that rebuild the health of people and the planet itself.
The urgency created by myriad crises cannot be overstated. Climate change is intensifying, leading to more frequent severe weather events, and threatening global food security. Our current extractive and yield-driven approach—fueled in part by the Green Revolution—has come at a significant cost to our climate, soil, biodiversity, water, and even our long-term health. War and global instability threaten our supply chains and the free movement of food and natural resources. Indigenous peoples and local communities with centuries of wisdom on how-to live-in harmony with nature are targeted and displaced not centered in strategies to evolve our food system.
It is possible to forge a more sustainable path. Philanthropy can help tilt the incentives needed to usher in a regenerative and agroecological transition that centers farmers and landscape stewards and recognizes a shared set of principles. But to play this role, collaboration with farmers, corporates, Indigenous communities, scientists, government, and funders is essential.
Partnerships are in place.
For the first time in history, a significant confluence of initiatives defined by collaboration and innovation have come together to help guide the transition to deep regenerative. Their work is guided in part by the expertise of Indigenous peoples around the world – communities with proven success over centuries.
At the center of our collaborative efforts is the farmer-focused Regen10 initiative that has worked with over 30 existing initiatives to define and measure regenerative approaches.
Regen10 brings together experts to examine existing definitions of regenerative agriculture with the goal of building a farmer- and landscape leader-led participatory process that results in holistic outcomes on soil health, biodiversity, water, farmer well-being and equity that others can infuse into their own frameworks and that farmers and landscapes can apply directly.
Regen10’s partners aspire to both learn from and support the actions of farmers, landscape stewards, corporations, philanthropies, and governments. By collaborating with these diverse constituencies, Regen10’s design guidance can support the adoption of a holistic Outcomes Framework that maps to deep, not shallow, regenerative agriculture.
This design guidance will also influence the measurement of both farm and landscape regenerative outcomes, inform the creation of new incentive structures, spotlight areas for potential investment, and promote learning, innovation, and adaptation.
Alongside of Regen10, we have energetically partnered with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GAFF) to recruit 22 leading philanthropies into a partnership called RAFT to answer a critical question: what is the cost to transition global food systems from conventional to regenerative production and who can make this investment?
In response this alliance of funders has published new research that highlights the transformative potential of regenerative, agroecological, and Indigenous food systems, and reveals that the hidden cost of land degradation, biodiversity loss, public health is at least US$10 trillion per year, which is 10 percent of global GDP.
Compared to this staggering price tag, the cost of a global transition to agroecology and regenerative approaches is estimated at US$250-430 billion per year, significantly less than the cost of inaction. Moreover, as RAFT’s research unveils, existing subsides to the current extractive agriculture system exceed this cost for transition at a global scale.
This means by repurposing subsidies we could cover the cost of a deep regenerative system.
Philanthropy is committed to supporting landscape stewards and focusing grantmaking on key barriers including policy design, community organizing, direct-to-landscape investment, and identifying other financing mechanisms needed. Beyond the research, RAFT, The Rockefeller Foundation, and other partners are prototyping acceleration financing options in key geographies—Brazil, India, East Africa, USA—that will launch in 2024.
These initiatives are bold, but they only begin to address the scale and complexity of the transformation required. New initiatives are also emerging to activate policy leadership, deepen the research and evidence base, and deploy data to empower farmers as they swim from shallow to deep regenerative. So too, innovation into new financing mechanisms appropriate for regenerative and efforts to link stakeholders into holistic landscape partnerships that embark on regenerative transitions together are beginning to bubble up.
As the global population continues to grow and environmental challenges intensify, philanthropy stands with those who tend to the land and make possible humanity’s ability to nourish itself. Farmers and landscape stewards teeter at the forefront of an opportunity to usher in a bold future: one in which agriculture resolves, instead of exacerbates, a host of climate, nature, health, and economic challenges.
By multiplying our investment in regenerative and agroecological approaches, philanthropy can help farmers navigate to deeper regenerative outcomes, where challenges are met with resilience, and the rewards ripple across landscapes.
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Photo courtesy of Nathan Cima, Unsplash