California works to define regenerative agriculture

In the absence of a standard definition for “regenerative agriculture,” the California Department of Food and Agriculture is trying to elucidate the concept to help guide state policies and programs.

Cindy Hazen, Contributing writer

May 30, 2024

5 Min Read
Regenerative agriculture

At a Glance

  • Regenerative agriculture aims to aid soil health, but the practice spans many philosophies and interest groups.
  • A diverse work group and public listening/feedback sessions will help shape a draft recommendation by fall 2024.
  • Organic certification and differences between regenerative and organic agriculture have been hot discussion topics.

In its simplest sense, regenerative agriculture maintains or improves soil health. But many other concepts also need to be considered. If one were to ask different experts in the field, ideals such as integrating livestock, restoring biodiversity and mitigating climate concerns would come to light. As interest in regenerative agriculture grows, so does the need for a common understanding of what it means. To that end, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is working to define regenerative agriculture for state policies and programs. A recommendation is expected to be delivered to the state board by late summer or early fall 2024. 

Searching for consensus

Finding consensus is not an easy task. A diverse work group formed in 2023 is facilitating the effort. Five public listening sessions are designed to generate input; three have already taken place. Two listening sessions specific to California tribal groups were scheduled in April to ensure that a Native American perspective is included. Three meetings of the work group will conclude with a draft recommendation. 

The work group consists of agricultural stakeholders and regulatory members. Diversity is key in achieving the end goal, in part, because of the uniqueness of the California landscape. The definition must accommodate site-specific contexts. Josh Eddy, CDFA’s executive director, pointed out California is incredibly diverse in agricultural production regions, geographies, climates and microclimates. “We have 400 crops and 1,500 soil types,” he shared. 

Besides creating a definition that is applicable to the specific needs of farmers and ranchers in different areas of California, the terminology must also apply to conventional, conservation or organic agriculture and to varied sizes and types of operations. Even broader, Eddy said the group hopes to create a high-level definition that includes environmental, climate, economic, social and human health aspects. 

Over 300 individuals representing specific commodity groups from dairy to livestock to specialty crops participated in the listening sessions. Some listeners desire a definition that encompasses anything and everything that could be considered regenerative agriculture. At the same time, many comments support a definition that is narrow. Someone questioned the difference between the words sustainable and regenerative, noting a neighbor who operates a sustainable operation but uses synthetic chemicals. Avoiding the use of conventional herbicides and pesticides is a common theme. 

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Regenerative versus organic

Diametric opinions about regenerative and organic distinctions were abundant. One person suggested, “Increasing regenerative organic acreage should be the goal for the CDFA.” Another noted, “I am concerned that a weak definition of regenerative that does not start with organic will put me out of business. I cannot compete with farmers who are subsidized by the government but are not required to meet the same high standards that I am.” 

One commentor observed, “That does not mean a farmer cannot do both, but they are clearly different in their objectives. Regenerative farming aims firstly to restore the organic matter in the soil, so it absorbs more rainfall more quickly, retains moisture and nutrients. Erosion is reduced. A further aim is to restore landscapes. Organic farming aims to protect the consumer from the many harmful chemicals that are routinely applied to crops within the current conventional farming system. It is very important but different.” 

One grower who has a small operation countered, “I have not found it worth my while to obtain organic certification. Running a small business — especially a farm — is incredibly time-consuming and labor intensive, and the added administrative burden of seeking funding to cover costs, keeping records, managing inspections … It’s just not worth it.” 

Tying regenerative to organic worried one listener because the organic movement, though more than 70 years old, only covers 1% of the land and represents 6% of purchases in the United States. The fear is that since organic isn’t mainstream, higher price points could turn away much of the public. 

Economic considerations were echoed, along with recognition that everyone agrees that practices associated with regenerative agriculture are beneficial. Improving soil characteristics with amendments and tillage, planting cover crops and preserving pollinators are good in the long run. “Yet, our agriculture is a rapid cycling operation with a high-input/high-output model that allows intensive crop production that keeps the demand-supply chains active and generates income,” a participant stated. “Any farming operation would like to be regenerative if they can afford it. Nobody will farm at a loss even with a prospect of having a more sustainable system in 10, 20 or 30 years.” 

Eschew greenwashing

Agreement was also broad on avoiding any sense of greenwashing — the practice of companies making misleading claims about environmental benefits. Several commenters also stressed the importance of certification to accompany the definition, as an absence of certification for regenerative agriculture can facilitate greenwashing. One individual said that any certification must be scientifically justifiable. 

Several participants suggested a tiered certification system, which could provide the opportunity for farmers to ramp up their efforts. Five stars would indicate a fully regenerative agricultural operation. Two or three stars would indicate some regenerative practices had been implemented. 

Connecting agricultural practices back to natural processes in the definition is the ultimate goal of the work group. Soil health is a critical component of regenerative agriculture; however, members of the group also see the need to address other issues, such as reducing and eliminating desertification, rehydrating soil, promoting carbon cycling, and supporting human health — including farm workers and the surrounding communities. The definition also needs to incorporate Indigenous practices and a variety of inclusive practices. Additionally, the definition needs to avoid contradicting other existing programs, as well as definitions the state already uses. It was mentioned in the first listening group that at this point, the state doesn’t have any intention of creating a certification. 

Given the wide range of comments and participants, the diversity of opinions and the extensive areas that regenerative agriculture could entail, finding agreement on a definition that will satisfy everyone seems improbable. The implications are far-reaching because California has influence beyond its borders. The state’s ban on certain food additives led to similar initiatives in other states and by FDA. So, California’s definition of regenerative agriculture could have a broad impact. 

About the Author(s)

Cindy Hazen

Contributing writer

Cindy Hazen has more than 25 years of experience developing seasonings, dry blends, beverages and more. Today, when not writing or consulting, she expands her knowledge of food safety as a food safety officer for a Memphis-based produce distributor.

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