For the second year running, the Regenerative Agriculture and Food Systems Summit took place earlier this month in Amsterdam, bringing delegates together from across the sustainability and agriculture worlds to discuss everything from scaling and farmer incentives to carbon sequestration, supply chain management, biodiversity, and beyond.
While fervent discussions happened inside, protestors gathered outside to share concerns that regenerative agriculture was being coopted by fossil fuel conglomerates without any real intention to move beyond “business as usual”. With this backdrop, participants discussed, made connections and learnt the latest on what’s taking place in the sector. The question on everyone’s lips was: what exactly is regenerative agriculture – and who is responsible for driving it forward?
We were on the ground – here’s what we heard:
1. Trust and transparency are key to enabling a regenerative transition
Transparency was a recurrent theme throughout the event. With the damning words of the protestors (asking participants entering the venue to question large corporations’ real intentions) ringing in their ears, speakers repeatedly referred to the need to foster trust in the agricultural transition. As protestors rightly pointed out: regenerative farming pilots are an excellent way to find out what works, but if 99% of your core business still relies on degradation, the transition cannot take place.
With that in mind, speakers emphasised that to ensure sustainability commitments translate to real action – and, in turn, encourage greater trust in agribusinesses’ actions – the regenerative agriculture and food systems transition requires transparent reporting and clear procurement costs across supply chains. This should be third-party audited and go beyond the number of farmers or hectares under production to truly demonstrate the real gains in biodiversity and other metrics.
Technology is no silver bullet, but it was clear that emerging technologies can play a fundamental role in ensuring transparency by increasing the scale and accuracy of impact monitoring, verification and reporting – ultimately ensuring that regenerative agriculture is genuinely regenerative. According to Anastasia Volkova, Co-founder and CEO of Regrow, technology can enable “a fairer, more accelerated and more transparent transition”.
2. We must share the costs of the transition
We heard loud and clear from players from across the ecosystem that the costs to transition food systems should be shared across society. Neither farmers nor consumers can be expected to bear the burden. Experts like Joseph Gridley, from the Soil Association Exchange, emphasised that landscapes made healthy by farmers’ regenerative practices are a public good. After all, regenerative agriculture enhances biodiversity, helps maintain water catchments, creates resilient natural infrastructure, provides green spaces for tourism, produces healthy and nutritious food – and much more.
By making and keeping landscapes healthy, farmers provide many public goods, as well as the fundamental resources for private businesses’ products and services. In this light, the public and private sectors have not only a collective responsibility but also a clear direct interest in investing in agricultural practices that support healthy landscapes well into the future.
3. Agriculture can be a force for good
The very existence of the summit – and the diverse presence of delegates on the ground – displays a clear cross-sector willingness for change. And the opportunity is enormous. While agriculture is currently one of the biggest drivers for destructive land-use change, a major contributor to the ecological crisis we face, it also offers a wealth of actionable solutions. As Anastasia from Regrow highlighted, “We can implement changes now in agriculture that will have almost immediate effect”. Joseph Gridley, CEO of the Social Association Exchange, further explained: “With most industries, the best you can do is to get to Net Zero. With agriculture, you can legitimately restore a landscape. You can put more carbon away than was there before; bring rivers back to life; bring more nature, birds, etc. That’s a compelling story in a world that’s so doom and gloom about everything.”
4. Everyone needs a seat at the table
The transition to regenerative agriculture requires a fundamental shift in our lifestyles, impacting everyone in society. The farmers present at the summit emphasised that it’s key to bring in all voices – notably the people responsible for producing our food and stewarding the land: farmers and local rural communities – to ensure the transition to regenerative farming is both viable and just. Organic farmer for Arla Foods, Arlen Verschere, put it succinctly: “Talk with us, don’t talk about us”. Those on the ground understand their environment and what it needs best: farming and rural communities must be involved in discussions related to food production.
Other speakers made it clear that those with concerns that regenerative agriculture is being coopted by big business – activists and citizens – must also be included in the discussion. Andrew Voysey, Chief Impact Officer at Soil Capital spoke with protestors outside and, as a result, asked his panel to explicitly name possible threats to regenerative agriculture becoming a reality.
Across the river the very same day, a counter conference, “Regeneration: The Real Thing” organised by We Are The ReGeneration took place, boycotting the corporate dominance of the summit’s agenda. Yanna Hoek, co-organiser of the counter-summit and Regenerator at Decade of Action noted “We see a lot of terms being used that become hollow when there’s nothing behind them. Regenerative agriculture is not actually defined at the moment – we need a better definition to support the farmers themselves, not just the corporates who “use” them […] But, ultimately, we really want to work together. We all want to change the way we’re living and farming – so we invite the participants of the summit to join us next time: let’s do this together!”.
Is there potential, then, for a joint event next year that authentically brings together all the players in the agricultural transition – from activists to farmers, to corporate sustainability leaders? Corporates need to start proving they’re committed to the regenerative transition – but to be held truly accountable, we need activists and farmers in dialogue with them. Ultimately, we need the whole ecosystem to collaborate: can we come together across society to shift agriculture from degenerative to regenerative?
We hope to be able to say a resounding “yes” by the time next year’s summit comes around.