As regenerative approaches in the United States gain momentum, how do we ensure that the transition to a regenerative food and agriculture system supports equitable economic prosperity while allowing people and the planet to flourish long term?  Here, Forum’s Technical Lead, Mary McCarthy, shares insights from the Growing our Future community’s latest report, ‘What’s next for regenerative agriculture in the US?’.

The Growing our Future community brings together over 135 actors - including diverse agriculture system stakeholders, from marginalized farm communities to brands, retailers, investors and NGOs - aiming to rewire the agricultural system to accelerate the transition to regenerative agriculture. This community envisions an agriculture system which restores ecosystems rather than driving carbon emissions and ecosystem degradation; which fosters racial justice and distributes value equitably rather than exacerbating inequality; and which builds resilience of the land and farm communities rather than exacerbating vulnerability to climate change. 

Growing our Future’s latest report makes the case for urgent and deep transformation in the United States’ agricultural system. It takes stock of the dynamic but piecemeal progress being made towards regenerative agriculture and outlines how collective and systemic action across three intervention areas developed by the Growing our Future participants can help unlock a just and regenerative agriculture system in the US. 

Taking stock of transitions in policy, finance and pathways to market

So, what progress has been made to date and what needs to be done next in order to further shift policy, finance for farmers’ transitions, pathways to market for regeneratively-produced products, and emerging regenerative agricultural standards? 

1) Financing the transition to regenerative agriculture is essential. Farmers need new forms of finance to enable new types of investment because time horizons, risks and outputs are different, compared to conventional agriculture. Ecosystem Service Markets (ESM) - in which producers can get paid for the quantified and verified benefits provided to society - are rapidly emerging as one potential solution. Through the Financing the Transition workstream we are supporting an ESM pilot in cotton growing systems, with both conventional and marginalized farmers and other partners.  

The insights we’ve gained from the pilot design so far illustrate trade-offs and key design issues for potential corporate buyers of credits, facilitators of the trade, and farmers. These issues go well beyond the much-discussed question of how to measure soil health to verify credits. There are fundamental questions about whether and how much farmers themselves gain, whether the emerging markets can be inclusive, and whether they are a useful way for corporations to help farmers in their supply channels to transition.

2) In the policy arena, $14.2 billion of federal farm subsidies per annum prioritize commodity yield maximization and increased efficiency at the expense of soil health and farmer livelihoods. Corporates have influence over policy, but often exert this without understanding the needs of farmers for the regenerative agriculture transition, particularly historically marginalized farmers. Policy measures are underway to support regenerative agriculture but they will exacerbate injustice if not implemented inclusively. 

Through the Policy Change workstream we are bringing actors together to collaborate on policy influence. Together, we identified policies that will support the transition to regenerative agriculture, and outlined how advocates can also ensure access to policy programs for marginalized farm communities. Next, we will provide tools for companies to harness their positions of power to advocate for these policy priorities.

3) The current agricultural marketplace works well for large farms and large buyers focusing on low-cost bulk trade in a few subsidized commodities. However, this does not deliver the environmental or livelihood outcomes needed and farmers farming regeneratively have limited market access. With the Pathways to Market workstream participants, we are therefore working on two market challenges. 

  • Pathways to market that enable environmental resilience, improved incomes and nutritious food are emerging but still niche and struggle to scale. To address this, we are exploring how to build a decentralized but scalable market system, by identifying and sharing insights from emerging solutions that enable producers to access, connect and benefit from bigger marketplaces. 
  • New benchmarks have developed (e.g. Soil Regen Regenerative Verified and Regenerative Organic Certification) to help large buyers assess environmental outcomes and shift their procurement to regenerative agriculture, but many largely neglect social outcomes. Therefore, the participants are also exploring how to elevate social outcomes, alongside environmental ones. 

Catalyzing change through collaboration

Through the three workstreams, Growing our Future participants aim to deliver tangible interventions to address critical barriers in the transition to regenerative agriculture. However, to achieve the deep, lasting transformation we are working toward, we must look beyond these specific interventions and also create communities that can help to fundamentally re-wire the current system. This means shifting people’s mindsets, fostering new relationships and ways of working, and building the capacity of the system to always be working toward “equitable economic prosperity that allows people and planet to flourish long term”. 

Regenerative agriculture in the US is emerging and is still highly dynamic. The Growing our Future partners navigate this via two core principles: that the transition will be deep, and thus will involve all players in the system; and that it must be farmer-centered and address equity as well as environmental resilience. The experience to date from our convenings and the workstreams has shown the value of building dialogue across the community, and illustrate the importance of testing, learning and sharing insight.  

Join us

We invite you to join us to meet the urgency for transformation, while ensuring a robust shift that delivers across our social, environmental and economic goals and paves the way for a thriving just and regenerative future.

Join our webinar on August 18th to learn more about Growing our Future and how new ways of thinking and working can enable the rewiring of the US food system toward a more restorative and resilient future. Register here.