This blog is part of a series where we will further explore the concept of regenerative agriculture and how it translates to smallholder realities.
A paradigm shift from a yield only focus, to holistic farm management and diversity
Regenerative agriculture is increasingly taking center stage, coined by policymakers, companies, and NGOs alike as the “solution-to-watch.” It promises not only positive social and environmental outcomes but a sustainable business case for farmers.
Still, confusion exists as to what regenerative agriculture entails and what it can help accomplish. Some have touted it to be a wonder solution, with the potential to increase yield resiliency at farm-level, improve our soils’ health, capture carbon in those same soils, and thereby play an essential role in mitigating climate change. Others, however, warn against overselling the positive effects. The difference in these views comes in part because there are variations in the practices considered to be part of regenerative farming. Additionally, there are differences in perceived risks as a permanent solution. Carbon emissions stored during regenerative agriculture could be released in the future and regenerative agriculture yields can be lower, requiring more land.
In the global north, with larger-scale farmers, regenerative agriculture is becoming popular, success cases and applications are frequent. These early successes are promising for the future of global agriculture. Still, the conditions in which they are implemented do not reflect millions of smallholder farmers’ realities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These regions and smallholders produce over 70-80% of the world’s food supply and are a significant share of the world’s poorest people.
To better understand how regenerative agriculture could be applied and scaled in these smallholders’ context, to create a better environment, better income, and better jobs, IDH has worked with a consortium of partners (NewForesight, CIAT Biodiversity International, and South Pole). Together we answered some of the questions we have on successfully transitioning towards regenerative agriculture at the smallholder level.
We started by defining regenerative agriculture; as a holistic agricultural approach that retains, or if needed restores, ecosystems to a healthy and resilient state by improving the soils while providing sufficient return to build up impact in different dimensions towards sustainability (environment, income, jobs) .
Not surprisingly, with this definition in mind moving to regenerative agriculture is not easy; it requires a paradigm shift from focusing on increasing yields only to holistic farm management and diversity.
We’d like to share with you some of the main lessons we learned from our first exploration:
- Regenerative agriculture is context-specific, and it is crucial to understand and integrate farmer (financial) needs into regenerative agriculture … even though we have an overall technical framework to think about progress on the regenerative agriculture pathways, interventions need to be driven by local context about soil health, existing agricultural systems, farmer needs, and household income.
- Regenerative agriculture talks about the farm as a system, not about single crops or practices… To implement regenerative agriculture, a range of methods can be considered, but whether a system is deemed to be regenerative or not should finally be based on the outcomes that those practices generate, such as soil health and ecosystem services. Instead, a system’s regenerative capacity can be analyzed by looking at two main factors: agronomic efficiency and plant functional diversity. By combining proper soil organic matter management and efficient application of fertilizers and pesticides with various complementary plant traits, a system is likely to become more regenerative. Therefore, it requires a rethinking of the farm into a farm-system in which all crops and practices work together holistically.
- Soils are essential… a healthy soil is one of the primary outcomes of regenerative agriculture. Healthy soils provide ecosystem services, such as better water uptake and the generation of micro-climates at the farm-level. However, not all soils start at an equal level. In East Africa coffee systems, we have seen that the difference between responsive and unresponsive soil is the difference between increasing yields (and income) from year one to a decreased income and high up-front investment for the first 6 years, then only reaching a higher income in year 7.
- There is hardly any data available about thriving smallholder regenerative agriculture, let alone transitioning into regenerative agriculture for smallholders… although regenerative agriculture is becoming more important in global food chains, there is very little evidence of successful transitions at the smallholder level. Therefore, data collection is essential in order to make data-based decisions that both positively impact the transition towards regenerative agricultural systems as well as household income. There is a huge opportunity to create a shared learning agenda across sectors and companies to scale the movement into mainstream agriculture.
- Investments and other financial incentives are key to make the transition happen… in the analyzed case studies, we have seen that regenerative agriculture does not always provide the highest possible income to farmers. Some other systems provide higher returns. Also, we see that in transitioning to regenerative agriculture, there are often enormous up-front costs that most smallholder farmers do not have the means to pay. Innovative financial instruments, patient capital, and climate financing can help to bridge this gap.
These findings are crucial for building the farm-level transition pathways; however, farms operate in a broader ecosystem and value chain. To make the change, the farm and the farmer need to be at the heart of any intervention. Still, the right support from the value chain, stakeholders in the surrounding landscape, and catalytic investments can be a crucial enabler for change.
Therefore, the next blogs in this series will focus both on the farm-level and farm-level impact, as well as on the broader enabling environment and value chain. IDH strongly believes that we can make this change happen if public-private partnerships and investments are rallied behind this movement. We call on our private and public partners to pilot approaches and collect data with us. Together we can learn how to facilitate the smallholder farmers to transition to regenerative farming. IDH hopes to lead the way in forming partnerships and pilots that take this from discussion into action.
 For example, a white paper by the Rodale Institute claims that “global adoption of regenerative practices across both grasslands and arable acreage could sequester more than 100% of current anthropogenic missions of CO2 and that stable soil carbon can be built quickly enough to result in a rapid drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”; See also this article by EIT Food.
See for example this article by Civil Eats on whether overselling regenerative agriculture’s climate benefits would undercut its potential; or this article from the World Resources Institute (WRI) on why regenerative agriculture is good for soil health but has limited potential to mitigate climate change.
 As part of IDH’s 2021-2025 strategy, three impact areas were defined: Better Income, Better Jobs and Better Environment. Better Income refers to more, stable and equitable income for women and men to be able to alleviate poverty towards a living income, be resilient against shocks and other risks throughout and over the years, and ensuring equal chances while not harming the environment, local communities and generations to come. Better Jobs refers more remuneration for women and men, worker engagement and representation, and a safe and healthy working place. Better Environment refers to improved availability and quality, as well as optimized usage of, water resources; improved soil health used for production of agricultural goods/commodities; increased area of forests and other natural ecosystems and reduced degradation of natural ecosystems; and the reduction, and where possible removal, of greenhouse gas emissions.
 For some examples, see: in an IDH project with coffee traders JDE Coffee, Lavazza, Olam and Acom in Vietnam, with data collected by Agri-Logic, we were able to demonstrate that coffee farmers in Vietnam can reduce their carbon footprint by diversifying production; An investment by the LDN Fund in a coffee project in Peru, supported by the LDN TAF managed by IDH, allows farmers to transition to agroforestry, thereby restoring degraded lands and sequestering carbon.
 Examples of practices commonly considered part of regenerative agriculture are: agroforestry, low- or no-till farming, and green pasture management.