Jan 2, 2024
California seeks definition of ‘regenerative’
Ching Lee, California Farm Bureau

With companies increasingly using the term “regenerative” to sell their products, there’s also growing pressure to nail down what this latest farming buzzword means.

The unregulated term has crept into legislation, language authorizing government funding and public policy promoting sustainable food systems. Yet opinions vary on what constitutes regenerative agriculture, as there is no clear scientific definition.

Farm fields at Park Farming Organics in Sutter County California, which employs regenerative agricultural methods including cover crops and low-tillage farming. Photo by Paulo Vescia.

The state of California is trying to change that. During a virtual meeting in December, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the State Board of Food and Agriculture invited public input to help define regenerative agriculture. The listening session — the first of five the state plans to hold through May — drew more than 260 participants.

The eventual definition could be used to update state farm policies such as the Healthy Soils Program and the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program. It could also have national implications.

While organizations such as the Regenerative Organic Alliance and California Certified Organic Farmers have their own definitions and standards for regenerative agriculture, Josh Eddy, executive director of the state board, made clear the purpose of the state initiative is to define the term on a “narrow bandwidth” of state policies and programs, not for a certification system.

Having a definition, he said, would help lawmakers and agencies develop legislation and make decisions that become part of the state Food and Agriculture Code. He noted the “wide variety of interests” in regenerative agriculture, with lawmakers weighing in and state agencies and programs using the term to focus funding.

“From a state board perspective, there really becomes a need to have a science-based criterion and to help inform a designation and a recognition of the term regenerative,” Eddy said.

Some people want the state to take a “big tent” approach that would encourage more farmers to adopt practices that they say benefit ecosystems. Others called for a narrower definition, saying broadening it would cheapen the term. More specifically, they want organic farming practices to serve as a baseline.

The CDFA Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel did some preliminary work and has submitted to the state some recommendations that serve as guiding principles.

Jeff Dlott, who chairs the panel, said the group wants to guard against greenwashing, which refers to making deceptive advertising or marketing claims about products and services so that they appear more environmentally friendly. He said the panel suggested “larger guardrails” so the term can apply to most California farmers.

“We did not have a preconceived notion of what that meant other than applicable to more rather than less,” he said, adding the “hard work” will be moving forward as public discussions help decide how big the tent should be. With California’s diverse farming regions, he said the panel recommended a definition robust enough to accommodate the state’s more than 400 crops and 1,500 soil types.

The panel also said regenerative agriculture should lead to positive impacts on the environment, climate, social and human health, and the economy. The results should be easily measured and verified without being too burdensome on farmers and ranchers, the panel said.

In addition, the panel suggested that building soil health should be a foundation of regenerative agriculture. This could be through practices that sequester carbon, increase soil biodiversity and alleviate climate change.

Most of the people who spoke at the meeting sided with restricting regenerative agriculture to only organic farmers. Several called for prohibiting conventional pesticides and fertilizers, including the use of biotech methods such as CRISPR and genetic engineering.

Lena Brook of the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council praised the inclusion of human health goals in the panel’s proposed definition. But she said there should be more focus on “an explicit commitment to reducing and/or possibly eliminating the use of synthetic inputs like pesticides and fertilizers.” At a minimum, organic farming techniques should be one way into regenerative agriculture, she said.

“This is especially important considering that you’re taking a big tent approach because we definitely want to encourage more producers to adopt regenerative practices and be inclusive, and we also want to make sure that the tent isn’t so big that the entire concept of regenerative…is completely watered down,” Brook added.

Tim LaSalle, co-founder of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at California State University, Chico, advocated leaving room in policy language for the 99% of farmers who are not organic, to get them on board using practices that improve soil health, such as no-till, which is not required in organic farming.

“Farmers will move quickly to reduce their input costs as they find they don’t need them,” he said, adding that constricting the framework up front “will keep most farmers away.”

Del Norte County farmer Blake Alexandre said even though he’s “an absolute believer in organic,” he urged those calling to restrict regenerative to organic to keep an open mind.

“Instead of asking everybody to switch churches and religions all at the same time, I really encourage farmers to consider some of the religious principles of regenerative ag and start there, and we’ll get them in the organic world eventually because it’s logically what makes sense,” he said.

Others such as John Roulac, who founded the organic food company Nutiva, said one of the best ways to expand biodiversity in soils and ecosystems is to work with larger-scale farms.

“Regeneration offers the potential to help change agricultural practices on tens of millions of acres,” Roulac said.

Doug Peterson, a producer in Missouri, challenged the notion that organic equals regenerative, saying, “just because you are organic doesn’t mean you are regenerative. Some of the worst farms I’ve been on have been organic.” He urged the state to be cautious in the process, as its actions could set a precedent for other states.

Rosie Burroughs of Burroughs Family Farms in Denair spoke in favor of supporting farmers in transitioning to regenerative farming, as “it doesn’t happen overnight.”

“The beautiful part about it is that when farmers get to experience the positive success using the regenerative practices … they will be able to wean themselves off of the heroin addiction of toxic chemicals,” she said.

Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth who serves on the State Board of Food and Agriculture, invited thoughts on whether regenerative agricultural systems should also include socioeconomic structures such as farmworker treatment as part of the framework. Some certification programs require farmers to meet standards on animal welfare and farmworker fairness.

After the five listening sessions, the state board plans to create a work group to consider public comments and results from the science advisory panel. The task force will then make a recommendation to the state board by June or July 2024, Robinson said.


Ching Lee is assistant editor of California Farm Bureau's Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@.cfbf.com

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