Does Regenerative Agriculture Need More Metrics or More Vision?

Man hauling hay bales with chickens in the background
Man hauling hay bales with chickens in the background

Photo Credit: Main Street Project

I had the opportunity recently to present with A-dae Briones on a First Nations Development Institute webinar titled “Decolonizing Regenerative Agriculture”. Decolonization provides a powerful frame for visioning progress. And for an engineer-trained white man, it also challenges overall narratives. The webinar launched several new conversations for me about measuring vs. visioning.

Within the large and diverse array of regenerative agriculture champions, opinions vary significantly on the importance of quantifying metrics. Some groups, such as Ecosystem Services Market Consortium and Field to Market, have invested heavily in developing the needed frameworks for measuring the ecological benefits of regenerative agriculture, including the ongoing challenge of determining soil carbon sequestration. An impressive number of agriculture-sourcing companies collaborate on these efforts and have committed to sourcing regeneratively grown crops.

Seeding a Regenerative Future

A different approach, perhaps the more decolonized approach, focuses on creating a future vision for food and agriculture. RAF grantee the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance fits this mold with the description of the Alliance as:

“An ecosystem of people who choose to approach agriculture and food from an indigenous way of thinking. Indigenous in this concept is not about being native or an official member of a tribe. It is about how we see and approach the world we live in and our role within the larger ecosystem we inhabit. It is about whether we have or are willing to decolonize our approach to food and seek the full potential of creation and our role within it.”

Clearly, one constructing a carbon market uses different tools, different collaborations, and a different timeframe from one who seeks “the full potential of creation”. Are these efforts compatible?

I would contend that these efforts can fit together, somewhat like panning in and out of an online map. At close range, at the metrics level, we can see the impressive benefits of practices like minimizing tillage. At long range, at the vision level, these efforts might seem relatively small and yet they are needed in order to get the momentum going. Jim Collins describes this well in his concept of the Flywheel effect:

“…no matter how dramatic the end result, good-to-great transformations never happen in one fell swoop. In building a great company or social sector enterprise, there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.”

So much of the opportunity in front of us, from tweaking the farm bill to developing an effective ecosystem services market, are tugs at the heavy flywheel. They can certainly be helpful, but in isolation they are entirely insufficient. Only when multiple efforts are collectively harnessed and moving toward a shared vision do we get sustained motion in the flywheel – and transformational change.

I intentionally chose a provocative title for this blog post with an either/or question: “Does Regenerative Agriculture Need More Metrics or More Vision?” For Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, the answer is all of the above. Always tug at the flywheel, and weave together a collective transformative vision whenever possible.

I wrote with a similar angle about driving social change back in February as I was leaving the McKnight Foundation. That was before I had the honor of getting to know my RAF colleague Fred Briones and First Nations Development Institute’s A-dae Briones and better understand the concept of decolonization. For me, decolonization helps to provide an important piece of the puzzle for making regenerative agriculture a reality. I look forward to continued dialogue about how we turn collective vision into reality.