Regenerative Ag: From Niche to Mainstream Magnet

The regenerative agriculture movement has undergone significant transformation since I first encountered the term in 2014. Back then, Paul McMahon, managing partner of SLM Partners, was the one who introduced me to the concept. He likely sent me Allan Savory’s famous TED talk, which led me to attend the Savory Institute’s annual conference in London over a decade ago. With only about 100 attendees, the event felt like an intimate gathering of visionaries. Savory, often hailed as a pioneer in regenerative agriculture, advocates for holistic planned grazing or mob grazing. This method involves densely populating livestock on smaller plots and moving them frequently to mimic wild herds, thereby enhancing soil fertility.

While Savory’s methods have been both praised and critiqued, the broader regenerative agriculture movement includes other luminaries like Gabe Brown, Joel Salatin, Vandana Shiva, Ernst Götsch, and John Kempf. Each has their unique approach, but the core principle remains the same: work with nature, not against it. Practices such as tilling, leaving soil bare, and using chemical inputs are discouraged, while biodiversity is highly valued.

In the early days, the movement was relatively unknown outside small, dedicated circles. However, a few trailblazing investment managers, including Paul McMahon, Charles de Liedekerke from Soil Capital, and Craig Wichner from Farmland LP, were already raising funds to invest in degraded farmland and transition it to regenerative practices. Their aim was to increase income through reduced input costs and higher yields, eventually selling the improved land at a higher value. Convincing investors was challenging, but they managed to secure support from some forward-thinking institutions.

When I joined AgFunder in 2015 to build out AgFunderNews (AFN), regenerative agriculture articles received little attention. The readership was more excited about agtech innovations like drones. However, by 2019, the narrative had shifted dramatically. AFN articles on regenerative agriculture began to go viral. The movement’s climate story, particularly its potential for carbon sequestration, resonated with large businesses. Corporate net-zero pledges were made, carbon markets accelerated, and investors took notice. For farmers, regenerative agriculture offered a way to escape the cycle of high input costs and low margins.

Despite the growing interest, the movement has faced internal debates about its true definition, scalability, and the appropriation of indigenous farming practices by corporations. These discussions continue, but the recent Groundswell festival in the UK showcased a more unified and optimistic atmosphere. With around 8,000 attendees, double the previous year, the event attracted a diverse crowd, including farmers, tech startups, VCs, politicians, and even royalty.

At Groundswell, farmer and podcast host Ben Taylor-Davies, known as “Regen Ben,” highlighted the practical benefits of regenerative farming. He emphasized that farming with nature is more profitable than fighting it. In a candid session, Ben and other attendees shared personal stories about how regenerative agriculture had improved their mental health, offering them a sense of control and problem-solving satisfaction.

The festival also featured business-oriented discussions on funding regenerative agriculture, the role of consumers, and the nutritional benefits of regeneratively grown food. Although scientific tools to measure these benefits are still limited, the presence of TikTok star Eddie Abbew and brands like Wildfarmed hinted at the movement’s growing consumer appeal. Wildfarmed, founded by UK DJ Andy Cato, now sells regenerative bread and flour in Waitrose, a testament to the increasing mainstream interest.

A panel titled “Regen on the High Street” included some of the UK’s largest restaurant chains, signaling a shift towards incorporating regenerative sources in their supply chains, albeit slowly. Interestingly, a keynote talk on gene editing suggested a possible softening of the movement’s stance against “unnatural” methods, indicating an evolving conversation.

The regenerative agriculture movement has come a long way, evolving from a niche interest to a significant player in the realms of farming, business, and investment. While challenges and debates persist, the future looks promising, with a growing number of stakeholders recognizing the value of working harmoniously with nature.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top