The Regenerative Agriculture and Food Systems Summit, which will take place in Amsterdam this week, will bring together the food industry to share ideas and devise strategies to accelerate the transition to regenerative agriculture, to build a more resilient food system for generations to come.

Over the course of the 20th century, we have witnessed dramatic increases in agricultural output. While this so-called 'green revolution' lived up to its promise to enhance food security and production in some parts of the world, it has also taken a huge toll on our planet. With agriculture claiming half of the world's habitable land, around one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction.

The so-called 'green revolution' lived up to its promise to enhance food security and production in some parts of the world. It has also taken a huge toll on our planet
'Negative effects'
Conventional farming methods like the over-application of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides and relentless tilling have set off another chain of negative effects, including extreme water and soil pollution (an estimated 25% of arable soils worldwide are degraded).

As if that weren't enough, agriculture also accounts for 24% of all human-made greenhouse emissions.

Overhaul needed
The bottom line is our farming system urgently needs an overhaul. But what if our global farming system, when reimagined, could not just reduce harm to the health of the Earth but also improve it, all while feeding a growing population and creating better livelihoods for farmers along the way?

Enter regenerative agriculture: a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food production. It uses specific agricultural practices like increasing plant diversity and integrated pest and weed management to improve crop quality and output as well as the land and ecosystems where the crops are grown. A farmer moving to regenerative practices might start by planting specific types of trees or shrubs alongside or in-between crops.

This agroforestry technique can increase carbon sequestration while conserving biodiversity and increasing soil fertility and health. This leads to crops that are more resistant to pests and diseases, which promotes stronger yields and eventually decreases the need for external inputs like pesticides.
This is hardly a novel concept. Traditional farmers and Indigenous peoples have been developing and practicing forms of cultivation similar to regenerative agriculture for eons.

Taken to scale, Nespresso is accelerating the transition to regenerative agriculture through its AAA Sustainable Quality Program, founded with the Rainforest Alliance back in 2003. Coffee farmers in Africa who participated in the program and who tested and learned how to advance some regenerative farming practices, have seen their yields increase by 300% in 7 years’ time, leading to $4.3 million additional income per year across 36,700 farmers.

Or take the 1,000-hectare Aquiares coffee estate in Costa Rica, which undertook sustainability transformation 17 years ago, transitioning from a full-sun monoculture approach to cultivating shade-grown coffee. As the largest Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee farm in Costa Rica and supplying its beans to companies like Nespresso, Aquiares has been a pioneer in applying regenerative principles on a grand scale, planting more than 50,000 trees and effectively connecting two important wildlife corridors. Now the farm boasts 76 different native tree species and 140 bird species—103 of which hadn’t been seen before setting out on a regenerative path.

That said, for many farmers, especially smallholders (who account for 30-40% of global food production), the transition to regenerative practices can seem like a steep hurdle. Volatile crop prices and the ever-increasing impacts of climate change mean that farmers are often already struggling to make ends meet and need to have full confidence that an investment in regenerative agriculture will actually benefit them. This is where robust data, knowledge, and skills can help them make the leap.

To help move the entire sector one step forward, the Rainforest Alliance and Nespresso developed the Regenerative Coffee Scorecard: a voluntary tool for coffee companies to guide their transition to regenerative farming, by identifying the current performance of farmers, highlighting where targeted support is needed, and tracking improvement towards regenerative goals.

With regenerative agriculture, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn one of the greatest threats to the climate and biodiversity into one of the greatest solutions
Joint effort
Scaling regenerative agriculture should not fall on farmers’ shoulders alone - it will take a joint effort from actors across the supply chain.

Food companies and retailers need to work towards more equitable power dynamics within their supply chain by investing in regenerative agriculture and rewarding farmers who embrace regenerative practices with a higher price.

Governments and intergovernmental organizations must rethink how to shape future policy, stimulus packages, and rural development plans so that they incentivize regenerative agriculture.

Also key is educating consumers to make more conscious food choices which will grow demand for products produced through regenerative agriculture. While the role of financial institutions and investors is often overlooked, they stand to serve as a real catalyst for the transition by making investment decisions that bolster regenerative food systems.

This includes providing long-term loans to farmers looking to transform their farms into regenerative ones. Lastly, civil society has an important role to play by driving funding, research, and field programs with technical training and by linking smallholder farmers to markets.

With regenerative agriculture, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn one of the greatest threats to the climate and biodiversity into one of the greatest solutions. One where food production is secure and farmers and nature thrive. What are we waiting for?

Juliana Jaramillo is the global lead for regenerative agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance. The initial version of this article was published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation”