Image credit: DraganSaponjic / iStock

The 4 paradigms of agriculture: What are you sourcing from?

December 2, 2021

Ethan Soloviev is chief innovation officer at HowGood, a product sustainability research company based in High Falls, New York.

The views expressed in this guest commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of AFN.


Now is an important time in the history of the human species. Never before have we expanded so quickly, with this much technology, and done this much damage to the ecological and cultural systems of the planet. Agriculture has been a large part of this, but agriculture is not inherently the problem. Now is an important time to be asking: ‘What is regenerative agriculture?’

Instead of explaining regenerative agriculture itself, I’m going to contrast it with other paradigms of agriculture. My goal is to distinguish between their different characteristics, motivations, and effects. None of these paradigms are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the others. They each have different abilities to work with complexity and produce systemic effects, but should not be considered hierarchically or with any form of moral judgment.

Extractive agriculture

The first paradigm aims to extract value from the surrounding environment to achieve personal, familial, and societal progress. One common effect of modern extractive agriculture is that the productive capacity of living systems decreases over time, requiring increased mechanization and off-farm inputs in order to sustain high yields.

In many cases, the significant financial cost of mechanization and high levels of off-farm inputs has led to mounting debt, along with the consolidation of farm and infrastructure ownership in the hands of fewer and fewer large companies.

Conservative agriculture

This paradigm aims to protect natural resources and reduce the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment. While maintaining high levels of agricultural productivity is important, adopting practices that respect the natural world but decrease yield is sometimes seen as a necessary tradeoff. Conservative agriculture works to prevent soil erosion, minimize water use, and lower pollution levels on farms. Often these are achieved through decreasing non-renewable inputs, reducing environmentally harmful practices, and innovating with agricultural technologies.

Efficiency is paramount in this paradigm. Practices like precision agriculture, integrated pest management, and high-efficiency irrigation enable farms to ‘do more with less.’ More efficient machinery is used to plant and manage more efficient crops. Combining digital field monitoring, fine-tuned fertilizer application, and more targeted biocides allows farmers to reduce their inputs and costs.

Most agriculture that is promoted as ‘sustainable’ emerges from this conservative agriculture paradigm; the route to ‘sustainability’ is almost invariably a step-by-step reduction in environmental harm.

However, it is rare (if not impossible) for incremental reductions in harm to ever reach ‘net zero’ negative impact. The idea emerges that perhaps agriculture could do more than conserve natural resources – especially considering the significantly degraded agricultural landscapes where most conservative agriculture is practiced.

Net-positive agriculture

Net-positive agriculture aims to improve the quality and functioning of natural resources and eventually restore agro-ecosystems to a ‘healthy’ state. This paradigm explicitly aims to build soil, improve water cycle health, and increase biodiversity while producing food for communities and economic wellbeing for farmers. The greatest goal of net-positive agriculture is to create abundance for people and other species, making life ‘thrive’ instead of simply ‘survive.’

Instead of seeking to solve soil, water, plant, and animal problems in a fragmented way, net-positive agriculture aims to find integrated solutions through conscious design and planning. Land-enhancing synergies emerge from this integration, functioning to repair degraded ecosystems through the working of biodiverse over-yielding polycultures.

Net-positive agriculture is often anthropocentric: the Earth is seen as a place to make into an Eden for people, or as a place to ‘restore’ to its previously healthy state. Agriculture is still fragmented from the whole of life, and farms are still the primary unit of focus for repair. Varying degrees of awareness are brought to larger nested systems, but practitioners often struggle to move beyond a functional view of ecology as a metaphor for human behavior.

Regenerative agriculture

In the regenerative agriculture paradigm, each farm is considered in terms of its contribution to, and reciprocal relationship with, the unique ‘lifeshed‘ in which it lives. A lifeshed is like a watershed, except that all life is seen dynamically working as one, instead of fragmenting ‘water’ away from ecological, geologic, social, and cultural systems.

The agro-ecological diversity of regenerative farms is inevitably a living genetic history, with unique varieties of crops carrying the narratives of climactic variability, human movement, and culinary-cultural evolution. Critically important in most places in the world is to learn, acknowledge, and in many cases grieve the extractive and damaging events of the last 500 years. This often included destructive colonial and financial-bottom-line pressures which drove the genocide of indigenous peoples and the illicit and explicit theft of their land. In some places this was followed by centuries of human slavery and oppressive caste systems, later remixed into financial, legal, and political structures that further ingrained systemic racism, sexism, and the subjugation of ecologies and communities.

This context of social and economic devastation cannot be ignored or sidelined by the promise of environmentally beneficial farming. In the regenerative agriculture paradigm, long-term processes of reparation and rematriation — that follow the leadership of indigenous and marginalized communities — must go hand-in-hand with deep personal and collective work to understand and disrupt the roots of systemic oppression in the minds, actions, and policies of any and all that want to work towards truly regenerative agriculture.

Agriculture produces just 1% of carbon credits, data suggests – read more here

A core ingredient of such a regenerative recipe is for practitioners to grow the capacity to see the absolute uniqueness of each person, place, and business. When farms know and resonate with their own essence, they become non-displaceable; each farm enterprise has its own individuality that cannot be replicated. Its products are known and highly desired as distilled expressions of the place, and the wealth generated by these offerings is systemically re-invested into the health of the nested wholes of farm, community, and lifeshed.

At the same time, regenerative agriculture practitioners and landscapes are not static – they are consistently developing new approaches, novel ways of thinking, and deeper eco-social complexity in their genetics, enterprise systems, and human relationships. Because of this, regenerative farms have significant impacts beyond the boundaries of their landscapes; they evolve the capacity of other farms, businesses, and even whole industries to improve the effects they have on the lifesheds in which they live.

Regenerative agriculture focuses on the unmanifested potential of each place. Instead of organizing work and design around ‘problems,’ this paradigm orients decision-making and planning towards generating new potential from the healthy working of living systems.

There are some significant restraints to the adoption of the regenerative agriculture paradigm. Not only does it require a transformation of how the mind sees and works, but it also a growing, powerful, personal agency: To see and work with essence, to constantly develop oneself and one’s business, to manifest unseen potential, and to literally regenerate culture as a whole.

Regenerative agriculture requires a paradigm shift, which will lead to new philosophies, principles, and ultimately different practices. Focusing on the practices without addressing the rest of the system will only achieve short-lived and disintegrated change. Instead, the underlying systems of thinking and decision-making must evolve.

Agriculture is in need of transformation. What path will you take?

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