Soil Health & regeneration
Exploring the role of soil health in regenerative food and farming systems
Introduction Soil health is often cited as the core tenet and basis of regenerative food and farming systems (Schreefel et al. 2020). The following discussion aims to examine this assumption critically through the two inter-related lenses of indigenous ontologies (Carlisle 2022) and levels of regeneration (Soloviev and Landua 2016). Bringing these perspectives together, this essay aims to formulate the standpoint that soil health plays a necessary (and important) but not sufficient role in regenerative food and farming systems. If we are to adequately transform these systems beyond the ‘degenerative paradigm’ (Wahl 2016), then the movement of regeneration must widen its lens beyond soil health reductionism and embrace socio-cultural epistemologies outside the confines of both Western worldviews and ‘shallow’ regenerative mindsets (Carlisle 2022). Soil health and regenerative agriculture are emergent and nebulous terms (Newton et al. 2020), so there is great potential for co- option, ‘greenwashing’ and misinterpretation. A delicate balance must be struck to both refine the discourse so that it carries clear meaning but without narrowing down the potential of regeneration to a set of physical principles or isolated factors such as soil health. Academic writing on soil health has largely germinated from the paradigm of physical, environmental and management sciences (Lal 2016), whilst regenerative agriculture hosts an increasing wealth of ideological books and a dearth of academic exploration, particularly lacking in perspectives from the social sciences, especially when compared to its cousin of agroecology (Altieri and Toledo, 2011). This essay aims to help address this imbalance, first by situating the discussion in its wider sociological context, before defining key terms and then bringing together the ancient lens of indigeneity with the emergent frameworks of regenerative culture, thus supporting the case for regenerative systems beyond soil reductionism.
Wider Context This exploration of soil health and regenerative food systems is situated in a context where agriculture occupies 38% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface (Massy 2017), and this is currently some of the most degraded soil on the planet (Hawken 2017). Looking deeper, and from anthropological lenses, the health of soil has been historically tied to civilizational health and existence (Hyams 1952). The modern predicament of topsoil loss and degradation is situated within an industrial-productivist paradigm which manifests in both agriculture and dominant culture (Gordon, Davila, and Riedy, 2022). This is where the relevance of regenerative agriculture intersects with the importance of soil health for societal flourishing within planetary boundaries (Rockstrom et al. 2009). Given the current soil crises and the emergent science outlining the importance of soil (Masters 2019), it is often justified that soil health should be the basis of regenerative food and farming systems (Schreefel 2020). And yet, this common deduction misses the point that the soil degradation is situated within an industrial-productivist discourse. From this Foucauldian lens of epistemology (Foucault 1980), it is the knowledge and power paradigms underlying both degradation and regeneration that must be critically analysed, beyond purely physical, chemical or even biological metrics of soil health. This necessitates a wider engagement with the socio-
economic and political in the story of regenerative farming. This widening lens effectively shifts the kaleidoscope in regenerative discourse to include the social, metaphysical and anthropological sciences in defining and interpreting regenerative agriculture and soil health.
Defining regenerative agriculture Regenerative agriculture and soil health are complex and emergent terms, and their relationship is largely impacted by their definitions adopted. Whilst current definitions tend to be limiting, it is argued that emerging socio-cultural definitions widen the potential for transformation within the regenerative movement (Soloviev and Landua 2016). In other words, the success of these solutions hinges upon their ability to adopt holistic definitions and praxis. A review of 28 studies (by Schreefel et al. 2002) highlighted the complexities of defining these nebulous terms, proposing to define regenerative agriculture as “an approach to farming that uses soil conservation as the entry point to regenerate and contribute to multiple ecosystem services (p.1).” Reviewed definitions in this paper mirror the literature in this emergent field, and definitions are largely restricted to the physical sciences with an emphasis on soil health and thus a lack of congruency with the wider social, political and economic systems these definitions are nested in. Newton et al (2020) reviewed 229 journal articles and summarised definitions into either process or outcome oriented. Both are limited, as a process-oriented definition may encourage good practice without necessarily delivering the holistic solutions that regenerative agriculture holds potential for such as community regeneration, livelihood autonomy, resilience to climatic changes (e.g. see Hawken 2017). Conversely, an outcome focused definition may yield great carbon reductions or ‘good soil health’ whilst wider social and ecological processes are ignored e.g. water cycles, land justice or corporate capture of agriculture (Shiva 2016). This essay opts for a more holistic definition of regenerative agriculture (and thus its food and farming systems), as a discourse and praxis that can “situate agricultural work within nested, complex living systems” and integrate the “multiple regenerative cultures that are necessary for deeply regenerative agriculture” (p.1, Gordon, Davila and Riedy 2022).
Defining Soil Health The complexity, diversity and divergence in defining regenerative agriculture is mirrored in the epistemologies behind soil health. Firstly, soil health was coined as a metaphor, which usefully links wider ecosystemic and human health with the soil and departs from a narrow focus on soil fertility (Janzen et al. 2021). Soil health has followed a similar trajectory to regenerative farming in its exponential rise in use over recent decades, and particularly its frequency of citations in environmental and social sciences literature addressing climate change solutions (Newton et al. 2020). Soil Health similarly exists on a spectrum from simplistic definitions focused on the anthropocentric ‘utility’ of soil outcomes to more complex definitions favoured in more recent literature. The latter complexity is embraced in this paper, at the risk of adopting an abstract or overgeneralised (and thus potentially meaningless) definition. Janzen at al. (2021) highlight this potential ambiguity when defining the alive and dynamic concept of soil health, but nevertheless endeavour to bring together the holistic literature on the topic to reach the following definition: “Soil health is the vitality of a soil in sustaining the socio-ecological functions of its enfolding land” (p.2). This succinctly brings together the three aspects of soil health identified across a range of literature: functionality in life’s metabolic processes (including for human and non-human benefits), vitality as a thriving relational system, and resilience to maintain these thriving relationships over time, despite stresses or external changes. Finally, soil health is context dependent, and a relative concept. Our baseline index of ‘good soil health’ is important in distinguishing how it might relate to regenerative food and farming systems. In line with Janzen’s (2021) definition, the inter-related components of good soil health are being widened from the 20th century focus on macronutrients (e.g. NPK) and instead towards a much broader measure of connected porosity, relational health, diversity of species, microbiology (e.g. glomalin, hyphae, nematodes and tardigrades) and socio-cultural stories of soil nested in their ontological frames.
Indigenous ontologies The first pillar of this exploration begins in the underacknowledged roots/rhizosphere of regenerative agriculture: indigenous land custodianship (Carlisle 2022). The native forefathers of the ‘regenerative’ paradigm have an underrepresented voice in science, academia, modern knowledge and thus power (Shiva 2016; Foucault 1980). It can be problematic to bring in this perspective, for risk of appropriation, misinterpretation, or romanticisation (Escobar 2018). And yet it is essential in this context of continuing soil degradation and the corporate hijacking of regenerative/indigenous agriculture. It’s important to note that not all indigenous cultures have maintained or improved soil health, and many ancient civilisations have collapsed due to mismanagement of this base source of life (Hyams 1952). And yet many cultures boast healthier, richer, darker soils after centuries of nourishment, right relationship, intentional practice and custodianship (Hecht 2003). The relationship between soil health and this long-term regenerative custodianship is not necessarily explicit or linear – rather, they are both secondary processes emerging from an ontology of earth aliveness, interconnectedness and deep respect of nature (Pawluk, Sandor and Tabor 1992.). In this sense, it is unlikely that these cultures focused on ‘soil health’ as an isolated pillar of their ‘regenerative’ systems, but the intrinsic value of earth/soil was inherent in the indigenous cosmology, without even the language to separate the concepts of soil/earth and humans/culture (Carlisle 2022). Thus the cultural, social and metaphysical frameworks were the basis of ‘regenerative’ systems, and the physical indicators, ‘outcomes’ or manifestations of this were secondary – important, sacred and valued, but part of something more complex. This cultural imaginary is difficult to grasp for the western scientific community and yet essential for its survival (Escobar 2018). Indigenous approaches help to highlight and challenge the limits of soil reductionism in regenerative food and farming systems.
There are harmonies, tensions and unknowns in the relationship between indigenous and regenerative farming. The potential trend towards soil reductionism in regenerative food systems will widen the gulf and increase tensions between the two, thus severing from the taproot of regenerative agriculture and limiting the potential for real transformational change (Carlisle 2022). Conversely, a harmonisation of indigenous ontologies with the regenerative discourse has potential to deepen the movement and lead to paradigm shifts rather than surface improvements. Within this discussion it is essential to maintain a critical lens on potential for appropriation or neo-colonial knowledge co-option (see ‘Ontology as
the new Colonialism’, Todd 2016). From this critical lens, regenerative food and farming systems cannot simply adopt romanticised indigenous cosmologies without the necessary reparative land justice, reconciliation and reflexive awareness of the diversity and complexity of these ancient ontologies. Just as in soil science, the western inquiry into these matters has only scratched the surface (Masters 2019). The perceived harmonies between regenerative agriculture’s principles and indigenous land practice must not be viewed as some accidental discovery, but an opportunity to reframe regenerative with its roots in the indigenous; a return movement. It’s also important to note that the indigenous overlap is currently less explicit in regenerative agriculture compared to in agroecology for example (see figures 1 and 2), and this may be a reason why regenerative agriculture is more vulnerable to co-option and greenwashing (Altieri and Toledo 2011). Whilst overlap occurs between the regenerative and indigenous land practices, the latter are not narrowed down to these practices but instead embrace a way of being that makes ‘regenerative practice’ an inevitability beyond rationalism. In this ‘deep regenerative’ paradigm, the cultural, ontological and relational are the foundation, whilst the principles, processes, and outcomes flow from this root (Carlisle 2022).
Figure 1 (left) socio-cultural principles of agroecology from Altieri and Toledo 2011 Figure 2(right) soil-focused principles of regenerative agriculture from Groundswell (2020) https://groundswellag.com/principles-of-regenerative-agriculture/
Deep regenerative farming This section explores the second pillar of this main body of argument, which aims to bring in more recent regenerative literature to bridge the discussion to the present-day context. The emergent research examines both regenerative agriculture and soil health critically and in doing so distinguishes between shallow and deep regeneration (Carlisle 2022). Whilst this theme is inherent in the first lens of indigenous ontologies (which tend to take a much deeper regenerative lens), it is distinct in its bridging to new and emergent epistemologies,
especially in the modern context and awareness of the Anthropocene (Rockstrom et al. 2009). It is in this fertile space between ancient and emergent where truly regenerative discourse in our ecological context can take effect in society, both as a countermovement to shallow regeneration and as a real alternative being prefigured in new food and farming systems across the world (Toensmeier 2016). Soloviev and Landua (2016) distinguish between 4 levels of regeneration (see figure 3). This maps the potential layers of relationship between regenerative food/farming systems and soil health. A functional (and often linear) relationship is dominant in conventional discourse around outcome-oriented definitions of these terms. A level beyond this, there are light green, ‘sustainable’ approaches that begin to Integrate other spheres of regeneration, such as being chemical- free and localising supply chains. Systemic regeneration enters a relationship to the wider (and internal) forces that govern the depth of regeneration, such as building new economic systems or epistemologies beyond industrial-productivism. Evolutionary regeneration invites in culture, ontology and relationality with place (see figure 4).
Figure 3, upper: levels of regeneration (Soloviev and Landua 2016) Figure 4, lower: Evolutionary level of regeneration (Soloviev and Landua 2016)
‘Regenerative cultures’ (see Wahl 2016) are crucial to a truly deep and evolutionary agriculture beyond soil reductionism (Gordon, Davila and Riedy 2022). As academics and activists become increasingly disillusioned with purely physical, technical, and political solutions, more attention is being given to the cultural and ontological realms, and the same can be said for regenerative agriculture (Shiva 2016). A regenerative food paradigm without the cultural shifts will likely be a short-lived surface solution, and lead to unintended consequence and problem-creation in other spheres. This is evident in ‘regenerative farms’ that actually have a degenerative culture, over-emphasizing ‘soil health’ at the cost of human relations and internal regeneration/mental health (Brown, Schirmer, and Upton, 2021). A holistic context for regenerative farming is thus required, which bridges the pragmatic with the interpersonal (ch.1, Perkins 2019). There are many examples, of ‘regenerative farms’ that operate from the industrial-productivist and masculine work culture, rely on unpaid labour and organise in a top-down structure. This touches upon a broader issue within the regenerative narrative, that has recently been dominated by the old story of ‘one man saving America’, ranching large acreage ‘single-handedly’ and driving the changes from a masculine paradigm (Carlisle 2022). These farms often have fantastic physical results in soil health but may not be considered regenerative from a holistic definition (Gordon, Davila and Riedy 2022). The reality is that most exemplars of deeply regenerative farms are co-operative and facilitated by women in the Global South, from values of relationality, people care and earth custodianship (Shiva 2016; Carlisle 2022). This is situated within an interesting nexus of inquiry where the collaborative, decentralized and non-violent cultures intersect with the emergent feminine consciousness in humanity, and thus a rebalancing away from the industrial-productivist paradigm associated with masculinity (Hutchins and Storm 2019). Cycling this discussion back to our definitions of both regenerative agriculture and soil health, the emphasis in holistic definitions hinges upon the relational. This is a core tenet of both indigenous ontologies and the re-emergent feminine values in society. Relationship to soil, place, ecology and life are complex and interwoven, rather than transactional or functional (level 1 of regeneration, Soloviev and Landua 2016). These lenses provide additional support for the complexity in relating soil health and regenerative food systems, as part of a holistic web rather than a linear line between the two. The feminine, indigenous, decolonial and collaborative ontologies are central to enacting the deeper potential of the regenerative movement.
Conclusion Underpinning this discussion are two age-old debates, one of holism vs reductionism, and another of means vs ends. Through the lenses of indigenous ontologies and deep regenerative farming, this discussion has alluded to the dangers and limits of a reductionist relationship between soil and food/farming systems. The analysis of the emergent definitions around these terms has pointed to a dominance of ‘process’ and ‘outcome’ centred epistemologies (Newton et al. 2020). The polarisation of outcomes and processes is situated amongst this historic debate of means and ends, which separates present and future in a way that indigenous ontologies and languages do not (Escobar 2018). Its antithesis is a prefigurative approach, which aligns the means and the ends to actively co-
create alternative structures in the unfolding now (Raekstad and Gradin 2020). Deep regeneration of our food and farming systems can be understood as a prefigurative tool for social transformation. This concept of prefiguration is intentionally brought into the conclusions of this argument, for it effectively bridges the ancient and the emergent fields set out in this paper’s introduction, by weaving together indigenous worldviews of relationality and non-linear time (Dinerstein 2022) with the newer, emergent frameworks for regeneration in the Anthropocene. These lenses inevitably bring in a greater centrality of social sciences, anthropology and holistic sciences into the discussions around regenerative agriculture. From this fertile ground, a more complex web of relationality can exist in the spaces between and around soil health and regenerative food/farming systems. This is not to deny soil health an important relationship with regenerative food and farming systems, but to highlight its insufficiency when divorced from the systemic, evolutionary and cultural spheres of potential within the regeneration movement as a whole.
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