Can humus rescue the future? Regenerative agriculture offers openings for the organic sector
When the talk turns to agriculture these days, a regenerative approach is something that comes up especially often. What’s that movement all about? And is regenerative agriculture a real opportunity to revolutionise the food business? Benedikt Bösel and Julius Palm, two pioneers of the regenerative economy, explain.
Organic farmer Benedikt Bösel, with his Gut und Bösel farm in Brandenburg, offers a model business when it comes to regenerative farming. He was one of the first farmers in Germany to convert his farm – which now covers 3,000 hectares – to regenerative agriculture and forestry. In the spring of 2018, two years after he took over the farm from his parents, he encountered a straightforward trigger for changing his approach. “The spring drought was so extreme. Everything in the fields was yellow and brown. No bugs in the air, even though spring is actually the most important growing phase. That made it clear I needed to invest not just in equipment and innovation, but in the soil and the ecosystem,” he says.
Back then, this agrarian economist was still essentially a lone wolf. When he planted trees in his cropland and added more plants and animals to boot, people wondered what was supposed to be so innovative about all that. But today the concept has shown its worth. Two hundred head of cattle graze in the fields all year round, fertilising the soil, regenerating it sustainably, and encouraging biodiversity. Bösel combines agroforestry with arable farming and animal husbandry to reap multiple harvests from the same ground each year. Fields are broken up with rows of trees and surrounded by strips of wildflowers. Successive fruit crops and intercropping also play an important role in regenerative agriculture, so the ground stays covered all year round and the soil’s nutrient content stays as balanced as possible.
By now, regenerative agriculture has become a promising approach for getting nature and farming back into harmony. And that’s exactly where it ties in with the organic concept, which treats protecting resources and the environment as essential. Biodiversity, protecting the soil, and protecting water are principles for an organic, sustainable way of doing business. But another important factor is to remedy the damage that has already been done to nature. The regenerative agriculture movement is drawing even more attention to that aspect.
Among the supporters for Bösel’s work is the food company followfood. Both want to show that regenerative agriculture is scalable. In 2019 followfood founded a soil rescue fund that supports farmers who want to invest for regenerative agriculture. “We channel off one percent of our revenue and invest it in agriculture operations that think beyond just going organic and want to operate regeneratively as well,” explains Julius Palm, followfood’s Vice-Managing Director. In 2023 that made it possible to put the first products from regenerative systems onto the market.
Unlike organic farming, regenerative farming doesn’t forbid chemical, synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilisers. So it’s an approach that’s also generally possible for conventional farms. Yet regenerative methods can be an incentive for conventional farms to operate more sustainably, and in the best case, can even lead them to convert to organic methods with regenerative goals.
Bösel also sees this as an opportunity for the organic sector to do a better job of foregrounding the principles of organic farming. “The regenerative approach offers a different, additional pathway into sustainable farming. We can rouse more people’s enthusiasm for natural, organic ways of working, and thus expand their awareness and the market as well. I think it’s less about what terminology we use than about facing up to the underlying challenge and finding the common ground between organic and regenerative approaches, and working out how we can do the most with the best possible areas of potential,” Bösel explains. Palm adds, “For me, organic is the minimum standard. But often organic approaches still think in terms of the same old structures – after all, we haven’t been able yet to prevent enough soil erosion, retain water in fields, and build the soil’s fertility. That’s where regenerative agriculture helps, by trying to imitate natural ecosystems as far as it can.”
The prevalence of the topic shows that there’s a great need to better understand the connection between soil and the entire system of agriculture and the food industry.
It’s all about making environmental damage visible. The global food system is responsible for something more than a third of all greenhouse gases, and thus one of the biggest engines driving climate change.2 And here regenerative agriculture is a significant lever for transformation, as a complement to organic farming.
“In any case our goal has to be to look at the whole. It’s not enough to compensate somehow for carbon dioxide emissions – in other words, if a company calls itself climate-neutral but is still harming biodiversity. Because the only reliable insurance for the future is healthy soil and an intact ecosystem,”states Bösel.
3 questions for …
Agrarian economist, founder and managing director of Gut und Bösel
“The only reliable insurance for the future is healthy soil and a healthy, intact ecosystem.”
1. Your name comes up a lot when people talk about regenerative agriculture in Germany. You’ve been researching and working in and with this topic for about five years now. What has changed so far, and are we still on the right track?
Back when I was starting out, really nobody quite understood the whole picture. Not the universities, or the operators, or the research institutes. In those days, they’d say, well, trees in your cropland, and plants and animals on top of that – what’s supposed to be so innovative about that? But I’m absolutely certain this was the right way. Because the only reliable insurance for the future is healthy soil and a healthy, intact ecosystem. So back then, I sold my car and sold stock, started planting trees and buying cows – in the hope that people would understand what we were doing.
It took a good while before people started getting the feeling that agriculture too has a major role among the great crises of our day. And if you really think it through, it quickly becomes clear that we can’t just look at yield per unit of land area per year, we need to think about the whole impact of our use. And that we simply can’t afford to ignore the ecological and social oncosts of production. Diversification and adaptability are important for responding to climate change and thus also for becoming economically secure and more independent.
2. Do you think the concept of a regenerative economy or regenerative agriculture can be extended to the whole food industry? What more would that need?
I think we have no choice but to transform the whole value chain like that. It has to be a goal for all of us, for every form of business, for every product, for every service. Everything we do as an individual or a society always has to be embedded in the ecosystem in such a way that it can generate value. Value in terms of the ecosystem, of society, and basically everything that safeguards the foundation of our lives. Just one example: if a company only compensates for carbon dioxide emissions and can call itself climate-neutral on that basis, and yet still causes a great deal of harm to biodiversity, then obviously that’s not enough! We have to compensate for the whole impact of our own output within the economic and social context, if not actually improve on it. But to do that we need to look beyond agriculture – to education, to science, to technological development, access to land, the question of how the capital market can take part in the transformation, and of course right at the head of the list, the political choices we make, which can have a big influence. True cost accounting can be an important lever here.
3. To get very specific: What opportunities does regenerative agriculture offer for the organic sector?
Basically, the principles of organic agriculture are very, very similar to those of regenerative agriculture. As I see it, regenerative agriculture is trying to think even more holistically about ecosystems. But there’s still no real definition for that.
It has advantages because farmers from every system can think and talk about areas of potential and about methods, and apply them. Anybody who’s seriously pursuing regenerative agriculture will also start farming organically in the long run. But of course there are also drawbacks, because anyone can also use the concept – and exploit it – without really doing anything with it. If I just start using a new word for the same thing I’ve always done, obviously that also involves a big danger. Most importantly, it could also cause a great loss of trust among consumers.
But I can also imagine that a lot of consumers who haven’t really paid much attention to organic food yet, or even have a negative attitude about it, could pick up some enthusiasm by way of a more self-explanatory term like “regenerative”, and could ultimately decide in favour of the organic products that represents.
What’s at stake is food, life, animals, people. And that means things are always going to get emotional. I hope that in the future we’ll talk less about ideology, definitions, and trenches, and instead more about content, and look for where we have areas in common and how we can support each other.
 Steffens, G. & Göring, M. (2023). Eat it! Die Menschheit ernähren und dabei die Welt retten (1st ed.). Penguin Verlag.
 IPCC. (2019). Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. www.ipcc.ch/srccl/