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Opinion

Seductive yet empty labels don’t advance debate about future agricultures

Published on 10 March 2021

Image of James Sumberg
James Sumberg

Emeritus Fellow

Ken Giller
Renske Hijbeek
Jens Andersson

Now more than ever, we need serious reflection and debate about desirable futures for agriculture and food production. It is of such importance that this debate must be open and accessible to all.

But how should an inclusive debate about agriculture and food futures be framed, particularly when the social, environmental and economic stakes are so high?

What is very clear to us is that framing the debate about agriculture in terms of simple dichotomies – that suggest a battle of ‘right’ against ‘wrong’, ‘good’ against ‘evil’ – does no justice to either the seriousness of the challenge, or the enormous variation in agricultural environments and production systems.

Simple agricultural dichotomies have no place in this debate

One of the most common of these framing dichotomies pits ‘family’ against ‘industrial’ farms, while another contrasts ‘alternative’ with ‘conventional’ farming methods. The implication is that all farms can be meaningfully classed as either ‘family’ or ‘industrial’, and all farming methods or systems are either ‘alternative’ or ‘conventional’. But it is obviously not that simple. What most often happens is that a category like ‘conventional’ becomes a large bucket into which anything and everything that is not organic, agro-ecological, biodynamic or permaculture is thrown. This bucket then includes the vast majority of all farm enterprises, farm families and farmed land, and will contain tremendous diversity in terms of scale, social organisation, crops grown, techniques used, commercial orientation, productivity and so on. So, while the dichotomy is seductive, it is empty, intellectually dishonest, and provides absolutely no analytical purchase. It therefore has no place, and certainly no central place, in public, policy or scientific debate.

A similar argument can be made around the labelling of some agricultural techniques or systems as ‘sustainable’ or ‘climate smart’ with the (most often) unstated understanding that everything else is necessarily ‘unsustainable’ or ‘not climate smart’. Again, these simplistic dichotomies result in extremely large and diverse residual categories, being the outcome of neither robust nor systematic methods of determining what should be considered ‘in’ or ‘out’.

Pushing back against the ‘regenerative agriculture’ bandwagon

In a paper just published in Outlook on Agriculture, we take a critical look at the recent increased interest in ‘regenerative’ agriculture – one half of another simplistic dichotomy. The focus on regeneration is motivated primarily through a crisis narrative around declining soil health and loss of biodiversity. Interestingly, the techniques that were previously hailed as ‘sustainable’ and ‘climate smart’, including organic, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, high intensity grazing and so on, have now all become ‘regenerative’.

There is a serious lack of evidence as to how quickly or effectively, or in what contexts, these ‘regenerative’ techniques actually address the (assumed to be universal) soil health and biodiversity crises. Nevertheless, the label ‘regenerative’ is proving to be very attractive to wide range of high profile international agri-corporations, NGOs and development organisations. The regenerative agriculture bandwagon is very much on the move, despite the fact that as a framing device it is most unlikely to enlighten public debate.

We hope that the new paper will encourage agricultural researchers and others to be more active in public debates on the future of agriculture and food, and in the struggle against the continuing tyranny of seductive yet empty labels.


James Sumberg is an IDS Emeritus Fellow, Ken Giller is Wageningen University Professor,
Renske Hijbeek is Wageningen University Assistant Professor, and Jens Andersson is Wageningen University Senior Researcher

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