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Regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is an established holistic approach to farming, which seeks to restore, enhance, and improve the health of both soil and local biodiversity.

As a practice, regenerative agriculture provides benefits for the environment1, growers (including potential to increase yield, diversify income streams, and differentiate supply), and consumers (through a potentially healthier, better tasting product) by combining modern science with often ancient traditional farming practices2. It differs from organic farming in that it does not wholly exclude the use of agrochemicals where required – the two terms are sometimes erroneously used interchangeably.

Agricultural practices under the regenerative umbrella include minimizing or avoiding land tillage, using cover crops to reduce soil erosion and increase carbon absorption, encouraging plant diversity, agroforestry techniques, measures to boost soil moisture, and more selective or efficient agrochemical use3,4.

The core focus of regenerative farming is on soil health5,6, and includes a recognition of the benefits of using natural resources to support longer term soil health for the benefit of both the environment and farmers alike. Soil is too often seen as simply a substrate, a growing medium that only requires the regular input of agrochemicals to replace fertility or eliminate pests. This is known as industrial farming and has contributed greatly towards farming’s overall contribution to both the depletion of natural resources and carbon emissions. A teaspoon full of soil can contain up to 6 billion microorganisms, each of which has a role7,8,9 in providing nourishment for the multitude of essential sub-soil engineers like worms and enabling the increase of a diverse range of above ground species. Healthy soil also has a vital structural role to play in reducing potential erosion, which is a very real associated threat to coffee caused by extreme climate change weather patterns.

Coffee intercropped with tomato in Darién, Colombia. Picture by Neil Palmer (CIAT).


More than half the world’s agricultural land is degraded10, and one of the ways the food industry is seeking to address this challenge is through regenerative farming11. Coffee is no exception, with public commitments to increase use of the technique and spread best practice12.

Regenerative agriculture emerged in recent years as an increasingly popular umbrella term for the existing range of restorative agricultural practices already used by many coffee producers worldwide13. This is driven by a higher awareness of the negative environmental impact of industrial farming14, the growing prevalence of climate change15, and a higher awareness of soil as a resource to be nurtured16. This is also underpinned by a wide commitment by companies within the coffee sector to produce responsibly sourced coffee, including accounting for environmental concerns such as climate change and conservation17.

Coffee bean seedlings

Looking forwards and ISIC role

Coffee has already shown a wealth of opportunities to potentially employ regenerative agriculture techniques. In the right settings, the use of shade-grown trees18 or agroforestry techniques, organic fertilizer, non-chemical pesticide options, and measures to boost biodiversity are widely used by producers. Unlike many other higher impact crops, coffee also does not require intensive ploughing or techniques which drastically alter the local landscape. There is however no ‘one size fits all’ model for the use of regenerative agriculture in coffee growing, and practices should be tailored to specific climate, historical land use, farms, and species of coffee being grown.

With coffee grown in hugely diverse environments around the globe, more research is needed to build a strong knowledge-base that can benefit all farmers19. While it is widely accepted that growing coffee with regenerative techniques is ‘healthier’ for the environment, ISIC will play a role in supporting research that drives concrete measurement of these benefits20. This will present a clearer picture21 of the practice to farmers, local communities, policymakers, and consumers.