Agriculture is in crisis. Soil health is collapsing. Biodiversity faces the 6th mass extinction. Crop yields are plateauing. Against this crisis narrative swells a clarion call for Regenerative Agriculture. But what is Regenerative Agriculture, and why is it gaining such prominence? Which problems does it solve, and how? This paper addresses these questions from an agronomic perspective. The term Regenerative Agriculture has actually been around for some time, but there has been a resurgence of interest over the past five years, and particularly since 2016. It is supported from what are often considered opposite poles of the debate on agriculture and food. Regenerative Agriculture has been promoted strongly by civil society and NGOs as well as by many of the major multi-national food companies. Many practices promoted as regenerative, including crop residue retention, cover cropping, and reduced tillage are central to the canon of ‘good agricultural practices’, while others are contested and at best niche (e.g. permaculture, holistic grazing). Worryingly, these practices are generally promoted with little regard to context. Practices most often encouraged (such as no tillage, no pesticides or no external nutrient inputs) are unlikely to lead to the benefits claimed in all places.
The paper argues that the resurgence of interest in Regenerative Agriculture represents a re-framing under the same banner of what have been considered to be two contrasting approaches to agricultural futures, namely agroecology and sustainable intensification. This is more likely to confuse than to clarify the public debate. More importantly, it draws attention away from more fundamental challenges. We conclude by providing guidance for research agronomists who want to engage with Regenerative Agriculture.