Regenerative farming, agroecology, and the future of food with Riverford’s Harriet Bell

“It’s critical we don’t have food systems too big to fail”  

“The best organic farms are regenerative and the best regenerative farms are organic”, Harriet tells me. There is an essential overlap between many of the terms that characterise the regenerative movement, complicating how we understand ideas of agricultural transition. Pinpointing the difference between ‘agroecology’, ‘nature-friendly’, ‘regenerative’ and ‘sustainable’ can as much be an issue of semantics as of unclear ecological and social criteria. This spectrum – from the tokenistic to the radical – emerges in absence of a rigid definition of ‘regenerative’. 

Regenerative farming and greenwashing

Without doubt, this exposes the term to co-optation and greenwash, something the movement can ill-afford in light of the worsening climate and biodiversity crises. It is “not unlike the term sustainability”, says Harriet – though the spectrum of meaningful action might vary drastically, the shift from pioneering fringe movement to the mainstream might be cause for cautious optimism. “The flip side is that the role of sustainability has become the norm across business”, and as a result now sits at the centre of conversations that once denied its very existence. When it comes to regenerative farming, then, the old adage of “ensuring the perfect doesn’t become the enemy of the good” becomes important.

Tractor in a field in Cornwall. The field is covered in grass and there are two wind turbines in the distance.

The future of regenerative farming

The resulting positivity and excitement in the sector is not to be ignored, Harriet emphasises. Seeing younger farmers raised against a conventional, often-intensive backdrop accepting and celebrating a new mindset and approach is in itself ‘hugely exciting’. The regenerative journey is one that farmers need to be empowered around, not instructed upon. Pointing to the grave suicide rates in farming and the external pressures of both policy and public, its essential we don’t resort to villainising those we need most to enact positive change. All this, even when “farming’s failings rarely lie with those on the ground”. Instead, “it’s the buying part. But farmers are blamed for systemic issues which they often have no say in, and certainly can’t control”. Any discourse, then, which “gives optimism, positivity and empowerment about where [farmers] can make progressive change” is one to be celebrated.

When asked if regenerative is the way forward for Riverford, the social element of agricultural transition comes to the fore. “Yes and no”, Harriet tells me. As a business, Riverford is committed instead to agroecology, a step further. Whilst they make use of (and ask of their suppliers) core regenerative bio-physical practices (focusing on soil health, resilience and integrated biodiversity for example), they feel the social elements mentioned by some in the regenerative movement are often “tokenistic”. For a business 100 percent employee-owned with a fair-to-farmers suppliers charter, “the social impact of what we do is critical”. A key distinction is the social justice ideals which agroecology is foregrounded in. Regenerating natural capital is one thing, but without acknowledging the social dynamics surrounding food production, we only have half the conversation.

“That’s Agroecology”. Credit: The Soil Association

Food Production

Inevitably, we turn to food production. In an increasingly fractured landscape of opinion and debate, the polarisation of farming and nature is reaching new heights. The two are not mutually exclusive, Harriet stresses. Whilst there are a minority who might interpret new Environmental Land Management schemes to fully stop farming, the idea that this will happen at scale is unlikely. Crucially, pitting “food security” against nature friendly farming deliberately misinterprets the term. In the long term, successful food production is predicated on the resilience of the ecosystems which sustain it. As the Food Farming and Countryside Commission have recently highlighted, when we talk about security, it is impossible to ignore the importance of system resilience, a key tenet of both regenerative and agroecological farming. At the moment, there is a sense that food systems are “too big to fail”, though as climate change brings more extreme weather, we enter uncharted territory.

Moreover, “there is increasing evidence that regenerative methods lead to better yields, especially in extreme weather”, Harriet tells me. Part of the problem is that agroecology just isn’t sufficiently researched. It is not the lack of viability in the approach per se, but rather the lack of funded research which allows agroecology to become established as a scalable alternative. Critics regularly point to this issue of scale and output, something I put to Harriet. Smiling, she checks the UK regenerative farming WhatsApp group where this question is being discussed as we speak; “I don’t assume agroecology is small scale…though it might take different forms”. From community supported agriculture to shared land use schemes, there is ultimately huge potential to design “complex environments with commercial viability” which are also rooted in social justice and resilient design principles. 

Resilience for the Future

“Really, it’s about complexity”, she says, as we draw to a close. Our current systems are all about linear efficiency, reductive systems which try to degrade natural complexity with the simplicity of profit and loss. In doing so, we remove many of the buffers inherent to ecosystems which serve us in the long run, such as soil erosion and water retention. Regenerative approaches seek to correct this, and are often characterised by key “principles”. Harriet gave me her top six which make for a resilient approach to managing the land:

1) Complexity 

2) No bare soil – this is critical 

3) Water: water retention in the landscape is essential for resilience

4) Permaculture design principles: These are effective design tools for a better system

5) Perennials/Trees: We need more of them 

6) A curious, rather than a conservative mindset. 

The debate around regenerative agriculture and agroecology will no doubt continue, and we can hope it retains enough integrity to avoid becoming valueless. Semantics are important, and society needs to move toward clearer definitions, as well as more ecological curiosity to ensure we make tangible progress for people and planet. Regardless, we need “the ability to bounce back inherently designed into the system”. The longer we ignore the importance of resilience, the less of it we retain. 

Harriet Bell is Regenerative Farming Lead at Riverford Organic Farmers


Growing up on a regenerative small holding, the relationship between food systems and the natural world has long been an interest of mine. Focusing on land-use tensions and geo-politics at Oxford, and now an MSc in Sustainable Development with Exeter, my interests lie in how we can leverage policy and natural capital principles to encourage not only regenerative land management and food systems alongside investment in nature recovery, but ultimately how we can ensure social equity and systems resilience. I’m drawn to the social elements of nature recovery and climate change adaptation, in particular the intersection of geopolitics, biodiversity economics and justice.
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