A system view: Agriculture, Production, and Farming Communities

Throughout the articles and essays featured in this edition of The Lydion Magazine, we reference Ethan Soloviev’s Paradigms of Agriculture. Ethan is a founder of Terra Genesis and a global thought leader of the Regenerative Agriculture movement. This framework for understanding which paradigm and practices underpin agricultural sourcing originates from a meta-framework called Levels of Paradigm developed by Carol Sanford. This framework has also influenced diagrams developed by Bill Reed and the Regenesis Group that illustrate the continuum from Degenerative Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture, Circular Agriculture, and Regenerative Agriculture.

Together, this set of frameworks gives us powerful instruments for reflecting on and more deeply understanding how the assumptions we make about a system impact the potential that system can achieve. In addition to considering the Paradigms of Agriculture, we also consider the impacts of networks and engagement in how producers and producer communities are able to achieve regenerative practices. Overall, these paradigms help us understand how well a system functions and what interventions can be applied to best achieve regenerative goals.

Degenerative Agriculture

“The first paradigm aims to extract value from the surrounding environment to achieve personal, family, and societal progress. Farming focuses on maximizing productivity, utilizing all available resources to increase quantitative yields and economic profitability. Modern extractive agriculture often relies on other extractive industries (mining, petroleum, petrochemicals) to further its harvesting of value from natural systems.

One common effect of extractive agriculture is that the productive capacity of living systems decreases over time, requiring increased off-farm inputs in order to sustain high yields.”

Ethan Roland Soloviev, Paradigms of Agriculture, 2021

Characteristics of Data Collection at the Level of Degenerative Agriculture

Centralized metrics and surveillance of operations

The system and process for metric collection are externally developed without consulting the people or communities being monitored. The needs, benefits, and interests of these communities, or potential hazards posed to the people and processes involved, are not considered in metric development or measurement.

Privatized data ownership and centralized exploitation of data

Ownership and control of data are seated firmly with external agents or investors who have developed the system. These external agents and investors then develop and sell information products, with the economic value and benefit of the underlying data accruing almost entirely to these owning parties. Local communities only benefit from distributed value as much as is minimally required for the system to function.


What are examples of networks that support or reinforce an agricultural paradigm of extraction? One is seen in efforts to develop “precision agriculture” technologies to optimize use and efficiency of agricultural inputs and to monitor use of resources such as water. Recently, another example is a platform called Agristack that has raised unaddressed concerns around farmer data ownership and privacy.

Sustainable Agriculture

“This paradigm aims to protect natural resources and reduce the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment. While maintaining high levels of agricultural productivity is important, adopting practices that respect the natural world but decrease yield are sometimes seen as a necessary tradeoff.

Conservative agriculture works to prevent soil erosion, minimize water use, and lower pollution levels on farms. Often these are achieved through decreasing non-renewable inputs, reducing environmentally harmful practices, and innovating with agricultural technologies.”

Ethan Roland Soloviev, Paradigms of Agriculture, 2021

Characteristics of Data Collection at the Level of Sustainable Agriculture

Representative stakeholder consultation and consideration in metrics

The system and process for metric collection are externally developed, but the people and communities involved participate with some consultation and consideration regarding their needs, benefits, and interests, as well as the potential hazards or risks posed by the system.

Privatized data ownership potentially with data sharing agreements

Ownership and control of data remains firmly with the external agents or investors developing the system. Information products are developed primarily by the external agents, and benefits go largely to these external agents and investors, but with some consideration of and sharing with the local community. Benefit distribution to local communities needs to appear to be fair and equitable for optics and acceptability, but often is designed to primarily serve outside parties.


Most certification programmes are, or have developed into, this sort of paradigm. If we look at organic agriculture, the early development was much more internal (higher paradigm), but with the importance and development of markets, the shift in these systems has become much more external, as evidenced by the processes we observe in the USNOP programme or in EU certification.

IFOAM, originally named the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, was driven at the start by stakeholder organizations. It has now changed its name to IFOAM Organics, and while it still remains more of a stakeholder organization than national organic programs, we perceive that its recent embodiment has moved it some distance away from grassroots development, and that outside interests now have more influence than before. National systems such as the EU’s or USNOP do incorporate processes to involve stakeholders on some level in consultation and review, but are driven centrally rather than by communities.

Circular Agriculture

“Instead of “conserving” natural resources and “doing less harm”, Net-Positive Agriculture aims to “do good”: To improve the quality and functioning of natural resources and eventually restore agro-ecosystems to a “healthy” state. This paradigm explicitly aims to build soil, improve water cycle health, and increase biodiversity while producing food for communities and economic well-being for farmers. The greatest goal of net-positive agriculture is to create abundance for people and other species, making life “thrive” instead of simply “survive.”

Some forms of net-positive agriculture focus on adopting “best practices” for land restoration. Others work to improve human decision-making processes, but avoid ongoing disruptive development of human beings and the systems of which they are members. Agriculture is still fragmented from the whole of life, and farms are still the primary unit of focus for repair. Varying degrees of awareness are brought to larger nested systems, but practitioners often struggle to move beyond a functional view of ecology as a metaphor for human behavior.”

Ethan Roland Soloviev, Paradigms of Agriculture, 2021

Characteristics of Data Collection at the Level of Circular Agriculture

Co-developed metrics

The system and process are developed in partnership or collaboration with the people and communities they monitor to consider their needs and interests as well as the potential benefits and hazards of the system.

Co-ownership of data and community as co-beneficiaries

Ownership and control of the data are shared between the external agents or investors developing the system and the people and communities being monitored.

Information products are developed together with the local communities.

Benefits are considered and designed together with the community stakeholders and shared in a way that the communities agree to be fair and equitable.

Collaborative and iterative data collection and metrics

Consideration is given both to the needs and interests of the developer and to the interests of community stakeholders who share their own perspective, visions, and views. Instead of the perspective of an external party saying: “I am looking out for your best interest, therefore I am considerate of you”, the paradigm allows for collaboration: “I am listening to you and your needs and interests, and they are key in our decision-making process.”

Here, the community clearly has a significant voice and its own sense of agency in the process and in the relevant decision-making.


The PGS (Participatory Guarantee Systems) for organic agriculture emerged largely as a response of communities to a perception that certification systems and “organic” terminology had been co-opted by external parties and interests for commercial gain that excluded grassroots stakeholders.

These grassroots communities and groups reaffirmed their control and governance of this process and its ensuing benefits, which would fall into Net Positive or Regenerative Paradigms.

Regenerative Agriculture

“In the regenerative agriculture paradigm, each farm is considered in terms of its contribution to and reciprocal relationship with the unique lifeshed in which it lives. This requires developing a deep understanding of the last five hundred million years in each place, including special attention on the last fifty thousand years and its biological, horticultural, agricultural, and human stories. The agro-ecological diversity of regenerative farms is inevitably a living genetic history, with unique varieties of crops carrying the narratives of climatic variability, human movement, and culinary-cultural evolution.”

Ethan Roland Soloviev, Paradigms of Agriculture, 2021

Characteristics of Data Collection at the Level of Regenerative Agriculture

Community Designed and Context Sourced

Systems and processes are developed in partnership or collaboration with the people and communities they monitor to consider their needs and interests, as well as potential benefits and hazards of the system.

However, the core, or heart of this approach lies with the community stakeholders who, with their vision, experiences, and goals, are the principle designers of what needs to be measured and how to reach their goals of regeneration as they determine them.

The external developers and investors provide key support and means to enable this process and to develop the system and products that serve these communities and their goals. They may also facilitate the community stakeholder as part of their own processes of looking wider and broader in an effort to find key values of regeneration that may not have been initially visible or voiced.

Decentralized Data Ownership

Ownership and control of data primarily resides with the local communities and their constituent individuals but, through decentralized data systems, can be shared by the communities and their constituents with external investors, developers, the wider public, and others when doing so helps the communities reach their goals, or when sharing such data helps the communities reach common goals around enabling regeneration shared by these external stakeholders. Local sovereignty and privacy are protected, allowing communities to capture the value of their data, as well as the benefits from the information and data products they are able to develop. Benefits are shared with external developers and investors based on mutual agreement and consensus.


Examples of networks that support the evolution of agricultural systems include emerging technologies in decentralized finance (“DeFi”), including blockchain-based technologies that support novel crypto-currencies tied to ecological outcomes, Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) focused on stakeholder representation in network governance, and supply system transparency through smart contracts and chain-of-custody tracking.

Platforms such as Smallholder Data Services, built on the Lydion Engine, provide another example. Smallholder Data Services enables decentralized and peer-to-peer governance, smart contracts, and context-appropriate agreements sourced from producers and producer communities in concert with other stakeholders.