At the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, U.S. President Joe Biden maintained that “As stewards of the land, farmers are on the front lines of climate change”. With technological advances in modern farming, rising levels of pollution in air, soil and water pose serious threats to sustainable growth of the agriculture industry. According to a study conducted by Forbes, “65% of consumers seek products that can help them live a more sustainable and socially responsible life”. But can the current agricultural practices fulfil this demand? Can farmers continue with conventional farming practices while facing the responsibility of feeding the planet? Regenerative farming, thus, has been emerging as an adaptable approach to sustainable agriculture. In this article, we explore the following aspects:
- What Regenerative Agriculture is
- The growing importance of Regenerative Agriculture
- Principles and common practices of Regenerative Agriculture
- Challenges related to Regenerative Agriculture
- The regulatory landscape of Regenerative Agriculture
- Opportunities for businesses and investments
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
The Carbon Underground comprehensively defines regenerative agriculture as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle” .
Often referred to as a movement rather than just a term, regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach focused on not only increasing the overall yield but building the health of the soil during the process.
The growing importance of Regenerative Agriculture
To address the growing global food need while improving the soil quality and producing good quality nutrient-rich food, a regenerative approach to agriculture holds several advantages including
- Decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG)
- Improved yields
- Improved soil nutrients
- Increases organic matter in soil
- Create drought-resistant soil
- Foster biodiversity
- Support local economies
- Improving water infiltration
Case of General Mills
Believing in the potential of regenerative agriculture to transform the space of sustainable farming, General Mills – the U.S.-based global manufacturer and marketer of branded consumer foods had publicly announced their intention to “advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030”. In their efforts to “strengthen ecosystems and community resilience”, General Mills has invested multi-million dollars in regenerative suppliers through multiple workstreams including pilot programs, brand activation, land conversions, research, and investments. In their 2021 Global Responsibility Report, the business quoted that 70,000 acres are now enrolled in the company’s regenerative agriculture pilots. Their efforts will focus on its most greenhouse gas emissions-intensive ingredient categories of wheat, oats, dry corn/sweeteners, fats and oils, dairy, sugar, chocolate/cocoa, meat, nuts, and miscellaneous grains (barley, cassava, rice), thus, helping them to grow sustainably.
Principles and Practices of Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agricultural practices are commonly governed by five principles:
- Minimize soil disruption: Those who practice regenerative agriculture believe in not doing any harm and causing minimum disturbance to the soil that holds a complex layer of microbiome that co-exist.
- Keep soil covered with plants: Covering the soil with plants protects it from harsh sun rays, rain and wind.
- Plant diverse crops: Practicing crop diversity ensures balance of soil nutrients unlike monoculture that furthers soil erosion.
- Keep living roots in the soil: Planting living roots in the soil provides nutrition to the base of the soil food web.
- Planned grazing: Including livestock grazing helps disperse seeds, aerate the soil and facilitate gaseous exchange.
And the commonly used regenerative farming practices are:
- No-till: These systems reduce the soil tension thus improving productivity. It prevents the loss of carbon sequestered in the soil.
- Diversified production systems: Improves the composition of the soil nutrients while promoting crop diversity.
- Perennial cropping: Planting perennial crops builds soil quality and also minimizes the risk of erosion from wind and water.
- Silvopasture: This intentional combination of trees, forage plants, and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system” promotes soil health
- Agroforestry: It is a “land use system which integrates trees and shrubs on farmlands and rural landscapes to enhance productivity, profitability, diversity and ecosystem sustainability”
- Aquaculture: As aquaculture requires less land and water resources, it emits fewer greenhouse gases.
Challenges related to Regenerative Agriculture
While the scientific evidence relating to the improved soil health using regenerative farming is convincing, some practitioners believe that it only acts as a mitigative measure, as opposed to the claim of its role in “reversing climate change”. Some of the other concerns are:
- Sequestering carbon: Several studies have shown that to reverse climate change, practicing regenerative agriculture can offset the emissions of greenhouse gases. Another major concern is the carbon “leakage”, as some of these practices can negatively affect the crop yields leading to the expansion of farmland elsewhere.
- Profitability for the farmers: As farmers are required to learn unconventional ways of farming, it takes time for them to adopt the practices. Depending on the type of crops and the geographical factors, regenerative agriculture may lead to low yield in some cases, thus affecting its adoption by the farmers. Due to increased labor costs, regenerative agricultural products will cost more thus narrowing the consumer base.
- Scalability: Regenerative farming continues to be a grassroots movement. The scalability of these practices by small-scale farmers to meet the demands of the growing market is concerning.
Regulatory landscape of Regenerative Agriculture
In February 2021, Joe Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in his Senate Confirmation hearing referring to regenerative agriculture stated, “It is a great tool for us to create the kind of structure that will inform future farm bills about what will encourage carbon sequestration, what will encourage precision agriculture, what will encourage soil health and regenerative agricultural practices”. The Biden Administration envisaged incentivizing farmers to adopt sustainable practices.
FAO, however, notes that the lack of explicit policy support is limiting the adoption of sustainable farming practices. In its report on ‘Progress on SARD within Countries’, it is stated that “Only two enabling policies have countries have given explicit national support for sustainable agriculture – putting it at the center of agricultural development policy and integrating policies accordingly. These are Cuba and Switzerland”. The report also acknowledges the regulations made by Kenya, Indonesia, India, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines for introducing “regulations, incentives and/or environmental taxes, and administrative mechanisms”. Thus, for adoption to reach a critical mass, it is imperative that regenerative practices are branded by the government as good farming and promoted well by your businesses.
Opportunities for businesses and investments
As individuals’ concern for climate change deepens, agricultural technology (AgTech) innovations will be the next big thing as demand for equitable consumption grows over the next few years. A cloud-based tracking system for the supply chain, a portal for consumers to directly communicate with the farmers, a digital platform for farmers to share the best practices of regenerative agriculture, devices that measure soil health, and many such innovations are lucrative opportunities for businesses and investments to focus on. Governments have a huge responsibility to encourage and incentivize farmers to adopt regenerative farming practices. Enabling policies and regulations help facilitate regenerative agriculture. Businesses are investing heavily in the sector pledging to grow, source, and market food products that have been grown regeneratively for sustainable growth.
It also is an opportunity for businesses involved in the sustainable agriculture space to scale and appeal to the growing consumer base demanding sustainably produced food that respects the dignity and rights of those growing it.
With mitigating climate change as the end goal, regenerative agriculture is emerging as a promising practice for climate solutions. Extending beyond ‘sustainability’, these practices make the soil more resilient and nutrient-rich. For these reasons and more, regenerative agriculture has been receiving interest from the public and private sectors.
However, as regenerative agriculture becomes the new ESG buzzword, businesses and investors need to be mindful of corporate greenwashing. Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) is a term used interchangeably with socially responsible investing. As consumer demand for sustainability has increased, ESG factors when included in the business influence both financial and social returns. Investors and organizations employ a variety of analytical techniques to determine the ESG score of a business.
As an evolving field of practice, the regulations directly governing regenerative agriculture are still underway in most countries. RegASK’s Horizon scanning offers AI-based capabilities to help your business keep up to date with any development in the regulatory compliances relating to regenerative agriculture.
To help your business easily leverage regulatory affairs, RegAsk detects regulatory changes in regulatory agencies’ publications and channel information to you; through constant, real-time monitoring and insights help ensure compliance with local regulations; and provides forward-looking strategic planning and geo-expansion strategies that will minimize your risk while maximizing your commercial success. Making the shift to regenerative agriculture requires a critical understanding of the ever-dynamic agricultural consumer base. Experts at RegAsk can help your business assess these new markets and scale your business to new heights, sustainably.Contact us Request a demo