When we talk about energy, sustainability feels like an appropriate goal. We have a plethora of renewable energy sources available to us; our challenge is to produce it in a way that can be sustained, indefinitely and at scale. But other natural resources that are even more critical to human survival are much more constrained. Food and drink, without which we cannot survive beyond a matter of days, depend on healthy topsoil and clean water. Both are in sharp decline. In fact, more than 6 years ago the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that, without substantial changes in farming practices, the world’s agricultural soils would become completely degraded within 60 years. At the same time, an FAO report detailed the already-acute degradation of approximately one-third of the world’s topsoil. As the world’s population grows and climate change further reduces our supply of productive agricultural land (while simultaneously making carbon-intensive forest-clearing even more prohibitive), sustaining what’s left to us is unlikely to be enough.
But a response to these major challenges has slowly been making its way into the mainstream. Regenerative agriculture holds not just the promise of regenerating soil health and improving the productivity of existing agricultural land, but also the possibility of producing lasting carbon sinks that can assist in the fight against climate change.
If the core concern of regenerative agriculture is soil health, its core tenet is to maintain a high content of soil organic matter (decaying plant or animal tissue) in farmed or pastured land. Studies suggest that a 1 percent increase in soil organic matter can help an acre of soil hold 20,000 more gallons of water. This makes that acre more productive, but also more drought-resistant—a critical benefit as climate change takes hold. Methods for achieving higher concentrations of soil organic matter can include integrating livestock (which both fertilize soil and circulate inedible plant matter through trampling), cover crops (which protect from erosion and keep soil cool), no-till management (which also prevents erosion while maintaining the chemical composition of the soil), and crop diversity (which maintains a health balance of soil nutrients). While there are still disputes over the carbon-capturing properties of some of these techniques, agricultural scientists appear to be largely in consensus about their benefits, not only to soil health and sustainability, but soil regeneration.
With the makings of a solution established, the major challenge facing our food system appears to be whether, and how, regenerative agriculture can be brought to scale. With agriculture as the United States’ largest export (at $135 billion in 2020), government policy remains stubbornly focused on subsidizing ever-growing productivity, putting short-term pressure on farmers to use any means necessary to increase yields. This leaves corporations as the perhaps unlikely agents for more systemic change. Fortunately, they have begun to heed the call.
In 2019, General Mills declared the corporate world’s largest commitment of land to regenerative agriculture. The company pledged to advance the practice on 1 million acres of North American farmland by 2030, or about 20-25% of its global supply chain. General Mills had already begun promoting regenerative practices following its acquisition of Annie’s in 2014, including publishing a 2016 roadmap to better soil health with the Nature Conservancy. As part of its 2019 commitment, the company created a self-assessment for farmers, funded training programs, and began three regional pilots focused on oats, wheat and dairy. The company says it has already invested more than $5.5 million in U.S. agricultural soil health, and plans to report meaningful progress in its upcoming 2021 Global Responsibility Report.
Other global food companies have also taken action. In December, Nestle announced a CHF1.2 billion commitment to build regenerative agriculture practices into its supply chain, including a goal of working with all 500,000 of its farmers and sourcing 14 million tons of ingredients through regenerative agriculture by 2030. As far back as 2018, Danone, the French dairy and nutrition company, declared an ambition to commit up to $6 million to fund soil health programs. That same year, Unilever began working to increase the use of cover crops among Iowa soy farmers who supply its Hellmann’s brand.
These are first steps; the task of scaling regenerative agriculture to meet the massive scope of the challenges we face remains daunting. But in leveraging the work of so many small farmers and scientists, these corporate commitments, we believe, represent the beginning of the next phase in the adoption of regenerative agriculture—a beginning we hope will generate enough momentum and awareness to leave us in a better position 50 years from now.