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Inside Google’s regenerative agriculture play

Google car on a farm

REGEN1 is like a big regional umbrella for regenerative agriculture that allows everyone to be part of the community.

You might be getting a little tired of regenerative agriculture announcements and commitments. I understand — it’s been an overwhelming trend (in a good way?). But keep reading. Google’s story is different, not least because it’s not an ag company. Its work is a refreshingly down-to-earth approach rather than a fix-it-all solution. 

So what are we talking about? Over the past three years, Google’s food program has been backing Green Brown Blue, a food systems accelerator run by The Lexicon that facilitates collaborations from experts of different sectors to identify and adopt practices with the potential to shift key food and agricultural paradigms. Past topics range from agrobiodiversity and packaging to aquatic foods. While the accelerator’s work stretches far beyond Google’s immediate ecosystem, the rationale for the giant’s investment is that it will ultimately allow Google’s employees to live healthier lives both at work and at home. 

The most recent accelerator cohort collaborated over the past year to form Regen1, a new coalition of over 150 stakeholders working to transition 1 million acres of farmland in Northern California to regenerative practices by 2025. The framework is also designed to be adapted and scaled by many other regions around the world. The participant list reads like a who’s who of farmers, ranchers, scientists, retailers, food service providers and others in the region, including organizations such as Nori, LinkedIn, Zero Foodprint, Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, Compass, the University of California-Davis, Wholefoods and the NRDC.

To me, Regen1 seems like a big regional umbrella for regenerative agriculture that allows everyone to be part of the community, independent of their starting point. What does matter, however, is a commitment to continuous improvement of their practices. Instead of only focusing on production, the initiative links growers to a new marketplace. Detailed information on five verifiable benefits of responsible farming — water, soil, equity, biodiversity and air — aims to enable consumers, retailers and food service operators to make value-based purchases. In contrast to most other regenerative ag programs, Regen1 doesn’t include carbon as a metric due to "the unsettled science on the permanent sequestration of carbon and the present volatility of carbon markets." 

To honor the launch of the program, I invited Michiel Bakker, vice president of global workplace programs at Google and Regen1 sponsor, to join me for a conversation about regenerative agriculture and his vision for the coalition.

6 questions with Michiel Bakker

Theresa Lieb: Many practices that Regen1 promotes overlap with organic agriculture. Why did you create a new framework rather than working on the challenges that have prevented organic ag from scaling? 

Michiel Bakker: If I have my stats right, less than 1 percent of agriculture is organic and 99 percent is done on a continuum from very traditional to incredibly industrialized. I’m a firm believer in the benefit of organic certification and the processes around that. But I want to bring more of the remaining 99 percent closer to better practices as well, without having them go through the over-certification process with all its benefits and restrictions. That’s one aspect. The second one is that with Regen1 you get more clarity and visibility into various aspects of the overall production. So it can become a tool for helping people make food choices based on their values on a variety of dimensions that are broader than organic agriculture. 

Lieb: How do you envision this process to actually look like? What will Regen1 do to allow regular families in California to make value-based purchases? 

Bakker: If I had a magic wand and could just create an amazing future, it would be one where you would either have different icons on a product that would give a consumer insight into the performance of that product against something that might be social norms, water utilization or the use of pesticides. So you can see it on the package and make a choice based on that information or it might be digitally through an app. But that’s much further into the future. Shorter-term, Regen1 is just a way to learn more about what the possibilities and challenges are as of today. We started with "we learn more by doing" versus just creating another report or white paper and hoping to experiment with bringing actual approaches to life.

Lieb: Much of the program’s success depends on your ability to encourage farmers to participate. How will you incentivize them to sign up?

Bakker: The hope is that farmers can get a premium for their product because the consumer knows that they did more than maybe the most industrialized large-scale farm has done for the same product. But as of today, you don’t have clarity as a consumer other than through buying organic. The current marketplace only distinguishes between organic and regular. But if you have a farmer who is much closer to organic production methods, he or she is not going to get a premium because the product can’t be marketed as such. When Regen1 truly comes to life, consumers will be able to identify a product through many more dimensions and farmers can ultimately ask for a premium. But of course, it assumes that a consumer is willing to pay for it.

Lieb: And that a consumer can pay for it. What about the millions of people in the U.S. and around the world who can’t even afford basic nutritious diets? How do you bring them into a more sustainable marketplace?

Bakker: That’s almost a wicked problem. You’re trying to solve the problem for the farmer, the environment and for a consumer with limited means. This comes back to the true cost of food challenge. While you ultimately might pay a lower price for the product, you’re paying for the unintended consequences of the production and health impacts. I don’t have a clear answer to that question. The reason why we’re participating as an organization is just to explore these questions more. Our goal is not to solve for either the farmer, the environment or the consumer but to see if a solution like this will help to make better decisions. 

Lieb: Many of the largest food and agriculture companies have made their own regenerative ag commitments over the past couple of years. Is there scope for these companies to adopt the Regen1 framework and collaborate with the coalition or do you envision a future with many parallel types of regenerative ag concepts?

Bakker: One, there is room for a gazillion people to make a difference. It’s not that if one company does something it encroaches on the territory of somebody else. There are too many challenges and not enough players to address them. Two, the more scalable solutions we find the greater the likelihood that the biggest players who will make the biggest impact over the long term can embrace those broader solutions. I do believe that large-scale farmers will have a tremendous role to play over the years. They employ a large number of individuals and many, many people in the broader value chain depend on the success of those large companies. Many startups are also trying to scale up by partnering with or getting acquired by larger companies. In my view, there is a place, need and opportunity for small, mid-sized and large companies all working on this challenge.

Lieb: Now that Regen1 is out in the world, what are the next steps for the initiative? How will you work to implement the model in California and bring the framework to other regions? 

Bakker: First of all, I and my team at Google are only marginally involved in the day-to-day work of Regen1. Douglas Gayeton and other individuals at The Lexicon are facilitating the cohort. Now that the accelerator has finished, the group needs to determine how they will support their work going forward because our support ends here. I say that in a very black and white way, but if there’s nobody other than Google willing to fund it then it’s not a sustainable model. They have to make the case to other funders and continue in the evolution of their work. For the farmers, the goal is for them to adopt low-cost ways to operate more sustainably and get premium payments for their products. 

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