State of Green Business: Agriculture plants the seeds of regeneration

Harnessing the genius of soil to draw down greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

The following is an excerpt from the GreenBiz State of Green Business Report 2016.

The need to radically reform our agricultural sector in the name of sustainability has been talked about for decades. And while small, incremental changes have inched the ag sector forward, it remains hopelessly unsustainable for people and the planet.

Consider: Organic agriculture, which became mainstream starting in the 1990s, still represents only a small fraction of farmland in the developed world. In the United States, for example, just over 2 percent of the roughly 234 million acres of farmed land is certified organic under the federal government’s definition. Organic food sales are double that — about 4 percent of total U.S. food sales in 2014, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Organic, of course, is just one slice of the pie. Indeed, the alt-ag movement has sowed a cornucopia of methodologies, including, alphabetically: agroecology, aquaponics, biodynamic farming, biological farming, conservation tillage, controlled environment agriculture, good agricultural practices (or GAP), holistic management, integrated pest management (and its offshoot, biointensive IPM), low-input agriculture, natural (or nature) farming, permaculture, sustainable agriculture and whole-farm planning.

Each offers an approach that counters industrial ag’s relative blunt-force use of fertilizers, pesticides and water in favor of limited inputs used with precision in harmony with natural cycles and conditions.

And while some large-scale "conventional" farmers may claim to do these things using technology to pinpoint the need for inputs — “precision agriculture” is yet another meme — its improvements are only a matter of degree; precision ag may use fewer inputs than conventional farmers, but still more than most other alternatives.

Of course, when it comes to farming, what’s "conventional" is debatable. As former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, speaking at a 2014 food conference, explained: “In terms of feeding people, land use and commonality, peasant farming is far more conventional. Peasant farming produces more than two-thirds of the world’s food. In its reliance on high tech, fossil fuels, overuse of resources, monocropping, and chemicals, industrial ag is, in fact, completely unconventional. It’s downright anomalous.”

And, he might have added, unsustainable.

Feeding a growing global population will require more from farming than incremental improvements. Fortunately, recent years have seen a growing movement toward “regenerative agriculture,” employing farming techniques that not only reduce inputs and environmental damage, but actually restore the environment.

Simply put, regenerative agriculture means farming in a way that doesn’t bite the land that feeds us.

The term was coined by Robert Rodale, son of J.I. Rodale, father of the modern organic farming movement. “Regenerative” made sense to Robert Rodale because, “enhanced regeneration of renewable resources is essential to the achievement of a sustainable form of agriculture,” and because “the concept of regeneration would be relevant to many economic sectors and social concerns.”

After decades of fits and starts, regenerative ag is taking root. We are gaining both the technology and the know-how to produce food more sustainably, and to harness nature’s genius to sequester carbon and enhance soil, in the process drawing down greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

One reason for optimism is that Big Food — the companies that bring agricultural products to market — is jumping on the bandwagon, variously responding to consumer pressure, stakeholder concerns or the specter of supply-chain disruptions created by climate change. For example, General Mills and Kellogg’s, two of America’s biggest packaged-foods marketers, announced plans in 2015 to integrate ambitious sustainability goals into their supply chains, affecting the far-flung network of farms, mills and processors from which they source food. Behind them are dozens of other large players, from commodities conglomerates like ADM and Cargill to supermarkets and restaurant chains.

Technology is helping, enabling farmers to harvest the explosion of data coming off their fields and farms. Technology incubators and accelerators are fueling the growth of data-based farming tools, as well as collaborative entities and tech platforms, such as the Farmer Business Network, backed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture capitalists. Investments in ag tech soared to about $4 billion in 2015, nearly doubling in just a year. In addition, Big Food companies poured countless millions of R&D money into bringing precision farming to their supply chains, recognizing that plentiful water and arable land won’t last forever in a climate-constrained world.

One area of growth is in urban ag, the capability to produce food at scale inside cities, by harnessing warehouses, rooftops, empty lots and other unused spaces. It’s not small potatoes; according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 800 million people worldwide grow produce or raise animals in cities, producing up to 20 percent of the world’s food. In developing nations, city dwellers farm for subsistence, but in the U.S., urban ag is more often driven by capitalism or ideology. Whatever the reason, a small industry is growing up to help urban farmers produce crops indoors, using hydroponics and other techniques.

One example of urban agriculture’s promise is Boston-based Freight Farms, launched in 2010 with the goal of cutting down on the number of miles it takes to get greens from farm to table. The company converts shipping containers into mobile “smart farms” that are insulated, digitally controlled and outfitted with Wi-Fi, enabling them to be remotely monitored.

Indeed, a farm field these days can seem as wired as an airport.

And then there’s the new technology of soil conservation, vital to feeding 9 billion hungry bellies globally by mid-century. “As world population and food production demands rise, keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance,” says the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “So much so that we believe improving the health of our nation’s soil is one of the most important conservation endeavors of our time.”

Healthy soil provides a number of essential biological functions, such as regulating water, helping control where rain, snowmelt and irrigation water goes. It filters, buffers, degrades and detoxifies pollutants, including industrial and municipal runoff. All told, soil provides 11 distinct services, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. And it’s not easily replaced; it can take between 500 and 1,000 years to create just a single inch of topsoil through the interaction of bedrock, climate, topography and living organisms.

But that buried treasure is eroding in many parts of the world, including in America’s breadbasket. According to the University of Michigan’s Global Change Program, 96 percent of North America’s soil erosion comes from food production, the majority in the U.S. heartland. Globally, half of the planet’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund, leading to a wide range of environmental problems, from increased pollution to worsened flooding.

Riding to the rescue are what have been dubbed "soil carbon cowboys," a new breed of farmers who see profits and productivity in soil-management techniques dubbed “carbon farming,” which not only restore soil quality but also sequester carbon.

Carbon farmers spread cow manure on their fields, which increases the amount of nutrients in the soil, enabling the growth of lush foliage, which captures carbon dioxide in plants as well as the soil. Cows or other livestock eat the foliage, moving around the farm to give plants time to recover, enabling them to produce up to 70 percent more forage. The increased fodder draws even more carbon out of the atmosphere, sending it into roots and soil, where it can sit for a decade or more, sequestering carbon while helping to heal degraded soil by infusing it with vital nutrients.

The process also eliminates the need for disposing of animal manure through other means, turning what had been a waste product and potential liability into a valuable asset. There are also water-retention benefits: Carbon-rich soils soak up heavy rainfalls; carbon-depleted soils don’t. The result is that the soil improves, yields increase, water is saved, and carbon is captured from the atmosphere and kept underground for long periods of time.

In other words: regenerative ag.