State of Green Business
How Allbirds, Organic Valley and Everlane support regenerative agriculture
Soil is one big carbon sink, or it can be, if it’s nurtured correctly. Dirt that smells like dirt, teaming with organic material and organisms is also full of carbon. Carbon is, after all, a key building block of life.
Farm-based activities such as no-tillage, diverse cover crops, organic fertilizer, reduced pesticide use and crop rotation can have a pretty big impact on the embedded carbon in the soil. Project Drawdown, the NGO founded by Paul Hawken, puts regenerative agriculture at No. 11 on its list of the 80 most impactful solutions to global warming on the planet and estimates full implementation of best practices in regenerative agriculture can save the planet upwards of 23.15 gigatons of carbon dioxide.
The World Resources Institute tells us that the planet’s remaining "carbon budget" is around 570 gigatons total, so a solution that can draw down 23 gigatons is quite substantial. The co-benefits of regenerative agriculture are also vast and include everything from improved local biodiversity and estuary health to increased land productivity, which results in greater resilience in food-growing capacity for the region.
Project Drawdown tells us that healthy soil is 5-8 percent carbon, while depleted soil is more like 1-2 percent. In short, every recovered square foot of soil is good for the planet and helps address the climate crisis.
Beyond the carbon benefit, there’s big money in healthy soil, too. Project Drawdown puts the cost of the transition at $57.2 billion, and the potential savings — which come from increased yield, herd protection from predators, and reduced need for pesticides and fertilizers — at an eye-popping $1.93 trillion worldwide. Admittedly, that additional financial benefit comes several years after the transition from conventional farming.
Accessing those prospective savings is easier said than done. As we know, farming is a business of extremely lean margins, which means it can be difficult for farmers and ranchers to come up with the funds necessary to transition. As a result, innovative new offerings are popping up, creating a business model to provide ranchers and farmers with additional incentives to switch.
For example, NativeEnergy, a carbon offsetting company, created the Montana Improved Grazing Project, a fund to support ranchers who voluntarily transition to regenerative grazing practices.
When it comes to ranching, the negative impacts on the soil come primarily from overgrazing. The funds from NativeEnergy will support ranchers’ efforts to transition to higher intensity rotational grazing, which emulates the rest and recovery periods that migratory herbivores such as bison brought to the region in centuries past. (Disclosure: Native Energy is a client of B Targeted Marketing, the author's company.)
The key to emulating these patterns is to keep cattle off soil so it can recover. The transition requires more fencing, more active cattle management and often building water infrastructure. Xanterra, which operates park concessions in Yellowstone National Park, has become an early champion of the project because the federal government requires it to address its carbon emissions, and no other local source of offsets is available.
NativeEnergy developed this program because, as CEO Jeff Bernike tells it, "the carbon-offset movement has grown up." Annual revenue from selling offsets is not adequate to fund the development of new projects, and new projects are desperately needed to get as much carbon out of the atmosphere as quickly as possible.
"Farmers told us they were interested in regenerative agriculture projects, and our corporate clients wanted a carbon solution to manage emissions in their agriculture supply chains. We created this project to address the capital gap that keeps good projects from coming online," Bernicke said. "It’s just like wind energy 20 years ago."
Forward-thinking companies such as Allbirds, Patagonia, Organic Valley and Everlane have expressed interest in regenerative agriculture and the associated carbon benefits, such as those measured by NativeEnergy, because they provide a deeper opportunity to move the needle on climate change.
Because many companies have carbon expenditures in agriculture commodity supply chains, such as beef, leather, wheat and wool, a regenerative agriculture offset option is appealing because it brings the offset closer in alignment to the point of emissions, a best practice in carbon offsetting. These adjustments have the potential to shift entire global agriculture supply chains by providing financial incentives for farmers to switch to regenerative agriculture.
Hana Kajimura, who runs sustainability at Allbirds, explained the rationale: "As a brand focused on natural material innovation, our business is closely tied to agriculture. In order to meet our ambitious climate goals, we are looking to create natural carbon sinks within our own supply chain."
Kajimura is bullish on regenerative agriculture: "Regenerative agriculture offers a truly transformative opportunity."
NativeEnergy is only one of many organizations looking to creative financing to fund regenerative agriculture projects. A small-but-mighty group of consumer goods puts regenerative agriculture on the map by only sourcing materials from farms and ranches that use the best practices of regenerative farming.
These include Patagonia Provisions and Epic bars, which both contain buffalo jerky; Cholaca and Cacoco, chocolate companies that source cacao farmed using principles of regenerative agriculture; and the Lush handmade cosmetics company, which uses ingredients in its soap products that come from sustainable sources, including regenerative agriculture, whenever possible. By sourcing ingredients from sustainable sources and marketing their products as such, these companies build the market and increase demand for sustainable ingredients.
Other groups work to build the local infrastructure necessary for regenerative agriculture to succeed.
Project Grounded connects climate-conscious consumers with farmers by providing maps of farms that practice regenerative agriculture and toolkits for customers and farmers who are looking to instill principles of regenerative agriculture into their work.
Non-profit Regeneration International spearheads the development of regional Regeneration Alliances to help farmers and ranchers share best practices and gain local support for their transitions. They also develop industry infrastructure, including production, processing, marketing and logistics to support networks or clusters of projects and provide transition plans to young farmers that have inherited land and are looking for a different way to manage it.
While regenerative agriculture still has plenty of room to grow, the time is ripe for forward-thinking organizations to get in on the action and help build this nascent industry. After all, we all have to eat.