Perhaps the strongest validation for the momentum of regenerative agriculture is the constant barrage of corporate agrifood pledges of millions of acres and dollars to regenerative agriculture. We at The Regeneration Weekly welcomed such commitments at the beginning of the year with cautious optimism, narrowing in on the importance of these companies to integrate technology, support farmers in transition, and increase customer awareness. Over the course of the year, the term has been adopted by players far and wide, and concrete plans should start to form to meet objectives laid out for 2025 and 2030. We want to provide an analytical toolkit to understand the legitimacy and boldness of such claims, as well as the potential for, as Soilworks General Partner Ed Byrne puts it, “regen-washing.” Corporations can pull various levers to operationalize regenerative agriculture within their own supply chains, but the pathway is ultimately a shared one.
The first step in becoming a “regenerative agriculture” company is finding a way to measure and monitor the practices and environmental outcomes of what is going on the ground. There is a burgeoning category within the sustainability startup world dedicated to measuring a company’s carbon footprint. In agriculture specifically, companies like Regrow, Cloud Agronomics, Boomitra, and Seqana are doing a lot of the back-end work with these regenerative-minded corporations in delivering data and projections at scale for environmental outcomes. Transparency in the results of these analyses and their geographic locations should be encouraged. It is also important to establish expectations with producers: Danone released a regenerative scorecard based on specific on-farm metrics, including water quality management, biodiversity, and soil health. Frameworks like these are essential to assessing performance and getting the ball rolling. The same can be said for General Mills’ regenerative program and the research they’ve funded.
The second step is setting up pilot solutions and building out a blueprint for engaging thousands of growers within a few years. While some agri-food corporations might buy carbon offsets in the short term (many of Indigo Agriculture’s credit buyers are food companies), companies need to find a way to reduce their carbon emissions and work with farms that are regenerating soils. In carbon lingo, there are 3 scopes of carbon emissions. Scope 1 emissions are from directly owned facilities. Scope 2 emissions are from the purchase of heating, cooling, and electricity. Scope 3 emissions - the bulk of emissions - are the “result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly impacts in its value chain.” For agriculture, this means that emissions resulting from raw goods purchased need to be accounted for by the said company. Many corporations are working on a limited number of pilot or demonstration farms across their supply chain to serve as “hubs” for their regenerative program. The idea behind these “proof-of-concept” farms is that they can lead peer-to-peer farmer engagement and provide templated frameworks for the adoption of regenerative practices.
Companies are then faced with two non-mutually exclusive options: help folks transition to regenerative farming or change their sourcing to farms already practicing regenerative farming. The team at HowGood recently laid out the barriers and advantages to “regenerative procurement.” Sourcing with a premium for ecosystem services performed from early adopters is a great way to jumpstart a regenerative commitment, especially given that many of these innovators are excluded from carbon markets. Providing low-cost transition capital with technical assistance is crucial for folks transitioning. Danone, for example, has a partnership with RePlant Capital to provide that capital, while Rabobank is using ContinuumAg to provide support to growers and farm-specific recommendations for their pilot program.
One area of caution is how exactly farmers are being pushed to transition. One particular way of doing so is the emergence of the “carbon program.” For example, Truterra, Rabobank, and Bayer all are setting up large-scale carbon banks to sell carbon credits from agriculture and give a portion of the proceeds to farmers. Power to them! But they can’t claim the very credits they sell towards their own carbon commitments. Though I have not seen anybody do this yet, companies selling carbon credits have an additional burden of distinguishing the carbon sequestered they intend to sell from the carbon sequestered they will use to offset their own emissions. Carbon reductionism towards regenerative agriculture also merits scrutiny: for example, Cargill is trialing various technologies that reduce cattle methane emissions. While beneficial in a carbon framework, can we truly consider it regenerative?
Once on-farm practices are changed, there is a cascading effect down the value chain towards customer-facing labels. In particular, the importance of building an industry-wide repository of shared knowledge will help accelerate the adoption of regenerative - and provide quality controls that should benefit the regenerative incumbents. Whole Foods, for example, has made “Supporting Third-Party Certifications” and requiring soil health-related labels a key part of their regenerative mission. Standards like the Regenerative Organic Certification and the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification provide producers and corporate partners across the industry a way to become regenerative-certified and access markets.
Creating shared tools, like a certification or a soil health label, provides templates for other corporations seeking to meet their climate goals as well as emerging and new consumer brands. Ralph Lauren, in their corporate commitment to remove a million tons of CO2e, started by giving a $5M grant to the Soil Health Institute to start the U.S. Regenerative Cotton Fund. This presumably throws down the gauntlet at all other cotton procurers in the country to pony up - especially given the SHI’s credibility.
One issue I do see is the increased use of the terminology of practice versus outcomes in this space. There should be some flexibility in the early years when corporations are pushing the claim of transitioning whatever million acres of land to regenerative practice. In truth, regenerative must be as much a technical term as it is a philosophical one: if corporations are claiming that they are practicing regenerative agriculture, soils must be healed. I applaud companies taking an outcomes-focused perspective, as well as those making their soils data accessible to entrepreneurs and innovators.
For instance, McCain Foods of Canada recently made a pledge that 100% of their potato fields will be regenerative by 2030. Though regenerative agriculture is mentioned 25 times in their sustainability report, I’m left wondering what exactly that means. Is it the adoption of cover cropping and no-till agriculture? I encourage McCain to provide a transparent definition of regenerative agriculture - and make it a measurable, outcomes-focused goal. The same goes for Pepsi: It’s great that Pepsi is expanding their regenerative agriculture programs to 500,000 acres by the end of this year and this has reduced some of their greenhouse gas emissions, but what’s being regenerated and how is that measured? Take Nestle’s recent regenerative commitments that come with a $1.2B price tag. Nestle will provide investment support for transitioning over 500,000 farmers, pay a premium for regenerative agriculture goods based on the ecosystem benefits they provide, and encourage the adoption of agroforestry (in the millions of trees) for both enhanced yield and ecosystem benefits. Investments in funds like the Soil and Water Outcomes fund, which can count the Walton Family, Pepsi, and Cargill as partners, ties money directly to ecological outcomes.
Starting with environmental outcomes is a great first step for companies seeking to be regenerative. The ideas of folks like Emmanuel Faber in pushing for transparency and common reporting standards should be heeded. However, imagine industry-wide commitments to producer economic viability and nutritional density. Investors are starting to advocate for better nutritional outcomes. True regeneration requires a framework beyond carbon and prescriptive practice adoption. We must not lose sight of the broader picture in mind and I encourage both corporations and consumers to think beyond carbon when making an investment in regenerative.
Shop: In browsing the internet this week, I found Appalachian Botanical Co., a company that grows lavender on reclaimed coal mines. Their organically grown lavender and raw honey from these sites are worked by many local residents with barriers to employment. Lavender thrives in the rocky soil typically found on a reclaimed coal mine site. They do not use pesticides, instead opting for organic chicken fertilizer, and have found the perfect crop for rocky land: lavender! I encourage you guys to check out this gem of an organization that’s regenerating the environment, community and turning an economic wasteland into a profitable one.
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Another great blog Kevin! I like how you encourage companies to do more, explain exactly what they could/should do, and note some clear examples!