Published 1 year ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: Alex Andrews/Pexels
As regenerative ag gains momentum in the US, how do we ensure that the transition of the food system materializes in a way that supports equitable economic prosperity while allowing people and planet to flourish long term? Here are four areas where today’s decisions will shape US agriculture’s future trajectory.
There is no doubt that diets have changed and are changing. But are they
changing fast enough and in the right direction?
In the US, agriculture is responsible for 8-10 percent of GHG emissions and
devastating losses of soil fertility and biodiversity. At the same time, farmer
have fallen in real terms. The good news is that there is momentum behind a new
approach to farming — regenerative agriculture.
involves shifting land management — harnessing the power of nature and symbiosis
of different crops, rather than over-using chemicals for mono-cropping that
degrades soil health and water quality. Narrowly defined, regenerative
agriculture includes practices — such as cover
— that restore soil health. The wider definition — which we prefer — also
and recognition of diverse voices and rights. It requires fundamentally
transforming the goals of the US agriculture system: from focusing on maximizing
yield and profit to driving equitable prosperity and diets, allowing people and
planet to flourish long term.
Halfway through a three-year
to accelerate the transition to regenerative agriculture in the US, we have
of where momentum lies. After years of focusing on energy-based climate
emissions, mainstream actors have finally turned attention toward the food
system. Food and formula shortages and impacts of the pandemic on food workers
have exposed the current system’s fragility, while impacts of the climate crisis
on agriculture are becoming acute on home soil — from extreme weather and
droughts in the West to evidence of reduced soil nutrient density and lack of
Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.
We have seen a myriad of corporate
around regenerative sourcing, the rapid emergence of ecosystem service
marketplaces and renewed momentum in the policy sphere, alongside a major
federal commitment to research funding of innovative solutions. This influx of
attention and investment creates potential to transition to a just and
regenerative food system — but risks of a shallow, inadequate transition remain
Change is not linear; and decisions made today will choose where the food
transition goes. We have identified four areas where there is tangible progress,
but where knotty issues must be addressed if regenerative ag is to flourish.
Interestingly, they are not to do with details of how food is produced, but how
regenerative food is financed, sold, assessed, or incentivized.
Farmers wanting to convert to regenerative agriculture need new forms of
to cover the transition. Evidence is showing that farm productivity improves
and exceeds conventional agriculture after a few years; but finance is
needed for the initial years as soil fertility rises, new sales routes are
developed, different risks managed, or fencing and infrastructure moved.
Can carbon markets and the emerging ecosystem services markets provide this
finance? In principle, it makes perfect sense for regenerative farmers to earn
from the ecosystem value they generate, and not only by selling food crops.
are booming, as sequestering carbon gains recognition as a valuable service with
market value. A nascent market in wider ‘ecosystem services’ is emerging, which
extends to ecological functions such as improving soil health and water quality.
The realist in me knows that this market is only possible because corporate
players (in agriculture and well beyond) want to buy the credits generated to
reduce their own environmental footprint. That’s progress.
But looking at it through the other end of the telescope, it is not clear that
this market will go beyond providing offsets and actually enable farmers to
transition their land use. It depends on whether these new markets provide
payments that are big, upfront and secure enough to act as a source of finance
for the transition.
Huge effort, research and debate are going into designing the soil-testing
methods for carbon accounting. That’s fine, but much more effort is needed on
these other design issues. The impacts for farmers, of all types and sizes, are
what will actually determine whether these future markets scale in ways that
enable a fundamental shift in management of agricultural land.
A farmer producing hundreds of thousands of tons of maize needs one buyer,
one contract, one negotiation. That intensive mono-cropping is bad for their
soil and the land but makes marketing easy. A farmer who works with an
integrated livestock pasture-winter wheat-soybean-pasture crop
for example, needs to sell multiple products — requiring multiple channels
and multiple contracts. Taking and selling the produce at a local market
might work on a small scale; but for regenerative ag to be mainstreamed, the
market-access challenge must be reimagined and addressed. This may involve
shifting big companies’ bulk procurement practices, or creating networks
that link smaller-scale marketing solutions. There is huge scope for
development and innovation.
Emergence of a raft of new standards for regenerative ag is welcome progress.
Standards are a necessary part of changing the system — enabling producers,
buyers and everyone in-between to assess, label and trade agricultural products
with information. But only four of them currently include any coverage of social
outcomes such as equitable value distribution, ensuring thriving
or prioritizing procurement policy that supports diverse producers.
Neglect of social outcomes is a huge gap. How can we honestly transition an
agricultural system that works for the soil if it does not also work for farmers
— particularly those who have been historically excluded? Practically, a
transition that is not fair will not garner support. Morally, we are in the
process of rewiring our economy, our land usage, our
We cannot waste that transformative opportunity by neglecting the potential to
create a fairer agricultural system and redress historic harms.
We know further policy change is needed. We know food companies have strong
advocacy budgets and voices. But while regenerative agriculture is the focus of
corporate pilots or sustainability
it is not often the focus of corporate advocacy. If corporations engage closely
with their farmers — and particularly with historically marginalized farmers —
to understand their needs, there is huge potential for corporate advocacy to be
better targeted to unlock regenerative ag.
The emerging regenerative ag
is growing in a good direction; but right now, change is neither fast nor deep
enough — and it should not just be left to chance. As a new food system emerges,
the decisions we take today and the goals we design in will determine not just
what our children eat as adults, but the health of the society and land they
Published Aug 3, 2022 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Caroline Ashley is Forum for the Future’s Director of Global System Change Programmes, focused on accelerating the transition to a just and sustainable future. Straddling Europe, US, South Asia and APAC offices, Forum’s programmes catalyse system change to make food systems and value chains sustainable, and limit global heating within 1.5°C.