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The Next Economy
4 Things We Must Get Right to Truly Transform the US Agriculture System

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 incomes have fallen in real terms. The good news is that there is momentum behind a new approach to farming — regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative ag 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 cropping and no tillage — that restore soil health. The wider definition — which we prefer — also encompasses biodiversity, flourishing farmer livelihoods, 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 program to accelerate the transition to regenerative agriculture in the US, we have taken stock 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 resilience.

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We have seen a myriad of corporate commitments 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 high.

Four pivot points that will shape how this transition plays out

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.

1. Farmers need finance.

Farmers wanting to convert to regenerative agriculture need new forms of finance 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. Voluntary carbon markets 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.

2. Farmers need to market their regenerative produce.

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 rotation, 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.

3. Farmers, workers and consumers — not just the soil — need to gain.

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 wages 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 diets. We cannot waste that transformative opportunity by neglecting the potential to create a fairer agricultural system and redress historic harms.

4. Change will not happen at scale unless policy incentives align.

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 targets, 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 space 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 live in.