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Regenerative agriculture reaches a crossroads

Prince of Wales says regenerative farming is the future of food production.
Corporate commitments to regenerative agriculture would suggest that the number of farms and acres following the practice is exploding. However, actual statistics remain difficult to find.

WESTERN PRODUCER — In early August, Prince Charles gave his stamp of approval to regenerative agriculture.

While addressing an international soil conference held in Glasgow, the Prince of Wales said regenerative farming is the future of food production.

“We have to be proactive in encouraging regenerative agriculture, with a diversity of plants and of grazing livestock, replacing lost organic matter through the use of legumes, cover crops, residues and mulches,” he said, as reported by Farmers Weekly.

“Soil is absolutely critical for delivering the ecosystem services on which we all rely. So, it is high time that such an extraordinary, miraculous living organic system… receives the proper attention it deserves.”

A royal endorsement is nice, but Prince Charles may not have the credentials or reputation to convince thousands of farmers to try cover crops or other practices that improve soil health.

It’s more likely that massive food companies, which are pushing or pulling farmers toward regenerative practices, will have a greater influence.

Since about 2019, General Mills, PepsiCo, Cargill, McCain Foods and others have made bold commitments around soil health and regenerative ag, such as:

  • Cargill wants 10 million acres of American row crops to be farmed regeneratively by 2030.
  • PepsiCo has a global target of seven million acres, including the oats, corn and potatoes it buys from farmers around the globe.
  • McCain says 100 percent of its contracted potato acres will be grown with regenerative practices by 2030.

None of the companies have clearly defined regenerative ag, but most agree it’s a set of practices that improve the soil, including minimal tillage, cover crops, a diversity of crops and integrating livestock into the farm. If producers follow such practices, it could reduce the need for fertilizer and other crop inputs, thus making farming more sustainable and possibly more profitable.

The corporate commitments would suggest the number of farms and acres in regenerative ag is exploding. But actual statistics are difficult to find.

The organic sector reports statistics on organic acres in Canada and the U.S., but there’s nothing comparable for regenerative. Plus, it’s a hard thing to count, since there are no concrete standards or protocols.

If a farmer is a no-tiller, does that make their farm regenerative? Or do they have to follow three or four practices to qualify as regenerative?

“It’s definitely a thing. How big a thing it is, at this point … it’s very hard to know,” said David Montgomery, a University of Washington scientist who has written several books on soil and regenerative farming, including Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.

It’s possible that one-third of American farmers are no-tillers, he estimated. But the number of producers who are no-tillers, use cover crops and have diverse crop rotations is likely “south of five percent.”

In Canada, University of Manitoba researchers have done cover crop surveys to understand how and why farmers are using them on the Prairies. The report on their survey, published in 2021, got responses from 281 producers who are growing cover crops on about 103,000 acres.

That’s not a lot, considering 65 million acres of crops are seeded every year in Western Canada.

The number of farmers getting into regenerative ag is debatable, but it’s a certainty that scientific interest in soil has changed over the last 20 years, Montgomery said.

When he wrote Dirt, in 2007, there was almost zero awareness about soil health.

“You would go to a conference, talk about soil health and people would raise their eyebrows: what are you talking about?” he said from his home in Seattle. “Today, you go to farming conferences and the whole thing is about soil health.”

Does Joe Consumer care about soil health?

Within agriculture, there may be more recognition of the importance of soil. But it’s a safe bet that suburban dads in Toronto or grandmas in Minneapolis know little about regenerative ag and couldn’t care less about beneficial bacteria in the soil.

Companies in the food sector, big and small, say that will soon change.

Martin Williams is the chief innovation officer and one of the founders of Above Food, a plant-based food and ingredient company in Saskatchewan.

Williams sees a future where regenerative food is a category at the grocery store or a claim on food labels — possibly in a few years.

“When it comes to consumer-packaged goods … (people) shop based on price and they shop based on attributes,” said Williams, who lives in Toronto and worked for years in the consumer-packaged goods industry, with clients like Campbell’s Soup, Coca-Cola, Mars, Molson Coors and PepsiCo.

Williams said regenerative is part of a broader conversation around “better for you” foods. That category could include brands like organic and gluten-free, which consumers associate with health and wellness.

Organic food already promotes itself as better for the planet and better for health. It’s likely that “regenerative food” will be marketed and sold on similar attributes.

“Organic is its own section (in the grocery store). I think it’s too early to say if regenerative will be a third subsection (of food). Or will it be part of broader organics,” Williams said.

Above Food is marketing its supply chain, branded foods and ingredients as coming from regenerative farms.

It isn’t alone.

Major food companies, like General Mills, are touting their regenerative credentials.

General Mills’ organic brand, Annie’s, is promoting its Mac & Cheese, cereals and snacks as organic and regenerative.

“We believe … regenerative agriculture can be part of a large-scale effort to foster healthy ecosystems and resilient farm communities,” Annie’s says. “Collaborating with regenerative farmers, we seek to heal degraded landscapes (and) encourage carbon sequestration.”

Some organic agriculture leaders have realized that regenerative represents a threat to the organic brand and sales because the public may choose the attributes of regenerative food over organic. Better soil health, more diversity and fewer greenhouse gas emissions sounds more positive than “no”. As in, no pesticides, no fertilizer and no genetically modified crops.

“Regenerative could be defined on things you should do … instead of things that are prohibited,” Montgomery said. “It’s coming at a definition of a system from an opposite direction from what organic is doing.”

Part of the sales pitch around regenerative could be connected to climate change.

“As we are able to quantify carbon sequestration, now we can start to talk about what is the value of that sequestered carbon back to the brand,” Williams said.

Using a prairie crop as an example, it might be possible to calculate the carbon benefits of a field of regenerative lentils in Saskatchewan. If those lentils are used to make soup, the can of soup may feature a claim around greenhouse gas emissions.

“You could say: this (soup) sequestered X amount of carbon,” Williams said. “Or this package of lentils made sure that X amount didn’t get in the atmosphere…. We’re going to see (this) as attributes on pack (food package).”

Having a brand, though, could limit the broad appeal of regenerative.

It might become a niche part of the food market; maybe something the well-heeled buy at the grocery store because they believe it will save the planet.

But advocates of sustainable agriculture are hoping that tens of millions of acres are soon farmed with cover crops, diverse crop rotations, zero tillage and so on.

The desired outcome is that grains and oilseeds from regenerative farms will be used to make spaghetti, cereals, granola bars and everyday items sold at Walmart and Loblaws.

“This has to happen on a scale …. This isn’t about doing this for a small market,” said Kris Nichols, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture soil microbiologist who now runs her own consultancy, in 2018. “This is about millions of acres.”

Can regenerative be a brand and widely adopted?

Whether regenerative becomes a niche segment at the grocery store, or practices that are commonplace on thousands of farms, isn’t necessarily an either/or question.

It might be possible to do both, Montgomery said.

In the short run, branding foods as “regenerative” will be useful for educating the public about the farming philosophy.

“I can see a niche for a point of purchase identification for consumers — that regenerative practices have been followed,” he said.

“If a consumer really wants to support farming practices that are better for the land and somewhat better for the composition of their food … then, how are they going to being able to vote with their food dollars, if it’s not identified at the point of purchase?”

But consumers will want to know that the “regenerative” logo on a can of soup or box of pasta actually means something.

They will expect some standards were followed and the claim isn’t something made up, such as “natural”.

The challenge for the ag sector is that practices that improve soil health may work in one geography but not in another.

“There are lots of people working on different regenerative labels. There are people arguing (about) what it means. What are the practices?” Montgomery said. “(But) the idea of defining a regional set of regenerative practices … standards that the label would be held to, is a really good idea.”

Farther into the future, it’s still an open question if thousands of farmers will jump on the regenerative bandwagon. Getting people to change their behaviour is never easy, but government regulations aren’t the right approach, Montgomery said.

“I’ve never been very fond of the “rule” kind of regulations — you must do this, you can’t do that.”

Montgomery remains optimistic because he believes that regenerative has a great story to tell.

A system that can improve soil health and reduce input costs for farmers is “an idea that’s going to keep spreading until it saturates.”

As well, the next generation of ag leaders will want to change how things are done.

When Montgomery speaks at ag universities and colleges on this topic, “the student interest is off the charts. Just off the charts.”

The enthusiasm is fantastic, but Montgomery accepts that the shift — where regenerative becomes conventional agriculture — isn’t going to happen next week.

“That’s a multi-decade project…. In the best of cases, it’s a 20- or 30-year project.”

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