Amy Brown reports on how food companies like General Mills and Danone are encouraging US farmers to shift to practices that make agriculture more resilient and productive
More than 25 years ago, cattle farmer Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, a 152-year-old family farm in Bluffton, Georgia, rejected industrial farming in favour of his great-grandfather’s methods: pasture-raising his livestock and using regenerative land management practices to improve his soil, enhance biodiversity and strengthen resilience against pests and disease.
The shift boosted carbon storage in the soil to such an extent that it offsets at least 100% of the emissions from rearing his grass-fed beef, according to a lifecycle assessment by environmental research firm Quantis, funded by General Mills, one of Harris’s customers.
In Minnesota, farmer Paul Lanoue uses crop rotation and rotational grazing of his 180 cows on his 2,700-acre farm, enhancing plant diversity and wildlife habitat. Soil samples allow him to place just the right amount of fertiliser using GPS technology, increasing his yield and profitability, he says.
Every time I use no-till or minimum till, I’m helping the water-holding capacity of my soil
“I have six kids and I want to be able to create a legacy so the kids can still be on the farm and be productive or even more productive in the future,” Lanoue says.
In Texas, Jeremy Brown, a cotton, peanut and sorghum farmer, practices crop rotation, minimum tillage and plants green cover crops on his 4,000-acre farm.
“In the semi-arid climate where I farm, my whole goal is to conserve water,” Brown says. “Every time I use no-till or minimum till, I’m helping the water-holding capacity of my soil.”
These farmers represent the future of sustainable agriculture in the US, according to a growing number of food producers, companies, scientists, academics, conservation organisations and government bodies. They have all voiced support for a shift to farming practices that make American agriculture more productive and resilient while also helping to mitigate – possibly even reverse – climate change by drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere and improving the water cycle.
Regenerative agriculture practices use compost and animal manures rather than synthetic and artificial fertilisers, but differ from other practices used in organic agriculture, which is aimed primarily at producing food not laden with chemicals. While there may be overlap, organic farming does not necessarily follow the principles of regenerative agriculture to improve the soil with every harvest and encourage biodiversity.
Soil is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth, producing 95% of the world’s food, filtering drinking water, and reducing the impact of climate change through carbon storage.
Over the last 200 years, we’ve seen a slow degradation of soils everywhere in the world where we have large-scale agriculture
But soil managed for agricultural purposes in the US has lost as much as 60% of its original organic carbon content, due in large part to common-row crop farming practices that have inadvertently degraded soil health and threatened America’s waterways, according to The Nature Conservancy.
“Over the last 200 years of farming, we’ve seen a slow degradation of soils everywhere in the world where we have large-scale agriculture, says Michael Doane, global managing director for sustainable food and water at The Nature Conservancy. “It’s not that farmers and ranchers want to degrade the soil – it is their main capital asset – but we’re only starting to understand that soil is a living ecosystem and we must treat it as such.”
In its report reThink Soil: A roadmap to US Soil Health, The Nature Conservancy estimates that each 1% of cropland in the US that adopts an adaptive soil health system generates $226m of societal value through increased water capacity, reduced erosion and nutrient loss to the environment, and reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as $37m of on-farm value through greater productivity.
In the most optimistic case, the report estimates soil health solutions could address up to $50bn in social and environmental impacts annually across the US.
“We’re really describing a paradigm shift for the agriculture sector, to go from thinking about soil as a structural asset to thinking about it as a living ecosystem that can be protected and enhanced through agricultural practices,” Doane says.
With cover crops used on only about a tenth of suitable corn and soybean acres in 2015, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), regenerative agriculture is still in its infancy. But major food companies are making substantial investments in helping farmers adopt regenerative practices. General Mills has committed to advance regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.
Our business case for sustainability overall is inextricably linked to the health of the planet and farming communities
In 2017, General Mills made a three-year $2m commitment to The Nature Conservancy, the independent, non-profit Soil Health Institute and the farmer-led Soil Health Partnership to support the development of tools and resources for farmers, landowners, and supply chain leaders to achieve widespread adoption of soil health practices.
In working with farmers like Harris of White Oak Pastures and others, it is looking to connect best practices to real outcomes, says Jerry Lynch, chief sustainability officer for General Mills.
“Our business case for sustainability overall is inextricably linked to the health of the planet and farming communities. As we look out over the next 50 years, there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the decline of our planetary system and the decline of farming communities. Looking at the viability of our supply chain, and specifically, the regenerative agricultural work we’ve been doing, there are very few catalysts that make a difference in so many areas all at the same time,” Lynch says.
He ticks off the benefits: greater profitability for farmers, enhancing their economic resilience; a lower carbon footprint; greater sequestration of carbon; better water quality management; and improved biodiversity.
Danone North America, the largest yogurt producer and leading maker of organic food in the US, has committed up to $6m over the next five years towards its soil health research programme. This cost includes soil sampling, review of grower yields, grower engagement, data collection and analysis, and field days with farmers to provide training around soil health best practices.
Danone intends to eventually create a set of recommendations for improving crop yields and increasing the carbon intake of soil on its partner grower and dairy farms.
“We believe that regenerative agriculture, still at an early stage of development, is critically important for the future of agriculture,” says Christina Owens, senior director of agriculture funding and communication for Danone North America.
The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance wants to drive progress in US public policy around consumer transparency and sustainable agriculture
Danone is a founding member of the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, where it is working with Mars Inc, Nestlé USA, and Unilever United States. Launched in 2018, the group wants to drive progress in US public policy around consumer transparency, sustainable agriculture, food safety and nutrition, and support for the supply chain, including rural economies.
It supports greater financial incentives to reduce emissions and transition to low-carbon alternatives, focusing on ways to create value for farmers, ranchers, and others who are implementing leading-edge practices to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Danone and Ben & Jerry’s are also involved in the Soil Carbon Initiative, a project to develop an outcome-based, verifiable standard to encourage the shift to regenerative agricultural practices.
Led by non-profits The Carbon Underground and Green America, and designed with input from more than 150 stakeholders, the SCI standard will launch later this year.
There is also work under way to develop a Regenerative Organic Certification to set standards for such practices within organic farming. Companies involved in pilot projects include Nature’s Path and Patagonia, through its food subsidiary Patagonia Provisions.
Ocean Spray, a multi-generational co-operative of over 700 farmers, recently announced a commitment to certify by 2020 that 100% of its crop across 36,000 acres of cranberry bogs worldwide is sustainably grown, using Farm Sustainability Assessment, a sustainable farming tool developed by the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform (SAI Platform), a collaborative pre-competitive platform that has more than 100 members worldwide. It marks the first time a worldwide fruit co-operative is identifying its fruit as sustainably farmed.
Kellogg’s goal is to support 500,000 farmers with climate-smart agricultural practices by 2025
One member, Kellogg’s, has started labelling its Kellogg’s Corn Flakes sold in Europe as “responsibly sourced corn” certified by third-party organisation Control Union. Kellogg’s goal is to support 500,000 farmers with climate-smart agricultural practices by 2025 (with 329,000 to date).
Nevertheless, The Nature Conservancy says there are multiple barriers that will have to be identified and addressed before soil health systems can be adopted at scale.
For one, the science of soil health is still evolving and there is a lack of accurate, standardised and cost-effective on-field soil health measurement tools. “Food and agricultural systems are by and large not easily monitored,” Doane says.
Another barrier is that practices to restore soil health may require farmers to make higher capital or variable cost outlays in the short term.
Since the majority of farmers in the US lease the land they manage, lease terms incentivise short-term planning and prevent the farmer from recouping costs or planning for a longer horizon.
Farmers in the US are also under serious economic strain, with current farm debt at its highest point since 1980, according to the USDA. Declining commodity prices mean that many farmers receive only 14.6 cents out of every dollar spent on food, a 17% decline since 2011, the lowest number since the USDA began keeping track in 1993.
Broadening the coalition of stakeholders who advocate for these improvements in state and federal policies is essential
The record number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in recent years such as the California drought and Hurricane Florence’s impact on farmers and ranchers in North Carolina have compounded the difficulties.
As the “reThink Soil Health” report points out, public policy has not been fully developed and implemented to encourage landowners and farmers to reduce production risk and support soil health investments requiring longer planning horizons. "Given the value-creation potential to address important social and environmental challenges, broadening the coalition of interested stakeholders who advocate for these improvements in state and federal policies is essential,” the report states.
In one innovative approach, however, the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has partnered with farmers upstream to form the Middle Cedar Partnership Project in the Middle Cedar watershed to use cover crops, nutrient management, wetlands and saturated buffers to improve water quality, reduce flooding risk and boost soil health. This type of project could be further utilised to unite cities and farmers in finding solutions to climate change, according to Dr Nick Goeser, vice president of sustainability sciences and strategy for the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.
“If we want these ideas to scale up, it has to make economic sense to the stakeholders involved. It may take some time, investing in different management practices. The payback may not be immediate, but farmers will see it accrue over time,” Doane of The Nature Conservancy says. “We want to show how farmers and ranchers can be solutions-providers to the climate challenges we face.”
Amy Brown is a journalist covering sustainability and responsible business with a particular interest in sustainable agriculture. She also works occasionally as a freelance writer preparing reports for the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.
This article is part of the in-depth briefing Climate-smart agriculture. See also:
General Mills sustainable agriculture Sustainable Food Policy Alliance Soil Health Partnership Soil Carbon Initiative biodiversity organic agriculture The Nature Conservancy