This article was originally published on Ensia.Around the world, nearly 5 billion acres of land — an area larger than Russia — are degraded. Degradation can take many forms: clearing of forests; soil erosion; or the decline of nutrients in the soil, all of which result in less productive land. The loss …
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This week, I want to talk about one of the most exciting options we have for reforming our food systems and tackling climate change: regenerative agriculture.
By planting cover crops, reducing tillage and changing grazing patterns, a few forward-looking farmers have turned their soils into sponges that suck up carbon. When experts with the National Academy of Sciences reviewed relevant studies (PDF), they estimated that these techniques can draw down 250 million tons of carbon dioxide in the United States every year.
Changes to food systems often involve difficult trade-offs, but regenerative ag comes with notable benefits. Carbon-rich soils are more fertile and better able to retain water, which reduces the need for fertilizer and increases drought resistance.
So why isn’t every farmer using regenerative methods? There’s more than one factor at play, but for now I’ll focus on the issue I hear most about: cost.
Margins are notoriously tight in farming. Regenerative farms don’t always cost more to run, but transitioning to regenerative can be expensive. (Costs vary enormously, but even an average-sized farm might need hundreds of thousands of dollars.) This means that without an economic model for funding that switch, we’ll never realize the full potential of regenerative ag.
There’s a lot of work going behind the scenes to create that model. Here are four possibilities:
1. Pay farmers for the carbon they draw down. The market for voluntary carbon offsets was worth almost $300 million in 2018 and is growing fast. Why not let farmers get a slice of the action? That’s the idea being pioneered by companies such as Indigo Ag and Nori, which are creating platforms for funding agricultural offsets. (In fact, you can go to Nori right now and pay a farmer to remove carbon dioxide. The cost is $15 per ton.)
2. Ask consumers to fund the switch. There’s a delicious restaurant near me in San Francisco called Mission Chinese Food. Everyone who eats there has a 1 percent charge added to their check, which goes into a fund for Californian farmers who want to transition to regenerative. (Diners can opt out, but very few do.) More than 50 restaurants in the state and beyond have joined Zero Foodprint, and many more are in the process. Adding the charge to all of the state’s eateries would raise $1 billion every year.
3. Use industry partnerships. My colleague Heather Clancy just published an update on work by Danone and General Mills, two food companies using financial support and access to expert advice to help farmers move to regenerative.
4. Make it easier for farmers to get loans. The experts I’ve spoken with are confident that increased yields and reduced fertilizer use will more than pay back the cost of switching to regenerative ag, in some cases in just a few years. But making that argument to a bank isn’t easy because farmers have minimal data to back up a loan application. Better data would mean more loans.
This is a conservation starter and by no means a definitive list. I also have a ton of questions about these options. Can industry assistance scale beyond pioneering companies such as General Mills and Danone, for instance? And what’s the role of state and federal government in all of this?
I’d love to hear your comments, as well as your thoughts on other models for funding the transition. I’ll feature the best commentaries and suggestions in a future issue of Food Weekly.
Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin designed the humane handling systems used at half the cattle-processing facilities in the United States. An autistic person, she is often described as the voice for those who are sometimes challenged to be heard.
Grandin’s in-the-field research on the welfare of cattle and pigs spans close to five decades and has earned her numerous accolades, including recognition as a Time person of the year in 2010 and an HBO biopic with actress Claire Danes portraying her.
She is a prolific inventor: she dreamed up both the “squeeze box” (a calming device sometimes used by autistic people who crave touch; it “hugs” them) and a series of livestock handling devices, such as the center track restraint system.
But her engagement with McDonald’s — motivated to address the conditions at its slaughterhouses — really brought her work to the attention of the corporate sustainability movement.
An outspoken author and speaker on autism and animal welfare issues, the Colorado State University professor will be featured in a plenary session at GreenBiz 20, Feb. 4-6 in Phoenix. (If you can’t be there, hop on the livestream Feb. 5.)
GreenBiz Editorial Director Heather Clancy spoke with Grandin about the collaborative nature of creative problem solving, the promise of regenerative agriculture and the state of animal welfare. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Heather Clancy: In your latest book, “Calling All Minds,” you chronicle the complex process of innovation. Your thesis is that it takes a combination of thinkers to surface and deliver on breakthrough ideas. Why are visual thinkers so important as part of that process?
Temple Grandin: Well, visual thinkers are able to see ways to solve problems, because they can visualize it in their mind. They can also see risks. In engineering-type things, mathematicians tend to calculate risk. Visual thinkers can see it. And I think visual thinking is actually involved in common sense.
We talk about using common sense, but one of the problems today is that schools have taken out all the hands-on classes — art and sewing and woodworking and metalworking and mechanics. The other big problem we have is that visual thinkers can’t pass algebra, but the thing is, you need visual thinkers.
I’m totally a visual thinker. When you look at problems visually, you tend to look at them very simply. If you think about them in words, it sometimes gets extremely complicated.
Clancy: But you need all the sorts of thinkers to come up with a solution?
Grandin: Well, yes, you do. Like for example, let’s take the iPhone, for example. [Late Apple co-founder] Steve Jobs was an artist. He made an interface that was easy to use, but the engineers had to make the phone actually work. That’s the different thinkers working together.
Clancy: You are a vocal proponent of trades where people use their hands. How can a large company better support the experiential education that we need for the development of these sorts of skills?
Grandin: In the meat industry and many other factories, there’s a huge shortage of maintenance people … what I call the clever engineering department. That’d be things like elevators, and that would also be a lot of the specialized equipment in something like a poultry processing plant.
And the reason why we lost those skills is we took out the skilled trades in schools 25 years ago, and these kids are just getting shunted into special ed instead of inventing things like equipment or inventing ways to improve the environment for other things. We need all the different kinds of thinkers, and right now in the U.S., we’ve got a gigantic shortage of mechanics. These are good jobs that are not going to get replaced by computers. The people who’d better watch out are things like the internist doctor or the radiologist. They’re going to get replaced by a computer way before a mechanic to fix something is going to get replaced.
Clancy: You’ve been consulting with livestock companies for decades. These companies, these organizations have had to reteach some of these concepts, right?
Grandin: When I first started working on cattle handling equipment, one of the mistakes I made when I was in my 20s, and a lot of engineers make this mistake, is they think they can fix everything with technology. Well, I learned that technology doesn’t replace management. It’s just that simple.
One of the things I did that probably made the biggest difference was when I worked with McDonald’s and Wendy’s on implementing animal welfare systems at slaughter plants. We used a very, very simple assessment tool. We’d measure things like stunning efficacy on the first shot, falling down, cattle mooing and vocalizing during electric prod use.
The thing that you’ve got to figure out, it’s what are the critical control points to measure. What’s really important? Now when I think about it, I see it. It’s not abstract.
I’m using the same principle as traffic laws. Traffic laws work pretty well. Probably your three most important ones — drunken driving, speeding and running stop signs and red lights — and then I’d throw in texting and seat belts. Those would be the five critical control points. When you think about it visually, it’s not abstract. It’s very specific. That simple scoring system has been used around the world now, and it really does work.
I think it’s hard for some people that think in language to imagine that sometimes you should just score five things…
The first thing that people need to understand is you do have different kinds of minds. And I talk about that in my book “The Autistic Brain.” You’ve got the … visual thinker or object visualizer. Then you’ve got the more mathematical pattern thinker. These are going to be your computer programmers, your engineers, also musicians. Then you have people that are strictly word thinkers, and there are some people that think so much in words, they have no visual thinking at all. That kind of a person does exist, but they are rare.
Most people have a kind of a mixture of the different things. But the skills complement each other. We need our visual thinkers to prevent messes like the Boeing Max mess and Fukushima. These are problems I would have visualized — I would have seen water coming over the seawall and drowning the emergency cooling pump.
What I’ve learned about the mathematical mind is it doesn’t see it. It calculates the risk. I can’t design a nuclear power plant, but maybe I need to be working on its safety systems.
Clancy: Assess how far has the meat industry come on core animal welfare and humane issues.
Grandin: They’ve come a long way. I’m not going to say they’re perfect, but I’ve been in this industry for 47 years, and in the ’80s and the early ’90s, the industry was just terrible. I’m not going to defend anything they did at that time.
And then the big food safety problem [emerged] in the early ’90s, and McDonald’s and other companies like that got all over that. Then in 1999, I was hired to train the food safety auditors to do the animal welfare audits. Within one year, I saw more change than I’d seen in my whole entire career.
And we didn’t have to rebuild the plants. It was mostly simple things. Maintenance of equipment, non-slip flooring, adding lights and moving lights to control what animals were seeing — because they don’t like walking into the dark — and training and supervision of people.
Out of 75 plants, only three had to build something expensive. I’m very proud of that. We made some older facilities work.
Clancy: The farming sector is talking a lot about regenerative agriculture, including practices like rotational grazing. What advice would you give to farmers that are incorporating more livestock into their operations about how to do so more humanely?
Grandin: Well, I would work at it slowly. Don’t get in 1,000 cattle at one time. Work into it slowly. I am a big believer of regenerative agriculture. I’ve reviewed a lot of literature on this. In fact, right now, I’m updating my book “Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach” for the chapter on sustainability. And we’ve got to go to crop rotation.
The problem that you have with monoculture, just growing the same crop over and over again, it works really well in the short term, but in the long term, it wrecks the ground and wrecks the crops, too. In the long term, it doesn’t work, and we’ve got to be getting crop rotation.
One of the rotations needs to be livestock grazing a cover crop. We also have got a lot of rangeland where you can’t grow crops, and we need to be working on using it sustainably. And some family ranchers are already doing that.
But the animals are part of the land. Three years ago, we had a crop scientist come to our animal science department to talk to us, and I learned for the first time that the very best agricultural land in Iowa and Illinois was created by herds of grazing bison. The grazing animal made the best cropland we had. We’ve got to start integrating grazing animals back in with crops.
Clancy: You talk about the importance of stretching children’s minds as an integral part of their journey to adulthood. Do you advocate the same sort of thing for adults?
Grandin: Well, yes. Now what you have to do like with autistic kids, they panic if they get — what I call, don’t throw them in the deep end of the pool. There’s a lot of things they need to work into it more gradually.
But let’s say you have a crop farmer that wants to try working with livestock. Let’s work into it gradually, one field — maybe 50 head of stock or something like that. Let’s work into it slowly and learn it, so you don’t have a big mess.
You see, now I see it. I see it. And then we’ve got the issue of the crop fields don’t have any perimeter fences, and then you’ve got issues of the cattle getting on the highway, which is very bad results. But work into it slowly, so they learn it.
Also, if a crop farmer and a rancher can team up, then the crop farmer doesn’t have to deal with the cattle. You see, those would be opportunities for partnerships. But right now, both in the U.S. and in Europe, you have subsidies that motivate the wrong behavior. And what’s a farmer going to do?
You see, it’s important to have economic incentives. When I worked with McDonald’s and Wendy’s on animal welfare, the economic incentive was if the plant didn’t get fixed, they would be kicked off the approved supplier list. That was a huge motivator. And the other thing that was good is the scoring system was extremely objective. Right up front, the manager of that plant knew what they had to do. It was not vague. It didn’t have things in there like handle cattle calmly. What does that mean? Or handle cattle properly. I don’t know what that means.
If you had more than 1 percent of the animals fall down, or 3 percent of the cattle bellowing when you were handling them, you failed the audit. And it was like traffic rules, really objective.
I think another thing, in looking at guidance on stuff like sustainability, I think in a lot of cases, it’s easier to specify to someone in a supply chain what not to do. You don’t drain your manure into the river, for example. You don’t drain an aquifer. You know, this is an example of something, what not to do.
Also, in animal welfare, we’ve got seven acts of abuse that you never do, the automatic failure of an audit if you did things like dragging animals around when they’re conscious. You do that, you’re going to fail the audit. It’s very clear.
With a new decade comes a new era of sustainability leadership.
The 2020s herald a pivotal chance to deliver on our great climate, environment and development challenges, and the scale and pace of change will require truly transformative thinking. We will need to move beyond efficiency and doing less harm, and base strategies on new goals that ensure business success also meets the needs of people and the planet. It’s time to step up a gear or three on our journey toward a sustainable future. But what does this mean for how we do business?
At the heart of this shift is a move toward “regenerative” rather than just “less extractive” business strategies. With growing public commitments to “carbon zero” targets, businesses are refocusing on how to work in ways that put back more into society, the environment and the global economy than they take out. This sounds like an abstract goal on the surface, but in real terms, it is a powerful reframing of mindset and action.
Organizations taking this approach share an ambition to grow their brands, have strong financial performance, attract the brightest talent and, most important, be future-fit; but these thriving organizations also deliver benefits that align traditional business boundaries of profit margin and shareholder value with wider societal goals.
One of the most impactful areas for intervention is in agriculture. Any business based on agricultural raw materials is vulnerable to increasing insecurity and volatility of supply, as weather patterns shift and natural resources dwindle.
The Nature Conservancy estimates that the United States loses 996 million metric tonnes of soil through erosion, and the societal and environmental costs of mainstream agriculture are around $85 billion every year (PDF). This is part of a global picture, with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimating that 24 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost globally each year. Agriculture is responsible for 8-10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, driving climate change that is expected to reduce the yield and protein value of staple crops. Even before flooding devastated the Midwest in 2019, farms filing for bankruptcy protection rose by 19 percent in 2018, the highest level in a decade, according to the Farm Bureau.
But there is hope. A transition toward regenerative practices could bring a huge win-win for farmers, food companies and the environment.
Our degraded soils could serve as a major carbon sink, locking away carbon, building drought resilience and increasing soil health, supporting productivity and farmer livelihoods. Indeed, changing agricultural and land management practices so that the carbon content of soils increases represents a huge opportunity to counter, and perhaps even reverse, human contribution to atmospheric GHG emissions. Some estimates of the potential for soils to capture atmospheric carbon are huge; figures in the billions of tonnes per annum are frequently cited.
So what does this mean for supply chains and how businesses work with farmers and ranchers?
Regeneration includes a suite of practices that protect and enhance soils, support thriving biodiversity and improve water quality — from planting cover crops, drilling rather than tilling the land to prevent disturbance, and keeping healthy roots binding the soil all year round. While successful regenerative agriculture approaches have common principles and ambition, it is also highly context-specific. A regenerative farm might look very different between India and the Midwest United States.
But if it is so simple, why isn’t everyone already regenerative? The last 40 years of agriculture have been incredibly successful in growing productivity but often have externalized other costs such as degrading soils — paying for our ability to farm now with the resources we will need in the future.
Shifting to regenerative agriculture requires a fundamental shift in the goals of our agriculture system, from one focused exclusively on maximizing yield and efficiency to one that pursues economic and social outcomes alongside productivity.
Research with farmers and ranchers in the United States and internationally has shown major barriers to change and scaling: Farmers need confidence and resource to take the risk of reinvesting in new equipment. They need knowledge transfer, capacity building and peer support to implement new practices. And the market, investors and policy environment need to incentivize the transition toward new supply chain models that drive this innovation. Actors across the food system, especially food businesses, can claim major wins in enabling this transformation.
With funding from the Walmart Foundation, stakeholders from across the agriculture system and Forum for the Future will be leading a collaborative process to identify the key opportunities to scale regenerative agriculture in the United States, based on an understanding of current activities and initiatives. Our goal is to create a joined-up approach to driving action on the ground.
The urgent need to regenerate our agricultural supply base can be seen in the emerging business strategies of major actors in the food sector.
For example, Danone sees regenerative agriculture as resting on three pillars: protecting soil; empowering a new generation of farmers; and promoting animal welfare. It has played a pivotal role as part of the 4 per 1000 initiative, launched during the climate change COP21 meeting, to catalyze collaboration on soil health and soil carbon sequestration, alongside helping farmers access training, equipment and financing. It has addressed market incentives, introducing longer-term contracts and a new price management system according to the evolution of production costs rather than the market. Its global alliance, Farming for Generations, brings together eight major businesses to build regenerative practices into dairy supply.
Meanwhile, General Mills has committed to advance regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030, developing training and technical support for land conservation, research and certification.
Global agricultural commodity company Olam has built regeneration into the core of its business strategy, adopting a “living landscapes” policy that explicitly supports a net-positive approach to sustainable development in agricultural supply chains and landscape management. This aims to support the co-existence of prosperous farmers and food systems, with thriving communities and healthy ecosystems to regenerate the living world.
These companies are just a few examples of those already beginning to realize the benefits of regenerative business models and, in an increasingly volatile world, aligning purpose and profit. And while we have focused on food supply, these challenges are relevant across a broad range of sectors as companies move toward the goals of the Net Positive Project.
Chief Zogli looked weary as he scratched a notch in his doorpost to record the weather. “Still no rain,” he says with resignation. The chickens pecked lazily in the dust and the goats foraged for the last of the dropped grains beneath the emptying corn crib. In this rural community outside of Odumase-Krobo, Ghana, the farmers depend on rainfall as their only source of agricultural water. Zogli explains that the rainy season has been arriving later each year and ending sooner — and the thirsty crops struggle to mature.
From the African continent to the Americas and across the Caribbean, communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change. Record heat waves have caused injury and death among Latinx farmworkers and devastating hurricanes have become regular annual visitors in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas of the United States.
Meanwhile, several Alaskan Native communities struggle to hunt and fish sub-Saharan Africa, where Ghana is, is among the regions projected to experience the harshest impacts of climate change. “If you’re not affected by climate change today, that itself is a privilege,” climate activist Andrea Manning says.
But the same communities on the frontlines of climate impact are also on the frontlines of climate solutions. A new generation of black farmers is using heritage farming practices to undo some damage brought on by decades of intense tillage by early European settlers. Their practices drove around 50 percent of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. Agriculture continues to have a profound impact on the climate, contributing 23 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Now black farmers are finding ways to capture that carbon from the air and trap it in the soil. They are employing strategies included in Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown,” a guide to the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming.
One practice, silvopasture, is an indigenous system that integrates nut and fruit trees, forage and grasses to feed grazing livestock. Another, regenerative agriculture, a methodology first described by agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, involves minimal soil disturbance, the use of cover crops and crop rotation. Both systems harness plants to capture greenhouse gases. “No other mechanism known to humankind is as effective in addressing global warming as the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis,” Hawken says.
Here are examples of how farmers are putting these practices to work.
Leonard Diggs, Pie Ranch Farm, Pescadero, California
After working in an auto parts store during high school, Leonard Diggs swore, “I will never have another job working inside.” True to his word, Diggs went on to manage sustainable farms in northern California for over 30 years.
Diggs is developing a 418-acre incubator farm at Pie Ranch, where beginning farmers will establish their own regenerative enterprises. In collaboration with the Amah Mutsun tribal band and nearby farmers, he is creating a landscape-level ecosystem plan that integrates forest, riparian corridor, native grasslands, perennial and annual crops. The management practices that emit carbon, such as some annual crops, will be balanced out with perennial areas that sequester carbon, achieving carbon neutrality overall.
“We need to realize that working landscapes provide not just products but also ecosystem services like carbon sinks, water recharge and evolutionary potential,” Diggs explains. He envisions a food system where farmers derive 30 to 40 percent of their income from the value of ecosystem services and do not have to “mine” the soil to make a living. He is working with researchers to establish baseline data for the amount of carbon in the soil, and the composition of bacterial and fungal communities. The goal is for the farm to capture more carbon than it releases over time.
Unlike many incubator farms that emphasize annual crops and allow farmers to stay for just a few years, Diggs is working with a longer horizon. “We need to plant orchards and perennials, get them established over 10 years, and hand new farmers a working landscape. Instead of making them leave as soon as their businesses get established, we will move the incubator to a new area, and the farmers can stay.
“We need agriculture that does not lose our carbon, and does not deplete our people.”
Keisha Cameron, High Hog Farm, Grayson, Georgia
Not everyone in the black farming community is as excited about fiber as Keisha Cameron. Given the prominent role of the cotton industry in the enslavement of African Americans, many farmers eschew cultivation of textiles. “We are largely absent from the industry on every scale,” she explains. “Yet these agrarian artways and lifeways are part of our heritage.”
At High Hog Farm, Cameron and her family raise heritage breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, horses, chickens and worms in an integrated silvopasture system and sells fiber and meat. One of her favorite varieties is American Chinchillas, rabbits which consume a wider diversity of forage than goats and fertilize the pasture with their manure.
The family is also working to establish tree guilds, a system where fruit trees are surrounded by a variety of fiber crops such as indigo, cotton and flax. Its goal is a “closed loop” where all the fertility the farm needs is created in place. It packs a lot of enterprises into a small space. “We have 5 acres,” she says playfully. “Just enough to be dangerous.”
In his book “The Carbon Farming Solution,” Eric Toensmeier writes that silvopasture traps 42 tons of carbon per acre every year. This is because pasture stores carbon in the above and below ground biomass of grasses, shrubs and trees. Also, animals raised on pasture have healthier digestive systems than those raised in confinement, and emit lower amounts of methane.
In addition to healing the climate, silvopasture is a joyful practice. “I get to play with sheep and bunnies. What could be better?” Cameron poses.
Germaine Jenkins, Fresh Future Farm, North Charleston, South Carolina
When Germaine Jenkins first moved to Charleston, she relied on SNAP and food pantries to feed her children. “I did not like that we couldn’t choose what we wanted to eat, and there were few healthy options. I was sick of standing in line and decided to grow my own stuff.”
Jenkins learned how to cultivate her own food through a master gardening course, a certificate program at Growing Power and online videos. She promptly started growing food in her yard and teaching her food-insecure clients to do the same through her work at the Lowcountry Food Bank. In 2014, Jenkins won an innovation competition and earned seed money to create a community farm.
Today, Fresh Future Farm grows on 0.8 acres in the Chicora neighborhood and runs a full-service grocery store right on site. “We are living under food apartheid,” explains Jenkins. “So all of the food is distributed right here in the neighborhood on a sliding scale pay system.”
Jenkins relies on what she calls “ancestral muscle memory” to guide her regenerative farming practices. Fresh Future Farm integrates perennial crops such as banana, oregano, satsuma, and loquat together with annuals such as collards and peanuts. The farm produces copious amounts of compost on site using waste products such as crab shell, and cardboard and wood chips is applied in a thick layer of mulch. “We repurpose everything — old Christmas trees as trellises and branches as breathable cloche for frost-sensitive crops,” Jenkins explains. They even have grapes growing up the fence of the chicken yard so that the “chickens fertilize their own shade.”
Jenkins’ farming methods have been so successful at increasing the organic matter in the soil that it no longer needs irrigation. It is also less vulnerable to flooding. “Two winters ago, we had 4 feet of snow. Our soil absorbed all of it,” Jenkins says.
Toensmeier writes that for every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, we sequester 8.5 tons per acre of atmospheric carbon. If all of us were to farm like Jenkins, Diggs and Cameron, we could put 322 billion tons of carbon back in the soil where it belongs. That’s half of the carbon we need to capture to stabilize the climate.
As Larisa Jacobson, co-director of Soul Fire Farm, explains, “Our duty as earthkeepers is to call the exiled carbon back into the land and to bring the soil life home.”