Report: The Promise of Regenerative Agriculture
The Science-Backed Business Case and Mechanisms to Drive Adoption
by Jock Gilchrist, E2
Click here for the full report (pdf)
Regenerative agriculture is a topic of increasing interest to the agriculture, climate change, policy, and business communities. Supporters claim it is a rare solution that is a winning proposition for each of these parties. Much of the attention it receives is based on statements about its potential to increase soil health, sequester sizable quantities of carbon, create more profit for farmers, and improve food security and farm resilience.
This report explores two major questions: is the excitement around regenerative agriculture substantial? If so, what are the best ways to increase its adoption? To answer these questions, this report first examines the scientific literature around the impacts of regenerative agriculture. Studies confirm that it offers significant potential to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and fight climate change. Regenerative management can sequester 3% to 30% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the underlying assumptions and scale of adoption, although its technical potential may be even higher. The accrual of carbon and improvement of soil health can stabilize or increase crop yield while reducing fertilizer and chemical application. In the process, it offers farmers more reliable yields and a net increase in profits, mostly through a reduction in input costs.
Regenerative agriculture rebuilds soil structure and thus vastly improves the ability of farmland to absorb and retain water. This makes crops less vulnerable to droughts and floods, both are which are predicted to grow in frequency under most global warming scenarios. The complex soil microbiome provides an array of ecosystem services which include natural suppression of pests and plant disease, reduced chemical leaching and volatilization, and improved water filtration and downstream water quality. Agroecological methods may also produce food that is healthier and more nutrient dense. Managing land to generate these advantages, however, is less formulaic than conventional farming and likely involves a transition period before benefits become immediately apparent.
Given these multifaceted economic and ecological benefits, the report next explores the mechanisms public and private sector actors pursue to increase adoption of regenerative practices. Soil health policy activity has ramped up in recent years. The 2018 Farm Bill was the first to include funding for soil health demonstration plots. The agricultural conservation activities under the USDA’s NRCS are as popular as ever and in need of increased funding. Soil health policies are in various stages of realization in almost half of U.S. states, and the number of state governments with soil health policies in place nearly doubled, from 5 to 9, between 2019 and 2020.
Efforts to create market valuation for the ecosystem and carbon benefits farmers offer society are underway. Developing reliable, fast, and affordable soil testing remains the most important barrier to solve. Still, carbon marketplaces like Nori and Indigo Carbon are gaining traction. Market operators achieved a milestone in October 2020, when Locus Ag and Nori facilitated the first high-volume carbon credit validation through the CarbonNOW marketplace. An Ohio farmer received roughly 20,000 carbon credits, worth over $300,000, and sold $75,000 of those credits to Shopify to offset their emissions. In addition to market approaches, commitments to responsible supply chains and climate mitigation from corporations large and small have signaled that business interest in regenerative agriculture is here to stay.
Finally, based on the broad array of solutions presented, the report makes recommendations that address the key leverage points to make regenerative practices more mainstream. First, create reliable, affordable, and fast soil testing. Second, expand federal initiatives that already enjoy popularity and have institutional infrastructure in place. Third, build on and replicate the immense success of state-level soil health policies. Fourth, improve access to farming opportunities, especially for young and socially disadvantaged farmers. Fifth, educate and build awareness to stimulate consumer demand for regeneratively labeled and certified products. Sixth and finally, invest more in scaling carbon and ecosystem service markets to better ensure their success.
Regenerative agriculture sits at the nexus of some of the most important problems we face. Investing in its expansion is a shrewd and responsible decision for climate change, economics, farm profitability, and food system viability.