4 ways to scale regenerative ag

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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.