Guaranteeing access to sufficient nutrients to the entire global population, which is set to reach 10 billion by 2050, will force a radical rethinking of the current agri-food system. The industrial, linear model of farming has created diversity-free systems that require enormous quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilisers to keep yields high. Cropping and farming practices, with their intensive use of inputs, have led to the exhaustion and erosion of soil and natural systems. The long-term health and resilience of our ecosystem are in danger. However, this trend can and must be reversed.
Soil health and the regeneration of topsoil (the surface layer of soil) are the main priorities of regenerative agriculture. Going well beyond organic farming, regenerative agriculture is a system of agricultural practices and principles that increases ecosystem health, improving nutrients in foods, which almost become a by-product of the planet’s restoration. “4 per 1000”, an initiative launched by the French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll, aims to promote regenerative agriculture practices as a tool to mitigate climate change, combat soil erosion, retain water and nutrients, and enhance food safety. Over 450 public and private sector partners have signed on to the initiative since its launch at the United Nations climate change conference in 2015.
As well as reducing emissions, increasing organic matter in the soil, and sequestering CO2, according to Project Drawdown, after an initial investment of $ 79-116 billion, regenerative agriculture practices could guarantee operational cost savings of $ 2.3-3.5 trillion and a net profit of $ 135-206 billion. The fact that there are margins for improvement and investment is widely recognised by the European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy and by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The latter identifies investment opportunities in education and training pathways aimed at members of the agriculture industry, consumers, and farmers, as well as in instruments and technologies aimed at creating resilient markets for regeneratively grown food.
Today, we know why and how to change course. There are a growing number of projects, businesses, scientists, investment funds, and foundations that are investing time, skills, and money in the regeneration of soil, local communities, and ecosystems. The greatest potential for soil regeneration flows through four main factors: technology for landscape and ecosystem design, nutrient-dense food, payment systems for ecosystem services such as carbon and water storage, and – as a fourth factor that supports the other three – transition finance.
Technology for Landscape Design
To achieve large-scale restoration that encompasses entire landscapes it is necessary to go beyond individual farms and direct efforts at the entire ecosystem, with planning that makes use of current technologies that allow, for example, to know which trees it is best to plant, and where. All of this while taking into account climate models for the next twenty years, indigenous knowledge, market conditions, and much more. Thanks to deep learning and AI systems it is possible to know the effect
of landscape restoration and act accordingly.
The Landscape Finance Lab – a spin-off of WWF– works in this context. The Landscape Finance Lab aims to incubate and fund the creation of sustainable landscapes at a large scale. Paul Chatterton, the lab’s founder, claims that “the investments to restore an ecosystem on a large scale fluctuate between $ 100 million and $ 1 billion. It is more expensive than a fighter jet but cheaper than an aircraft carrier, and there is no reason why the world could not find that money. We have to”. Generating positive financial and social returns.
Amsterdam-based Commonland was founded with the goal of building resilient landscapes, restoring healthy ecosystems, and creating regenerative business for future generations. The company uses the Four Returns Framework as a method for landscape restoration and the establishment of a new balance between ecology, economics and hope, measuring the potential returns of large-scale regeneration. Specifically, Commonland calculates four types of return: natural, social, financial and inspirational capital. The company has ongoing projects for ecological, social and economic regeneration in places ranging from Baviaanskloof, South Africa to Haiti.
Looking to technology that can promote better agricultural practices from a landscape perspective, one of the most interesting innovations comes from ReGrow. This digital platform uses satellite imagery to monitor crop management, assisting farmers in their sowing and cropping decisions and increasing the field’s yield and sustainability. According to founder Anastasia Volkova, ReGrow will expand globally through its “capacity to simulate the entire growth plan of crops, assessing what is happening to the soil in real-time.”
Virtual fencing is another technology with huge potential. These systems, thanks to the use of GPS collars, allow farmers to remotely monitor and control their herds, avoiding the use of physical barriers. In combination with automated animal husbandry practices, virtual fencing is already proving that livestock can be managed in a climate-positive way – capturing more CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere than what is emitted – at the landscape level, with animal well-being constantly monitored. Vence works in this sector while, at the same time, aiming to increase the availability of sustainable animal proteins.
Making the invisible visible: this is the aim of those who are working to show the existing link between healthy land, healthy products, healthy gut, healthy people and healthy ecosystems. Technology can expose such link, in a way that is immediate and accessible to everyone, and convince consumers to change their food habits once and for all. A tomato that is delivered to a supermarket in the winter not only does not have the same flavour, but it also lacks the same nutritional qualities as a tomato grown using regenerative methods at the right time of year.
“There are almost no nutrients in the food that we eat” claims Greg Shewmaker, co-founder of Boston-based biochemical data company TeakOrigin. “From our research, for example, we learned that after seven days, all nutritional substances essentially disappear from spinach, regardless of how it was shipped or stored.” Abandoning junk food and cheap food and the revolution of the agri-food industry must necessarily involve an understanding of the nutrients that are present, or absent, in food. All that leads us to the concept of food as medicine.
Opportunities exist, as is being proven by Bleu Blanc Coeur. This French non-profit has created a certification programme for animal proteins and their associated nutritional benefits, for example by assessing their anti-inflammatory properties, which is worth 2 billion per year. All this while paying farmers to produce better-quality food, starting from a simple concept: farmers have the keys to our health, and if they do not change practices on the ground now, we will have to resort to medicines later.
In fact, as farmers today are not paid on the basis of the nutrients they put on the market, there is a lack of incentives and adequate compensation connected to the quality of the food that they produce. In the United States, the Bionutrient Food Association is trying to address this lack by creating a nutrient- measuring device, and an associated database. This innovation, by scanning food, can assess the nutrients present in a specific carrot, apple, or cheese, all in real-time. In the words of BFA founder Dan Kittredge, “paying for the quality of food is the best tool we have against climate change”. Further related to the price of food (less so to nutrients) is Eosta’s True Cost Accounting Project, which has calculated the hidden impacts of food on the planet and people.
Payment Systems for Ecosystem Services
Paying the right price for nutrient-rich foods is not sufficient for the imposing transition required to regenerate our soils. Regenerative practices, and the farmers that implement them, must be paid for the ecosystem services they offer as by-products of their activities, such as the increase in biodiversity and the soil’s increased water retention capacity and carbon storage. There are pioneering companies that seem to be ready to pay for ecosystem services. In January this year, Microsoft, through blockchain technology, acquired 100,000 carbon credits stored in livestock-regenerated agricultural soils from the startup Regen Network. In an attempt to achieve its climate goals, Microsoft has also decided to focus on carbon sequestration and eco-friendly land management, collaborating with Australian farmers and Earth protectors.
In the Netherlands, Soil Heroes is building a marketplace to connect farmers that are adopting regenerative agriculture practices to buyers of ecosystem services. Given that they are paid for the storage of carbon and water in the soil, and the increase in biodiversity, farmers obtain added value for their activities.
It is necessary to invest substantial capital to fund the transition of the current agricultural system – including organic farming – toward regenerative practices. Between climate bonds, green bonds, crowdfunding platforms and mixed financing schemes, more and more fund managers and investors are discovering the huge potential that we have below our feet. Abandoning, first and foremost, the idea of generating disproportionate returns, which we have become used to due to the exploitation of some companies in the digital economy, leads to a series of very interesting possibilities.
“Some farmers need land and business plans, some need capital, some need Facebook accounts, but every farmer needs a market” explains Mad Agriculture co-founder Phil Taylor. Frustrated by industrial and extractive agriculture, and by the financial system that traps farmers in a lifestyle that does nothing to serve the health of the soil and rural communities, Taylor – alongside Nicole Brinks – launched the Perennial Fund last year. This investment fund, whose first pilot fund collected $ 10 million in investments, offers an innovative type of loan to help farmers expand their organic-certified land using regenerative practices. This goes beyond the simple provision of the capital needed for the transition, offering support in business planning and sales activities, as well as fair risk-sharing. Perennial Fund allows farmers to make flexible payments while taking into account how difficult the years of transition to new farming practices are. It also focuses on a radical reinvestment in the US’s soil and citizens, with the goal, proclaimed in its manifesto, of shifting “from linearity to circularity, quantity to quality, monoculture to diversity, competition to cooperation, short to long view, extractive to regenerative, centralized to decentralized, dominion to interbeing, power to empowerment, withholding to sharing, manufactured to authentic”.
Robyn O’Brien, also grew tired of traditional financing options for farmers, founded rePlant Capital, another firm whose aim is to fund the transition toward organic and regenerative agriculture. rePlant creates financial products, including a series of focused funds earmarked for direct investments in businesses across the entire food supply chain. The first of these funds is the evergreen Soil Fund, worth $ 250 million. rePlant collaborates with farmers, agronomists, and large food companies like Danone to facilitate, on a large scale, more resilient agricultural practices. In the words of its founder, “it does not matter what industry you belong to because all your workers completely depend on food”.
Even small investors can play an important role in the transition. This is demonstrated by the experiences of Steward, a crowdfunding platform that offers simple, flexible commercial loans to help regenerative farms and sustainable producers grow. Another example is the French firm Miimosa, which collected $50 million and funded over 4,000 projects in the horticulture, viticulture, farming, beekeeping, beer production, and renewable energy sectors.
Further Developments Between Decommodification and Land Ownership
The four factors considered here have a huge potential, but they do not exhaust the complexity of the framework that can lead to soil regeneration and the improvement of the agricultural system. Other elements to consider include the role of technology in support of farmers (drones, robots, software), the restoration of nutrients to the soil (through insects and algae, for example), new developments in the fields of composting, biochar, bio-fertilisers, growing alternative proteins, and correct animal husbandry. Equally crucial will be the decommodification of food, so that farmers are paid fairly to produce nutrient-dense foods, and, finally, legal issues linked to land ownership, which is currently still a major barrier to the expansion of regenerative practices. Land ownership is connected with the theme of the commons, without forgetting that, for most of human history, the soil had neither lords nor owners.
- 4 per 1.000
- Project Drawdown – Regenerative Annual Cropping
- European Commission – Farm to Fork Strategy
- Landscape Finance Lab
- Bleu Blanc Coeur
- Bionutrient Food Association
- Soil Heroes
- Mad Agriculture
- Perennial Fund
This article first appeared on Renewable Matter.
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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.