Agriculture, food and land-use is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, responsible for between 25 and 33 percent of global emissions. Increasingly, agribusinesses and investors are looking to regenerative agricultural practices to mitigate the sector’s emissions. Regenerative agriculture can improve ecosystems, soil health, water qualities and possibly even sequester carbon. At COP27, regenerative agriculture provided the basis for several events and finance negotiations, as farmers, world leaders, climate experts and corporate executives work to turn agriculture from a problem into a solution.
The calls for regenerative agricultural practices come amid a backdrop of compounding agricultural and ecological crises. Soil depletion on American farms is double the rate that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) deems sustainable, and if erosion trends do not reverse quickly, some experts believe Earth will only have enough topsoil to support its population for another 60 years. As populations grow and the climate crisis creates more extreme weather events, global food security is in jeopardy. By some estimates, there are 828 million people facing hunger globally, even as one third of all food produced goes to waste.
As populations grow, farmers are facing pressure to grow more food with fewer resources in an unsteady climate with limited access to water, topsoil and nutrients. Many experts see regenerative agriculture as a solution to the complex problems facing the food system. Regenerative agriculture involves utilizing cover crops and no-till practices that leave soil undisturbed and allow for better water and nutrient retention, as well as carbon sequestration. Transitioning to regenerative practices is expensive for farmers, however and it often involves a steep learning curve. Currently, only about 15 percent of farmland globally is under regenerative agricultural management.
Just prior to the start of COP27, a group of the largest food and agriculture businesses published a joint report called Scaling Regenerative Farming: An Action Plan. Executives from Bayer, HowGood, Indigo Agriculture, Mars, McCain Foods, McDonald's, Mondelez, Olam, PepsiCo, Sustainable Food Trust, Waitrose & Partners and Yara International said they collaborated to identify the barriers farmers face when adopting regenerative practices and actions that agribusinesses can implement to better assist farmers. Their group, called the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI) Agribusiness Task Force, identified 15 actions that food and agricultural companies can take immediately to help support farmers to transition.
During a COP27 session hosted by Bloomberg Green, Grant Reid, SMI Agribusiness Taskforce Chair and outgoing CEO of Mars Inc, noted how King Charles III was instrumental in pushing for such change. “He [King Charles] rightly saw agriculture as an area that wasn't making a lot of progress. He brought together the full value chain, from farmers, to start ups, to large corporations and asked why regenerative agriculture, which has clear benefits, is not taking off? We found that the benefits don’t work for the farmer. We are putting too much emphasis on the farmer while not supporting them. We need a financial mechanism to fill the gap.”
Reid elaborated, “When you think of farm bills around the world, they pay farmers based on yields. If you can switch that model to metrics that show they're farming regeneratively and they’re paid for that, then that’s a better system. We need better metrics and from metrics flows the rest.”
Svein Tore Holsether, President and CEO of Yara International and SMI Agribusiness Task Force member agrees. He noted, “Farmers are business people, and they will respond to a system that rewards sustainable practices. There is a lot of burden on their shoulders already. We cannot expect them to solve this alone. It takes a full value chain approach.”
The SMI Agribusiness Task Force’s report detailed five steps that are critical to making regenerative agriculture economically viable for farmers, including the creation of metrics for environmental outcomes, growing farmer income from those outcomes, the creation of cost-share mechanisms to help farmers transition to regenerative practices, improving government policy to reward farmers for transitioning, and developing new sourcing models to spread the cost of a regenerative transition.
Transforming the farming, food and land use sector is urgent. A 2020 study found that even if all other fossil fuel uses ceased immediately, food system emissions are currently so high that the world will not be able to meet the requirements to stay in a 1.5 or 2 degree warming scenario without drastic changes to the sector. Holsether said, “We are past the point where we should just be discussing emissions in the food system and that it’s broken and we should fix it. Now is the time to be concrete. We have seven years left until 2030, and we need to be fully focused on implementation.” The climate crisis and the food system are inextricably linked, and while the sector is currently driving the planet into increasingly perilous ecological predicaments, COP27 participants say they are working to transform farming into a carbon-sequestering solution.
Image credit: Bence Balla-Schottner via Unsplash
Mary Riddle is a writer and sustainability consultant based in Florence, Italy. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. Currently, she and her husband also own and operate Italy in Season, a subscription box company with a mission to support small-scale Italian artisans and traditional craftsmanship.