Ensuring Regenerative Agriculture Doesn’t Muddy the Waters

21 September 2022 by Catherine Harris
blog author

The agricultural industry is vital for human survival as it strives to feed an ever-growing world population (estimated to be 10 billion by 2050) but its impact on the environment has left the industry brandishing a double-edged sword.

To mitigate its negative contribution to the climate crisis, namely carbon emissions, innovation in farming has increased significantly, from agricultural robotics to agri biotechnology. In addition, the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ is on the tip of most forward-thinking farming tongues, although it has been practiced for thousands of years by Native Americans, Indigenous People, and People of Color who have passed on this more gentle method of farming down through generations, with the mutual, mindful belief of working with the land, not against it.

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic farming method that focuses predominantly on improving soil health to produce healthy crops and lower climate impact. The latter can be achieved by sequestering carbon - removing carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in soils. This is ordinarily conducted naturally and organically, as plants store carbon dioxide right down to their roots, which are deep under soil, but more carbon can also be added to soil through methods such as the introduction of manure.

Other activities to fall under the regenerative agriculture umbrella are reduced tillage or even no-till (where farmers drill seeds directly into soil, which disturbs the soil significantly less than if it was aggressively ploughed, helping avoid soil erosion) and planting cover crops that are grown purely to cover and protect the soil from extremities, rather than for harvesting purposes. Cover crops can reduce water and nitrogen pollution (more about the latter later) as well as encourage clean water to penetrate the soil, however, such crops only cover around 4 per cent of US croplands at present and scaling it is proving difficult. While these practices of more mindful farming are commendable, actual evidence of it lessening the impact of climate change is currently a little thin on the ground, but it is hoped in time this will change. As with all technologies and innovations that evolve to disrupt, or better still, eliminate the sources of planet destruction, advancing them from the development to implementation stage is an undeniable challenge that puts up immediate barriers.

A major issue faced by the agri industry is scaling solutions to boost successful regenerative agriculture. Governments will play a major role in this and an incentivization scheme for improving soil health could help with shifting it forward.

Networking can lead to partnerships and collaborating with those who possess expertise in areas your company is lacking can help bring change sooner than if your organization went it alone, particularly in areas such as supply chains.

Setting targets and then thinking creatively about possible solutions to meet those goals is a way a company can stay on track when wanting to scale up. Investing in AI is also worth considering, especially for monitoring environmental information to determine any risks.

Other issues that can arise include nitrogen. Soil that captures carbon requires the presence of nitrogen if sequestration is needed over a longer period of time but too much nitrogen (which can come in the form of fertilizer) can bring a host of problems including pollution of waterways once it escapes from the soil and can also be converted into the greenhouse gas (GHG) nitrous oxide, thus replacing one problem with another.

There is also the issue of carbon being captured from other sources. If more carbon is added to the soil (as opposed to plants storing carbon directly from the air which then infiltrates the soil via the roots), that carbon was already existing in another location and has been moved elsewhere, for example by adding the aforementioned fertilizer. This merely shifts carbon around rather than removing more from the atmosphere.

Agroforestry is one method of capturing carbon on an agricultural level (this involves planting trees in agricultural areas where animals can graze beneath and help generate animal-enriched soil) and such a move can increase soil carbon by around 34 per cent.

Soil can store vast amounts of carbon below ground level and there is no doubt that it has its environmental benefits and is advantageous for the agricultural industry, but to make a substantial impact in the fight against climate change and do more than scratch the surface, it requires more research, understanding and innovation for scaling up solutions.

Fortunately, a number of companies are moving quickly to accelerate regenerative agriculture’s journey to greater success and impact.

Indigo works to support farmers with a carbon credit scheme, which incentivizes them to transition to regenerative agriculture. Carbon credits can be generated when eligible farmers report sustainability practices that are included in several ‘best practices’ protocols.

The Boston, Massachusetts-based farm technology company develops biological and digital technologies for better farmer profitability, environmental sustainability and consumer health.

In June, the company reported its carbon farming program had produced 20,000 tonnes in soil carbon credits that it will sell as emissions offsets to buyers including Barclays, JPMorgan Chase and The North Face.

A total of 175 growers created the carbon offsets in Indigo's carbon program that shifted to more sustainable farming practices including reduced soil tillage and planting off-season cover crops between 2018 and 2020.

Another firm taking hold of the reins is GoodSam Foods, which on a mission to make a positive impact in the supply chain industry and take sustainable food to the next level, via regenerative agriculture.

The organization which operates from New York, Boston, Florida, Colombia, Toronto and Nairobi, hails the farming method as a successful way to provide sustainable food for all.

The three-year-old company is the brainchild of CEO Heather Terry and specializes in snacks, coffee and other ethically sourced foods. The organization has taken time to know its farmers and build robust relationships, in order to understand their methods of farming, which enables GoodSam to be fully transparent about their supply chain.

GoodSam believes supporting small farms and regenerative farming practices brings success to all, now and for future generations and that other brands could follow suit if they are committed enough.

It connects with the farmers, families and their communities to become more transformative through respect, gaining trust and understanding, as well as developing fairtrade processes with all farmers.

Social purpose corporation and early founding B-Corp member Guayaki produces nourishing energy drinks from the leaves of the naturally caffeinated South American plant species yerba mate. Guayaki is committed to evolving its market-driven regenerative approach to business by promoting not only sustainability in its business operations but regeneration among its entire supply chain – including specifically its local smallholder and indigenous community partners.

Small farms and indigenous communities in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay are supported by Guayaki through innovative training and knowledge-sharing practices as well as ensuring decent working conditions for all employees and fair sourcing practices; safeguarding human rights at every stage of production.

Guayaki has also been a carbon net negative company for over 22 years as a result of its regenerative farming practices, prioritizing carbon drawdown and sourcing yerba mate grown under the shade of forests – which counterbalances the carbon footprint of the rest of their operations including packaging and transportation costs.

Catherine Harris, Director of Sustainable Business – North America at Acre, said: “Guayaki is a great example of how just one business can contribute significantly to reversing climate change. As more companies in the sector come together to implement soil health measures and in turn, demonstrate a track record of positive regenerative outcomes; the easier it will be to scale and bring about significant carbon benefits in the process”.

Catherine has been recruiting Senior Sustainability Executives and Non-Executives for over 9 years. Prior to Acre, Catherine worked for a boutique search firm with a focus on the charity and public sector.

Catherine also sits on the board of Future-Fit Foundation, a non-profit offering tools to help investors and business tackle key Sustainability and climate change issues. With a passion for board diversity and appointing exceptional leaders at board level, she is also co-author of The Social Board, a paper exploring how to engage board members on key ESG and Sustainability issues.  

Catherine completed a Master’s at Kings College London in Sustainable Tourism, Development and the Environment in 2001, with a focus on standards and benchmarking in the tourism sector.


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