Food giant General Mills recently announced that the company is set to partner with farmers to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. The company committed to the idea after researching information about Will Harris’ cattle ranch in Georgia. His ranch, White Oak Pastures, uses targeted agricultural methods that have turned the land into a carbon sink, absorbing the majority of emissions caused by the beef production.
The Climate Reality Project explains that “regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more. It is a method of farming that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them.”
In North Dakota, rancher and farmer Gabe Brown has helped lead this agricultural movement. He explains that “if you focus on the health of the soil and not on yield, eventually you come out ahead, not necessarily because you grow more corn or wheat per acre but because the reduction in spending on fertilizer and other inputs lets you produce each bushel of grain more cheaply.” The benefits of new practices, therefore, apply not only to the environment, but to farmers themselves.
Overall soil health is measured through levels of soil carbon. Higher levels of soil carbon are associated with crop resilience, soil fertility, and water retention. Carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere translates into higher levels of soil carbon, thus proving that these farming practices could play a big role in the fight against climate change. Regenerative techniques could lower carbon emissions, heal overworked land, and produce higher yields of high-quality crops and livestock.
Harris applauds General Mills for their efforts, as he believes more farmers will take the plunge and convert to regenerative practices if large companies ensure a market for their goods. In contrast to the efforts of General Mills, other companies have used marketing strategies to “greenwash” products—making them seem more environmentally- and farmer-friendly than they really are. “They have not really changed the way they produce the food, but have changed the way they talk about it, so that it confuses consumers.” he said. “That devalues what we, as regenerative farmers, do.” Harris also states that only consumers can ensure lasting change. He believes that they need to “care enough about the land, animals, community and environment” and be willing to pay more for it.
More research needs to be done on the benefits of regenerative agriculture. Many academics, such as Washington State University agronomist Andrew McGuire, are asking questions about regenerative agriculture that cannot yet be answered, including whether or not Harris’ success can be replicated in different climates, or how long carbon can remain stored in soil. For now, farmers seem excited about the possibilities, causing many to seriously consider remodeling their businesses.
Farmers aren’t the only ones who are interested in this opportunity. California is providing incentives for farmers to adapt or change their operating systems. The state’s impressive agriculture movement is part of its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of what they were in 1990 by 2050. The New York Times explains that an organization called California’s Healthy Soils Initiative finds various sources of funding for farmers to purchase soil-improving products. It is also working to make federal farm bill money, used to subsidize food production, available to finance carbon farming.
Revolutionizing agribusiness in America is a mammoth task, and this is just one small piece of the puzzle. Sustainable farming is being practiced mainly by smaller firms, who are passionate about the land and the quality of their output. Juliette Majot, the president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, argues that “It is imperative not to confuse large-scale industrialized meat and dairy corporations with agroecological and regenerative livestock producers, whose vision and practice is precisely what is needed. Fueling that confusion is the entanglement (at some point in their supply chains), of large, vertically integrated corporations with producers of all kinds and sizes. Vertical integration and corporate concentration in agribusiness is another tough problem to solve. We can start by enforcing what is left of antitrust laws and stopping more mega-mergers.” Political pressure and policy change is the only way to provide support for these visionary carbon farmers and begin to reform “large-scale industrialized” operations.
The major hurdle here is the politicization of regenerative agriculture. Legislators are unwilling to vote en masse for policies targeted at climate change due to deep ideological divides. Torri Estrada, executive director of the Carbon Cycle Institute, says “carbon-mitigation efforts that focus on agriculture can be much cheaper per ton of carbon avoided than the flashier energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects that usually get most of the attention.” Educating lawmakers on soil health provides the same benefits without being immediately dismissed by climate change skeptics. However, without massive public support, there is no incentive for elected officials to prioritize agriculture reform.
A meaningful shift to regenerative agriculture—that is, making tools and support available to any farmer that wishes for it, creating markets for sustainably farmed goods, and funding much-needed research into its development—is dependent on a call to action from the general public. Legislators will be more willing to vote in support of the movement if their constituents pressure them. Consumers who focus on buying from trusted sources have the power to shift the priorities of massive companies.
Americans, especially in recent years, are trying to be more aware of how their individual choices affect the health of the planet. It is not easy. Greenwashing, a massive and expensive marketing effort from Big Food, makes it even harder. Consumers are groomed to focus too much on labels, paying little attention to where our food comes from and who is producing it. Nationwide surveys displayed on PR Newswire show that “72 percent of consumers know nothing or very little about farming or ranching.” Bob Stallman, chairman of USFRA and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation says “USFRA commissioned two separate surveys to first ask farmers and ranchers what they wished Americans could have more information about where their food comes from. We then asked consumers what questions they have on the same topic. The findings of both surveys indicate there is an opportunity for more dialogue between farmers, ranchers and the American public about how food is grown and raised in the U.S.”
This dialogue between farmers and the public, and cutting out the marketing middleman could change meaningful choices people can make about their food. Dietary changes touted by friends and the media are too often simplistic. Majot echoes this sentiment: “It is imperative, too, that we think far beyond single-note dietary changes. For example, consumer campaigns focused on the importance of reduced meat consumption should not rest their case with individual consumer choice, but instead, recognize the role of corporate influence in the system, as well as promoting the importance of livestock to regenerative agricultural systems. A simplistic “no meat” message can too easily and swiftly fall into a populist and misdirected movement harmful to farmers worldwide who are, right now, responsibly building our agroecological and regenerative agricultural systems.”
If people wish to use their purchasing power to make lasting change, they need to do thorough research. Regenerative agriculture is becoming increasingly accepted by the farming community. Yet, the public remains unaware. They focus on guidance given to them on supermarket shelves. The food world is being flooded with misinformation as big companies capitalize on our desires to do what is best. The only way to be sure that we are supporting farmers who are working to improve the land and produce quality food is to buy local. Go to the farmers market and talk to the people there. They are passionate about what they do, and would love to be involved in a dialogue. As we become more informed, we buy smarter and can call for lasting change and widespread support for our farmers.
The world of agribusiness is overwhelming. But as citizens, we have a responsibility to be as informed as we possibly can. Huge companies and hotshot politicians have no incentive to help save the planet. It is up to the public to know the best ways to reduce the effects of climate change and to pressure the government and corporations.
Climate scientist James Hansen worries that we’re leaving the problem to our grandchildren. “That assumption that somehow young people, and people later this century, are going to figure out how to suck it out of the air — that’s a pretty big burden to place on them,” he said. Regenerative agriculture and informed purchasing could begin to solve the problem now, a start in making a better world for those who come next.