In the conversation about climate action, Regenerative Agriculture is having a moment. Spurred by the recent launch of the movie Kiss the Ground, interest in soil health and regenerative agriculture is trending(1). We applaud the team at Kiss the Ground for increasing awareness of soil health as an important solution for addressing climate change and doing so in a way that both brings urgency to the situation and inspires hope for a better future.
At S2G Ventures we think a lot about the connection between healthy soil, the environment and human health. We are moved by the urgency of our climate situation. The narrative from the film spurred us to amplify their message and share key highlights, research and resources cited in the film. While at the same time, opening a dialog about what it really means to be “regenerative” and share key highlights, research and resources cited in the film.
From Degenerative to Regenerative
“Which model do you want your food to be produced from? The answer is pretty simple to me.” - Gabe Brown via Kiss the Ground Movie
The difference between the two illustrations, the left of conventional industrial agriculture and the right showing regenerative organic highlights the stark contrast between the two techniques. In the conventional method, excessive tilling, the application of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, can degrade soil and damage all living microbes resulting in farmland that is less able to withstand the draught and excessive rain that are a more frequent occurrence due to climate change.
In contrast. adopting practices that build soil health can help farms capture and hold water during times of excessive rainfall and withstand periods of drought, while at the same time improving the environment through carbon sequestration and rebalancing the ecosystem.
How did we get here?
As the movie states, the roots of conventional industrial agriculture practices go back to a German scientist - Fritz Haber - who invented a process to create ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen, eliminating the need to acquire ammonia from limited natural deposits. As a result, ammonia production scaled up and fueled the production of nitrogen-based products such as fertilizer and chemical feedstocks. Following World War II, these products were brought to the United States and became the foundation for the industrial agriculture system we have today.
The widespread industrialization of farming followed in the mid-20th century built on contemporary agricultural practices including use of these synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, along with intensive tillage, monocropping, and yield based management systems. This system has given us the incredible food system we have today that can deliver consistent, relatively cheap food to anywhere in the world. Today agriculture, food, and related industries contribute >$1T to U.S. gross domestic product.(2)
However, the long-term implications of these conventional practices to our health and environment are staggering. Peer reviewed studies have shown the correlation between pesticides, specifically glyphosate, and cancer(3). Bayer faced significant backlash in 2018 following their acquisition of Monsanto and was sued by 52.5k plaintiffs claiming Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides (Roundup) caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Not to mention that our food system is generating an abundance of cheap calories leading to a health crisis with over 70% of American adults being classified as obese and more than 100 million adults falling under a pre-diabetic classification.
The food system at large, including fertilizer and pesticide manufacturing, processing, transportation, refrigeration and waste disposal, accounts for 30% or more of total annual emissions.(4) Most agricultural soils have lost from 20% to 75% of their original soil organic topsoil to the atmosphere. Ultimately, this can lead to desertification - soil that is turning to desert due to too much barren ground. According to the the European Commission's World Atlas of Desertification over 75% of the Earth's land area is already degraded, and over 90% could become degraded by 2050.(6) Of the most startling facts presented in Kiss the Ground is that, according to the United Nations, the world’s remaining topsoil will be gone in 60 years.
“Unless we find a way to save our soils, we have 60 harvests left”
The statistics are daunting. But the hopeful message from the movie is that answer lies beneath our feet. And that changes in farming practices can contribute to Drawdown - the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline, thereby stopping catastrophic climate change.
The Potential of Healthy Soils on Carbon
A farm is a complex ecosystem made up of dynamic systems of interconnected lifeforms and the more biodiverse it is, the more resilient it is. Regenerative and organic practices aim to increase soil health - a key component of this diverse ecosystem - which in turn creates a symbiotic relationship between photosynthesizing plants and soil microorganisms.
At the most basic level, plants grow by making carbohydrates (sugars) from carbon dioxide in the air and water. They share these sugars with soil microbes who in exchange feed the plant. This process builds soil. To give you a sense of scale of this process, there are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the earth.(7)
This simple-sounding process has massive potential to reverse the effects of climate change. The Rodale Institute, launched a whitepaper that supports the findings from Kiss the Ground. It cites that “Global adoption of regenerative practices across both grasslands and arable acreage could sequester more than 100% of current anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and that stable soil carbon can be built quickly enough to result in a rapid drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide.“
So how do farmers make the shift from degenerative to regenerative?
While the movie presents four characteristics of “regenerative” in practice there is more nuance to be discussed around standards, certification and what it means to be regenerative, organic or regenerative organic. Each has slightly different approaches and only organic has a nationally recognized and enforced certification standard.
Setting the certifications and standards conversation aside for a moment, we believe there are several tenets of production that are important to build soil health and revitalize our environment.
No till or limited till. In a no till system, farmers leave the prior crop’s residue and / or the mass of plants on the soil surface, along with the roots still in the ground, and plant new crop directly into the soil. This approach protects the soil ecosystem, increases water retention, reduces erosion and feeds the microbial communities and life in the soil.
Diverse cover crops. Farmers plant cover crops to protect, build, and nourish the living soil. This further reduces water and wind erosion, shades soil from direct sunlight keeping temperatures down and protects soil from heavy rains.
Multiple crop rotation. Growing just one or two types of crop makes a farm prone to devastation from pest outbreaks or extreme weather, which are becoming more common with the climate crisis. Increasing biodiversity above ground by growing diverse crops in rotation, cover cropping, strip-cropping, inter-cropping, multi-story cropping, and integrating crops and livestock leads to resilience from these kinds of shocks while aiding soil carbon sequestration.(8)
No pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. There is growing evidence that pesticides and synthetic fertilizers have a negative impact on soil health by disrupting the soil microbiomes.(9)
In-farm fertility (no external nutrients). Using organic manure or regenerative grazing to fertilize soil is a key component of the regenerative approach. After 34 years in Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial, the organic manure system had between 18 to 21% higher soil organic carbon levels than the conventional system .
Can it work?
Kiss the Ground provides stark, real world examples contrasting farmland managed using a conventional approach versus a regenerative approach. From Brown’s Ranch in Bismarck, North Dakota to the Markegard Family Grass-fed farm in California we see hopeful examples of regeneration throughout the film.
Throughout our investment portfolio, we support companies that are working towards a healthier planet. From farmers and producers committed to organic and regenerative practices and companies that deliver unique data streams and actionable insights, sustainable agriculture inputs, as well as data-driven financial platforms that increase farmer profitability and encourage sustainable practices. As consumers, we can influence this change and adoption by purchasing products that use organic or regenerative practices.
A Long Term Partner for the Family Farmer
Clear Frontier is an agricultural management company committed to promoting organic and regenerative farming. The company tackles this by guiding the implementation of sustainable farming practices such as elimination of synthetics and crop diversification while enabling farmers to still grow food in an efficient way. These practices create a business that is mutually beneficial to investors, the environment, and family farmers alike.
Milk the Way Nature Intended
Maple Hill Creamery sources whole milk from 100% organic grass fed cows and produces a number of nutritious, delicious dairy products. They operate a closed loop model - cows eat organic grass from pastures and baleage and spend most of their time on pasture. This approach reduces their carbon footprint and nourishes the soil, making products that are better for the consumer and the environment.
Promoting and Protecting Generational Family Farms
Shenandoah Valley Organic, producers of Farmer Focus chicken, is building a better chicken by partnering with family farmers to improve animal-welfare with sustainable practices. Their partnerships allow farmers to own their birds and invest in new technology. SVO’s practices are better for the bird, better for the farmers, and better for the earth. They were recently approved as a Sustainability Partners participant in the Virginia Environmental Excellence Program following four years of work towards ten sustainability goals including reusing chicken litter and composting.
Leading the Humane Race
Egg Innovations works in equal parts to promote animal welfare and support family farmers. As one of the United States’ largest originators of 100% free range and pasture raised eggs, the company cares deeply about the welfare of its chickens, people and the planet. They recently announced renewed commitment to their regenerative egg farming practices over their 1,000 acres of pastures.
Beyond our portfolio, we are heartened to see companies including General Mills, Danone, Cargill, McDonalds, Target Land O’Lakes announce plans to advance regenerative agriculture on millions of acres of North American farmland.
Government is getting involved too. In June, a group of bipartisan lawmakers led by Senators Braun, Stabenow, Graham, & Whitehouse introduced The Growing Climate Solutions Act. The act aims to create a third-party verifier certification program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make participation in carbon markets easier for farmers. We at S2G Ventures, support this initiative and have added our endorsement alongside a diverse set of companies and organizations from the American Farm Bureau Federation to Syngenta.
The realities of climate change are ever more apparent. From record numbers of fires on the West Coast, rising sea waters in the Great Lakes, to tornadoes in Iowa and unprecedented hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. We cannot ignore the signs that we are at a critical moment in time. Responsibility sits with us all to take action.
At S2G Ventures, we believe the food, agriculture, oceans and seafood sectors, with the right entrepreneurs, technology, incentives and partnerships, can mitigate, and one day perhaps reverse, the warming of our planet. We see our future vision coming to life through the hard work of entrepreneurs and innovators every day. This month we share some of their stories and deep dive into the climate solutions which give us hope for a better future. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to hear more.