By Elizabeth Reaves and Hal Hamilton
Regenerative agriculture – a term covering a broad range of sustainable farming practices, many of them as old as agriculture itself – is a topic of increasing interest for farmers and ag companies.
How can businesses best contribute to the growth and flourishing of regenerative agriculture? What are the primary traps to avoid along the way?
This blog offers a few introductory answers to these questions. It draws from a longer analysis developed as part of Scale Lab, an initiative involving practitioners and experts from ten leading companies and The Nature Conservancy.
Farmers are, of course, the primary decisionmakers in the transition to regenerative farming systems. They decide what crops to grow, what livestock to raise, and what methods to use. Our system-change question is this: What is the context within which farmers make decisions; and how might that context shift so that farmers are attracted to invest time and money in regenerative farming?
Governments, scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and businesses all influence the context within which farmers make decisions. Governments invest in projects; provide vital research and development funding; and establish regulatory frameworks. Scientific institutions have an obvious and longstanding role in advancing agricultural tools and techniques. NGOs play a crucial role in the spaces between and among the other sectors, acting as translators, influencers, and implementation partners.
Food and beverage corporations are often global in reach, and they have mastered how to efficiently deliver goods and services. While their orientation to shareholder value is sometimes unaligned with the public good, they nevertheless have an absolutely critical – and potentially very constructive – role to play in the shift toward regenerative models.
With the entire global economy facing systemic risks from climate change and inequality, many companies have hired teams of brilliant, creative, and purpose-driven people who are charged with designing supply chains that are sustainable, equitable, and resilient.
That said, corporate sustainability programs face three traps.
The first trap derives from the more cynical critics lining the path toward achieving regenerative and resilient systems. We think it’s appropriate that powerful players are held to a high standard, but the fear of public criticism can keep businesses from going public with incremental improvements. If companies can only tell a story after they’ve achieved all goals – with anything less denounced as “greenwashing” – the resulting paralysis will ensure that no one gets to hear about all the genuinely innovative and worthwhile measures that are being tried – and that promising incremental steps never attain the proper scale.
The second trap is to ignore the costs of inertia. It may be all too tempting to treat the sustainability team as a “nice-to-have” function separate from the core business of a company. We notice two indicators of such sidelining: 1) When climate risks are not included in investor reports; and 2) when sustainability targets are not owned by every function within a company. We think that it should be clear to any observer of last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (also known as COP 26) that this is an “all-hands-on-deck” moment. A broad-based commitment to sustainability – including in agriculture – now represents the only path to mitigating the risks of potentially catastrophic climate change.
The third trap is to dismiss the role of government. We need to change the widespread but false narrative that real value is only created by the private sector. The gap between current agricultural systems and a truly regenerative model is simply too big for the private sector to bridge all by itself. Yet this bridging is necessary for the preservation of worldwide economic value measurable in the billions, perhaps trillions, of dollars. Only government is powerful enough to set the necessary rules; hold companies accountable for hitting shared targets; penalize free-riding by laggards in the industry; tax products with negative externalities; and invest in pro-sustainability incentives and technologies that can take a long time to bear fruit.
One current example of the potential role of government is solar energy. Solar was floundering before government-led investments kickstarted markets and started bringing costs down. One thing we know for sure – the development of regenerative agriculture will require the efforts of participants from all sectors.