Future Agenda: Regenerative Agricultural Landscapes

By Hal Hamilton and Elizabeth Reaves

Regenerative agriculture has become a highly publicized goal over the last several years, although so far programs to improve farming remind us of what happens when a rock drops onto an ant hill: ants scurry all over but seem to take a while before their scurrying unites into a common strategy. With regenerative agriculture, we start with specific crops and supply chains, but we eventually zoom out to diversified farming systems and landscape-scale biodiversity.

Here’s how next-stage strategies are described by Margaret Henry, PepsiCo Senior Director, Sustainable Agriculture Strategy: “Sustainability and do no harm commitments are necessities for companies today. Those that are leading are looking for true resilience and know that reliable supply in an increasingly volatile world requires two things. First, it requires investment and commitment in our own supply chains. Second, it requires collaboration and engagement beyond the crops we buy so that the ecological, financial, political, and cultural systems our farmers sit within are also resilient and support landscape level change.”

As Margaret Henry says, full achievement of the impacts we want will require collaborations among organizations because many necessary steps are beyond the reach of any one organization or supply chain.

It’s logical for each company to start with their own operations and supply. They can most directly influence the production and transport of what they buy. Focusing on their own ingredients, the most common targets are for carbon. Which is also logical because climate change mitigation is so urgent.

But now we’re in a moment of realization that:

  • Each supply chain’s resilience is dependent upon the resilience of whole farms and agricultural regions where ingredients are produced; and
  • Both carbon emissions and carbon sequestration are inseparable from many natural cycles in and around each farm field.

Many leaders would prefer to not go down this path, from specific ingredients to farming landscapes, and from carbon to natural cycles and social well-being. Meeting all these goals requires well-managed collaborative initiatives. Everyone is already too busy, and collaborations can be unwieldy, sometimes with more talk than action. The time delay between investments and impacts can be lengthy. It’s no wonder that a corporate leader commented to us that “I can get buy-in and money for supply chain projects that will help us hit our 2030 targets, but it’s more difficult for these longer-term collaborations, even if that’s where the big impacts might lie.”

Landscape initiatives usually start with a small number of initiators who help others gain a sense of confidence that results are achievable. This is the tricky building stage. Others need to get a sense that “if so-and-so and so-and-so are involved, I guess we should also be involved.”

Recruitment and iterative project design are the first steps. To get off the ground, each place needs implementing organizations to manage relationships among collaborators, both early movers and later joiners. As an initiative gets going, implementing organizations facilitate goal setting, project management, and data aggregation.

These steps might seem daunting, but we can remember and celebrate tremendous progress over the past decade or so. Companies and governments are already investing billions of dollars in millions of acres. Thousands of brilliant and committed people are helping deliver these programs.

Next stages include:

  • Diversification of all major cropping regions of the world, where rotations have dwindled to too-few crops, with unfortunate consequences for soil, biodiversity, water, and rural communities.
  • Along with diversification of farm enterprises on each farm, incubating new employment and entrepreneurial opportunities across farming regions.
  • And investing in landscape biodiversity and water stewardship in those same regions.

Nobody wants to hear, “What you’re doing is not enough.” But here we are, facing more goals, metrics, and strategies to figure out. The path to sustainability is a marathon rather than a sprint.

We can each remember that we are not alone. Our ranks are growing, money is available, commitments are sincere. And the vision of resilient landscapes, good for both people and nature, is inspiring.

See more on the transition, in the Scale Lab report and downloadable decks.

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