Scaling Agricultural Transition: Understanding Why Agriculture Is The Way It Is & Then ID Leverage Points

By Elizabeth Reaves & Hal Hamilton

Large-scale commodity agriculture functions the way it does for understandable reasons. But that hardly means it needs to remain stuck in the status quo. A shift to a more regenerative system is both necessary and achievable.

This blog draws from a report and publicly available tools developed as part of a Scale Lab of people from ten leading companies and The Nature Conservancy. We focus on the US Midwest here, but many of the lessons are germane to any region in the world in which the landscape is dominated by a small number of dominant agricultural commodities.

Some farmers have been farming sustainably over the past decades (or even centuries). Why aren’t more farmers doing so? And what would it take to rapidly spread improved farming systems that are better for both the soil and the people who till it?

The first step in answering such questions is to ask why the current system is the way it is. Here’s how we summarize our understanding:

  • Farmers (and procurement officers) make rational decisions based on financial incentives, technical support, and culturally embedded assumptions.
  • The current farming system is enormously productive and meets domestic and global demand for food, livestock feed, and ethanol.
  • The pressure to reduce costs of production and increase scale derive from deeply established commodity-pricing dynamics.
  • A sophisticated input industry enables ever-fewer farmers to produce high yields with the help of ever-more-advanced machinery, fertilizer, pesticides, and seeds.
  • Each individual farmer’s risks are mitigated by government policies.
  • Leaders of farmer organizations (and the farmers who tend to appear on the cover of farm magazines) are those who are the most successful at producing the highest yields.

The trouble is that individually rational decisions can create problematic “externalities” for everyone. In this case, as farmers rationally pursue increased productivity per acre, and as rotation crops like hay and oats disappear from the landscape in favor of summer-growing crops like corn and soybeans, the ground is now bare half the year, with less root-matter left to enrich the soil.

The unintended consequences of simplified commodity systems are well known: soils hold less moisture in drought years; nutrients leak into waterways; greenhouse gases leak into the air; and farmers are put under increased financial pressure.

Farmers generally know that these problems exist across the landscape, and at the same time they correctly remind us of many positive developments over the last 70 years or so: the spread of conservation practices ever since the 1930s Dust Bowl, including the adoption of reduced tillage in the 1990s.

Many farmers are committed to improving the health of their soils, but they are simultaneously trapped in a commodity flywheel. If producers were like most business-people, they would seek to generate value by commodifying their inputs and differentiating their outputs. They would try to buy cheap and sell high. Commodity farmers can’t do that, however, because they sell on markets that reward lowest-cost production and depend upon expensive inputs from suppliers of technology, fertilizer, seeds, and pesticides.

This is a central dilemma: Farmers make decisions to pursue productivity and efficiencies because those are the only ways they have succeeded over the past few generations, and the entire commercial food system reinforces this decision-making process.

However, such commodity-based systems are now on shaky ground. Climate risk is the most urgent signal, but many other factors are indicating the need for a shift toward more sustainable and equitable systems.

What might such systems look like? Farmers will choose to plant more crops in rotation, so that their fields have living cover over the soil – and diverse roots within the soil – year-round. Farmers will re-create grass strips, trees, and wildlife habitat so that natural predators will help control insect pests. Local water cycles and carbon cycles will help restore productivity that does not depend so much upon increasingly costly and uncertain external inputs.

The following graphic overviews some of the most important steps in this transition.

A fuller description of progress toward regenerative agriculture is available in a report and tools from the Scale Lab, a partnership of Sustainable Food Lab and the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative. The Lab is overseen by leaders from ten ag-sector companies and The Nature Conservancy, and it was made possible by financial support from the Walton Family Foundation.


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