Soft Landings, Hard Data: The Race to Put Numbers to Nature

By Ben Harris

The other day I headed out on a neighborhood stroll, the cloying heat of the apartment behind me and dissipating with every step. I’ve taken to listening to news podcasts while on the move, but tonight, the thought of more play-by-play commentary on the economy – the daily oscillations of the stock market, the endless whispers of coming rate hikes and soft landings –I couldn’t quite stomach. And so sans headphones, I continued on, into a stretch of canopy-shaded street where I came across a cordoned-off American basswood. It was encircled with warning tape, suggesting something amiss. Stepping closer, the sign became legible, the phrase, “Soft landing in progress,” accompanied by a parks & rec insignia and a QR code, which I scanned. An image of pollinators alighting on shrubs and branches loaded and with it the definition: “Soft landings are diverse native plantings under keystone trees (or any other regionally appropriate native tree). These plantings provide critical shelter and habitat for one or more life cycle stages of moths, butterflies, and beneficial insects.”

There was something amiss in this scene after all. With unprecedented wildfires both north and south of here, and the Vermont landscape saturated beyond belief by historic floodwaters, the summer of 2023 has made abundantly clear the consequences of neglecting nature. And yet the quiet tragedy of a denuded suburban green patch, stripped of the vegetation to sustain native pollinators, was so subtle it almost eluded my attention. If you search online for “soft landing” with the intention of reading up on biodiversity, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Google mostly serves up a lot of headlines in Bloomberg and Financial Times instead. The trouble is, in a world obsessed with marginal abatement cost curves, GHG inventories and evermore precise emission factors, the primacy of hard numbers means that soft landings, in their softness, are seemingly intolerable. We’ve made a decision (or perhaps, a decision by indecision) to wring the softness out of biodiversity. Hard guidance on how to measure, monitor, report, and verify biodiversity gains in agricultural supply chains and financial arenas has arrived. Carbon credits-like equivalent for biodiversity are poised for take-off, and already, existing protocols, like CarbonPlus Grasslands, are aiming to bring biodiversity further into the crediting fold. Then there’s the much-anticipated guidance from the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), slated for publication next month, which will follow on the Science-Based Targets Network’s (SBTN) nature/biodiversity framework, released in May of this year. Fixed to the top of SBTN’s homepage ever since has been a yellow banner with the words “The first science-based targets for nature are here.

They’re here, and yet they’re not. Act and Track, arguably the two most important steps in the pipeline toward nature-related progress, are largely left blank in this first pass, with the promise that when the methodologies are more watertight, they will be filled in. Their absence appears a reflection of the ongoing drive toward perfection in MMRV, which has consumed the carbon discussion and looks set to dominate our treatment of biodiversity. What about nature for nature’s sake? What about the experience of ecological health, not merely the definition of it? Will the farmer who imagines a future in which there are “more bugs on the windshield” – a visceral, experiential understanding of biodiversity that Fred Yoder, profiled in our upcoming Scale Lab report, describes – give way to the farmer who solely itemizes, atomizes (or even, in the case of Regen Network, tokenizes) his natural capital no differently than he itemizes other farm inputs? I’ve begun to question the most fundamental framing around biodiversity in agriculture. An article on the study, subtitled Biodiversity might hinge on what species have in common, not their particular niches, sums up a recent update to a longstanding “counterintuitive” school of thought called the neutral theory of ecology. It holds that species in fact thrive in ecosystems of “deep universalities,” systems that evolve stochastically. It’s an idea that runs counter to the view that species require a landscape to have enough measurable order and logic to satisfy their unique niches. Is the implication herethat trying too hard to unpack biodiversity and optimize for it on-farm, by implementing neat, highly specific, compartmentalized practices like pollinator strips, could backfire – or least fail to outperform systems that are designed for general utility? We often hear that regenerative agriculture is messy, should look messy. We are years into the term regenerative being tossed around, but still, most articles that I see (including in trade media outlets) on the subject is accompanied by (often stock) photos of carefully manicured fields.

Back in May, I attended a workshop hosted by a large agribusiness player. The facilitators, seeking candid feedback on their nascent biodiversity strategy, frequently steered the conversation back toward the challenge of just how to quantify ecological change. Amid asides on how diversity can be made to work at scale for farmers, we spent the lion’s share of the day returning to the MMRV question. “But what metrics should we be considering?” At one point, the dialogue veered off into a framework deployed in Florida, called the Landscape Development Intensity Index (LDI), which aims to be an “objective measure of how human disturbance affects biological, chemical, and physical processes of aquatic systems.” The danger here is obvious: Not only does attempting an “objective” codification of biodiversity threaten to send us down the same narrowing path – with its tunnel vision (we’ve probably all seen that graphic by now) – that characterizes our relationship to carbon; it also could confuse and constrain the activities of the frontline actors in the system, the farmers.

I’ll always remember speaking with Brendon Rockey of Rockey Farms, famous for its biotic potatoes and seed production. One afternoon, I was on the phone with him, feeling out his interest in joining an on-farm research network. He flatly declined. His favored setup, he said, is carefully organized chaos: plots teeming with multi-species cover crop mixes, rotationally grazed livestock – in brief, a beautifully messy blend. “I can tell you how many species are in my cover crops, or how many different companion crops I plant with my potatoes, but there is no linear relationship with the number of species in a cover crop and percentage increase in soil health. But, I know for certain that it contributes significantly.”

Sometimes I wonder if the race to the top to quantify nature has led us to under-develop the power of the qualitative. What more could we be doing with narrative claims that we overlook simply because we’re choosing to divert our creative energies and brainpower to calculations? And is this race, chasing certainty in knowledge, making us lonelier at precisely the time – with the IRA and Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities in motion – when agriculture needs to present a unified front? We’re at a moment where – with so much still beyond our empirical understanding – the pursuit of perfection in measuring, in “getting it right,” could result in a failure to launch. We ought to get piloting in some fashion, and stories, in their capacity to make impact both tangible and intensely human, might just be our best rocket fuel. And though there are times when, asked on the spot for an example of our projects’ ground-level impact, I experience the worry that one won’t come to mind, the feeling always fades.

Because they’re all around us, stories. Before our eyes. Never more than a tree – a soft landing – away.

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