We often see our world as a world of binaries. We like seeing it as ones and zeros because it makes it easier to understand. Yet, agriculture is a complex system that is very hard to simplify down to ones and zeros. And when one considers the adoption of regenerative agriculture with this binary view of the world, It is easy to see it as a trade-off between productivity and sustainability. Many discussions at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, European edition have revolved around this very topic.
Productivity vs Sustainability?
Farming groups share this concern, and express that they do not feel heard by the European Commission. In part, they feel threatened by the changing consumer demand since it more often looks like an ever-growing expectation on them, rather than a profit opportunity.
The studies that have been done by the Commission indicate that if farmers invest in adopting regenerative agriculture techniques, they will likely increase the sustainability of their operations and improve the positive impact on the soil health, while also benefiting from a potential yield increase (or at least, no yield loss). Whilst this is also consistent with the studies that have been done in the United States by the Soil Health Institute and others, farming groups in Europe seem to be more skeptical about these outcomes.
At Regrow we appreciate the topic since we come from the world of agronomy and soil health modeling. We specialize in predicting, measuring, reporting, and verifying the effects of practices such as regenerative agriculture on both productivity and soil health. It is no doubt a hot topic, since it is very nuanced and depends on the location of each farmer’s production system, its setup, and upon the previous practices that the farmer has already adopted.
The science shows that whilst it's possible that farmers’ production will decrease slightly in the first few years of adopting regenerative agriculture, it is also clear that the long-term soil health benefits that lead to a reduction in the use of fertilizers and chemicals far outweigh the short-term downsides. Even if, in the long term, regenerative agricultural systems are going to be a financial “no brainer” for farmers, we need to assist them with bridging the gap of those first few years - the risk of adopting a new farming system.
Putting Best Intentions into the Incentives
Risk-sharing in the context of the adoption of new practices is something that both public and private markets are well equipped to do. Incentivizing private and public sources to lower risks for producers is necessary for the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture. However, deploying policies and supply chain programs at scale can be challenging.
The emerging concern is that mandating certain principles of regenerative agriculture as a part of the national or international agricultural policy will lead to:
- Possible negative environmental effects in a few production areas, which are not well-suited for mandated practices that generally have a positive effect
- Widespread adoption would deem those practices not eligible, based on the additionality criteria of ecosystem markets.*
What is the way forward?
Agriculture is not one-size-fits-all, so our agricultural policies and markets shouldn’t be either. There is a common misconception that seeking a tailored approach to a large-scale problem will lead to a clunky and expensive solution. But it does not have to be that way. Just like personalizing the online shopping experience got easier with access to the internet, big data, and powerful computing infrastructure, offering a tailored approach to recommendations of agricultural practices is now within reach.
The answer? Innovation! Let it lead the way!
At Regrow, we balance scalability with localization and deploy large-scale systems that adapt recommendations to the environments and management history of specific farms. And I am aware of many other innovators that are offering solutions that are scalable, yet tailored.
In summary, I would say that it is important to go beyond the usual tools, whether considering a policy or implementing a sourcing strategy with farmers. It is important to look outside the box to truly address the challenge that is in front of us all. Everyone wants the farmer to win, because if the farmer doesn't win, then our theory of change is not going to turn into reality and result in the sustainable transformation of the food system. So I call upon all of you to be open-minded, assume the best intentions, and adopt some innovation!
Ok, now let’s get to work!
*For those who are not aware of this criterion, it comes down to the fact that ecosystem markets can only financially reward new adopters of practices, which are not yet widespread in their area. For example, in certain provinces in Canada, the adoption of no-till farming is already quite high (over 70%), which deems the practice to be part of “business as usual.” This means that farmers who are are looking to adopt this practice in the near future can no longer count on ecosystem market benefits.