“Find a pro-environmental, pro-agriculture issue that is consistent with market-based principles for the Senator to lead on.” It was 1999 and I was working as a legislative assistant for a U.S. Senator from my home state of Kansas on the issues of agriculture, energy and the environment. I took to the assignment with the determination and enthusiasm only possible when you don’t really know that you are being sent to find a unicorn.
I set about getting input from multiple environmental and agricultural organizations. Thankfully, Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy introduced me to an idea I would grow to love — and one day, launch a company in support of: regenerative agriculture.
Of course, it wasn’t called that at the time. It went by the much more nerdy “soil carbon sequestration.” But the concept is the same: incentivize farmers to plant and grow their crops in ways that capture and store carbon in the soil — a process that also improves soil health and prevents water runoff from fields.
The legislative bills I worked on would have created a conservation program within the USDA to measure the amount of carbon stored in the soil from a number of conservation agricultural practices. While our bill passed the Senate, it sadly did not make it all the way across the finish line into law.
Fast forward to today — when there is a consumer base hungry to support a better food system that starts from the ground and goes all the way to the store shelf. And, there is a growing sense of urgency around restoring soil health and mitigating climate change.
Much like we have learned recently how important gut health is to overall human health, so too there is wider recognition than ever before of the critical role that millions of tiny organisms living underground play in creating the right atmosphere for healthy soil. It just so happens that the same practices that help those communities of organisms thrive also traps significant amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the process.
Undisturbed soil is the world’s second biggest store of carbon, but tillage, used to clear away weeds and create a clear growing field for valuable crops, disrupts and destroys many of these organisms each year. The tillage process increases decomposition and and these chemical reactions release CO2 and methane at a much faster rate. Over time, there is a cumulative negative effect on the soil’s ability to remain healthy and chemical inputs are needed to make up for what nature can no longer do on its own. Given enough time, even these temporary fixes lose their effect, and the productivity of the land goes down.
What is the answer? There are many different practices that can combine to help restore the health and structure of the soil and thereby, enable less dependency on outside inputs while also reducing the impact of climate change. My company is helping food companies and farmers get experience with this Noble Market right now, because the best learning comes from doing. We are not aiming for or claiming perfection — we are focused on continuous improvement and creating a market reward for moving in the right direction. As such, we have created a starting point set of practices that have the advantage of improving soil health in measurable ways right now, and being scalable very quickly.
Grounded Growth, a business development network that helps emerging food and beverage brands connect directly to regenerative farmers, provides a path for defining, measuring and verifying real gains from regenerative agriculture — without another expensive certification. While certifications can be useful for some things, we believe they have been used too often to gain a market advantage at the expense of real change — and they can easily mislead the consumer who thinks they are supporting a holistic way of growing, only to learn it was a very specific practice they were supporting. Our goal is to help regenerative supply chains emerge and improve over time. We are building the foundation that will let consumers finally connect back to the farm — but not just any farm — farms that are solving the problems customers care about today: creating healthier food that also restores our environment.
Key practices include a combination of “no-till” planting that minimizes soil disturbance and the planting of “cover-crops,” which are crops grown not to be harvested, but to provide cover and natural nutrients to the land in-between harvests for profit. These practices preserve the soil matrix and the complex soil ecosystem, allow the farmer to apply less water and fertilizers, produce a crop more rich in micronutrients and keep the soil and the carbon in the land, and not in the water or the air.
Just like you never forget your first love, I never stopped believing in the incredible promise that conservation farming holds. The ability to support regenerative agriculture has never been greater. There are many farmers in the U.S. that are already practicing some form of these methods. The key will be to aggregate these farmers, measure their outcomes and connect them to food companies that can be rewarded by consumers for creating a market force that literally fights climate change.
If you will join us in supporting and spreading the word about this regenerative phenomenon, we won’t have to wait another 20 years to see its promise realized.
By: Sara Harper