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Op Ed: Thoughts from PURIS on Regenerative Ag

By Nicole Atchison, PhD – CEO of PURIS Holdings


Regenerative agriculture has, by now, become part of our daily lexicon. Media companies like Forbes, Bloomberg, and The New York Times have written stories about the topic to engage the general public in the conversation. As an agriculture-based company, PURIS has an important role to play in advancing the adoption of regenerative agriculture. Our vertical supply chain enables us to work directly with farmers to implement regenerative practices, which puts us in a unique position from other food companies that don’t typically have that kind of visibility into their supply chains. But what is regenerative agriculture and why all the buzz?


Why Now?


Through the 2015 Paris Agreement, world governments committed to curbing global temperature rise to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global warming must not exceed 1.5°C to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. To achieve this, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be halved by 2030 and drop to net-zero by 2050. Agriculture operates on a seasonal basis, not the quarterly goals we would all like to meet. We have only eight more major growing seasons to halve agriculture's emissions. We have limited time for action.

Due to our dependence on fossil fuels and the slow pace at which we are adopting renewable energy, we must look to carbon removal to reduce our emissions. One of the largest carbon sinks is right beneath our feet – soil. After decades of conventional cropping systems, our soil has become severely degraded.


The Issue at Hand


The monoculture that is U.S. agriculture has very little time to diversify and change on its own accord before climate change forces it to. Of the 13 states that comprise the Corn Belt, 70 percent are now solely dedicated to growing corn and soy.[1] Seventy-five percent of farmland is used by farms specializing in two commodity categories: oil and grain production, and cattle and dairy production. Fruits and vegetables, which make up roughly 50 percent of a person’s recommended daily food consumption, account for only 3 percent of farmland.[2] This disproportionate difference of production and consumption is catalyzed by high corn and soy prices, government subsidies, and federal crop insurance. Most of these acres are characterized by synthetic inputs, intensive tillage, poor soil health, and high emissions.


Corn and soy acreage has increased by 76 percent since 1963, while acreage for other feed crops such as oats, barley, sorghum, and hay have declined by a combined 50 million acres.[3] This is not the fault of farmers. Federal agricultural policy has incentivized commodity crop production and made financial support accessible to certain farmers that produce commodity crops conventionally. Technological advances in seed genomics, fertilizers, chemicals, and mechanization have revolutionized agriculture in the U.S., but they also have introduced complicated ecological consequences. The introduction of herbicide-resistant genetically engineered crops made the broad-spectrum application of glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, possible. Glyphosate-resistant crops have increased the application rates of herbicides and pesticides, introducing resistance in weed and insect populations; meanwhile, populations of beneficial species are decreasing.[4]


We don’t just need to solve this issue. There is a complex web of challenges that need addressing, and regenerative agriculture is how we can do it. We must join together to advance research on regenerative agriculture. Advancing research will allow the scientific and agricultural communities to quantify the benefits of, and prove that, regenerative agriculture is a viable pathway to decarbonization.


What is Regenerative Agriculture?


There is not a general consensus on the definition of regenerative agriculture. However, most definitions generally agree on the basis of regenerative agriculture – soil health. Regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. Regenerative agriculture is holistic land management that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health, primarily through the practices that increase soil organic matter. This not only aids in increasing soil biota diversity and health, but increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water-holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths, thus drawing down climate-damaging levels of atmospheric CO2, and improving soil structure to reverse civilization-threatening, human-caused soil loss.[5]


Regenerative agriculture is based on principles, rather than a set of prescribed practices. This is because every farm is different and cannot be treated with the same “prescription”. The principles of regenerative agriculture are based on nurturing relationships within the ecosystem, understanding the context of each farm and farmer, prioritizing soil health, and reducing reliance on synthetic inputs.[6] While there are not set practices, regenerative agriculture usually includes cover crops, no tillage, a diverse crop rotation, and managed rotational grazing.[7]

Building biological ecosystem diversity begins with inoculation of soils with composts or compost extracts to restore soil microbial community population, structure, and functionality. Restoring soil system energy can happen through full-time planting of multiple crop intercrop plantings, multispecies cover crops, and borders planted for bee habitat and other beneficial insects. Tillage breaks up soil while adding excess oxygen to the soil for increased respiration and CO2 emissions. It can be one of the most degrading agricultural practices, greatly increasing soil erosion and carbon loss. No-till/minimum tillage, in conjunction with other regenerative practices, enhances soil aggregation, water infiltration and retention, and carbon sequestration. Well-managed grazing practices stimulate improved plant growth, increased soil carbon deposits, and overall pasture and grazing land productivity while greatly increasing soil fertility, insect and plant biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration.[7]


Why Don’t We See More Regenerative Agriculture?


There also is a high entry price to regenerative agriculture. Changing cropping systems can require high up-front costs to invest in new equipment and associated inputs, and may also require changes to existing incentive structures (e.g., crop insurance program as outlined in the U.S. Farm Bill), as well as reducing technology and information barriers at the farm and regional scale.[8] After accounting for input costs, farmers and ranchers receive only 8 cents out of every dollar spent on food. The rest goes for costs beyond the farm gate: wages and materials for production, processing, marketing, transportation, and distribution.[9] Agriculture is already a low-margin business, so transforming farming mechanisms will require significant investment from both the private and public sectors.


Data suggests that financial incentives that encourage alternative cropping systems, such as markets for biomass or small grains such as peas or oats, might enable farmers to incorporate more diverse rotations on their farms; however, given the high input costs, particularly high cash rents and the need for yearly profitability, these incentives need to be competitive with commodity and cropland rental markets.[10]


What About Organic?


Organic farming represents an alternative and more holistic view of agriculture and food production, which directly addresses the problems faced in many areas of conventional agricultural practice. Concerns for environment and nature, livestock welfare, and food quality are thus essential elements of the philosophy behind organic farming. Consequently, the demand for organic products has grown but organic acreage in the U.S. has remained relatively flat or declined.[11] USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, agronomic practices, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.

Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible. Produce can be called organic if it’s been certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Many of the most diverse organic farms are already practicing regenerative agriculture principles and ahead of the curve on building soil health. However, much of the growth in the U.S. organic industry is from products grown and made overseas, making it harder for U.S. farmers to compete in the growing market.


Corporate Commitments


Twenty-nineteen brought the start of commitments to regenerative agriculture: General Mills committed to implementing regenerative practices on 1 million acres by 2030. In 2020, Cargill committed to regenerative practices on 10 million acres by 2030. This is an incredible development for regenerative agriculture. However, we must move beyond pilot projects and work toward making regenerative commonplace. There are currently 897.4 million acres of farmland in the U.S., meaning that the 11 million total acres committed to regenerative practices represent just 1.2 percent of all total U.S. farmland acres. Most commitments only apply to major commodity crops, such as corn, soy, canola, and wheat, meaning that true diversification won’t be funded. We need more companies, including PURIS, to commit to sourcing from more regenerative acres. The greater the market and demand for regeneratively grown food, the more likely farmers are willing to make the switch as there’s less risk in a known market.


PURIS’ Angle


Farmers must be at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement. Farmers know their land best and will be able to figure out what is best for their farm; the science can follow suit. If farmers lead this movement, it’s more likely that other farmers will follow.


Peas are a great option for regenerative farming operations. As nitrogen fixators, they turn atmospheric nitrogen into a type plants can use. This happens through a relationship with bacteria in the soil – the bacteria give the plants nitrogen, and the plant gives the bacteria sugars. This symbiotic relationship provides an excess of about 60 pounds of nitrogen in the soil, which reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers.


PURIS is investing in soil health and regenerative research. We are conducting a multi-year research study to prove that peas increase soil health, along with other regenerative practices. This research spans across the states in which PURIS seeds are grown, which are generally found in the Central U.S. PURIS invites partners to help expand this research. The more data we can procure about soil health and regenerative agriculture, the closer we can get to proving the benefits to growers and consumers.


We must rely on the ones who feed the world to fix agricultural systems from the soil up. Farmers are a huge part of the climate solution, and championing them through personalized assistance and financial aid are the impetus to jumpstart this systemic change.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Atchison leads the agtech and food tech business units within PURIS’ portfolio of companies. PURIS is a leader in the sustainable food and ag movement, driving innovation across seed genetics, ingredient processing, plant-based food development, and product commercialization, all from U.S.-based organic and non-GMO sources.


Atchison joined PURIS, a company started by her parents in 1985, in 2017 to support growth and innovation across business units. Atchison holds a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota and a B.S. in chemical engineering from Iowa State University. She lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, with her husband and two children.



ENDNOTES:

[1] Roesch-McNally GE, Arbuckle JG, Tyndall JC. 2018. Barriers to Implementing Climate Resilient Agricultural Strategies: The Case of Crop Diversification in the U.S. Corn Belt. Global Environmental Change 48:206-15.

[3] Bigelow D and Borchers A. 2017. Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2012.

[4] Spangler K, Burchfield EK, Schumacher B. 2020. Past and Current Dynamics of U.S. Agricultural Land Use and Policy. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 4.

[8]Carlisle L, de Wit MM, DeLonge MS, Calo A, Getz C, Ory J, Munden-Dixon K, Galt R, Melone B, Knox R, et al. 2019. Securing the Future of U.S. Agriculture: The Case for Investing in New Entry Sustainable Farmers. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 7:17.

[10] Roesch-McNally GE, Arbuckle JG, Tyndall JC. 2018. Barriers to Implementing Climate Resilient Agricultural Strategies: The Case of Crop Diversification in the U.S. Corn Belt. Global Environmental Change 48:206-15.

[11] Crystal Fuetrell. 2022 Food Business News



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Contact Lynda Kiernan-Stone,

editor of Unconventional Ag News, to submit a story for consideration: 
lkiernan-stone@highquestgroup.com

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