Written by Robert Patten B.Eng. MBA from Plantworks and Smart Rotations
We can define regenerative agriculture in many ways, indeed many have, but for the sake of a grounded definition let us agree it begins with a focus on the soil being an asset and not a commodity. This is a good start, as assets you value and try to build greater value in and commodities you tend to absorb.
Knowledge is a function of time, and much time has passed since we first started to cultivate the soil. We have bent technology to our will in many aspects of agriculture and have achieved huge advances in field yields, pesticides efficacy and farming scale. It is though only relatively recently that technology has been able to peer into the workings of the soil, to look at the underlying chemistry and biology and understand how these have become altered by contemporary farming practices.
In an all too simplified summary we find that soil organic matter, a proxy of soil health, has declined in some cases to critical levels, this valuable resource of carbon is needed to support the native biology of soils. This biology in turn has a direct correlation to yield, where through the many microbial interactions with plants communities of fungi and bacteria explore soils for nutrients, release them and convert them into plant available forms. As we move away from the quest for ever greater yields through intensive farming and focus on sustainable practices that, by definition, can be maintained for generations we will rely on ever greater understanding of the many complexities of soils.
Farming is often highlighted asa contributor to greenhouse gasses, there is no getting away from it, with the USDA reporting that US agriculture is responsible for 10% of their carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. Fundamentally though, unlike any of the other sectors that at best can seek to reduce their emissions through adoption of new technologies or modulation of activity, only farming has the ability to reverse its carbon footprint and to potentially act as a global carbon sink. Think on that for a moment, there are potentially 570 million regenerative farming machines that could not only reduce their emissions but actually help to ‘call down’ the CO2 that the industrial revolution and the decades that have proceeded have ejected into our atmosphere.
Little surprise then that governments have rightly sought to support forms of regenerative farming around the world from both a future food security stand point and an environmental one. These interventions come in different forms, in the UK they are presented as incentives under the new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) that aim to support sustainable farming practices, improving animal health and welfare, reducing carbon emissions, creating and preserving habitat, and making landscape-scale environmental changes. Other governments, for example in Hungary, are taking a more generalised approach with farmers able to claim an 80 euro contribution per hectare when using bio stimulants and broader rotations combined, or a microbial bio stimulant alone, to accelerate their sustainable management of soils.
As we deal with the business at hand of farming we probably do not often spare a thought to the workings of the board rooms of big corporations, but it turns out they are taking an ever greater interest in us. Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) is a framework designed to be embedded into an organisation’s strategy that considers the needs and ways in which to generate value for all organisational stakeholders (such as employees, customers, suppliers and financiers). It is noteworthy that many of these corporations hold investment either directly, or through their supply chain, into regenerative agriculture in very high regard, as it supports their audit of their environmental impact. PepsiCo, as an example, have stated that they corporately aim to change to regenerative practices on their not inconsequential 3 million hectares by 2030. It is interesting to note that all the big accountancy firms now run significant teams to audit ESG, a market that did not exist five years ago.
One of the consequences of the global traction of regenerative farming is the associated industries that have sprung up with technologies and service offerings targeted at this sector. One of the fastest growing agricultural sectors is the supply of biologicals, embracing bio stimulants, microbial bio stimulants (bio fertilisers), biorationals and associated products. The sector is forecast to eclipse $25 billion in 2028 and not surprising has caused a level of refocusing through acquisitions of the traditional manufacturing supply chain. We only have to reach back six months in history to note the Corteva Inc acquisition of biologicals firm Stoller Group Inc for $1.2 billion in cash – Nov 2022, Valent BioSciences LLC, part of the Sumitomo Group, acquisition of FBSciences Holdings, Inc. -Jan 2023 and Syngenta Seedcare collaboration with Bioceres Crop Solutions to bring innovative biological seed treatments to market a few months before. Indeed in February this year Bayer and Spanish group Kimitec announced a strategic agreement aimed at accelerating the development and commercialisation of biologicals solutions for crop protection and biostimulation. This will in turn see a technology push effect as marketing and sales endeavours seek to achieve a suitable return on these investments in the sector.
More domestically it is also noteworthy that all of the major UK agronomy companies now offer ‘soils’ related programmes with novel products and services. With relatively low differentiation in this sector in relation to traditional agronomic advice and lowering margins on product supply, regenerative agriculture offers scope for completely new insights into land management over a potentially long transitioning period with the possibility of developing new product offerings with higher margins. I am minded to note that many of these groups have in themselves sought to pioneer regenerative practices based on their own research activities and with an eye on future trends and government polices.
The carrot of carbon credits is an opportunity for regenerative farmers, using a suitable audit system they have a tangible proposition to quantify the incremental carbon that they lock up into the soil. As processes evolve to more easily codify the carbon retained and infrastructure to trade the credits becomes more developed and competitive this will act as an additional financial incentive for change which seems very appropriate based on the value being added here.
And finally, we come to the farmer who has to navigate all these forces for change, in an environment of increasing input costs and environment considerations. Thankfully the early regenerative farming movement has now grown to be a cultural movement, with knowledge sharing, adoption of new farming rotations and products. Significantly there has been a shift here in the supply and demand of knowledge as farmers have taken the lead in up ‘skilling’ themselves in terms of understanding of soils and how their core asset is best managed. In turn they are becoming more selective of the advice they seek, inputs they use consequently the supply chain has, and will, adapt to the changing demands of their clients.
There is a confluence of change factors in the market, a near perfect storm of new knowledge, good intension, government intervention and industrial funded products and services that have acted to accelerate the regenerative farming moment into what needs to become the ‘standard farming model’.
About the author:
Robert Patten B.Eng. MBA – Robert is the managing director of PlantWorks and Smart Rotations and has been leading change in the microbial sector in the UK for over twenty years.