Regenerative Agriculture

This post is an excerpt of the story by Gosia Wozniacka, produced in partnership with Civil Eats, a nonprofit news organization focused on the American food system. Read on to put regenerative agriculture in your vocabulary…

More than 20 years ago, Will Harris was a cattle farmer who relied on common industrial tools like pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and antibiotics. Today, his 2,500-acre ranch in Bluffton, Georgia, is a holistically managed, no-waste operation with 10 species of livestock rotated to graze the rolling pastures and fertilize the land without chemicals, resulting in rich, healthy soil.

Known as regenerative agricultural practices, those methods have not only improved the land of his ranch, they also have led to the land becoming a carbon sink, pulling carbon from the air and storing it in the ground. As a result, Harris’ ranch has been able to offset a majority of the emissions related to its beef production. A key supplier of General Mills’ EPIC Provisions brand, the ranch has become a model of how to transition to a form of farming that the company says can provide a solution for climate change.

“I’ve literally bet the farm on it working,” Harris said.

General Mills, the packaged food giant, is one of several Big Food corporations jumping on the regenerative agriculture bandwagon, escalating the buzz around the idea that capturing carbon in the soil could reverse climate change. The company took the lead when it announced this spring that it would apply regenerative agriculture to 1 million acres by 2030 — about a quarter of the land from which it sources ingredients in North America.


Regnerative Agricultural Practices

Undisturbed soil naturally contains carbon and microbes, but once it’s tilled for farming, for instance, the carbon is released into the air. Regenerative agriculture, a term that is often used synonymously with “carbon farming,” is a set of practices that builds organic matter back into the soil, effectively storing more water and drawing more carbon out of the atmosphere. Examples include applying compost and employing managed grazing, as well as planting cover crops, which protect the soil in winter and prevent erosion while adding nutrients. Though scientists generally agree the practices, especially when used together, work to draw more carbon, there’s an ongoing debate on how much carbon can be stored that way and for how long.

General Mills has since rolled out a pilot project for oat farmers, as well an open-source self-assessment app available to anyone interested in implementing regenerative practices. Soil health academies and individualized coaching for farmers are in the works, as is the conversion of thousands of conventional acres into organic production.

“We’ve been looking at these farmers as the examples of what is possible in terms of soil health, diversity and farmer resilience,” Mary Jane Melendez, General Mills’ chief sustainability and social impact officer, said. “Imagine what you could get if more farmers were implementing these practices. It could be revolutionary.”

Danone, Kellogg, Nestlé, and a dozen other companies are not far behind. At the recent United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City, they announced the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) coalition to advance regenerative agriculture, rebuild biodiversity and eliminate deforestation. And Land O’Lakes, the dairy and animal feed behemoth, is also touting its soil conservation efforts, including a new initiative to help bolster sustainability on 1.5 million acres of U.S.-grown corn.

It’s Pretty Magical

The focus on regenerative agriculture is just the latest in a slew of climate-related strategies coming from Big Food, which also include efforts to minimize food waste, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the impact on land by offering plant-based meat alternatives, and marketing organic or non-GMO product lines.

About 50 percent of General Mills’ greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, Melendez said. So after a decade of investing in various sustainability practices, she said, the company realized there was a better approach. The epiphany came in 2015 at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, when her predecessor heard farmers talk about the impact of a changing climate on soil health. “What they have seen on their farms, how they’re getting economically resilient…we thought it’s pretty magical,” she said.

The company acquired the well-known organic brand Annie’s in 2014 and faced criticism that it was watering down the mission-driven company in its quest for growth. Then, in 2016, General Mills supported The Nature Conservancy in developing a Soil Health Roadmap, which made the case for investing in building healthier soil on U.S. croplands.

It later commissioned research on Harris’ ranch. The assessment, which has not yet been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal, showed that the ranch offsets a majority of its emissions by capturing and storing soil carbon through the application of compost and use of rotational grazing, which moves cattle between paddocks of pasture for short periods of time, stimulating the growth of carbon-storing perennial grasses.

To expand such practices, Melendez said, General Mills decided to focus on its North American brands and key ingredients, including oats, wheat, corn, dairy feed and sugar beets. The company will provide farmers financial assistance to change their practices, including paying for monthly one-on-one coaching, soil sampling/testing and the creation of a custom transition plan. It is betting that once regenerative principles are implemented, the farmers will save money on fertilizers and pesticides, making them more profitable.

The first pilot project, which spans 50,000 acres of farmland, began this spring with a group of 45 oat farmers in North Dakota and Canada. A second pilot program, with 35 large-scale Kansas wheat farmers, will kick off in November.

The training is led by Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer, regenerative no-till pioneer and author of the 2018 book “Dirt to Soil.” Rather than prescribe a single approach to regenerative agriculture, Brown stresses that every farm is unique and requires its own set of solutions.

For Harris, whose White Oak Pastures began making the transition two decades ago, the support of a large corporation has been critical.

“The difficulty for any farmer trying to step out of the industrial model … is the risks they take,” Harris said. “A company like General Mills is in the position to mitigate some of the risks by guaranteeing a market for their product.”