The road to regenerative agriculture: Why we can’t turn our back

Nutritional Outlook, Volume 24, Issue 10

Despite the challenges in making regenerative agriculture the new norm, one expert says that “the biggest downside would be to do nothing.”

There’s that chicken-and-egg thing that generally accompanies seismic shifts in attitudes followed by behavioral adjustments that are the hallmarks of change for an industry and its consumers.

When we look back on the issue of sustainability for the food (and dietary supplement) industry, what will have come first? Passionate thought leaders driving a philosophy? Principled companies willing to punt profits down the road to support the long-term health of the planet? Or early enlightened consumers determined to create a narrative to save the world?

Most likely, it will have been a convergence of all three. And it may not matter which came first, as long as the movement got across the road.

The simplest definition of sustainability is ensuring the ability to meet our needs today without preventing future generations from being able to meet their own needs down the road.

The good news for the food industry, and more broadly for the world’s population, is that sustainability is taking hold, at least conceptually. According to market researcher Innova Market Insights’ “Top Trends for 2022” list, concern about the health of the planet has eclipsed consumers’ previous number-one concern (their own health).1

“Personal health has been the big concern for the past few years, but consumers now tell us that this has been surpassed by global issues,” said Lu Ann Williams, director, global insights, Innova Market Insights, in a press release.1 “[Sustainability] might not be the top purchase driver for all consumers, but for many it clinches the deal when it comes to choosing between products.”

Innova further stated it believes a “shared planet” concept will be one of the top trends driving innovation and success in the coming year. It noted: “Brands are moving on from simply proclaiming their credentials to meeting a clear, agreed, and understandable measurement of their environmental and social impact.”

And, said Innova, consumers are calling the shots, with the number-five trend on its list of trends to watch focused on the “voice of the consumer.” Its press release stated: “People are looking for food and beverages that align with their political, social, and ethical values.”

In its own look at food trends, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) advised that while predictions for sustainability were overshadowed by COVID-19 in 2020, the organization fully expected a resurgence of sustainability as a top trend in 2021.2

Citing results from the IFIC 2020 Food and Health Survey, IFIC advised that “59% of Americans said it’s important that the food products they purchase or consume be produced in an environmentally sustainable way.”2

This begs the question: What about the remaining 41%? Are they not interested in saving the planet or in making sure they are not part of the last generation of earthlings?

It’s a bit more complicated than that. First, there is the question of how sustainability will impact wallets and pocketbooks. The IFIC survey found that nearly three in 10 (28%) of respondents said they were worried about being able to afford food for their household in 2021. Second, clearly not everyone agrees that things like climate change, environmental concerns, and, yes, sustainability, are real things that need to be addressed. And then there are others who simply don’t understand—or don’t care to understand—what sustainability is all about.

Let’s not forget this: It takes some time to change the world. For example, while the organic food movement is believed to have first reached consumer consciousness around 1990, according to at least one recent article, overall organic sales still only account for 6% of all food sold in America, and organic farms make up less than 1% of the two million farms in the U.S.3

This is especially important to keep in mind as “new concepts” in sustainability—at least new to consumers—grow beyond the farms and into the public domain.

One such concept is regenerative agriculture.

Save the Soil, Propagate the Planet’s Future

What is regenerative agriculture? As Nutritional Outlook reported back in 20194, “Regenerative organic agriculture doesn’t just protect and preserve the resources it uses—let alone deplete them—it actually leaves them in better condition than before. That means accounting for the health of the soil and water as well as the health and economic and spiritual wellbeing of farmers, farmworkers, and farm animals.”

More specifically, Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the independent nonprofit research and educational organization American Botanical Council (ABC; Austin, TX), says, “One of the main points about regeneration is the idea of building up the health of the soil to optimal nutritional value (soil-wise) for production of conventional and unconventional food crop plants.” This, he says, includes the growth of beneficial fungi/mycorrhizae in the soil. Regeneration also includes, but is not limited to, carbon sequestration efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and build it in soil, food, medicinal plant crops, and trees, as examples, he adds.

Phoenix Dugger, corporate social responsibility manager for Ardent Mills (Denver, CO), a leading flour-milling and ingredient company, believes that “regenerative agriculture can help play a role in ensuring the continued health of topsoil.” He says that is critical to producing nutritious, high-quality harvests that benefit all of us.

“From an environmental perspective, regenerative agriculture can help improve soil biodiversity, offset atmospheric carbon, and promote water conservation,” Dugger adds.

Plus, there’s an additional benefit: “Regenerative agriculture can also help meet the growing consumer demand to know more about foods’ ‘micro’ labels, sparked by the widespread adoption of the organic movement,” he says. “Specifically, consumers want to know where their food comes from and what’s in the food they consume.”

Many agree that regenerative agriculture starts with the soil but has a much broader role. Stephanie Kane, global sourcing specialist at supplements brand Gaia Herbs, says “the purpose of regenerative agriculture is to not only do no harm but to improve the land that is being farmed.”

On its website, Gaia Herbs states that its company’s purpose is “connecting people, plants, and planet to create healing.” So, it makes sense that one thing that stands out to Kane about regenerative agriculture is that the environmental impact is just one piece of the story. “Regenerative agriculture also sees people as part of the ecosystem. Supporting transparency, good working conditions, and living wages is necessary to create a truly sustainable supply chain,” she says.

Cargill (Minneapolis), a global ingredients giant that takes pride in its local impact, has been advancing sustainable agriculture for more than a decade. Ryan Sirolli, sustainability director, row crops, Cargill, advises, “Within Cargill, regenerative agriculture is central to our broader sustainability commitments. It is an important step towards meeting our science-based climate commitment to reduce our supply chain greenhouse gas emissions and our work to achieve sustainable water management in our priority watersheds.”

When Jordan Rubin, co-founder and CEO of supplements brand Ancient Nutrition, speaks about sustainability and regenerative agriculture, you can hear the passion in his voice. “It’s quite simple,” he says. “When you use ingredients that are grown with regenerative practices, you are making steps to change the world.”

How Prevalent Is the Practice?

With all the enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture, there is also a realism as to where the industry—and the movement—is.

Take, for instance, Rubin’s honest assessment. “The practice of regenerative agriculture is in its infancy in our industry,” he says. “Food has a much greater level of regenerative agricultural practices, in my opinion; beverages next; supplements last. If you look at dietary supplements, they tend to have the smallest number of certified organic ingredients, the smallest number of certified organic products, and an infinitesimal number of regenerative certified products. We want to see that change, but certainly, the message is there, the demand is coming—but it is very much in its infancy,” he advises.

Blumenthal, too, likens regenerative agriculture to the new kid on the block. “It’s relatively recent,” he says, “and like other new practices, acceptance takes time.”

He explains that it usually takes time for increased adoption by a growing segment of a community. “We saw this with the organic farming movement 20, 30, 40 years ago, and I think that regenerative farming is probably subject to some of the same dynamics. It takes time for people to learn new and unconventional ways of doing things to improve soil, water, the ecology, etc.”

Like Rubin and Blumenthal, Dugger is confident that regenerative agriculture will catch on. Acknowledging that the practice is still in its early stages, he says that “with the continued focus on how companies can reduce their environmental impact, we’re seeing more customers interested in looking at innovative ways to make this happen.”

Dugger shares that “it’s something that’s becoming more top of mind for customers and their end consumers.”

The IFIC 2020 Food and Health Survey supported that sentiment. Among the survey’s results was this finding: “[Americans’] knowledge of and interest in sustainable farming techniques like regenerative agriculture increased over the previous year, with net familiarity at 36% (up from 22% in 2019) and net interest at 57%.”2

Aside from the need for time, are there other reasons why not all companies are jumping at the chance to pitch in for the planet?

When asked how difficult it is to source regenerative ingredients, Rubin’s answer is simple: “It is nearly impossible.” And is there enough of a supply available of regenerative ingredients? His answer is even simpler: “No.”

However, his outlook is optimistic. “It is extremely important but very difficult,” he says. In fact, he characterizes that the majority of his company’s suppliers, including many who are organic and many offering great ingredients, “… have not gone through the rigors of being certified, applying regenerative practices...frankly, because the demand hasn’t been there.” It’s almost as if one should add a “yet” to that statement, because if Ancient Nutrition and other companies with like-minded principles can execute their vision, that will change.

“We work with small farmers and small farms all over the world,” says Rubin, “and many are following regenerative practices, but I think the ability to articulate that and educate has been limited. Our goal is not only to create a regenerative supply chain of ingredients but to encourage our suppliers to do the same.”

“The more brands that demand regenerative ingredients, the better,” he adds. “Just to be clear, we’re not interested in ingredients where the suppliers are practicing regenerative agriculture as much as we’re interested in ingredients from farms or suppliers that are certified regenerative. That’s really big.”

Gaia’s Kane has a slightly different take. “Certifications help in vetting suppliers for their practices,” she says, “but there is a great benefit to long-term relationships and learning from our suppliers about how we can support the farm’s commitment to improving their soil and supporting their community.”

She continues: “As a company that has sought high-quality producers for many years, Gaia Herbs has found that many of our suppliers were practicing the tenets of regenerative agriculture, such as our turmeric being grown in an agroforestry model.” She adds, however, that the exact practices used may vary based on crops and the farm’s location and individual climates.

There’s also the question of expense when it comes to regenerative agriculture and who bears the burden—and whether or not that will impact the movement’s ability to expand.

ABC’s Blumenthal makes the point that “[Farmers, suppliers, and manufacturers] can improve by becoming more regenerative because of their own internal values and beliefs, and they can also be stimulated by market forces where they see more economic benefits that might accrue from regenerative farming.”

Says Dugger, “Regenerative agriculture does require an upfront investment. Right now, it is too early to tell the overall impact of regenerative ingredients. However, regenerative ingredients can help with many consumer desires, including supply chain transparency and helping promote sustainable practices.”

According to Cargill’s Sirolli, “The primary barriers to adoption of regenerative practices include farmer education, financial support, and market access. We’re addressing each of these challenges.”

“It starts with providing technical and agronomic assistance so farmers have the resources they need to adopt best practices,” Sirolli shares. “At the same time, we’re working to remove financial barriers by connecting farmers to cost sharing and other financial options, including the growing carbon marketplace.”

But, says Sirolli, in addition to the environmental benefits, adopting soil health practices can actually help increase farmer profitability. “We conducted research with the Soil Health Institute last year to assess the economic benefits of soil health systems on over 100 farmers in the U.S.,” he states. “From the data collection and analysis, we found that soil health management systems increased incomes for 85% of farmers growing corn and 88% of farmers growing soybeans.”

The research also found that these practices reduced the average cost of growing corn by $24 per acre and soybeans by $17 per acre.5 Says Sirolli, “These results are encouraging. And if trends like these hold across the broader agricultural landscape, this could be one of the biggest net-positive changes our industry has seen in a generation.”

Backing Philosophy with Action

Ancient Nutrition’s Rubin believes that it’s the “upfront investment” that provides the barrier of entry to so many organizations. “I can tell you personally, the investment Ancient Nutrition is making comes at a great cost,” he says. For instance, he advises that “in the year 2022 and beyond, Ancient Nutrition is pledging 1% of revenue towards regenerative and transformative agriculture. That is just on our own directed farms, 4,000-plus regenerative acres. When you count the fact that we’re working with our suppliers to either become regenerative or find regenerative sources, that investment is significantly more.”

In addition to the company’s pledging a percentage of revenue to specific sustainable efforts, earlier this year Ancient Nutrition launched a five-point sustainability action plan—known as the R.A.N.C.H. (Regenerative Agriculture, Nutrition & Climate Health) Project—with commitments to the cause expected by 2024. In its press release announcement6, Ancient Nutrition called the project “a first-of-its-kind solution aimed at building topsoil, reducing waste, and sequestering carbon dioxide…”

Rubin is encouraged by what he calls “great” response to his company’s regenerative agriculture and environmental transformation initiatives. So much so that Ancient Nutrition will be announcing an even larger vision with significant partners across the globe in the future.

“We feel like the best is yet to come,” says Rubin. “I’ve been working personally since 2009 on regenerative projects, and we’re really excited about not only leading the way for dietary supplement brands but inspiring others to follow suit.”

Beyond the R.A.N.C.H. Project and Ancient Nutrition’s efforts to encourage certifications, Rubin says “we are entering into scientific partnerships to objectively demonstrate that through Ancient Nutrition’s practices, we are definitively regenerating soils, increasing microbial populations, ecological diversity, capturing and sequestering more carbon from the environment, saving more water—and the list goes on and on and on.”

Ardent Mills is doing its part, too. The company announced earlier this year its commitment to enrolling 250,000 acres of spring and winter wheat into its regenerative agriculture program by the end of 2022.7

Dugger says the project is “most definitely on track. Currently Ardent Mills is operating regenerative agriculture programs in nine key geographies across the U.S. and Canada.” He advises that through its fiscal year 2021, the company has enrolled 37,480 acres of spring and winter wheat into its program.

“We have achieved this milestone through our partnership with Nutrien Ag Solutions,” adds Dugger, “with a specific focus on increasing crop rotations, reducing tillage, implementing rotational grazing, as well as companion cropping,” which he explains as “growing a variety of grains within the same crop.”

In terms of Ardent Mills’ long-term goal, Dugger says it is to establish projects in almost every region where the company sources its raw commodities. “This will allow us to better nourish the communities where we operate and help ensure a sustainable crop supply for the future,” he notes.

Blumenthal’s American Botanical Council also has a stake in this issue. In 2015, Ann Armbrecht, PhD, founded the nonprofit Sustainable Herbs Project (SHP) with the goal of launching a consumer movement supporting high-quality herbal remedies, sustainable and ethical sourcing, and greater transparency for herbal products. By 2018, Armbrecht was in search of a partner to maintain the SHP website and help develop new educational content. ABC fit the bill.8

A slight, but significant, modification was made to the name, as “Program” replaced “Project” to demonstrate a deeper and longer-term commitment for the work being done. In addition to collaborating on the SHP website and other educational materials with Armbrecht, ABC also committed to responsibilities related to fundraising and marketing to further enhance the SHP’s reach.

The partnership appears to be working, as Armbrecht became an ABC employee in January 2021, with the title of director of the ABC Sustainable Herbs Program.

Blumenthal recognizes Armbrecht for her role in developing and executing a series of free webinars on sustainability—“conversations,” as Armbrecht calls them—hosted on the SHP website, including information specifically about regenerative farming practices, as well as the availability of a free SHP Sustainability & Regenerative Practices Toolkit. Says Blumenthal, a new expanded version of this toolkit will be released in early 2022 and made available on the SHP website.9,10,11

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD), the national trade association and voice of the herbal industry, is also focused on sustainability efforts. In 2019, the association formalized its Sustainability Committee to “increase awareness of sustainability within the herbal products industry, create a forum for industry leaders to discuss related issues, provide educational opportunities for herbal products companies, and promote sustainable and equitable operations and sourcing practices.” The association’s Sustainability Committee website pages feature, among other things, available resources on the topic.12

Most recently, as part of its ongoing educational efforts for the herbal community, AHPA issued two new free brochures—in English and Spanish—covering sustainable harvest and good stewardship best practices for oshá (Ligusticum porteri) and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). In its press release, AHPA advised that having the information contained in these brochures would enable wildcrafters and other stakeholders involved with collecting botanical materials from wild populations to act as good stewards of the land.13

Michael McGuffin, AHPA’s president, said in the announcement that “it is a longstanding tradition of AHPA and its members to highlight sustainability in our businesses. That commitment extends to working with our members to help wildcrafters and others expand their specialized area of collection by supplying sustainability guidance and best practices that will protect their own franchise as well as the plant species.”13

For that purpose, AHPA’s Foundation for Education and Research on Botanicals (AHPA ERB Foundation) has committed funding for a multiyear study to improve the understanding of harvest impacts on natural and forest-farmed populations of goldenseal, and to develop recommendations for harvest methods, intensities, and cultivation that support the long-term viability of this species. AHPA anticipates the study results will be the foundation for another brochure in this series.13

Focus on Farmers

For Cargill, the linchpin is farmers. As Sirolli advises, the company’s “commitment to change begins with engaging farmers.”

According to a company press release, “Cargill made a commitment to advance regenerative agriculture practices across 10 million acres of land in North America by 2030, recognizing that it not only improves soil health but can also open new revenue streams for farmers.”5

To that end, Cargill has been enrolling farmers in Cargill RegenConnect, a new regenerative agriculture program that pays farmers for improved soil health and positive environmental outcomes, including payment per metric ton of carbon sequestered. According to the Cargill press release, “this new program connects farmers to the growing carbon marketplace and will help scale the voluntary adoption of regenerative agriculture practices.”5

Cargill is encouraged by the response it has received from farmers, its customers, and other partners and stakeholders in this effort. Sirolli says that “by partnering with [farmers], through programs like Cargill RegenConnect, we’re helping them build on the good stewardship they are already undertaking on the land.”

He further advises that “we’ve been laying the groundwork for several years, so it’s exciting to see it come to life.” And, he adds this: “To date, we are supporting adoption of regenerative agriculture practices, like reduced tillage and cover crops, on over 360,000 acres in North America. In Canada, we’re working with farmers to implement 4R nutrient practices”—right source, right rate, right time, and right place—“on over 2.3 million acres. Now our challenge is to rapidly scale these efforts.”

Cargill sits at the intersection of farmers and food customers, advises Sirolli—something which helps to drive regenerative agriculture forward. He explains that while many of Cargill’s customers have set sustainability goals which farmers can help them achieve, very few of those food and beverage customers touch farmers directly; thus, Cargill’s position as the liaison is a position it takes seriously.

“Without the support and leadership of farmers, none of it will happen. Our success has always been tied to their success. That’s especially true when it comes to ingredients produced sustainably and responsibly,” says Sirolli.

Ardent Mills’ Dugger agrees about the important role of farmers and like Cargill credits them with being proud stewards of their land, adding “[Farmers] want to do what is best to keep their farms viable for future generations. This is a commitment we share, too, and recognize suppliers have a responsibility to open doors to new opportunities and technologies in the market. Working together, we have the opportunity to potentially help boost profitability while also helping to create a more sustainable operating model for the future.”

The Role of Certifications

Taking a cue from the organic industry, many thought leaders believe that third-party certifications will increase awareness of regenerative agriculture. Further, they are expecting certifications will help brands source from those companies doing the right thing for the earth and help consumers distinguish those brands pushing forward their shared philosophies.

Says Gaia’s Kane, “The buzz around regenerative agriculture has grown exponentially in the past few years and become much more recognizable. Just like with organic certification, consumers on a more local level may get to know the farms they buy from, but when buying products, certifications will provide assurance that they know what is going into their food and supplements.”

She says that Regenerative Organic Certified14 is the primary certification body and has only started certifying farms in 2021, so the movement will grow as the group brings on more producers. “After decades of organic certification, that is now considered the baseline in the natural products industry, and regenerative agriculture seems to be moving in that same direction,” Kane states.

Ancient Nutrition’s Rubin agrees that “third-party certifications are important.” He realizes that consumers don’t yet understand regenerative agriculture, but he believes that “it is our job to educate them on what regenerative agriculture is.”

He adds: “Do they care whether a product is certified? They do once they’re educated about it.”

Rubin wants people to know there is a standard beyond organic, and, he says, “once we share that, I believe the information is so obvious and logical that people absolutely will care. Everybody in their heart cares about being part of changing the world.”

Rubin’s commitment to certifications is strong. “We think the regenerative certifications, which involve the Regenerative Organic Alliance [the organization behind Regenerative Organic Certified] and the Savory Institute Land to Market15 program, are going to be extremely important moving forward. Our hope is to help make it that way.”

Kane recognizes there will be a cost involved with certification, admitting that “there will likely be [a] premium paid by companies buying the ingredients, and some of this may be passed on to consumers as well.” However, she says “the cost is not significant compared to the cost of runoff and flooding from depleted soil, and the environmental impacts of climate change, so supporting this effort is simply the right thing to do.”

Who Will Be the Drivers of This Movement?

Ultimately, what will drive regenerative agriculture forward? As with other important movements, the consensus is it will take a village, and third-party certifications will be just one, albeit an important, piece of the puzzle.

Cargill’s Sirolli notes there’s mounting pressure from a broad range of stakeholders—from investment bankers and shareholders to consumers—for companies to embrace sustainable solutions across their business. This includes how they source ingredients.

ABC’s Blumenthal says it could very likely be the market forces that drive increased adoption of regenerative techniques. It might be manufacturers who decide that suppliers’ ability to certify the regenerative provenance of their ingredient provides a competitive advantage, he says, but that, ultimately, “it may be the herb or food consumer whose increased awareness of the benefits of regenerative farming may drive increased attention to, and purchases from, the regenerative agricultural sector.”

“At a macro level, the future of regenerative agriculture will depend on its market access as well as the establishment of financial and regulatory channels for smaller farmers to adopt regenerative agricultural practices,” says Ardent Mills’ Dugger.

He believes that “the core challenges span both overall education and initiative adoption. Change is hard overall, and sometimes there is hesitancy to adopt a new practice which would alter business models that have proven successful year over year, or to change to a new product when you’ve used the same ingredient for years.”

Dugger wants to see education on the potential long-term benefits of such programs. “Regenerative agriculture is a lifetime commitment,” he says, and “in order to fully understand the impact of regenerative agriculture, we need better tools to quantify results.”

Ancient Nutrition’s Rubin advises that “if we continue, as supplement manufacturers and suppliers, to live with the status quo, we will not move forward. The bottom line is this: Organic is good, but it’s not good enough. We have to go beyond organic and find ways to regenerate, bring back to life that which was dead. Our soils, our organic matter, our humus—that is everything we have as a nation. That’s our inheritance, and we have lost the majority of it. We need to, quite simply, rebuild it.”

Says Sirolli, “We also recognize that no single company or sector can solve all our environmental challenges alone. We all have a role to play, and by working together, we will make a more meaningful impact.”

Despite the challenges of enveloping regenerative agriculture as the new norm, Sirolli says that “the biggest downside would be to do nothing. Commodities and the agriculture system are evolving, but one thing remains the same: The land is one of our most important natural resources. We must protect the land today and invest in its health and resiliency for future generations.”

References

  1. Press Release. “‘Shared Planet’ Leads Innova Market Insights’ Top Ten Trends for 2022.” Innova Market Insights. Posted October 13, 2021.
  2. Press Release. “The International Food Information Council’s 2021 Food Trends.” International Food Information Council. Posted January 6, 2021.
  3. Merrigan K. “Organic Food Has Become Mainstream but Still Has Room to Grow.” The Conversation. Published online August 17, 2021.
  4. Decker K. “Regenerative Agriculture Is Moving the Sustainability Goalpost in the Nutrition Industry.” Nutritional Outlook. Published online February 14, 2019.
  5. Press Release. “Cargill Introduces New Revenue Stream for Farmers as Part of 10 Million Acre Regenerative Agriculture Commitment.” Cargill. Posted September 16, 2021.
  6. Press Release. “Ancient Nutrition Launches R.A.N.C.H. Project Radically Committing to Sustainability.” Ancient Nutrition. Posted April 15, 2021.
  7. Press Release. “Ardent Mills Advances Regenerative Agriculture Program in Partnership with Nutrien Ag Solutions.” Ardent Mills. Posted June 22, 2021.
  8. ABC Staff. “ABC Partners with Sustainable Herbs Program to Promote Business, Consumer Consciousness.” HerbalGram, Issue 120: 20-21
  9. Sustainable Herbs Program. SHP Toolkit Webinar Series.
  10. Press Release. “Sustainable Herbs Program Releases Free Sustainability Toolkit on Earth Day’s 50th Anniversary.” American Botanical Council. Posted April 21, 2020.
  11. Sustainable Herbs Program. The SHP Sustainability & Regenerative Practices Toolkit.
  12. American Herbal Products Association. Sustainability Committee webpage.
  13. Press Release. “AHPA Releases New Brochures Highlighting Sustainability and Good Harvesting Practices.” American Herbal Products Association. Posted September 28, 2021.
  14. Regenerative Organic Certified website
  15. Savory Institute website