KANSAS CITY — Industry partnerships, including one between ADM and PepsiCo, Inc., are boosting regenerative agriculture efforts, and so are profitable crop rotations, including those featuring legumes and ancient grains.
“Regenerative agriculture encompasses an array of farming practices that are recognized as part of an essential toolbox to slow global warming and ensure a continuous and nutritious food supply for the global population,” said Michelle French, manager, corporate responsibility for Chicago, Illinois, US-based ADM. “We anticipate consumers will hold brands and manufacturers to a higher standard than organic in the future, believing that regenerative agriculture goes a step further by focusing first and foremost on restoring and rebuilding the environment.”
Regenerative agriculture practices are designed to improve soil conditions and increase yield, areas that should be of global concern to agriculture, the food industry and consumers. About one-third of the world’s farmland is moderately to highly degraded, according to a 2018 report called “The future of food and agriculture, alternative pathways to 2050” from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The world will need more food, too, since the report forecast the global population to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, 10.8 billion by 2080 and 11.2 billion by 2100.
Poor crop conditions are a problem in America’s heartland as well, according to a study from the University of Massachusetts published Feb. 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Satellite imagery mapped areas in agricultural fields and found nearly 30 million acres, or about one-third of the Corn Belt in the US Midwest, no longer have carbon-rich topsoil, which is called A-horizon soil. The researchers estimated the erosion of A-horizon soil has reduced corn and soybean yields by about 6%, leading to nearly $3 billion in annual economic losses for farmers.
Consumers are showing interest in sustainable farming practices, according to a survey from the St. Louis, Missouri, US-based United Soybean Board released in March. Findings showed 79% of consumers have a very/somewhat positive view of US farmers who grow crops. After reading about the sustainability of soybeans, 66% said they felt more positive about soy protein and soybean oil.
Cashing in on crop rotations
Environmentally, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are a significant driver of climate change, and food and agricultural systems are among the major contributors to GHG emissions, according to the 2018 report from the FAO. Carbon dioxide is the most commonly produced greenhouse gas, but carbon sequestration, or the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to the US Department of the Interior.
“When regenerative agriculture practices sequester more carbon in the soil than is emitted during the agricultural growing phase, it’s possible to have a negative carbon footprint for that commodity stream,” French said. “When coupled with highly efficient processing and transportation operations, a consumer product could have a lower carbon score than one produced using the status quo.
“Carbon scoring is a new addition to food product labels. While consumers desire carbon-neutral and reduced-carbon claims, companies have to be cautious in how they position this information so as to not be misleading.”
Crop rotations and cover crops are crucial practices in regenerative agriculture.
Soybeans and other legumes like peas and chickpeas work well in crop rotations as do ancient grains like quinoa and millet.
“Complex crop rotations contribute to soil health when crops with deeper root systems are rotated with those that have shallower root systems,” French said. “This allows the topsoil to deepen. In addition, many insects can overwinter in the soil. Rotating crops acts as pest mitigation when the insects emerge in the spring to find their favorite food has been replaced by a different crop.”
Crop rotation benefits baked foods, too.
“Rotation crops such as quinoa, chickpeas, millet, buckwheat and rye offer baked goods unique flavors, colors and textures,” said Angela Ichwan, senior director – technical lead for The Annex by Ardent Mills. “Quinoa is also great from a water-saving perspective, and chickpeas are great as a nitrogen fixer in the soil.”
Legumes such as clover or peas have been shown to fix nitrogen and reduce the need for purchased synthetic nitrogen in subsequent crops like corn or wheat, said Ryan Sirolli, row crop sustainability director for Minneapolis, Minnesota, US-based Cargill.
“Any winter hardy crops or early spring crops such as winter rye, wheat, barley or spring oats will help with carbon sequestration as they grow during periods when there is typically not plant growth (photosynthesis) happening,” he said. “One of my favorite examples is where we can bring yellow peas into a crop rotation. In areas with longer growing seasons, we can plant peas in March, harvest them in June, then go back with soybeans and harvest them in the fall. The following spring, we plant corn and harvest it in the fall. With this crop rotation plan, we grow and harvest three crops in the space of two years.”
Shepherd’s Grain, a farmer-owned company, has performed long-term rotational research on the Palouse, a geographic region in the northwestern United States. The research includes a field that was planted to winter wheat in year one, spring wheat in year two, proso millet in year three, sunflowers in year four, grain sorghum in year five and garbanzo beans (chickpeas) in year six, said Jeremy Bunch, chief operating officer and director of R&D for Shepherd’s Grain. Positive results from this rotation included better soil biology diversity and significantly less pesticide use compared to the regionally typical three-year rotation that is dominated by two years of wheat production.
“From an agronomic and pest management perspective, researchers have shown that growers should be out of wheat in rotation twice as long as they are in wheat in the rotation,” he said. “Monocultures are unsustainable on too many fronts.”
Cover crops are another tool in regenerative agriculture. They reduce soil erosion and agricultural runoff from rainstorms or irrigation, said Shrene White, general manager of The Annex by Ardent Mills. Cover crops serve as a tool to increase diversity in rotations and help build organic matter, which can sequester carbon and improve water-holding capacity, Sirolli said.
Collaborations on regenerative agriculture involve food companies and ingredient suppliers as well as millers and farmers.
Cargill last year announced plans to support farmer-led efforts to adopt practices and systems for regenerative agriculture across 10 million acres of North American farmland over the next 10 years.
ADM is a member of Field to Market, which is designed to unite the supply chain to deliver sustainable outcomes for agriculture. ADM has nine active projects in the United States.
ADM is working with PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, New York, US, and Practical Farmers of Iowa, which equips farmers to build resilient farms and communities, on a project that supports sustainable wheat production and involves ADM’s flour mill in Mendota, Illinois, US. Growers are using sustainable agricultural practices like extended crop rotations and cover crops on more than 1,000 acres. Small grains like winter wheat are being incorporated into corn and soybean rotation.
Minneapolis-based General Mills, Inc. has a goal to advance regenerative practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. Through its Cascadian Farm brand, General Mills in 2017 announced plans to work with The Land Institute in Kansas to commercialize Kernza, a perennial grain with deep roots that help preserve soil, enhance soil health and reduce nitrogen movement.
Grain Craft, Chattanooga, Tennessee, US, is partnering with Shepherd’s Grain on sustainably grown wheat. Shepherd’s Grain consists of 37 farmers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, South Dakota and Alberta.
Bunch said regenerative agriculture for Shepherd’s Grain means committing to the three pillars of conservation agriculture: not tilling or disturbing the soil, keeping the soil covered with cover crops or previous crops’ residue, and diverse crop rotations that sometimes integrate livestock into the rotation. Growers for Shepherd’s Grain obtain third-party certification through the Food Alliance, which operates a voluntary certification program based on standards that define sustainable agricultural practices.
“Grain Craft continues to partner with producers in being good stewards of their land and encouraging a focus on continuous improvement,” said Reuben McLean, senior director quality and regulatory for Grain Craft. “We are working with our grower partners to identify successful practices and to have open conversations about varieties, long-term soil health, wheat quality and yield goals. Grain Craft is also dedicated to supporting ongoing soil fertility management and wheat quality studies through both financial and hands-on support.”
Marketing for regenerative agriculture in ‘early stages’
Certifications exist, and consumer awareness is increasing
Regenerative agriculture has become a common term in the food and agricultural industries. A Google search draws 17.5 million results for it. Food companies may wonder if they could find success by promoting items produced through regenerative agriculture practices. Do consumers recognize the term?
The 2020 International Food Information Council’s 2020 Food and Health Survey found 36% of respondents were familiar with the term regenerative agriculture, which was up from 22% in 2019. While 57% of respondents under age 35 had not heard of regenerative agriculture in 2020, the percentage was higher (71%) for respondents age 50 and older.
“We are still in the early stages of regenerative agriculture,” said Shrene White, general manager for The Annex by Ardent Mills, a business of Denver, Colorado, US-based Ardent Mills. “Much of what makes an acre regenerative is outcomes based: Has the soil health improved or is water infiltration increasing? There will likely be multiple certifications in the early stages, and the one that can bring some alignment to what outcomes we need to be focused on and what type of improvement must be seen will be the gold standard.”
Consumers still are more familiar with other terms. A Google search for “sustainable” draws 860 million results. In the IFIC survey, respondents were asked what factors they perceived to show an item was produced in an environmentally sustainable way. Factors coming in at over 40% were: labeled as sustainably sourced, recyclable packaging, labeled as non-GMO and labeled as being locally grown.
Still, regenerative is a “good term to run with,” said Jeremy Bunch, chief operating officer and director of R&D for Shepherd’s Grain, a grower-owned company based in the Pacific Northwest.
“When ‘sustainability’ was the hot term in agriculture, there were many questions about what that meant exactly,” he said. “The term ‘regenerative’ provides a little more clarity. From an agricultural perspective, what is needed is to not only protect our soils from erosion and other soil-quality degrading practices, but to begin the process of rebuilding, or regenerating, soils that have been lost due to those degrading practices.”
A Greener World, Terrebonne, Oregon, US, now offers a certified regenerative label that joins its other certifications for animal welfare, grass-fed, non-GMO and organic. A Greener World defines regenerative agriculture as “a set of planned agricultural practices that ensure the holding is not depleted by agriculture practices, and over time the soil, water, air and biodiversity are improved or maintained to the greatest extent possible.”
Crop rotations to improve soil health and crops that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions are two common regenerative agriculture practices.
“There are a lot of regenerative claims floating around, and most are not defined or validated,” said Emily Moose, executive director for A Greener World. “Meanwhile, consumers are increasingly seeking meaningful assurances that their food choices have a positive impact. Independent, third-party certifications like those offered by AGW inform decision-making, whether for shoppers, processors, policymakers, farmers or any other stakeholder.”
Any company producing sustainable foods or goods may inquire about using the label.
“While our certification starts at the farm, we can work with anyone along the supply chain to validate regenerative practices,” Moose said.
The Regenerative Organic Alliance includes members from the farming and ranching industries as well as members involved in soil health, animal welfare and fair trade. It offers a Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) standard. Farmers in the ROC must be certified organic, according to regulations in the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Other criteria address soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. Products displaying the ROC Standard include Nature’s Path oats from Legend Organic Farm in Saskatchewan; popcorn and cornmeal from Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Neb.; and brown and white basmati rice from Lotus Foods in Rohini, India.
Groups such as Field to Market, which is designed to unite the supply chain to deliver sustainable outcomes for agriculture, and the Sustainability Consortium, a global non-profit organization, are working to bring more awareness to regenerative agriculture, White said.
“Many leading food companies also are regularly featuring farmer stories in their marketing and are telling the story of regenerative ag as a tool to combat climate change and ensure a resilient food supply chain,” she said. “As consumers become increasingly curious about the ingredients in their food and prioritize transparency, we expect regenerative ag to play an important role.”
Quinn Snacks helps growers move ‘in a better direction’
Kristy Lewis, owner and founder of Quinn Snacks, is a big fan of regenerative agriculture, but no claims about the farming practices are found on packaging of the company’s products. The Boulder, Colorado, US-based company will pass on applying for any regenerative agriculture certifications, too.
“We are not going to be communicating our messaging on packaging,” Lewis said. “We’ll talk about it on our social media posts and to retailers. It’s a very unique approach, and no one has done this before.”
She wants to avoid setting up any difficult certification standards that might scare growers away from working with Quinn Snacks.
“If we all go into this and want perfection, it’s going to take us a lot longer to move the needle,” Lewis said. “From Quinn’s perspective, we don’t want to demand perfection. We want to push growers and challenge them to be better.”
Lewis talks to growers to understand their current practices and how Quinn Snacks might help them improve those practices. In one example, Quinn Snacks will pay a premium for crops transitioning from conventional to organic, a process that takes at least three years.
Lewis founded Quinn Snacks when her first child, Quinn, was three days old. She originally wanted to create microwave popcorn while removing chemicals and plastic packaging. She got in touch with Dave Vetter, owner of Grain Place Foods, Marquette, Nebraska, US, which sources from regional organic farms. Yellow butterfly organic popcorn from Grain Place Foods became the star ingredient in Quinn Snacks’ original product, microwave popcorn. Other ingredients, depending on the popcorn flavor, include Parmesan cheese, rosemary, sea salt and sunflower oil.
More products have followed. Pretzels contain whole grain sorghum flour and other ingredients like cassava flour, sea salt and sunflower oil. Ingredients included in peanut butter-filled nuggets are cassava flour, sunflower oil, whole grain sorghum flour and hemp heart protein.
The products are sold in about 6,000 stores and online, including Amazon.com.
As regenerative agriculture evolves, Quinn Snacks will keep its focus on the growers.
“Regenerative ag for us is anything in the right direction, in a better direction for the land and the soil,” Lewis said.