Regen Ag Series #5: Our Verdict

Moving beyond the polarizing regenerative agriculture argument

Emotions can run high the moment the term “regenerative agriculture” enters a conversation.

And there is plenty to analyze and understand when it comes to regen ag - so how do we keep the conversation focused on whether or not regen practices can be good business for farmers?

What consumers want

Currently, part of the problem is tied up in what consumers want. A growing number of people want sustainable food, but most don’t actually understand what’s required to get there, or what “sustainable” even means. 

Sarah Nolet, of AgThentic and agrifood tech VC firm Tenacious Ventures, said she got a strong understanding of the challenges of ‘the sustainability story’ that consumers want when she lived on farms in South America in her early 20s.

“I was on a small organic vegetable farm and saw the challenges they faced in trying to communicate to their consumers about how good their practices were and why it was different,” she said.

“And next door was a large scale vineyard that was fully conventional, focused on scale, and selling into a very different supply chain,” Sarah Nolet said.

 “And I came home thinking okay, maybe consumers should get to choose small scale or hand picked produce. But then you go to a grocery store in the United States and you're just overwhelmed by choice...with all the labels, how can you understand what’s actually good?”

While small scale farms alone will struggle to deliver the amount of food needed to feed the growing global population, consumer demand for climate resilient, low carbon footprint and pesticide-free food is skyrocketing (at least in the Western world).

So how do we balance the realities of production with consumer demand?

Matthew Pryor, also of AgThentic and Tenacious Ventures, said there are emerging technologies which will ultimately change entire food systems.

But right now, farmers are expected to shoulder the cost of changing their farming practices- not to mention risking the long-term productivity of their farm if things don’t work out.

“Is it reasonable for producers to bear this cost first and then get a benefit later? Well, no,” he said.

“But that’s one of the areas where technology will push change.”

“We’re also just starting to see the beginning of consumer facing food brands extending services and agronomic training services directly to farmers.”

U.S food giant, General Mills  (the makers of Cheerios, Betty Croker and Yoplait) is an example of a company that is taking some supply chain responsibility - with pilot regen training programs for farmers who are interested in changing their practices.

“Now I’m not sure how much farmers are buying into this. But I love that General Mills isn't oversimplifying the answers,” Sarah Nolet said.

“They are actually starting with farmers and saying ‘what do you need? Is it advice? Is it financial incentives? Is it market access? The company is saying that if we believe soil health is fundamental to good production, then what’s going to move the needle forward?”

Keeping the regen conversation on track 

The only way to stop the regen ag debate from degrading into opinion and belief, is to keep focused on the data.

Matthew Pryor said we need to keep coming back to the evidence.

“We have to keep trying to push the conversation to the center of saying ‘great, you know, sounds plausible. I look forward to seeing the data,” he said.

He also argues financial incentives are critical for any land transition program - whether that’s coming from companies, governments or even banks.

“Farmers amongst many other things are the custodians of the natural capital.”

“And we've got to find proper and profitable incentives that are created for the long term custodianship of the natural capital.”

As precision and accuracy improves in terms of soil carbon measurement and enabling technologies like robotics and remote sensing, producers will increasingly be able to get a clearer picture of the health of their farm.

Sarah Nolet said this provides exciting opportunities for the relationship between farmers and their customers.

“Whether it’s called regen or not, the data tools will eventually give us the ability to underpin the claims with proof.”

“So, instead of just saying it’s something ‘I believe in” or ‘something I wanted to do’. You can actually start to connect all the way down the supply chain.”

“And do so, profitability.”

For more, listen to our podcast featuring Sarah Nolet and Matthew Pryor in the link at the top of the page, and subscribe to Agtech… So What? on Apple podcasts here.

This was our #5 and final episode in the #Regen Ag series… you can catch up on the entire series here.

Useful links from this episode:

Key takeaways