Here’s What Agriculture of the Future Looks Like: The Multiple Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture Quantified
By Ricardo Salvador
At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have long advocated agricultural systems that are productive and better for the environment, the economy, farmers, farmworkers and eaters than the dominant industrial system. We refer to such a system as our Healthy Farm vision. Based on comprehensive science, we have specified that healthy farm systems must be multifunctional, biodiverse, interconnected and regenerative.
The scientific case for agricultural systems that renew rather than diminish resources is comprehensive, and research demonstrates the productivity and agronomic feasibility of such systems. Yet, economically viable real-world examples are necessary to spur acceptance and adoption of such schemes. Further, we need to overcome the limitations of economic thinking and measures that were developed in the 19th century—when it seemed that the earth's resources and its capacity to absorb waste were inexhaustible—and improve them to create more modern assessments, appropriate for the 21st century and beyond. A new report from our colleagues at Farmland LP, Delta Institute and Earth Economics will make a major contribution toward this end.
Economists view agriculture as a primary sector of the economy, meaning that without the activity of that sector, the remainder of the economy (such as manufacturing and service) could not be developed. Together with other primary economic enterprises such as mining and forestry, agriculture has generally been practiced and acknowledged as an extractive industry. Whereas mining is visibly extractive, agriculture is less so, because degradative processes such as soil erosion, fertility loss, and water and air pollution are not as obvious as mountaintop removal and strip mining. Yet, as practiced industrially, agriculture is both extractive and more extensive than mining.
Extractive agricultural practices are abetted by strategies such as importing nutrients to compensate for loss of native soil fertility and by the fact that we value the gains from the extraction but don't discount the losses. For example, we measure crop and animal yield and translate that to sales and profit, but don't subtract from the ledger the soil, nutrients, air and water quality lost to produce crops and livestock. One superficial reason for this is that we don't know the "cost" of those resources, but that is simply a polite way to say that historically we don't value them. This is a perfect example of the nostrum that we measure what we care about and care about what we measure.
Yet, agriculture need not be inherently extractive. Through practices that build soil, recycle nutrients and store water it can become a regenerative system while still providing abundant food and other agricultural products. A key to shift from extractive to regenerative mode is to build a more complete picture of the total benefits and costs associated with agricultural management. For nearly a decade, the investment firm Farmland LP has been managing thousands of acres with regenerative techniques, thereby providing an opportunity for scientists and economists to assess the value of these practices to soil, water, climate, energy and social sectors. The Delta Institute and Earth Economics, with grant support from the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, worked with Farmland LP on just such a project.
Based on a comprehensive review of scientific literature examining the value of various ecosystem services, the researchers applied the rigorous methodologies of Ecosystem Services Valuation and Greenhouse Gas Accounting to assess the effects of farm management on items such as soil formation and quality, water capture and quality, pollination and seed dispersal, climate stability, disaster risk reduction, air quality and biological control. Using Colorado State University's COMET-Farm model, and the USDA's Revised Universal Soil Los Equation, the researchers evaluated the effect of regenerative techniques on farmed and non-farmed land under Farmland LP's management. They compared these model outputs with those from land managed conventionally to construct a comprehensive impact balance sheet.
The sums cited in this report are astounding, ascending into the millions of dollars of added ecological value from regenerative process—against millions of dollars of ecological losses due to standard industrial practices. The practices Farmland LP implements are well-known, backed by science and practice, and accessible to all farmers and farm managers with an interest in managing whole systems to increase returns to management. Examples include integrated crop and livestock production, crop rotation, biodiverse annual and perennial mixes, stream buffers, grassed waterways, organic fertilizers, biological pest control and uncultivated land to provide ecological services (erosion control, water capture, habitat and refugia for beneficial organisms.) The combination of these regenerative methods generated net value while industrial methods destroyed value—all while performing comparably on the dominant indicator of agricultural yield.
This assessment affirms the concrete value and effectiveness of multifunctional regenerative approaches. Since many of these ecosystem services are not currently quantified—much less traded—on markets that would remunerate farmers, the benefits are primarily experienced by way of cleaner environment, lower costs of production and added value of agricultural land. This is because land managed with regenerative practices will produce bountifully, at lower cost and for an indeterminate period of time, whereas the value of industrially managed land depends on false and brittle economies, such as access to government subsidies and the availability of cheap industrial fertilizer.
In fact, the main business of Farmland LP, a real estate investment trust, is to add long-term value to agricultural land for landowners and investors. A remarkable aspect of this strategy and business model, in addition to more faithfully reflecting actual ecological economics, is how quickly Farmland LP management has been able to produce results. In addition to demonstrating the effectiveness of regenerative methods, these findings indicate the kinds of practices that should be more broadly adopted across all of agriculture to assure our livelihood at present and far into the future.
The skilled agronomists and farm managers at Farmland LP, together with the rigorous scientists and economists who have developed and used the ecosystem evaluation technique, are demonstrating that regenerative agriculture is not an aspirational figment. It is real, it is possible, it is productive, it is profitable and it is environmentally beneficial. These things can all exist with one another. A successful business model is predicated on this. As long as reliable scientific information influences decisions and behavior, this report provides a beacon toward more viable, ethical and realistic agricultural practice for the long term.
Ricardo Salvador is director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.