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How does innovation connect to the goal of regenerative agriculture?

Laura Krishfield, Senior Research Associate and Tim Appachanda, Ph.D., Senior Analyst
December 30, 2021

The agrifood ecosystem is undoubtedly challenged by the impacts of industrial farming. These conventional practices pollute water bodies, degrade soil health, clear forests for animal husbandry, and amplify agriculture's contribution to atmospheric carbon emissions (20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture). Recently, events like the emergence of voluntary carbon markets and consumer demand for low-environmental-impact products have generated interest in connecting improved agriculture practices to communicable outcomes that tie not only to better-quality products but also to global well-being and organizational sustainability targets.

"Regenerative agriculture" (RA) is the most common description of this movement. In this blog, we will define regenerative agriculture and the three pillars that are frequently aligned with targeted outcomes of regenerative farming. We further examine momentum behind key players, provide an overview of enabling technologies through the framework of the three pillars, and lastly, identify promising developers to help guide you toward opportunities within this space.

What are regenerative agriculture and its three pillars?

Regenerative agriculture is the concept of reimagining human relations with agro-ecosystems to improve the land's carrying capacity while continuously improving the land itself. RA is not merely a conservation practice to halt the destruction of natural resources; it's also a set of holistic practices that incrementally improve the landscape's biological activity and ecological services. The targeted outcomes of RA group into three pillars: improving soil health, prioritizing animal welfare, and upholding social fairness.

  • Improving soil and crop health: stands for on-farm practices that enhance the inherent carrying capacity of soil and plants, imparting incremental benefits by building soil organic matter that helps sequester carbon, absorb more water and nutrients, affect plant physiology and crop performance, and help them respond resiliently to environmental stress. Below are the top five outcomes you need to be able to monitor to understand if you are achieving regeneration:

    • Soil organic carbon

    • Crop health (tolerance or resistance to stress, pest pressures)

    • Biodiversity (soils, crops, plants, and animal species)

    • Ecosystem services (pollination, purification of groundwater, support pest predators)

    • Microbial biomass and activity

  • Prioritizing animal welfare: is about raising animals with enough space, light, air, food and water so they can inherently exhibit their natural behavior. It aims to ensure ethical and humane treatment of animals so that any livestock is in good physical health, raised in pasture-based systems that reserve antibiotics for emergencies and reduce outside care. Below are the five outcomes or freedoms to watch to judge whether you are accomplishing animal welfare.

    • Freedom to exhibit natural behavior

    • Freedom from hunger and thirst

    • Prevention of disease

    • Freedom from pain, injury, and discomfort

    • Freedom from fear and distress

  • Upholding social fairness: seeks to advocate for social welfare by fairness through equity, justice, respect, stewardship, access to food and markets, improving the economic well-being of communities, promoting food access and security, and supporting equitable labor practices for farmworkers. Five outcomes to monitor the inclusion of social fairness are:

    • Fair-trade practices

    • Workplace safety and health

    • Farmworkers' rights

    • Gender equality

    • Inclusion of disadvantaged or vulnerable people

Who is leading the momentum?

Lux Research examined the actions of a subset of notable first movers among the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space who aim to scale RA initiatives across supply chains. Table 1 provides an overview of each player’s momentum across the three regenerative pillars. To summarize the findings, companies are not diversified by the agriculture practices applied, but the methods of scaling show some unique differences. Companies like Land O'Lakes with vertical integration across CPG and agriculture target grower members first, then share those learnings widely with new partners. Vertically integrated CPG players like General Mills, Nestlé, and Danone are leveraging grower and supplier networks to pilot RA initiatives. Then these players either leverage internal knowledge (Nestlé and Danone) or integrate expertise from external partners with internally developed knowledge bases (General Mills) to build capacity.

Table detailing key players scaling regenerative agriculture across CPG

Table 1. Key players scaling regenerative agriculture across CPG.

What are the potential technologies enabling regenerative agriculture?

The three pillars are principles and practices that comprise traditional farming communities, organic agriculture, biodynamic farming, permaculture, rotational grazing, and a range of practices appropriate to a region and its culture. To connect these to innovation opportunities, in Table 2 we segment the top five outcomes by each pillar and highlight technologies likely to support such outcomes. Considering innovation is less of an enabler of the outcomes identified for upholding social fairness, we recognize instead certifications that represent the underlying outcomes for this pillar.

Table showing technologies and certifications enabling outcomes of regenerative agriculture

Table 2. Technologies and certifications enabling outcomes of regenerative agriculture.

Our analysis indicates some key findings for each pillar-related technology enablement.

  • Remote sensing paired with in-the-ground sensing is necessary for farmers to understand the relation of practices to changes in the soil microbiome. RA hinges on the establishment of common baselines to detect changes over time and demonstrate an improvement within the agro-ecosystem. Hence, sensing platforms can be leveraged for the assessment of soil, plant, or other ecosystem inhabitants to inform growers what is happening at a temporal and spatial scale and enable them to make more informed decisions about various aspects of farm management. Companies like RegrowCropXFaunaPhotonicsEarthOptics, and Soil Essentials are developing integrated solutions that monitor environmental parameters associated with soil and crop health to link practices to value. The challenge here, though, is that many of these companies are developing models that rely heavily on data collection. Companies must understand that for those farmers you interact with, be sure to understand how and whether that model is specific enough to provide a good estimate for your region, crop, and/or agro-ecosystem.

  • Digital transformation is an opportunity to prioritize animal welfare by tracking the where, when, and how livestock is managed and produced. Precision livestock farming (PFL) technologies can be leveraged to monitor and manage individual livestock heads, providing information to track animal movements and health care and optimize resource allocation. Similar to sensing platforms for soil and crop health, PFL enables a baseline estimation to demonstrate improvements to the quality of life for livestock, but there are issues in developing strong, scalable models. Among the PFL developers, FeedFloAfimilk, and Cainthus offer platforms that seek to provide maximum return on investment and encourage adoption by farmers. Moreover, GrassRoots Carbon has identified a strategy to leverage PFL technology originally developed by PastureMap to link data on livestock movement with soil health, promoting rotational grazing practices that adhere to regenerative outcomes.

  • Innovation does not yet play a major role in upholding social fairness. To that end, the prevention of discrimination and abuse of farmworkers, as well as stakeholders across the value chain, will be promoted through regulations and certifications. Fair-trade certifications focus on workers' rights, fair labor practices, and responsible land management.

Regenerative farming is gaining recognition from the agriculture industry as an opportunity to hold production to the highest standard and make a positive impact on both the environment and society. But for players to succeed, the integration of technologies that prioritize value, reduce impact, and enable RA outcomes will be imperative to drive credibility. While precision technologies provide a wealth of information about environmental conditions, animal welfare, and resource maximization, these solutions center on strong algorithms. Moreover, connectivity and data management become critical across digital infrastructure. Companies looking to make a play in regenerative agriculture should build partnerships or develop technologies aimed at achieving RA's underlying outcomes.

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