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The Next Economy
Summit Provides Ecosystem-wide Look at Groundwork for a Regenerative Food Future

SB’23 San Diego concluded with the inaugural Regenerative Agriculture Summit, in which players from the field explored the shared opportunities offered by regenerative ag — where sustainable practices intersect with economic growth.

Creating value in regenerative ag

Andrew Davey-Greaves

Driving change in a producer-centric system can often be a challenge in the agri-food value chain. Often, sustainability interventions fall short of the intended impact due to the lack of awareness of the realities of farming and what value means. Ernst & Young (EY)’s Partner/Principal and Co-Leader of Agriculture, Lee Addams, and Senior Director of Strategy Andrew Davey-Greaves kicked off Sustainable Brands®’ inaugural Regenerative Agriculture Summit at SB’23 San Diego (read more in Forbes’ coverage here) by discussing key levers for creating value in this space for commercial producers and sustainability departments alike.

Commercial farmers operate through a lens of profit, effort and risk — which can often feel unaligned with the sustainability priorities of carbon accounting, protecting biodiversity or reducing emissions. EY has come up with a structured approach to satisfy the needs of both sides without compromising their personal goals.

“It has taken many years to come up with the things that we know will work on the farm,” Addams said. “And, it is up to us to make it happen.”

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Identifying buckets of opportunity such as using cover crops to create revenue streams and improve soil health, access to carbon markets, optimizing cost by addressing regulations through tax incentives, and brand equity to improve reputation are all drivers that can be stacked and meshed.

For example, when you think of cover crops that bring multiple forms of value for the producer — including cash from selling the crops, carbon credits, selling livestock grazing rights — that same cover crop also benefits manufacturers and retailers: The value shifts to brand equity and the opportunity to foster relationships, as well as using the crop as an alternative ingredient or using certifications to drive adoption.

While there is no silver bullet, Davey-Greaves said this strategy of creating value in a systematic way that meets the needs of the farmer and the sustainability teams “brings the right groups together at the table to speak the same language on a given challenge. It gives partners along the supply chain the opportunity to come together and unilaterally be motivated through a shared-value opportunity in the same direction.”

Scaling regenerative ag: a work in progress

L-R: Sally Uren, Kristine Root, Michael Rinaldi, Keith Dokho and Lee Addams

Interest and motivation in a shift toward regenerative agriculture currently vary across stakeholders and industries. While some focus on the environmental benefits, others may favor the social responsibility or long-term viability of the practice. Even with its challenges, collaboration and the sharing of strategies and processes can propel the regenerative ag movement.

In the "State of the Industry" panel, moderated by Forum for the Future Chief Executive Sally Uren, EY’s Addams joined panelists Michael Rinaldi, VP of Sustainable Business Development at Rabobank; Kristine Root, Head of Brand Marketing at Regenified; and Keith Dokho, Private Sector Engagement Secretariat Lead at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), to discuss current successes and challenges in the burgeoning industry.

Change can be risky and difficult for farmers; and if it doesn’t work out well, it can be detrimental to their livelihoods and the stability of our food systems. However, when done right and in partnership, there is proof that it can be both economically and environmentally beneficial. Rabobank, a financial services company, operates through a systems approach — hand in hand with farmers and other organizations.

“This conversation isn’t just a nice-to-have to talk about sustainability and food and agriculture,” Rinaldi asserted. “It is an imperative to ensure the resiliency of our food and agricultural system.”

With that being said, while brands may be committing to move to regenerative agriculture, it ultimately comes down to farmers to make those changes — which are often not simple and require funding and resources. When you look at agriculture globally, like EY has, there are still groups of smallholder farmers — often women — who have the same needs as the large commercial farmers are being left behind.

“Agriculture and the supply chain are global,” Addams said. “The responsibility to help smallholder farms advance on these challenges is critical, because everyone wins.”

Similar to any large-scale project, it is easier to do it in collaboration versus going at it alone. We are also at a time when many key players are ready and excited to sit at the table. Whether it be brands, NGOs, or government — innovation, research, funding, capital and resources are becoming increasingly available. The government is positioned well to help increase those things both with programs already in place and new partnerships with other countries — such as the $13 billion and growing US-UAE partnership with the Agriculture Innovation Mission on Climate that is funding regenerative ag.

“Partnerships excite me,” Dokho said. “You can’t address these issues without a collaborative approach.”

As a company, shifting that mindset from competitive to collaborative is necessary to make this transition on a global scale. When you think of certifications, for example, a product with the Regenefied mark recognizes and rewards farmers for utilizing regenerative practices. If the product gets another regenerative-farming certification such as Land to Market, which taps into a slightly different approach and audience, it means the practice is just expanding even further. There are things we can learn from each other and things we can share — knowing ultimately, we need to get this practice to scale.

“We live in a world where there is enough,” Root said. “When we work in harmony, just as we want our farmers to do in nature, it creates abundance.”

The multifaceted world of regenerative ag is shaped by diverse motivations and perspectives among stakeholders and industries. While the transition to regenerative can be daunting and financially demanding for farmers; when undertaken in partnership with organizations, NGOs, and the government, it can bring about not only environmental benefits but also economic sustainability. The imperative to foster resiliency in our food and agricultural systems is clear. Furthermore, the shift from competition to collaboration is pivotal for this global transition — emphasizing the importance of sharing knowledge, resources, and the space itself to expand the practice and create abundance.

The panel agreed the path toward regenerative agriculture's full-scale adoption requires a collective effort; and with the current availability of innovation, research, funding and resources, the time is ripe for this crucial transformation.

Insights from farmers on the path to regenerative ag

Image credit: Hammer & Kavazanjian Farms

For farms to transition to regenerative agriculture requires transparency into how to do it and how to make money from it. The next panel — moderated by JG Consulting founder and President Jennifer Garrett, PhD — featured panelists Mitchell Hora, a seventh-generation Iowa farmer and founder & CEO of Continuum Ag; and Nancy Kavazanjian, a Wisconsin farmer and Director at US Soy/United Soybean Board, who discussed how they have broken away from institutionalized methods in efforts to build a more ecologically balanced future.

For Wisconsin’s Hammer and Kavazanjian Farms, their regenerative journey has spanned over the last 43 years under the motto, “Our Soil is Our Strength.” While the processes have changed over that time from conventional to regenerative, they now utilize a number of sustainable, regenerative practices including no-till farming, crop rotation, cover crops, sampling soil regularly, and utilizing renewable energies and technologies that not only protect soils but ensure that they are able to continue to produce and be profitable for years to come.

“You need to look at these practices on a whole farm,” Kavazanjian said. “We aren’t in it for one year; this is a long-term payoff, but we are in a long-term profession.”

Hora’s 700-acre farm in Iowa has been utilizing regenerative practices such as no-till since 1978 and utilizing cover crops since 2013; and seeing the benefits that came from help, transitions and learning from their mistakes. This journey inspired the start of Continuum Ag — a software company that not only helps farmers implement regenerative practices but also gives farmers their carbon-intensity score, which quantifies climate impacts of on-farm practices including cover crops, chemical management, crop diversity, and livestock. However, each farm is different; and efficacy of regenerative principles will depend on the specific issues relevant to the farms.

“We have to take these principles and implement them, minding the context of our individual farm,” Hora said. “Following these principles has enabled us to be more resilient and profitable.”

When considering how to get the resources to start a profitable, regenerative farm, farmers should consider looking to government initiatives such as the 45Z Tax Credit — also known as the low-carbon renewable-fuel tax credit, to be implemented in 2025 — which will allow farmers with low carbon-intensity scores to increase their profits by producing for biofuel manufacturers.

“In my opinion, this tax credit — if implemented properly — will be more important for the push for regenerative agriculture than the Farm Bill,” Hora said. This incentive will give biofuel manufacturers tax credits for lowering the carbon intensity of their fuel below 50, and farmers whose crops are part of that product could get up to 50 percent of the cut. While most corn now produced is for animal feed, come 2025, farmers' corn will likely be sold to biofuel manufacturers — leading to a major disruption to the system, with farmers' profits benefiting as an outcome.

The transition represents a critical shift toward more ecologically balanced and sustainable farming practices. The experiences of these farmers demonstrate that regenerative farming is not just a theoretical concept but a practical and achievable reality. Their decades-long journey from conventional to regenerative practices showcases the transformative potential of these approaches. The new principles and tax incentives can be influential in driving the shift towards regenerative agriculture.

Futureproofing food systems through regenerative-ag partnerships

L-R: Tasha Tandy, Lindsay Beddow and Mikel Hancock

To reinforce the theme of the entire week, to protect our food systems for generations to come, we must move beyond sustainability toward goals around regeneration. Regenerative agriculture models must holistically focus on farmer livelihoods, scaling best practices, and place-based learning.

To dig into this, Walmart’s Senior Director of Sustainable Food and Agriculture, Mikel Hancock, led a discussion with General Mills Sales Director, Lindsay Beddow, and Walmart’s VP of Merchandising — Breakfast, Baking & Bread, Tasha Tandy, around how their two companies are engaging their shared value chain and advancing the practice.

Earlier this month, Walmart and General Mills announced a collaboration to shift 600k acres of row crops to regenerative practices by 2030. both to do the right thing for customers, the economic livelihood of the farmer, and fighting climate change. Both the retailer and the food giant have their own sustainability goals to manage and restore land through regenerative ag; so, joining forces will allow them to accelerate progress on those goals.

“This shows us what the roadmap could look like,” Tandy said. “It gives us a footprint to repeat it over and over again, with many companies we can continue to scale.”

The panelists agreed that regenerative agriculture is how food security, healthy soils and value are all created. By connecting NGOs, industries and farmers together, the practice will grow at a faster pace and spotlight a critical component of our survival.

“In combination with working with a retailer like Walmart, we are able to get the product to the end-user state in the most sustainable way,” Beddow said. “That is the virtuous cycle we are hoping to foster.”

While there are challenges and barriers, leveraging a partnership of this scale can ease the burden. Adoption is not an easy thing to get; so, meeting the farmers where they are and building trust is critical.

“It’s not going to work if we assume everyone is on the same playing field,” Beddow said. “This program is designed to meet the farmers where they are and make sure we can provide them with the resources and tools to implement.”

The collaboration between Walmart and General Mills is a significant step toward future-proofing our food systems. By continuing to prioritize and scale regenerative approaches through collaborations and partnerships — versus sticking to current practices — farmers, producers and consumers alike will benefit.

Beefing up supply chain sustainability

L-R: Grant Keenen and Jared Knock

After a break, Hancock returned to moderate a discussion that examined what regenerative practices look like on the ground for complicated, resource-intensive supply chains such as beef.

Walmart Director of Cattle Management and Procurement Grant Keenen and Jared Knock, a South Dakota livestock farmer and business development leader at AgSpire, agreed on the importance of place-based interventions in regenerative agriculture.

Walmart's broader commitment to becoming a regenerative company includes a goal to convert 50 million acres of land to regenerative practices by 2030. Keenen said that while doing listening tours with its suppliers, Walmart learned of ranchers’ need for financial and technical assistance when it came to adopting new, regenerative practices.

Walmart’s efforts to fulfill its commitment to sourcing beef more sustainably include providing technical advisory work on grazing management within its vertically aligned beef supply chain and incentivizing regenerative practices in row crops for cattle feed. A Walmart-AgSpire partnership saw positive land-use practices implemented on ranches in the retailer’s beef supply chain. In the pilot project, AgSpire developed grazing-management plans for each participant — enrolling 50,000 acres under new, regenerative practices and long-term conservation commitments that have led to healthier soil, improved biodiversity, and a more sustainable product option for consumers.

There was some discussion about whether regenerative beef would remain a commodity or become more of a premium product, allowing ranchers to earn more.

The panel concluded by reiterating the importance of collaboration in achieving a more sustainable beef supply chain. By working together, ranchers, suppliers and retailers can create a system that is beneficial for all stakeholders. They believe strongly that ranching can be transformed to contribute positively to biodiversity preservation in the US, while helping to solve climate change.

Growing Our Future

Image credit: Forum for the Future

In an inspiring final session, Sally Uren returned to present Forum for the Future’s Growing Our Future initiative — a collaborative effort to catalyze the transition of the US food system to regenerative practices.

Originally funded by Walmart and now supported by General Mills, Growing Our Future was born out of a recognition of the many positive developments taking place in sustainable agriculture, but also the need for greater coordination, trust, and inclusion to ensure a regenerative food future.

The initiative's goal is to bring together diverse stakeholders from across the food system to build trust, elevate lesser-heard voices, and foster a shared vision for a regenerative future.

Drawing on the principles of racial justice, Growing Our Future is committed to creating a food system that is not only environmentally sustainable but also equitable and just.

The initiative has identified four key pathways for achieving this goal:

  1. Pathways to market: Developing and expanding markets for regenerative products.

  2. Financing the transition: Providing financial support for farmers and ranchers transitioning to regenerative practices.

  3. Policy change: Advocating for policies that support regenerative agriculture.

  4. Social outcomes: Ensuring that the transition to a regenerative food system benefits all stakeholders, particularly marginalized communities.

To support these pathways, Growing Our Future has published a series of toolkits that provide practical guidance on how to progress on each pathway.

As the US Farm Bill continues to be debated, Forum for the Future is working alongside other partners to ensure that the voices of lesser-heard communities are heard — including shining a light on indigenous agriculture. Forum has produced a series of films that highlight the critical contributions of indigenous peoples to food sovereignty and regenerative land management that we’re only recently learning to re-embrace.

In a fitting end to the discussions of the day, Growing Our Future’s work once again demonstrates the power of collaboration in creating a more just and sustainable food system.

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