Regen ag: Undefined and unable to feed the planet?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Igor Alecsander
Image: Getty/Igor Alecsander

Related tags regenerative agriculture

Yes, its broad principles offer a promising path towards sustainable nutrition and food security for the future. But without a standard definition regen ag risks becoming a soon-disregarded fad, it has been warned.

Regen ag is not a specific practice, but rather a philosophy that uses a variety of techniques in combination. These typically include practices like no-till farming; using cover crops to protect soils; and minimising the use of synthetic inputs and fossil fuels.

Although some questions remain as to the benefits across different farming systems and contexts, these methods can improve soil, enhance ecosystem biodiversity, and allow farmers to store carbon to help mitigate the effects of climate change. The amount of carbon sequestered can be measured and verified, allowing farmers to earn extra income from carbon credits – bought by large companies operating in carbon-intensive sectors that want to offset their emissions.

The future of ag?

Regen ag continues to gain significant momentum as a leading model for sustainable agriculture.

According to Fernanda Vendramel, head of regenerative agriculture at Bunge, it is, quite simply, the “agriculture of the future”.

She was speaking during a panel discussion at the recent World Agri-Tech South America Summit in São Paulo. Bunge recently officially launched its regenerative agriculture platform in Brazil. The programme has already enrolled dozens of large-scale Brazilian farmers covering around 250,000 hectares of land. Bunge has invested $20 million to more than double the current area under the programme to 600,000 hectares by 2026.

What’s in it for Bunge? By positioning itself as a key enabler of regen at scale in Brazil, it hopes to both future-proof its supply chain and meet growing market demand for food and biofuel products grown using regenerative practices. By supporting farmers in adopting these methods, Bunge can better meet this demand.

“We are in the middle of the supply chain,” explained Vendramel. “We believe we have a key role to connect the demand for regen ag products with the farms where the changes are occurring.”

Many farmers need incentives to adopt new practices though. “We know that implementing regen ag practices means long-term benefits in terms of yields and the reduction of costs,” said Vendramel. “But in the first years of transition farmers have to receive an incentive to start.”

Bunge offers financial and other incentives such as free access to technical assistance, digital and precision tools to Brazilian farmers who adopt – and who have already adopted – sustainable practices through its programme.

A collective challenge requiring a collective solution

But reaping the benefits of regen ag is a collective challenge, explained Vendramel. The full supply chain is needed to help incentivise these practices, according to Bunge.

Reliable data, for example, is key in terms of assessing the progress seen on farms.

Bunge has therefore partnered with several organisations to implement its regen ag programme, including Orígeo, a joint venture between Bunge and UPL, which provides data digitisation and low-carbon farming solutions. Precision agriculture start-up xFarm Technologies​ also offers the programme AI-powered farm management tools and decision support systems.

Bunge is also partnering with food, fuel and feed companies to build financial incentives for farmers adopting regen ag practices.  

But scare stories in Brazil serve to illustrate that establishing business models to efficiently incentivise farmers to sequester carbon remains work in progress.

Last month, for example, three carbon credit projects were suspended in the Brazilian Amazon​ after the Federal Police's Greenwashing Operation targeted the leaders of supposedly “green” initiatives with suspected links to a land-grabbing and illegal logging scam.

Is a standardised definition of regen ag needed to reap the benefits?

Marcelo Torres, president of Aapresid (the Argentine No-till Farmers Association) sounded another warning. Aapresid is a strong proponent of sustainable agricultural practices as a means to increase productivity, improve soil health, and mitigate climate change.

But he told the audience: “We have to agree on what we mean by regenerative ag. Otherwise, it will just become a fashionable term that we will discard in a couple of years as we did with many others.”

A particular bugbear for Aapresid is the fear that, without a standard definition, the regen ag movement will ultimately move to totally eliminate the use of chemical fertilisers, which are typically used by no-till farming.

“In different parts of the world we’ve begun to see that, little by little, restrictions not based on science are infiltrating drastically, lowering the level of our conversation,” he said.

“It’s some countries it’s beginning to look like organic agriculture without rational use of external inputs.”

Organic farming generally produces lower yields than conventional farming – a yield gap that is a significant concern for feeding a growing global population.

“We see a risk that we end up promoting models that cannot sustain the growing demand for food, fibre and energy,” said Torres. For him, the world needs to see more widespread adoption of no-till farming practices to address the likes soil degradation, erosion, and climate change.

“We cannot speak about regeneration while 85% of the world’s agriculture lands are tilled,” he said.

He agreed, however, with Bunge’s assertion that the full supply chain is needed to help incentivise sustainable practices. Collaborative innovation models made up of agribusinesses, start-ups and agronomists are required at local levels, he said, to work with farmers to ensure they get the best from the solutions available to them that considers the reality of the farm. “Only then may we ensure efficient, profitable and effectively adopt this technology.”

He added: “It is important to establish protocols, to collect and share data as well as develop a transparent approach to measure the soil carbon benefit of climate smart practices.”

Carbon: the new cash crop​ for Brazil’s farmers?

On the same panel was Fabio Sakamoto the CEO of Biomas, a company recently created by Itaú, Marfrig, Rabobank, Santander, Suzano and Vale in 2022.

It has plans to restore Brazilian biomes on a large scale, generating high-quality carbon credits for farmers to sell.

“The new business model we are looking at is allocating farmlands efficiently and getting the right price so that carbon farming and restoration is a viable alternative to the farmer,” he said.

Biomas is focused on restoring and preserving four million hectares of native forests in Brazil's Amazon, Atlantic Forest, and Cerrado biomes over the next 20 years. The initiative aims to remove around 900 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.

“We have lots of pasture and degraded lands that we could convert to forest at a very attractive price with a solid methodology,” Sakamoto said.

“This is the huge opportunity in Brazil.”

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