How Regenerative Ag is Shaping the Future of Food

This article by Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., was first published Feb. 12, 2020, at Forbes.


One of our TechAccel associates, Mike Rohlfsen, mentioned in passing the other day that he’s the top consumer at his local Starbucks.

Just as we were wondering about that (I imagined him ordering lattes by the gallon), he provided the context. It’s all about the grounds. He is the local shop’s No. 1 customer in used coffee grounds.

“I’ve used over a thousand pounds to top dress my lawn, add to my compost, and amend the soil in my gardens,” he said. “This sounds like a lot, but you’d never know it was ever there. Even in my little yard, it’s all going to work in various agronomic ways. It’s amazing how much material is out there to use for this sort of thing, yet we throw it out.”

He’s practicing a form of Regenerative Ag with every Starbucks visit. He is a conscientious avoider of food waste, an advocate for the soil, and he rarely misses an opportunity to educate others about how they too can practice Regenerative Ag. With or without a farm.

Wait – what is it?

Regenerative Ag has become a hot topic, but it still is hard to define in simple ways. Experts will provide differing definitions and technical criteria, and consumer marketing, in some cases, distorts the concept and assigns blame.

So, Mike, how do you define it? His explanation: Regenerative Ag is all about soil health and finding ways to reduce or repurpose byproducts and use them for agronomic benefit. It can be novel uses of biologics to promote microbial activity. It includes putting more organic material into the soil. It includes reducing the use of chemistry or the overuse of synthetic fertilizers, which can disrupt the soil biology. It can include the use of cover crops, crop and animal rotations, erosion avoidance, taking steps to fix nitrogen levels and increase soil porosity. Yes, that can even include nurturing earthworms.

Mike comes by his Regenerative Ag expertise the hard way: starting with summer work as a kid at his grandfather’s farm – 100 acres, 25 head dairy farming and small egg layer operations. “Everything got used,” he recalled, “down to the food scraps from the dinner table for the chickens. I don’t think an ounce of fertilizer was used in the garden. Fields were top-dressed with manure and old hay from the barns and chicken bedding.”

He continued developing these practices in his professional career, in 2004 as co-founder of Cargill Environmental Finance. “Nearly all we did was focused on converting agricultural by-products to energy,” he said. The company worked with supply chains to convert by-products – dairy manure, food process residues, tropical crops, algae – to benefits. Later in 2014, he helped deliver Heliae’s Phycoterra brand of microalgae as a biostimulant and soil enhancer.

Mike might be called a Regenerative Ag evangelist, but it’s not a matter of faith – this is rooted in science. The science of soil, plant and animal biology, microbial ecosystems, carbon sequestration, water quality, biodiversity and climate change all contribute to the Regenerative Ag story. Even digital technology – with new sensors and monitors, data collection and mining, deep learning and predictive analytics – has a role in enabling more bio-based ag innovation. 

These kinds of practices are important because the soil needs help. Intense agricultural production in certain areas of the world over centuries has taken a lot of organic material from the soil – and we know the percentage of organic matter is highly correlated with yield. The use of chemical fertilizers promoted larger and more standardized crops, but also led to unintended consequences like runoff pollution in waterways and aquifers. Next consider the clock: we have just 30 harvests until 2050, the year when global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion. Even if the population estimates are overstated, we still face annual losses in arable land and serious threats to agriculture and food production from climate change. (For example, land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, and urban areas have more than doubled since 1992, according to a 2019 UN Report.) The challenge is doing more with less. It all starts with taking care of the soil.

On the farm

Most farmers are good stewards of the land. They understand their livelihood is based on sustainable management of the land and its resources. They respect nature and see their role as a collaborator and protector, invested in nourishing the resiliency of the land. Fortunately, some of the hype around this “new” concept of Regenerative Ag has given agriculture a chance to demonstrate its potential as a force for addressing climate change and preserving the planet for future generations.

Ranchers and farmers raising production animals have a synergistic role, too. It may be counterintuitive, given the many headlines about cows and their methane gas emissions, but livestock rotations and other organic matter can be part of the solution. New technology might help with alternate feeds or additives that can increase the efficiency of the rumen or its microbiome, not only reducing methane but improving yield and preserving human foodstuffs for humans.

Ag investors are all in on the Regenerative Ag bandwagon, too, backing opportunities for digital farm and livestock management (see Antelliq), soil and plant sensors, predictive modeling, and robotic or drone applications. Many of the ag biotechnology advances also offer alternatives to chemical fertilizers or pesticides, including startups applying gene editing, epigenetics, and RNAi technologies to ag and food solutions.  

Are you still wasting your coffee grounds?

Beyond technology to improve resource utilization and avoid chemicals, there’s also a significant focus on reducing waste. The appalling fact is that one third of food produced is wasted or lost, at a cost of nearly $1 trillion a year. Investors are betting on systems to improve management and increase transparency of the food production pipeline, as well as technologies to reuse materials already wasted. Noteworthy examples include KDC Ag, which offers a scalable method to convert food waste into animal feed and organic fertilizer.

Regenerative Ag extends from the fields to the food processing systems, from the grocery store to your own backyard. This is a movement that’s large enough to embrace everyone.

Non-farmers can be part of the solution too, at least in their own gardens and kitchens. For example, it could start with a simple household rule: We don’t waste food. (See the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook or SaveTheFood for examples of how to make this rule stick.)

It’s okay to start small. Plan your food purchases, learn a new way to store or preserve your foods, start a compost station. Or be like Mike and start working your used coffee grounds into your soil.

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