Regenerating Soil Health in the US
Soil health has received a lot of attention over the past few years, as links between healthy soil, climate change, and agricultural resilience come to life. Healthy soils store carbon which plays an important role in mitigating climate change. Healthy soils store water and have higher fertility, resulting in crops that are more resilient to extreme weather events brought on by climate change.
Soil degradation in the US
The United States has an intimate history with soil health. In the 1930s, a series of droughts combined with poor soil management led to the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains. Severe soil erosion and horrific dust storms wreaked havoc for nearly a decade.
While this event occurred almost 100 years ago, the US still struggles with soil degradation. Today, soil erosion in the United States is estimated to cost $67 billion a year. This is in the form of an externality, a cost not paid directly by farmers or businesses, but typically born by the public sector, consumers and future generations.
Degraded soil comes with an expensive societal price tag. At the same time, climate change will put agriculture to the test with more extreme weather events including droughts, flooding, summer heatwaves and warming winters. Now is the time to move away from farming practices that degrade soil health, to farming practices that can increase agriculture’s resilience to climate change.
Climate’s impact on US agriculture
Regenerative agriculture provides a framework by which agricultural practices can support and improve soil health. Generally speaking, there are five core principles; minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing crop diversity, keeping the soil covered, maintaining living roots year round, and integrating livestock. These principles can be achieved through practices such as the use of cover crops, switching to no till systems, implementing diverse crop rotations, and allowing animals to graze cover crops.
From record low wheat harvests in 2021 due to drought, to almost one third of sugar beets in a critical production region going unharvested in 2019 due to flooding, climate change has already disrupted conventional agricultural supply chains. Improving soil health through the implementation of regenerative agriculture practices could help to minimise supply chain disruption.
How businesses can take action
How can businesses take action to protect and regenerate soil? It starts with supplier and farmer engagement to understand the regions you source from, the baseline practices, and the local needs.
From there you can determine where market-based incentives or cost-sharing might be needed at the farm level, or where training and support could be implemented. Direct farmer engagement could enable long-term buying relationships that could be beneficial for farmers and businesses.
It is also critical to build internal capacity for regenerative agriculture. This might involve an internal team with dedicated budget for launching pilot projects, or a procurement team with specific regenerative agriculture sourcing goals.
Next, businesses can drive action by formally investing in pilots and partnerships. This investment could be the impetus that a region or a group of farmers needs to take the jump into a regenerative journey. Partnerships are critical for success and can involve government, other businesses, farmer networks and research institutions among others.
Finally, communication is imperative. Sharing best practices within the industry will allow for scaling far beyond your own value chain.
Our work in soils in the US
Our work in soils in the US began in 2020, working with member companies on the topic of regenerative agriculture. Since then, we have supported members to gain internal buy-in on the importance of soil health, to set goals, to develop the business case for investment, and to develop implementation strategies.
In 2021, we began supporting Grupo Bimbo, our member and the world’s largest baking company, to embed regenerative agriculture practices within their supply chain. By 2030, Grupo Bimbo aims to source 200,000 hectares of wheat that is farmed with regenerative agricultural practices, and by 2050 aspires that 100 percent of their key ingredient sourcing be regenerative representing.
To concretely support the development of Grupo Bimbo’s Global Regenerative Agriculture Framework, last year we toured dozens of farms in Kansas along with several key Grupo Bimbo suppliers. Kansas is a strategic wheat sourcing region for Grupo Bimbo.
More than 90 percent of farms visited already use one or more practices that could be considered regenerative including no-till, succession and mixed cropping, and intercropping or improved organic residue management.
As we get ready to launch on-the-ground pilots in 2022, we are excited to support our members to enable systems change in agriculture. Changes that will support the wide scale adoption of farming practices; that prioritise both the environment and the people who grow our food.