Food giants throw support behind regenerative farming

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A partnership announced in August between McDonald’s Canada and McCains Foods to advance regenerative agriculture practices on Canadian farms puts the spotlight on a concept that’s been gaining momentum — and attracting some controversy — over the past decade.

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A partnership announced in August between McDonald’s Canada and McCains Foods to advance regenerative agriculture practices on Canadian farms puts the spotlight on a concept that’s been gaining momentum — and attracting some controversy — over the past decade.

Depending on who you talk to, “regenerative” agriculture will either reshape the future of food production or become mired in the jungle of conflicting narratives and fade into obscurity.

Although the latter seems less likely now that major food companies and governments are throwing their support behind it, deciphering the differences between the hype, the spin, the potential and the reality is getting harder all the time.

Kayla Link, co-owner of E & B Farms northeast of Carberry. (Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun)

The two food giants announced that they are injecting $1 million into education, demonstration, and cost-sharing grants to help potato farmers adopt regenerative practices and technology.

McCains had earlier launched its global Regenerative Agriculture Framework, a four-pronged commitment to implementing regenerative agricultural practices across 100 per cent of its potato acreage by 2030. The strategy includes development of three “Farms of the Future” to research, demonstrate and transfer knowledge to growers.

This latest announcement followed a US$2.3-million partnership announced in July between Minneapolis-based General Mills and the Canadian charity ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) to support adoption of regenerative agriculture in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where the company sources the oats it uses to make breakfast cereals and granola bars.

Many of the funding announcements coming from government farm programs these days cite regenerative agriculture as a one of the desired outcomes.

What makes the concept so intriguing — and at the same time confounding — is that the focus is on improving soil health without being prescriptive on the tactics.

Rather, it is based on five loosely defined principles: minimize soil disturbance, minimize the use of chemical inputs, maximize diversity of animals and plants, keep the soil covered with growing plants as long as possible during the year, and adapt to the local environmental and climatic conditions.

Regenerative could relate to any farming practice that potentially improves soil quality, whether it’s using less tillage, planting a mix of plants to cover the ground after the annual crop is harvested, or rotational grazing — moving cattle frequently to allow plants to recover.

Words such as “minimize” or “maximize” or “as long as possible” leave lots of room for interpretation, which makes the premise accessible to more farmers but less amenable to the exclusivity that is typically associated with value-added agriculture.

Grain farmers who find ways to cut their herbicide use without eliminating it entirely, qualify. Cattle farmers who do a better job of maintaining their pastures and hay fields qualify. Chickpea and bean farmers who grow some of their own nitrogen qualify.

But at the same time, those obscure parameters make defining success and capturing the value problematic.

Sometimes described as a continuum, the concept invites growers and ranchers to move in a certain direction with only vague promises of improved soil “health” as the payback.

But what is the tangible outcome of healthy soil? To a farmer, it means higher productivity, because that’s how they get paid. To climate change mitigators, it means storing more carbon and producing lower emissions, which may or may not increase yields. For those concerned about water quality, it means less runoff of soil and nutrients into rivers, streams and lakes.

It all matters, but to varying degrees for each stakeholder.

It’s hard to explain to consumers how organic farmers, who rely on tillage to control weeds, and no-till farmers, who rely on pesticides can be on opposite sides of the farming system spectrum, yet both can legitimately call themselves regenerative.

What is difficult to explain is even harder to sell. Although some have tried, no one can homogenize this, systemize it and package it as a solution.

The key regenerative principle, the one that I think will carry it through the generations, is the one about adapting to the local environmental and climatic conditions.

More than anything, regenerative agriculture is about empowering individual farmers with the skills to read what their patch of land is telling them and the knowledge to make peace with it. That bodes well for the future.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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