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  • Writer's pictureSarah Kellogg & Bar Pereg

Our big bet on Regenerative Agriculture

Food is the essence of life, woven into every aspect of our existence. It fuels economies, helps us connect with heritage or community, and holds the power to harm or heal precious landscapes. Today, we're making a significant move by focusing on regenerative agriculture as one of our strategic 'big bets,' and we're eager to share why.

Tl;dr

There is a unique opportunity today for a new breed of agri-food businesses to catalyze the paradigm shift needed to enable widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture. Ventures built to thrive in a regenerative and resilient food system offer the opportunity to deliver both attractive returns and environmental benefits—especially when we (1) reduce risk and cost by using existing technology in new ways and (2) challenge orthodoxies -- for example, around what work must be done where, or how value and risk are shared across the value chain. Over the coming months, we will turn preliminary hypotheses into an initial venture.


Rethinking our Agri-food system: time for the next paradigm

You may already know one of the most exciting things about our global food system: while it is responsible for a third of global emissions, it can also serve as a nature-based climate change solution by (re)capturing carbon in soil. Even more stunningly, there is potential for a win-win coming into focus: healthy, carbon-rich soils likely produce more nutrient dense crops.


Now take a moment to consider another critical yet under-appreciated part of the system: its essential workers.


In the U.S., 22 million Americans do the (often invisible) work of enabling our food supply: from cultivating crops to stocking shelves. One of these cohorts - American farmers and ranchers - decide how the majority of our land is managed while producing the food we eat. Despite this essential work, they often rely on off-farm income to cover their operating expenses, only receive 14 cents on average for every dollar spent on food, and are twice as likely to commit suicide than other professions.

This cohort, representing less than 2% of our U.S. population, are our society’s fingertips reaching into our agricultural soils. Empowering them to lead the way in the creation of an agri-food system that adapts to, and helps mitigate the effects of, climate change is vital. But putting all the work to be done solely on their shoulders is not the solution. What we need is a paradigm shift. This may sound lofty, but it was only 70 years ago that we last redesigned our agri-food system through the Green Revolution, introducing high-yielding crop varieties, advanced technologies, and new irrigation methods to significantly increase agricultural productivity and generate enough calories to feed a growing population. Yet we now know that this system - despite meaningful benefits - comes with drawbacks like a drop in nutrient density and significant societal and environmental costs.

Now imagine a system where the majority of farmers and ranchers work with nature to produce our food, agricultural communities are empowered to steward financial, natural, and human capital, and the food most readily available is full of flavor and nutrition. We believe these outcomes are within reach. And it doesn’t require us to start with a blank slate.


The turning point: regenerative agriculture as a leverage point 

At its core, regenerative agriculture is a way of managing a system of land, livestock, and crops that gives back more to the environment and society than it takes. Instead of managing land to produce as much of an agricultural product as possible, regenerative operations aim to care for the long-term wellbeing of the environment (with a critical focus on soil health) while simultaneously producing high quality agricultural outputs. Although the term has rapidly gained popularity, the regenerative agriculture movement stands on the shoulders of both modern (like agroecology) and traditional (including indigenous) knowledge.


However, regenerative agriculture defined in this way is not itself a paradigm shift. Our desire to see regenerative agriculture become the mainstream method for managing our agricultural lands presents an opportunity to create a new paradigm. This is because it requires us to evolve our agri-food system holistically–not just on the farm or ranch. We must, for example, answer questions such as: why will the majority of farm and ranch operations opt to manage their land regeneratively? What is required after the farmgate to translate the benefits of regenerative land management into value drivers that end markets want or need?


To be clear: where the principles and practices of regenerative agriculture have been implemented over the past several decades, it has been despite the prevailing system - not because of it. Simply asking or expecting the stewards of our agricultural lands to change their management practices will not be enough. Furthermore, we must increase the pace at which we are transitioning how land is managed to achieve the human and planetary benefits we increasingly understand our agri-food system is poised to deliver. We must think bigger - not in millions of acres, but across all 1.2 billion acres of U.S. agricultural land – and well beyond the farmgate.


Transforming infrastructure: regeneration beyond the farmgate

To both incentivize and receive the outputs regenerative operations create, we must thoroughly explore every pathway to transform our agri-food system holistically. A critical area we are focused on is the gap in infrastructure needed to convert regenerative outputs into the food we eat.

Drawing a parallel to the energy transition, generating abundant clean energy from renewable sources is crucial. But our electrical grid is not ready for the increased volume and diverse sources of this energy. Similarly, achieving our next food system paradigm requires an abundant supply of regenerative agricultural products. However, the vast majority of our current agri-food system infrastructure is designed to handle commoditized blockbuster products, like CAFO cattle, or monoculture corn and soy.

To support the uptake of regenerative practices on our agricultural lands, we need to modernize our middle infrastructure to process the diverse output regenerative systems create. For example, the shift to regenerative agriculture in row crops will produce a wider variety of crops (including nitrogen-fixing legumes and drought-resistant millets and sorghum), but facilities capable of handling these crops are limited.

And we can’t stop there – we need to create offtake markets that attract farmers to grow for regenerative markets. This involves creating new arrangements where risks and rewards are shared more equitably between producers and buyers. It also requires retaining critical data attributes for agricultural products through all stages of processing and delivery, enabling benefits like lower carbon intensity or improved nutrition to reach end markets.

With this, we can begin to glimpse a new paradigm - where our agri-food system serves human needs as part of nature, reclaims diversity at scale, and delivers quality with efficiency - begin to come into focus.


Harvesting potential: Now is the time to seize the opportunity

There is a remarkable opportunity for a new breed of agri-food business to enter the space and make an impact at scale. A host of trends and growing collective understanding are converging to make this the right time to take action, including:

  • A generational shift in who manages a large portion of our agricultural lands, creating an unprecedented opportunity to see new management systems implemented on those acres

  • An influx of capital to help operators overcome financial barriers associated with transitioning to regenerative practices on farms and ranches

  • Growing recognition of the role soil carbon sequestration can play in addressing climate change both by investors and businesses across the value chain

  • Rising consumer demand for regenerative products and for factors like taste, quality, and nutrition, which align with the unique advantages we increasingly understand foods produced through regenerative systems can offer

 

However, the crucial question of how to connect the growing supply of regenerative agricultural products and demand for regenerative food at scale remains unanswered. By focusing our efforts on establishing more transparent markets supported by scalable infrastructure and purposeful technology, we can both create momentum towards the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture and begin the necessary work of establishing our next paradigm.


Building and operating markets purpose-built for a regenerative and resilient agri-food system is not something we have done before at scale. This is exactly why we’re excited - there are massive commercial opportunities, substantial societal and environmental upsides, and the potential for existing technology to be intelligently repurposed to create outlier companies that lead the way in this burgeoning market.


Want to learn more about our work in the regenerative agriculture space? Reach out to bar@polly-labs.com


Cover photo credit: Photo by Zoe Schaeffer on Unsplash

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