The Future of Food: Weak standards undermine regenerative agriculture

Without solid standards and verifiable data, farmers, brands and consumers can't assess the value of regenerative agriculture. Read two data analysts' solutions.

August 14, 2023

7 Min Read
The future of food
Illustrations by Mar Bertran

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Regenerative agriculture is the latest buzz-phrase in sustainable food. As companies attempt to create definitions around this topic and how it informs their supply chains and sourcing strategies, disagreements are popping up over the exact tenets of what qualifies.

More attention is focused on sustainability programs such as Regenerative Organic Certified farms in the food industry. Recent SEC rulings signal that publicly traded companies and companies procuring financing must disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and consumers are becoming more adamant about purchasing products that align with their sustainability values. Outside of the above certification, however, few agreed-upon standards exist for food brands, farmers or consumers to know whether or not a particular product or ingredient completely "checks the box" of regenerative agriculture. As discussions abound, one thing is clear: There are many obstacles in the creation of industry-wide standards and qualifications.

Data must be verified to be valuable

You can't change what you don't measure. Describing a process as regenerative implies that there has been a corrective change from damaged, degraded, or depleted status. But if no baseline measurements have been established or recorded, tracking progress becomes infinitely more difficult. Policies and other supporting resources leaning into regenerative agriculture are all being applied to inaccurate, assumptive data, which prolongs the onset of true change and creates chaos in the industry. This confounding situation may or may not be the actual goal of certain fertilizer companies inserting themselves into conversations around policy and market applications.

Regenerative agriculture is as much about reducing purchased inputs as it is about reducing tillage and other forms of intervention. So it's in the best interest of the manufacturers and companies selling these types of inputs to slow the pace of change via policy (or lack of policy) to allow for their business strategy to adapt. In this example, fertilizer companies can't adapt to a market that is collecting data showing that acres and crops applied with their products are not good for people or the planet. They need to build an offering and manufacturing process for products that meet the needs of the changing market if they're not the company they are today.

Verified data services provide the integrity and opportunity we all need to incentivize more positive change at the field level and bring value back to the producers. To obtain the data for input, producers can leverage the current technology packages on board their field equipment in collecting it without taking too much of their most precious resource: time.

Low standards don't effect substantial change

Some want to make regenerative agriculture easily achievable on a broad scale. While this is a noble goal, making the stakes too low isn't helpful in the big picture. Outlining a bare minimum for standards goes against the goal of impacting change that will move the needle. For example, calling no-till and a few cover crops regenerative agriculture is not accurate or productive.  This is especially true in the conventional modeling space. Producers get to do one (or a few) good thing(s) while maintaining the use of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, and yet they might still "technically" qualify for these low-stakes requirements to be regenerative.

We need to strike a balance between standards that are reasonable but that also set the bar high to the highest to see positive change in all the key areas of metrics. Our goal at Merge is to make it easy to achieve the highest bar possible to encourage progress while also ensuring the goals are not demoralizingly difficult to achieve. The aim is to see improvement across all important performance indicators, pushing for the best possible results without setting unrealistic expectations. We aren't in charge of determining what the standards should be, but we know the data used to comply with standards should be primary and real, collectible at scale, and it should clear what the impact of production is.

Beth Robertson-Martin and Ben Adolph are the co-founders of Merge Impact, a data and analytics company that supports transparency in agricultural and carbon markets.

Only transparency kills greenwashing

Transparent production and consumption can change food and agriculture, profoundly impacting how we value (and communicate value) the planet's and our own health. If we stop trying to fake claims about positive outcomes, we can start understanding where we are today and how we can change our behaviors to align with our goals of lasting change.

In some ways, regenerative agriculture, in its current nebulous form, allows greenwashing to continue undercover. Companies can claim to be switching over to more regenerative practices or commit to becoming regenerative without real, concrete action plans or any consequences if they fail since measurable results are not necessarily required to make these claims. Furthermore, because the concept of regenerative has been made so overly complicated, it may be a long time before the average consumer in a grocery store truly knows what it is and what to look for when trying to shop for food that was regeneratively farmed.

Evidence of value pays off

Products and ingredients that truly qualify as regenerative should have more value, and people should be willing to pay more for the additional value. The benefit of this system is that as consumers pay for the additional value, the market sees exactly what, why and for how much. This can only happen if the evidence is clear, irrefutable, and available to all the parties involved in making/selling/buying the product (a benefit blockchain technology affords us!).

Confusing, complicated marketing terms and nebulous "achievements" aren't going to convince people on a large scale to spend more money, so we need to measure what should be changing for the good and document it through a third party that provides integrity, transparency and security. We need to be measuring carbon sequestered, emission avoided, clean water and biodiversity and establish a premium based on the value to the brand and ultimately, the consumer. This is a model the food industry already follows with protein, grading and IP products. Why shouldn't it apply to sustainability metrics?

Throwing up roadblocks on the path to a standard agreement about how to define regenerative agriculture seems to be a deliberate action from some parties. In reality, the most complicated parts fall on the farmers doing the work because this is a highly complex medium to work with, and the management of the regenerative system is far more intensive than the conventional one (and even in some cases, organic). The truth is that farmers will need to work harder to be regenerative. If we can find ways to ease the burden on the farmer, everything else should fall in line.

In the meantime, however, the rest of the industry needs to decide: do they want real change or don't they? Leaving it to other parties and outside agencies is not our best bet; we cannot wait for someone else to take charge. When policies fail, it's time to change the culture and insist on radical transparency. Unfortunately, it is a bit of an uphill battle because some parties may not want better systems; it might cost a lot to fix the ones built on greed. Thus far, the federal government has enabled bad behavior for farmers, and moving forward, it should enable the positive change we need to correct agriculture and food in the US. Some possible ideas: re-align subsidies and protections away from specific crops and into climate outcomes. Mandate real, measured climate outcomes using primary data from the farms.

Beth Robertson-Martin and Ben Adolph are the co-founders of Merge Impact, a data and analytics company that supports transparency in agricultural and carbon markets.

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