Can regenerative agriculture reverse climate change? Big Food is banking on it.

Regenerative agriculture works to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil, but there’s an ongoing debate on how much carbon can be stored there and for how long.
Illustration of man in suit jacket holding a clump of dirt with various branded products growing from the soil.
Companies like General Mills, Danone, Kellogg, and Nestlé, among other Big Food corporations, say they're investing in environmentally friendly practices such as rebuilding biodiversity and eliminating deforestation.Doug Chayka for NBC News / Getty Images

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By Gosia Wozniacka, Civil Eats

This story was produced in partnership with Civil Eats, a nonprofit news organization focused on the American food system.

More than 20 years ago, Will Harris was a cattle farmer who relied on common industrial tools like pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and antibiotics. Today, his 2,500-acre ranch in Bluffton, Georgia, is a holistically managed, no-waste operation with 10 species of livestock rotated to graze the rolling pastures and fertilize the land without chemicals, resulting in rich, healthy soil.

Known as regenerative agricultural practices, those methods have not only improved the land of his ranch, White Oak Pastures, they also have led to the land becoming a carbon sink, pulling carbon from the air and storing it in the ground. As a result, Harris’ ranch has been able to offset a majority of the emissions related to its beef production. A key supplier of General Mills' EPIC Provisions brand, the ranch has become a model of how to transition to a form of farming that the company says can provide a solution for climate change.

"I've literally bet the farm on it working,” Harris said.

General Mills, the packaged food giant, is one of several Big Food corporations jumping on the regenerative agriculture bandwagon, escalating the buzz around the idea that capturing carbon in the soil could reverse climate change. The company took the lead when it announced this spring that it would apply regenerative agriculture to 1 million acres by 2030 — about a quarter of the land from which it sources ingredients in North America.

Undisturbed soil naturally contains carbon and microbes, but once it's tilled for farming, for instance, the carbon is released into the air. Regenerative agriculture, a term that is often used synonymously with “carbon farming,” is a set of practices that builds organic matter back into the soil, effectively storing more water and drawing more carbon out of the atmosphere. Examples include applying compost and employing managed grazing, as well as planting cover crops, which protect the soil in winter and prevent erosion while adding nutrients. Though scientists generally agree the practices, especially when used together, work to draw more carbon, there’s an ongoing debate on how much carbon can be stored that way and for how long.

General Mills has since rolled out a pilot project for oat farmers, as well an open-source self-assessment app available to anyone interested in implementing regenerative practices. Soil health academies and individualized coaching for farmers are in the works, as is the conversion of thousands of conventional acres into organic production.

"We've been looking at these farmers as the examples of what is possible in terms of soil health, diversity and farmer resilience," Mary Jane Melendez, General Mills' chief sustainability and social impact officer, said. "Imagine what you could get if ... more farmers were implementing these practices. It could be revolutionary."

Danone, Kellogg, Nestlé, and a dozen other companies are not far behind. At the recent United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City, they announced the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) coalition to advance regenerative agriculture, rebuild biodiversity and eliminate deforestation. And Land O'Lakes, the dairy and animal feed behemoth, is also touting its soil conservation efforts, including a new initiative to help bolster sustainability on 1.5 million acres of U.S.-grown corn.

The potential for global impact is significant. But the big question is whether the push for regenerative practices by some of the world’s biggest food companies will be effective at reversing climate change — or if it’ll just help them market and sell more products.

"It's a good thing for companies to acknowledge that the system is damaging the climate and look for ways to reduce emissions. Where the rubber meets the road is in the specifics," said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that promotes sustainable farming. "Are they going to pay farmers more money to raise crops or animals in a different way? And if they have to make changes, or don't meet their targets, what are the repercussions?"

'It's Pretty Magical'

The focus on regenerative agriculture is just the latest in a slew of climate-related strategies coming from Big Food, which also include efforts to minimize food waste, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the impact on land by offering plant-based meat alternatives, and marketing organic or non-GMO product lines.

While some are concerned that such strategies amount only to “greenwashing,” or making claims about environmental benefits for marketing purposes, Lilliston said that companies like General Mills and Danone "are well aware that climate change is real, that it's bringing severe changes, and that it may disrupt their supply chains and production."

About 50 percent of General Mills’ greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, Melendez said. So after a decade of investing in various sustainability practices, she said, the company realized there was a better approach. The epiphany came in 2015 at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, when her predecessor heard farmers talk about the impact of a changing climate on soil health. "What they have seen on their farms, how they're getting economically resilient ... we thought it's pretty magical," she said.

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The company acquired the well-known organic brand Annie’s in 2014 and faced criticism that it was watering down the mission-driven company in its quest for growth. Then, in 2016, General Mills supported The Nature Conservancy in developing a Soil Health Roadmap, which made the case for investing in building healthier soil on U.S. croplands.

It later commissioned research on Harris’ ranch. The assessment, which has not yet been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal, showed that the ranch offsets a majority of its emissions by capturing and storing soil carbon through the application of compost and use of rotational grazing, which moves cattle between paddocks of pasture for short periods of time, stimulating the growth of carbon-storing perennial grasses.

To expand such practices, Melendez said, General Mills decided to focus on its North American brands and key ingredients, including oats, wheat, corn, dairy feed and sugar beets. The company will provide farmers financial assistance to change their practices, including paying for monthly one-on-one coaching, soil sampling/testing and the creation of a custom transition plan. It is betting that once regenerative principles are implemented, the farmers will save money on fertilizers and pesticides, making them more profitable.

The first pilot project, which spans 50,000 acres of farmland, began this spring with a group of 45 oat farmers in North Dakota and Canada. A second pilot program, with 35 large-scale Kansas wheat farmers, will kick off in November.

The training is led by Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer, regenerative no-till pioneer and author of the 2018 book “Dirt to Soil.” Rather than prescribe a single approach to regenerative agriculture, Brown stresses that every farm is unique and requires its own set of solutions.

For Harris, whose White Oak Pastures began making the transition two decades ago, the support of a large corporation has been critical.

“The difficulty for any farmer trying to step out of the industrial model … is the risks they take,” Harris said. “A company like General Mills is in the position to mitigate some of the risks by guaranteeing a market for their product.”

Though in the end, he added, it’s consumers who must decide whether they “care enough about the land, animals, community and environment” to pay more for the food produced using regenerative practices.

Another challenge, Harris said, is that his profit margins have narrowed as large national and international companies have “greenwashed” competing products. “They have not really changed the way they produce the food, but have changed the way they talk about it, so that it confuses consumers,” he said. “That devalues what we, as regenerative farmers, do.”

Adopting regenerative practices will be voluntary in the General Mills program, and each farmer can determine how much land to devote to the project and which practices to use, Melendez said.

That, however, means farmers may set their own targets, self-report the results and face no repercussions if the results don't materialize, Lilliston, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said.

Melendez said measuring outcomes will be critical, but it is still developing their own unique outcome measurements. With 2019 as a baseline, she said the company plans to follow the farmers for five to seven years. For comparison, it will evaluate control farms in the same area that are not adopting regenerative practices.

Science Still in Question

Some scientists remain skeptical about whether regenerative agriculture is as revolutionary as its proponents claim and can indeed reverse climate change. For instance, Andrew McGuire, an agronomist at Washington State University, has questioned the results Gabe Brown has achieved on his farm, writing that his “extraordinary claims” haven’t been replicated enough times to prove they are “real and repeatable.” He challenged the regenerative ag community to prove that it’s not the “cold fusion of agriculture,” referring to a theoretical form of nuclear power.

At the heart of the question is uncertainty about just how long carbon can remain in the soil. The General Mills' White Oak Pastures assessment points out that benefits of regenerative practices could actually be much smaller because the carbon sequestered could be re-emitted in the next year (or the next decade) if the ranch returns to tilling. In addition, the study says the rate of carbon sequestration will slow in the future as soil carbon content hits a ceiling.

David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington and author of “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” and “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” said there’s no question that regenerative agriculture can sequester carbon, but the amount of carbon that can be added to the soil is finite. Therefore, it’s not a panacea.

One much-cited estimate of potential soil sequestration published to date suggests that if regenerative practices were used on all of the world’s croplands and pastures forever — a huge assumption — the soil may be able to sequester up to 322 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s a far cry from the 1 trillion ton sequestration some claim possible.

“The claims that you can reverse climate change with regenerative agriculture, that’s a real stretch. The more credible estimates are a good down payment on reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide,” Montgomery said. But he also stresses that the effort can easily be undone.

“If we invest in regenerative ag and 50 years later we plow it up, we undo all the benefits. We have to find a way to help maintain it there. To do that, we need policies in place to ensure that the regenerative work that's done today is beneficial in the future.”

Private or Public Policy?

Lilliston believes the company-by-company approach is less effective than stronger climate-friendly policies that apply to everyone. "The changes they are trying to make should be integrated into a broader climate strategy," he said. "A lot of it should be publicly funded. Some of it will require new regulations. A piecemeal company-pledged approach is not going to get us where we need to get to."

Danone, which convened 19 corporations in the OP2B biodiversity coalition, said the coalition and public announcements put pressure on other companies to deliver what they promise. "We're private actors; we will be very transparent about what we want to transform," Eric Soubeiran, vice president of nature and water cycle at Danone, said.

The coalition plans to announce more specific plans in 2020, along with a set of indicators to measure their impact, and will build on member companies' existing projects, but will also include collective actions.

Soubeiran said political action is indeed needed in addition to corporate pledges, and the coalition plans to propose policy changes as well. "If we vote alone, we're only Danone. If we have a coalition, we can create a dialogue, a forum of discussion" to help convince others in the private and public sectors, he said.

New policies that advance and reward regenerative practices would also benefit the companies themselves, said Timothy Wise, director of the land and food rights program at the Small Planet Institute, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., and author of “Eating Tomorrow.” "If you're a company wanting to do the right thing, you have a huge interest in the government making that the norm, because you're incurring additional money and risks to change your practices," he said. While companies may do good things for the reputational benefits, to enhance their brand, in the end they're better when the playing field is level, he added.

The problem with a company-led approach, said Wise, is that it's likely to tackle “low-hanging fruit” and may yield results that aren't fully environmentally friendly. "You end up with a corporate menu of climate-smart options that's been [reduced] to those options that promote sales or that don't threaten sales," Wise said.

An example, he said, is companies advocating for no-till farming and cover-cropping on wide tracts of monocultures that continue to use chemicals such as Roundup. And he’s not alone in calling out those contradictions; Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups have also recently called attention to herbicide use in regenerative agriculture, and several companies are piloting a Regenerative Organic label that doesn’t allow for the use of synthetic herbicides or pesticides.

Regardless of how its done, most experts agree that regenerative farming won’t make up for the other carbon costs associated with producing, shipping and packaging massive quantities of food.

As geologist David Montgomery put it: “Putting more carbon in the soil will buy us some time. But if we continue to burn fossil fuels, once we fill up the soil with the carbon, all we have done is delay things a bit.”