Rewriting the carbon story

As awareness continues to grow about the importance of reducing carbon emissions, one solution to minimise carbon footprints and mitigate the risk of climate change is regenerative agriculture. By Anne-Marie Hardie

Carbon, and in turn, the carbon footprint, has been recognised as one of the leading causes of human-induced climate change. Over the past few decades, companies have shifted their infrastructures to reduce the negative impact, hoping to protect plants, waterways, and animals. However, when carbon is in the soil, it improves its ability to retain water and its overall fertility. So, the challenge is how do we get carbon out of the air and back into the earth? The solution is regenerative agriculture.

Bringing soil to the forefront

For decades, the climate change conversation centered around harm reduction with the goal of shifting agricultural practices to become carbon neutral. The challenge with this model is that it simply maintains the environment where it is today, which means that the current challenges plaguing the industry, including climate unpredictability, drought, and pest infestations, remain. Minimising harm is no longer enough to mitigate the risks of climate change; the environment needs to improve. Instead of adopting methods that will sustain, the focus needs to be repair and regeneration, beginning with adopting agricultural practices that will build healthy soil.

Regenerative farming begins with recognising soil’s role in the health of the planet and those living on it. “Conventional, which is the majority, this is where we have been, and sometimes it is where we are still stuck, but the method is destructive and unsustainable,” said Michael Ham, president, Well AP, Mt Kisco, New York. “Sustainable, which is achieving net zero, will maintain the status quo, but we need to reverse the damage that has been done and the only way to do that is through regenerative. This is where the focus needs to be in the next decade for us to really bring things back to where they should be. “Recognising the benefit, both for the earth and farm itself, Ham shared that their Korean tea farm Wild Orchard made the commitment to shift its practices from organic to regenerative. This past May, Wild Orchard obtained the Regenerative Organic Certification, becoming the first tea farm to receive this certification.

Curious deer traipsing through tea plants that are surrounded by other plants and wildflowers. Image: Wild Orchard

“Regenerative agriculture takes it one step further by focusing on the health of the soil,” said Ham. The model emphasises that soil requires living microbes to achieve its optimal health, which is obtained through various methods, including crop cover, minimising the amount of tillage, biodiversity, and intermittent grazing techniques, can grow nutrient-dense plants and reduce the amount of carbon in the environment.

In 2014, the Rodale Institute, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, released the white paper “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down to Earth Solution to Global Warming,” urging the agricultural sector to consider the long-term impacts of its practices and to adopt regenerative methods. According to the Rodale Institute, most agricultural soil has lost between 30 to 75 per cent of its organic carbon. The loss has been linked to the atmosphere and conventional farming practices. Six years later, the Rodale Institute published “Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution,” reiterating the harm in conventional practices, and urged the agricultural industry to adopt regenerative practices to build healthy soil, and in turn, reduce the levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

Dr Rattan Lal, director of carbon management and sequestration centre, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, and winner of the 2020 World Food Prize, has extensively studied soil health. He continues to emphasise the importance of protecting the soil, both for the health of the environment and to improve food security. He explained the interdependency between the health of soil and the health of the planet, stating that if the health of the soil goes down the health of everything else goes down with it.

Making the shift to regenerative practices

In November 2020, the World Coffee Research organisation invited both Dr Lal and Andrea Illy, chairman of illycaffè, Trieste, Italy, to discuss soil health, and more specifically regenerative agriculture and the need for the coffee industry to shift its farming practices to mitigate the risks of climate change. Over the last five years, several coffee and tea manufacturers have adapted their sustainability strategies to focus on regeneration and soil health. Starbucks launched a holistic sustainability project with a focus on regenerative agriculture in Nariño, Colombia, with 100 smallholder farmers. Nestlé committed to investing 1.3 billion dollars, over a five-year period, to aid farmers with the transition to regenerative practices.

illycaffè announced its goal of becoming a carbon-free company by 2033, including zero-emission coffee plantations in both Guatemala and Kokkere, Ethiopia, where the farmers are adopting the principles of regenerative agriculture. While Unilever released its five regenerative agriculture principles, which would serve as a model of standards that they would use to help educate suppliers and guide their farmers.

Tazo launched a regenerative organic tea line in August. Image: Tazo Tea

This past August, Tazo Tea (formerly owned by Unilever, now owned by ekaterra) launched a regenerative organic tea line made with ingredients grown with regenerative agriculture practices. The product launch included four Tazo original tea blends relaunched as regenerative organic blends. The commitment to becoming regenerative included not just the farms themselves but also a focus on developing resilient communities and replenishing the planet’s resources.

“Tazo has always been a brand that challenges the status quo, and this regenerative organic transition is no exception,” said Laraine Miller, president, ekaterra Americas, New York. “For too long, business as usual has been killing our planet. It is time for every company, including the entire tea industry, to overhaul their means of production to combat climate change and help people and planet thrive.”

The tea and coffee industries are taking action, adopting strategies that focus on regeneration, beginning with educating farmers on the importance of soil health and providing the resources that will support them with making this transition. However, the path to become regenerative, is still in its infancy. “Regenerative agriculture might be the new buzzword on the block, but the key aspect behind it to shift the focus of sustainable farming from ‘doing no harm’ towards delivering positive impact is urgent and garnering more corporate commitment,” said Piet van Asten, head sustainable production systems-coffee, Olam Food Ingredients (OFI), Singapore. “This momentum is proving powerful in driving efforts around decarbonisation and pesticide reduction.”

The message from both the tea and coffee communities is clear. Instead of sustaining, we need to reduce the amount of carbon in the environment, a term, called decarbonisation, and the adoption of regenerative practices provides a strategy to help achieve this goal.

For regenerative practices to be viable at the farm level, the strategies adopted need to be responsive to the particular needs of the farmer.

“From our experience, it’s important to present it to farmers as an extension of what they already do well, rather than as a requirement to change existing practices,” said Van Asten. “To encourage uptake, we need to go beyond the buzzwords by translating what ‘regenerative,’ ‘climate-smart’ or ‘agro-ecological’ practices mean on the ground in terms of better productivity and livelihoods.”

OFI strives to do this through education, including highlighting the benefits that some of these shifts, that may initially appear counterintuitive, like integrated weed management, can provide. For example, through education, the farmers begin to see soil erosion, recycle nutrients, and harbour natural predators to control insect pests. “Educating farmers and supporting them to meet demand by shifting to more eco-friendly production makes what might initially seem a daunting task, an economically viable route in the long-term,” said Van Asten.

From an economic standpoint, this model is being looked at for its potential in developing more resilient crops, and in turn, aiding with food security. However, converting to this model requires farmers to look at the entire process, from soil to the harvest, including both the short- and long-term outcome of each of the techniques that are used. Machine harvesting, for example, traditionally uses fossil fuel emitting these toxins into the environment, which in turn, enters the soil, and the plants. However, innovation in agrotech is looking at eco-friendly alternatives to respond to these challenges so that large scale farms have an option that will maintain their productivity without causing harm to the environment.

At Olam AtSource agronomist shows the benefits of a properly pruned coffee plant. Image: Vanessa L Facenda

Currently, the tea at the 1000-acre farm of Wild Orchard is hand-picked, however, the company is looking at investing in battery powered harvesting machines to pluck their second and third flushes of their crops. The hope is that by incorporating these types of tools into their operation will help accelerate the amount of regenerative tea that enters the supply chain.

The long-term benefits of regenerative agricultural practices continue to gain recognition throughout the tea and coffee industries. On a positive note, each shift that is made at the farm level, whether it is increasing biodiversity, integrated weed management, or maintaining cover crops, will help to feed the soil, and over time, reduce the amount of carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere. The launch of the regenerative organic alliance certification is a tool that will help increase consumer recognition of this agricultural model. However, now, it is up to the industry to share the positive actions that their companies are taking so that the products that are grown through the regenerative model receive both the recognition and the economic value that they deserve.

  • Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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