Regenerative agriculture has been gaining popularity in pockets of farming over the last several years, but now Cargill Inc., the world's largest agribusiness, is pushing the phenomenon.
The Minnetonka, Minn.-based company on Wednesday said it will help convert 10 million acres of row crop farmland in North America over a decade to regenerative practices, which are designed to improve soil biodiversity and reduce erosion and runoff.
Cargill joins a growing list of U.S. corporations, including General Mills, that are backing regenerative agriculture as a solution to climate problems and depressed rural economies.
"When we invest in soil health we get what we call 'stack benefits' where we have the opportunity to reduce carbon, but also improve water quality or water-use efficiency, even other things like wildlife diversity," said Ryan Sirolli, Cargill's director of row crop sustainability. "We see this as being a long-term benefit economically for the producer, independent of any of the market incentives."
Regenerative agriculture is a different approach from the mainstream system that relies on intensive chemical use on farms. It's a long-term commitment to improving the land but one that creates greater risk on farmers, who often can't afford to suffer a failed planting season by experimenting with alternative methods of weed control and cover crops.
Cargill executives say it aims to help farmers lower that risk, a needed step if regenerative agriculture is ever to reach the scale to significantly improve the environment.
"We really believe the (regenerative) system itself really is an economic benefit to the farmer," Sirolli said. "So for us, it is about helping them get through those first few years where the risks are higher. So helping them get to that point where they reap the benefits. Anybody who goes into this has to be thinking about it long term."
Cargill has supported a number of regenerative agriculture pilot programs in the past few years, but Wednesday's announcement is the largest public commitment to the concept yet.
Even so, with 1.1 billion acres of farmland in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, Cargill's goal is still relatively small. But the company estimates that converting 10 million acres to this farming method will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million tons, the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.
The initiative will focus primarily on row crop rotations including corn, wheat and soybeans in North America. Cargill said they will give whatever support farmers need, whether its knowledge, training or market-based incentives.