Soil becomes fertile ground for climate action

Soil quality is a growing focus in the sustainability space, and for good reason: Fertile soil naturally stabilizes the climate and ensures resilient supply chains. But a third of the planet’s land is severely degraded, and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tons a year, according to a 2017 United Nations-backed study. So, a small but growing group of companies — some directly in agriculture or ranching, others indirectly via sourcing — are investing in healthy soil initiatives.

Soil, no matter how healthy, may not be the spiciest climate solution. It’s not a giant machine that can suck carbon directly from the air — or is it?

In fact, Earth’s soils contain more than three times more carbon than is stored in the atmosphere, and four times more than the amount in all living plants and animals. Biologically speaking, the microbes and minerals in soil systems serve critical, beneficial roles in land stewardship: They regulate water, cycle nutrients, filter pollutants, physically support plants and sequester greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Soil is, indeed, a buried treasure.

Essentially, what’s good for soil is good for the climate — and for business. Until recently, most of the action was cultivated by smaller, niche players in the organic and natural products space. Soapmaker Dr. Bronner’s special operations team, for instance, has long worked with suppliers and farmers to support soil fertility as part of its Fair Trade certification.

Bigger companies, too, must clean up their value chains, and one of the most effective ways is starting, literally, from the ground up — the origin of many soil-dependent commodities, from food to fiber to fuels.
That’s no easy task. Agricultural value chains are vast and complex, and some commodities’ supply chains can obfuscate the provenance of products. Combine that with a half-century of farming management strategies that prioritized higher yields of commodity crops, often with copious amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The result: depleted topsoil and decreased farm productivity, often leading to a continuous cycle of increased fertilizer inputs to supplement ever-degraded soil.

A number of soil-enhancing land-management strategies have been sprouting among food and ag companies, part of a larger movement of sustainable agriculture and its first cousin, regenerative agriculture.

Companies all along the food chain — from agricultural cooperative Land O’Lakes to retail behemoth Walmart to seed and ag chemical company Monsanto (acquired by German chemical giant Bayer in 2018) — have begun to embrace these strategies to meet sustainability goals, safeguard the resilience of supply chains, meet increasing demand for climate-friendly products and ensure prolonged profitability and reduced risk.

The toolkit of sustainable land-management strategies includes those rooted in pre-industrial era agricultural, forestry and ranching techniques, some employed by indigenous peoples. To name a few: cover cropping, crop rotation, no- or low-till farming, silvopasture, regenerative grazing management, applying compost as fertilizer, integrated pest management, planting perennials and carbon farming. The specific region, type of soil and crop variety are all key in deciding which strategies will provide optimal results.

Making the transition can be tricky. Long-term investments and increased labor costs are associated with some of these practices, which can have estimated annual returns of about $100 per acre. So, the most effective levers to influence sustainable soil health measures in supply chains involve offering economic incentives to producers, entering partnerships with other leaders and grounding these efforts in regional contexts.

For Kellogg’s, General Mills and Wrangler, incentives include providing measurement tools to agricultural suppliers to help them assess the current state of their land; paying for conservation consulting and workshops, such as regenerative agriculture expert Gabe Brown’s technical advice; and offering preferred access to specific crop markets for farmers that report sustainability progress. More needs to be done, of course, including directing private-capital flows looking to invest in nature-based climate solutions towards these soil initiatives.

There’s money to be made. Philanthropists, asset managers and impact investors are looking at an estimated $2.3 trillion opportunity. The Regenerative Agriculture Investor Network (RAIN) convenes these investors annually and develops reports about the state of private capital in regenerative agriculture. However, this space is notoriously underdeveloped: Less than 5 percent of philanthropic capital in the United States is invested in rural solutions. Microfinancing has been the traditional method of investing in rural areas of developing countries — but that has been focused primarily on conventional, not sustainable agriculture. Still, with socially and environmentally responsible investing on the rise, and with the expansion of voluntary carbon markets, such as blockchain-based platform Nori, the area is ripe for growth.
Partnerships are one preferred approach by companies, such as pursuing close supply-chain relationships, public-private-partnerships, landscape alliances and research institutions. Collaborations of this nature are key to implementing more sustainable land-management strategies: They can encourage farmers to use cover crops and other regenerative methods by ensuring that these things will be valued in the marketplace.

Soil-focused organizations such as the Soil Health Institute — which partners with The Nature Conservancy, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Field to Market, along with General Mills and the Walton Family Foundation (the giving arm of Walmart’s founding family) — also offer numerous opportunities to support soil-healthy practices. These include a funding pool, information, research project assessments and collaborations and education.

One major move recently has involved establishing standards for measurements of soil health, so that scientists, farmers, managers and retailers can speak the same language. Another nonprofit, Carbon Underground, partners with companies such as Unilever’s subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s, General Mills’ subsidiary Annie’s Homegrown and Danone North America — specifically through its recently launched soil health research initiative — to conduct rigorous soil research for farmer participants, including sampling, analysis reports and training.

For many companies, such research leads to creating sample test bed sites. They allow growers to quantify test soil health measures in local contexts to find the most effective practices, as soil type varies by location. There are more upcoming opportunities for public-private partnering, especially with local governments, thanks to the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill by President Donald Trump. It extends the funding for programs that incentivize farmers to adopt environmentally beneficial soil health management, nutrient stewardship and carbon sequestering strategies. There’s even a pilot program to assess the economic opportunity of carbon sequestering land-management strategies.

It’s early days, but these are promising signs. With recent reports warning of the massive impacts of our current farming practices — up to 80 percent of the carbon in the world’s soil has been released already, with agriculture as a growing source of GHG emissions — it’s time to hit the ground running.

Key players to watch

General Mills — it hired a soil scientist to lead sustainability programs after realizing most of its emissions came from suppliers and farmers. It has invested millions in testing better land management strategies.

Land O’Lakes — the member-owned agricultural cooperative has a sustainability branch, SUSTAIN, that focuses on soil health. With its own technology platform, Truterra, farmers can synthesize soil, weather, economic and farm management data.

Midwest Row Crop Collaborative — this coalition of companies and conservation groups throughout the Upper Mississippi River Basin of the United States is working to ensure that farmers there are trained in conservation methods.

Patagonia — long a leader in regenerative agriculture, it is developing a stricter certification with "regenerative organic" practices. The clothing and gear company, which also has a food subsidiary, focuses on soil health in its agriculture and ranching practices.

Soil Health Institute — it partners with multinational corporations, universities, NGOs and government agencies to conduct and apply research, as well as to ensure the adoption of soil-focused land management practices and technologies.