6 Ways Sustainable Agriculture is Changing the Business of Food 

BY Jolene Hansen

Aug 31st 2021

If ever we were at an inflection point, this feels like that moment. We are emerging from a pandemic with a new appreciation for the fragility of our world, the new US administration taking a leadership role on climate, and consumers clamoring for sustainable products. In short, there’s hope for sustainable recovery.

One industry being transformed by these converging forces is food and agriculture. Farming is both rushing to adapt to consumers’ changing food preferences while being buffeted by the consequences of climate change. With this in mind, we present six trends reshaping farming and the food we put on our plates:

1. REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

As founder of Central Grazing Company, a regenerative sheep farm south of Lawrence, Kansas, Jacqueline Smith is just one example of a new generation of farmers and ranchers finding their futures in food and ag. Like Smith, many never expected to work in an industry they once saw as harmful to animals, people, and the environment. These newcomers embrace regenerative agriculture—an old concept gaining fresh attention from sustainable ag and investors.

The term regenerative agriculture was introduced in the 1980s by Robert Rodale, son of Rodale Institute founder J.I. Rodale. Regenerative agriculture involves a range of activities such as cover crops, inter-cropping, crop diversification, cattle grazing, composting, and crop rotations using specialty crops to restore the soil’s natural ability to capture and store carbon, and thus help fight climate change.

Regenerative agricultural practices also help prevent soil’s direct loss to erosion from water and wind. The need is glaringly evident in the nation’s heartland. Heavily tilled, mono-cropped fields once black with carbon-rich soil now stand pale and tan—one-third of their topsoil already gone. When three centimeters of topsoil takes an estimated 1,000 years to form, the clock is ticking fast.

While small-scale farmers constitute much of the interest in regenerative farming, large-scale industrial agriculture isn’t out of bounds. In 2019, Rodale Institute’s Midwest Organic Center launched in the core of central Iowa’s industrial ag country, with a goal of providing access to research and training for farmers drawn to regenerative ag. And ag-related businesses from General Mills to Walmart have pledged to go beyond conventional sustainability practices through supply chain partners.

With regenerative agriculture suddenly bordering on buzzword status, some worry that greenwashing is at play. But for food and ag industry leaders and investors answering earth’s call in the race against climate change, the principles of regenerative agriculture resonate. Stakeholders and investors are helping farmers and ranchers overcome barriers as they transition to regenerative ag. A recent report from nonprofit CREO Syndicate shows investment funds have raised more than $3.9 billion for regenerative agriculture.

2. THE GROWING BUSINESS OF PLANT-BASED DIETS

It should have been no surprise when popular cooking site Epicurious announced last April that it would stop publishing recipes that use beef. For the past year, sustainably-minded foodies had been gobbling up the site’s added servings of beefless recipes.

Epicurious’s experience is evidence of a broader consumer shift toward planet-friendly diets. Plant-based protein products made their way into more than half of all US households last year, and nearly 1-in-5 homes had plant-based meat on the menu.

Plant-based meat sales hit $1.4 billion in 2020—a 45 percent increase over 2019. And meat alternatives have plenty of company in the larger plant-based food market, which grew 27 percent in 2020 to reach $7 billion. Plant-based milk sales, fueled by rising interest in oat milk, continue to dominate with a 20 percent increase that tracked to $2.5 billion in 2020 retail sales. And the growing plant-based market clearly still has more surprises up its sleeve as new products continue to develop. Next up? In 2020, investors sunk $80 million into alternative seafood companies.

This momentum has attracted big brands and investors. In 2020, the alternative protein industry raised $3.1 billion from investors. Beyond Meat’s 2019 IPO valued the company at $1.5 billion, and as of April 2021, its market cap stood at more than $8 billion. Recently, the biggest meat company in the country, Tyson Foods, introduced burgers and sausages made from pea protein to keep up with plant-based protein manufacturers.

Once associated primarily with health and animal welfare, plant-based alternative proteins are now being embraced as environmentally responsible and sustainable choices.

Plant-based milk sales tracked to $2.5 billion in 2020 retail sales.

Beef and milk cattle generate about 65 percent of all global livestock greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). Roughly 40 percent of all agriculture emissions trace back to enteric fermentation—and cattle’s eventual methane release. Manure emissions add another 16 percent.

Hoping to appeal to consumer interest in the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, Beyond Meat took a shot at environmental transparency in 2018. The company commissioned a life cycle assessment of their flagship patty. The peer-reviewed comparison—a Beyond Burger versus a quarter-pound beef patty—yielded compelling results. Tracked from on-farm, raw ingredient production through the disposal of packaging, Beyond’s patty generated 90 percent less GHGE. Plus, it used 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and 46 percent less energy than beef.

This summer, sustainability nonprofit Ceres targeted Beyond Meat, along with 49 other North American food companies, to do more. In its inaugural Food Emissions 50 Company Benchmark, Ceres called on the company, along with 49 other companies with exposure to high-emitting agricultural commodities, to publicly disclose its emission reduction targets as well as the emissions from its supply chain (commonly referred to as scope 3 emissions).

As plant-based food companies get leaner, more sustainable, and more transparent, plant-based alternative proteins that satiate both meat-eaters and vegans will likely continue to expand. Expect eco-minded consumers and investors to turn to these environmentally advantageous offerings with enthusiasm.

3. THE TRANSITION TO RENEWABLE ENERGY

California agriculture is an epicenter for renewable energy triumphs: a Napa Valley solar rooftop installation offsets winery energy use by more than 90 percent, while on-winery irrigation lakes produce energy, limit evaporation, and reduce unwelcome algae growth. Outside-the-box proposals, such as over-canal solar panels for California’s nearly 4,000-mile canal network, promise to advance the state’s renewable gains and benefits even more.

With more than 26 percent of its electricity mix now solar, California is an undisputed renewable energy leader. On-farm renewable energy transitions are not confined to the Golden State. The number of US farms producing renewable energy more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2017, hitting 6.5 percent of all US farms.

Those gains include first-generation Idaho dairy farmers like Steve and Stacie Ballard. Faced with rising energy costs outside their control, Ballard Family Dairy and Cheese took action. The farm installed solar and geothermal systems, LED lighting, and equipment upgrades with the help of USDA renewable energy and energy efficiency grants.

Their dairy’s energy consumption dropped 67 percent, and its carbon footprint shrank by 121,500 pounds, or more than 55 metric tons—the equivalent of 11 cars’ annual emissions. And their annual water use fell by 365,000 gallons. And they’re saving $23,000 in energy costs annually.

As on-farm energy continues its climb, environmental sustainability is just one reward. Some farmers look to renewable energy not to fuel crop and livestock production but as a crop itself.

Drive through Iowa’s corn belt, and wind turbines spinning above field crops dominate the horizon. Lease payments for hosting wind turbines funnel more than $10 million into Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas economies annually. Nationwide, farmers and ranchers receive $245 million from wind leases each year.

“The issue of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is the overriding issue of the 21st century.”

—David R. Lee

For dairy farmers who were dumping surplus milk long before the pandemic, steady income speaks. And for farmers pressed by catastrophic weather events, renewable crops of sun and wind represent economic sustainability for their families, farms, and communities.

While farm survival may be driving on-farm renewable energy production, the shift also gives the agriculture industry an opportunity to meet rising demands to cut back on their contributions to climate change.

For economist David R. Lee, who has researched economic development, agriculture, and the environment in nearly 30 countries, renewable energy represents a significant opportunity for agriculture to contribute toward global climate change goals.

As Lee notes, “The issue of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is the overriding issue of the 21st century.”

4. SUPPLY CHAIN REINVENTION

Portland’s Central Eastside sits across the Willamette River from the city’s downtown. But the energy and entrepreneurial spirit that vibrates through this historic neighborhood make downtown seem much farther away. Food, farming, and sustainability converge in this dynamic area.

The Redd on Salmon Street is helping reinvent and restore the region’s food supply chain from its two-block home in the Central Eastside. Environmental stewardship and sustainable production practices are at the core of this project, which is supported by the innovative Portland-based accelerator for food-related startups Ecotrust.

For independent small and mid-scale farmers and ranchers, and those in the fishing business, The Redd’s food hub infrastructure is a lifeline that connects them with consumers, local chefs, and institutional buyers. But it also connects them to a growing regional food economy driven by economic and environmental sustainability.

Farmer’s markets epitomize this buy-local movement. Between 2000 and 2015, the nation’s farmer’s markets almost tripled as health-conscious and community-conscious consumers connected with fresh harvests and the faces behind their food.

The Redd’s approach to supply chain reinvention doesn’t leave growth or sustainability to chance. The project provides small and mid-size producers with business support to help overcome the hurdles that hinder small producers from operating at a scale that has lasting impact.

The Redd is helping small and mid-sized producers into the regional food economy (photo by Shawn Linehan).

With services and support from business development to logistics and cold storage, small and mid-scale producers and institutional buyers can eclipse conventional supply chains. And all parties can rest assured of the infrastructure and oversight needed to sustain local businesses at an institutional scale.

The seeds sown by farmer’s markets are growing through The Redd’s climate-smart program and realigning the regional food supply chain. With reinvention inextricably woven with sustainable values and production, impact food hub investment is driving food system transformation.

5. THE INCREASING IMPACT OF WOMEN IN AGRICULTURE

A few short decades ago, women sweating side-by-side with men were viewed as farmers’ wives or farmers’ daughters—not farmers. Youth-ag organizations discouraged girls who wanted to raise livestock and funneled them toward sewing instead.

b>Jacqueline Smith, founder of Central Grazing Company, a regenerative sheep farm south of Lawrence, Kansas.

Over time, raising calves or crops turned into running farms and ranches, but the data behind women’s rising role in agriculture remains hard to sort out. Until 1978, the USDA’s Census of Agriculture didn’t ask whether the person most responsible for day-to-day decisions was male or female. Perhaps the agency assumed it knew the answer.

“Women have been kept out of the conversation when it’s time to come together to talk about system changes,” says Central Grazing Company’s Smith. “We have really embraced each other to lift one another up, and there’s something incredibly powerful about women in farming and the support network that we can demonstrate together—it’s been kind of magical.”

Agricultural economist and researcher Claudia Schmidt has called for more rigorous research to quantify the nation’s women farmers and their contributions to resilience and sustainable agriculture.

In an analysis of current research on women in agriculture, Schmidt concluded: “Emerging research suggests that females operate their business differently and may have positive broader economy-wide impacts, including greater resilience and long-term sustainability.”

Regardless of hazy census stats and anecdotal information, Schmidt says that female farmers need a level playing field: “Female farmers in the US still face a number of obstacles when they are running a farm. Access to land, credit, and networking—just to name a few.”

The USDA is still working to get a more accurate perspective of women’s role in American agriculture, but the 2017 census gave us more information than ever before: Nine percent of farms were operated solely by women, and 56 percent had at least one female producer. Women comprised 36 percent of producers nationwide, a 27 percent increase from 2012.

Women’s increasing presence in agriculture could add to the industry’s sustainability momentum. A BNP Paribas report finds that women entrepreneurs lead their peers on sustainability: 54 percent of women entrepreneurs prioritize climate impact, compared to 41 percent of men. Research tells us that women bring a different mindset to business in general, for example taking a value-based approach to investing that includes sustainability.

The 2016 study “The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture” examined the potential impact of women’s growing influence on the industry. The authors concluded that women’s approach to agriculture tends to focus on “personal, economic, and environmental sustainability, creating connections through the food system, and developing networks that emphasize collaboration and peer-to-peer education.”

In a glimpse into the future of sustainable farming, Schmidt found that more women than men are enrolling in agricultural programs at Land Grant Universities, at a time when the number of women in the US agricultural sector is at a historical high.

6. AGTECH AND SUSTAINABILITY

For years, advances in agricultural technology focused on increasing productivity in conventional field agriculture—often without regard for impact on land and other resources. Now new technologies are helping tech-minded farmers and growers optimize production more sustainably, outdoors and inside.

Precision agriculture technologies incorporate wireless soil sensors, irrigation software, satellite imagery, drones, and more. Growers can identify and correct problems, from irrigation leaks to isolated stresses, before damage to crops occurs.

With data from tools such as high-resolution aerial imagery and AI-powered advanced analytics, farmers can relegate imprecise applications of fertilizers and other high-impact inputs to the past. Instead, data-driven zone-specific inputs can optimize growth, conserve precious resources, and minimize environmental impact. And, with blockchain technologies, food tracking that once took a week now takes seconds in this changing world.

Indoor farming company BrightFarms grows salad greens in high-tech, commercial-scale greenhouses that characterize controlled environment agriculture, known as CEA. Fully automated growing environments keep temperature, humidity, and nutrients optimized year-round. Greens grow in soilless media on floating grow beds, their roots suspended in nutrient-enriched hydroponic pools.

Several CEA growers are racing to create the first national brand of locally grown produce, but BrightFarms founder Paul Lightfoot is determined to do it sustainably. He estimates that regional deliveries from his company’s five facilities save an estimated 95 percent in shipping fuel over long-distance field-grown produce. Lightfoot also says that water reclamation and hydroponics combine to reduce the farms’ water use by 80 percent compared to conventional production.

Agtech may just be getting started. In 2020, agtech startups raised more than $5 billion in venture capital—up 35 percent from the previous year. Investments in CEA companies alone surpassed $2 billion in 2020.

Times are changing. As we rebuild from the pandemic, sustainability and resilience are reshaping how we live and how businesses think and operate. Food and ag is an industry in transition: plant-based foods are disrupting livestock, renewables are helping farms stay solvent, tech is turbocharging efficiency and reducing food waste, regenerative ag is restoring soil health and productivity, and women are set to play a bigger role pushing all of these trends. Sustainability now touches every inch of the industry, and all players have the chance to jump on these opportunities while they can.

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Jolene Hansen

Jolene is a Minnesota-based freelance writer who can't resist old stone houses, windswept bluffs, and native blooms. She covers commercial horticulture, agriculture, sustainability, and anything that connects people with plants and food.

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