Regenerative Agriculture Reaches A Tipping Point

Mar 15, 2017

Written by Savory Director of Market Engagement and Public Outreach, Chris Kerston

On a beautiful sunny March day in Southern California, a great annual gathering takes place. Marked by the bustle of pedicabs in the streets, tote bags and yoga mats flung over shoulders, and ubiquitous white badges flopping from necklace lanyards over crisp suits and hemp garb all the same, the masses ascend upon the Anaheim Convention Center to convene on the growing movement that is sustainable living. With over 100,000 people, Expo West is the largest natural and organic consumer-packaged-goods trade-show event in the world.

This is my second year in attendance. Last year I was asked to speak on a panel with Andre Leu from IFOAM and Kyle Garner from Organic India Tulsi Tea. The panel focused on soil health and we each talked about how agriculture could and must be “regenerative,” i.e. it must go beyond a zero-sum game. We are already too far out of balance, we cannot simply sustain the current scenarios, we must build equity back into the land base which supports us all, while simultaneously invigorating communities and rebuilding local economies. Journalists and brand managers frantically scribbled notes about this new term, “regenerative,” and asked many questions about the concept of going beyond sustainability. There were probably a half a dozen other presentations last year that I saw where this new concept of a regenerative narrative was presented.

For those of us on the inside, we feel like we’ve been championing for a beyond sustainable mantra for over 10 years, but a tipping point was most certainly reached in the last 12 months. “Regenerative Agriculture” was THE trending topic of this year’s Expo West.

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Expo West is the largest natural and organic consumer-packaged-goods trade-show event in the world.

Strong Regenerative Advocates
This year I was asked to speak on behalf of the Savory Institute on a panel called, “Positive Animal Impact; Healing Soil, Regenerating Land, Reversing Climate Change.” I was alongside two great friends, Taylor Collins the CEO and co-founder of EPIC Provisions and Will Harris CEO of White Oak Pastures. The panel was moderated by John Foraker, CEO of Annie’s Homegrown.

I met Taylor about 3 years ago, when their brand was just getting started. They wanted a product that came from truly regenerative meat sources and they wanted the Savory Institute’s help in procuring that. We share very similar core values and an entrepreneurial style, and we quickly became friends. EPIC has grown to become one of the Savory Institute’s biggest supporters.

And I’ve been a fan of Will’s for about 10 years. Prior to my time at Savory, I managed a large diversified ranch and orchard operation in Northern California that I often joke, aspired to be like Will Harris. When I started working with Savory we began talking about him becoming a Savory Hub and his ranch, White Oak Pastures, became accredited last year.

The Savory Institute is all about facilitating the large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands in ways that are socially and culturally sound as well as economically viable and create net-positive impacts on the land. This is all accomplished through the process of Holistic Management, which is a proactive triple-bottom-line planning process. Our primary tool to accomplish this is through the promotion of regenerative grazing, where domestic livestock are managed in a way the matches nature’s rhythms and cycles. We work with a number of other NGOs, consumer brands, and private landowners to do that, but our primary mechanism for scaling this up globally is through what we call our “Hub Strategy.” When people to come ask us to come into a region, we work with a local leader where we train and equip them to become a center of innovation - a place to churn out master grazers and build a vast cadre of regenerative livestock producers that matches the local context and culture.

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Epic Provisions Co-Founder, Taylor Collins, White Oak Pastures Owner, Will Harris, and Savory Director of Market Engagement and Public Outreach, Chris Kerston, speak to the Expo West audience.

Positive Animal Impact
The goal of our panel was to do a deep dive on the vital role that livestock play in regenerative agriculture and to discuss the strategies that each of us are employing to make that a reality. We wanted to drive home the concept that domestic livestock are a tool that can be used incorrectly, or correctly, to heal landscapes.

There are plenty of examples of incorrect practices, but that doesn’t mean livestock production always has to generate a negative scenario. Imagine if we were doing a study on wheeled vehicles and we looked at: big transport trucks, personal commuter vehicles, and bicycles. And what if we averaged the polluting emissions from those vehicles and came to the conclusion that all wheeled vehicles are bad for the environment, including bicycles. It would be a travesty. That’s exactly how I see things going for livestock today. The collective reasoning seems to be heading towards viewing all domestic grazers as a bad thing, when that simply isn’t the case.

The scientific community widely agrees that this planet once held many more wild ruminants than we have wild or domestic today. Those periods of time were not typically warming periods but rather cooling periods. Based on that, I see two options, either the way we are managing domestic animals is to blame for the negative impacts that we see today, or how we measure that impact is faulty. I personally think it’s some of both, but I think the vast majority of blame lies in how humans currently manage ruminants.

That being said, it’s important to talk about what makes grass so amazing. Grasslands sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than any other terrestrial ecosystem. It would be easy to imagine the grazer as the mortal enemy to the grass plant, but this just isn’t the case. Nature uses grazers to provide the role of biological decay. If grass plants die undisturbed, their “skeletons” will stand for years shading out seedlings preventing future generations from germinating.

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The Beauty of the Rumen
All biological growth must have functioning mechanisms for it to decay and break down back into the system. This task is usually performed by insect life and microbes. In places where it is dry for long periods of time, with no rain and little humidity, microbes and insects must go dormant because of the lack of water to sustain them. These dry times usually follow a flush of growth. In this scenario, nature is left without a mechanism to break down the grasses that have dried out in time to be out of the way before the next growing season arrives.

Enter the ruminant grazer. Cows, sheep and goats are domestic ruminants with the same digestive system as their wild counterparts such as pronghorn, impalas, and water buffalo. These animals are all mammals and are no more able to break down the cellulose-rich grass than humans are. Which is why the there aren’t any grass-salad joints popping up in gentrifying neighborhoods. However, ruminants have developed a symbiotic relationship with microbes in their gut to perform this task for them.

A rumen is dark, warm, and has ample moisture - the perfect environment for microbes to flourish. So when a cow or a pronghorn takes a bite of grass, the first stop for that bite of food is the rumen, the initial chamber of their stomach where microbes do most the digestion for them. At the same time, these well-fed and happy microbes are exploding in population. Some microbes pass through the digestive system with the broken down grass and they become an important secondary source of nutrients for the grazer.

It’s just like fermentation; the microbes make the food more bioavailable to the eater. And the grazer, with its ability to roam and move about, becomes a portable pack of microbes sweeping the land. The microbes in the soil are dormant because of lack of water, but the microbes in the ruminant’s gut are flourishing because she can get to streams, springs, lakes and rivers to provide them the moist environment that they need.

And with the help of millions upon millions of grazers bunched and moving, nature is able to provide the role of biological decay and remove the dry grass before the next season of growth comes.

The Future of Food
Animals play a positive role on every eco-system on the planet. If we want our food systems to mimic nature, animals need to be part of that equation.

Vast swaths of the Earth’s landscape, about 40%, are grasslands. Many of these grasslands are not suitable for other types of food production. Think of the Steppe plains, the Patagonia region, the shortgrass prairies of America, most of Australia, etc. These are vast landscapes that must not be overlooked. Growing grain crops, vegetables, and orchards is not a scalable option for these places. It’s also important to keep in mind that a billion people live and work in these grassland ecosystems.

How Much Meat Should Humans Eat?
My focus, what wakes me up every day ready to change the world, is to make sure that all meat production is regenerative - that it’s healing, restoring, and then adding back to the earth. In that scenario, the primary conversation does not need to be about how much meat people should eat. If everyone is eating conventional degenerative meat, “Meatless Monday” is not a solution! It’s not even an effective stop gap. And I think it’s a detractor from the larger issue at hand. Let’s focus the conversation on the KIND OF MEAT people eat.

Crop production by definition scrapes away an existing ecosystem and then redefines it to produce the desired species en masse. Ranching tries to fit within existing ecosystems and find ways to enhance them. There’s a lot more opportunity in the latter. So I don’t apologize for meat production. I think we need to flip the script on how we produce it, how we manage the animals, and rethink the infrastructure for how it is processed and distributed.

Measuring Progress
For 30-40 years since ranchers have been working with Holistic Planned Grazing, each rancher has been measuring the health of their land and doing their own biological monitoring. That info stayed on the ranch, to help producers make effective decisions to grow healthy animals, heal their ranches, and stay economically viable.

We’ve been working for the last 4 years with scientists in our global network, The Nature Conservancy, and a handful of universities to make that data collection methodology more informed and more robust. We measure things like soil water holding capacity, soil organic matter, water infiltration rates, soil carbon content, percentage of bare ground, wildlife populations, desirable vs. non-desirable species, and we’re adding in some measurements to look at the health of the soil microbiology.

We roll that up and give each property a score, an ecological health index, and then compare that to a regional baseline. This shows us if a property is trending in a positive or negative direction. If negative, the Savory Institute can offer assistance from local accredited professional grazing educators, who are also tapped into our global network of grazing specialists, to provide support in getting a land manager and their property trending in a positive direction.

If it’s already regenerative, showing net positive results, brands can utilize that data and create product lines to focus on that. We have been prototyping utilizing this ecological verification through the supply chain all the way to consumer levels.

We’ve spent the last few years training producers, building the data platform to collect and house this data, implementing transects to start measuring landscapes, and building everything needed on the supply side. We are now developing a network of auditors. We plan to have over 100 producers in this program in the next 6 months and that number will only grow exponentially from there.

By the end of this year we plan to be working with a test group of retail stores, where for the first time in history, consumers can pick up a product, see a seal, and know with empirical data to back it up, that a given product made the land better as a result of how it was managed to be produced. Ultimately, the consumer or brand will be able to readily access the underlying data for each product they buy.

This roll out will be taking place in 4 categories of products tied to ruminant livestock production: Meat, Dairy, Wool and Leather.

Stories of Hope
As we’ve been building the supply for this new program to get rolling, we also have produced 4 premiere episodes which specifically look at each of these industries and the amazing stories of producers and bold brands around the world who are ready to make this a reality.

The Story of Meat
https://vimeo.com/192274864

The Story of Dairy
https://vimeo.com/189757156

The Story of Wool
https://vimeo.com/189765823

The Story of Leather
https://vimeo.com/189759286