The practice of harvesting the land to feed communities is as old as civilization. As long as people need to eat, there will be a market to exchange food and the ingredients that literally give us the sustenance of life. Yet until very recently, the agriculture industry has escaped the interest of non-conventional investors: despite there being a large and perpetual market for food, many impact investors have only recently come to understand the power they can have to make a fundamental difference in what food is grown, how it is grown, and how it is distributed. Moreover, impact investors are increasingly recognizing the power of a holistic and regenerative food system to:
- help alleviate food insecurity and health problems;
- address some of the most vexing elements of climate change; and
- address some of the root causes of income inequality, especially in agricultural communities.
Americans’ growing awareness of the fundamentally unsustainable nature of how we grow crops and manage livestock and fisheries to produce food has understandably created an outcry of anger and concern. People are protesting that commercial agriculture practices are depleting the supply of natural resources in return for profits, virtually without regard to the environmental and social impacts of these practices. In particular, there is a growing focus on the carbon footprint of agriculture and the fact that 26% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from food production. Investors, farmers, and community groups are increasingly asking what they can do to help create a new food system that is more sustainable and equitable.
At Pathstone, we also wanted to know what could be done by investors to help make substantive improvements to the food system. Given our role as an investment advisor, we naturally wanted to understand what investment vehicles exist and the impact profiles of various vehicles. And, while we hold an interest in understanding the entire food system and how it can be fixed, we are particularly interested to understand what is happening with agriculture, given the climate crisis and the urgent need to use the planet’s limited natural resources more effectively.
As this report shows, regenerative agriculture can help unlock opportunities to address climate change. The benefits do not end there, however. As some of the most thoughtful practitioners of regenerative agriculture write, this approach can also lead to more equitable outcomes and economic opportunity. The more we delve into regenerative agriculture, the more we understand that investments in this space can indeed make a profound impact on society and the environment.
Investing in a new food system
In this report, we move from the systems-level to the micro-level to understand how capital is and can be deployed to help create a new way of cultivating food. For example, Forum for the Future has been working to bring light to the various dimensions of the food system that will need to be modified to make change at scale, including policy changes. We hear from investment funds that are bringing capital to farmers and ranchers who practice sustainable and regenerative agriculture, as well as investors who seek ways to scale positive changes in agriculture through technology. We hear from funders and nonprofit organizations as well as Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs) that are creating low-cost lending vehicles and making grants to support local farmers and in particular, to support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other People of Color) farmers. And we benefit from the wisdom of a historian of agriculture, John Ikert, who provides a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of moving forward without a commitment to upholding the values and key principles, including the principles of: promoting biodiversity; decreasing or eliminating tillage to promote carbon sequestration; eliminating artificial fertilizers; controlling grazing patterns for livestock; and protecting pollinators.
Together these practices not only prevent soil degradation and the introduction of harmful chemicals into the food chain, but rather they enhance soil quality and productivity. Moreover, combined with a commitment to social and economic equity, these principles represent a fundamental return to a way of life that protects the land and the people living on it.
Achieving regenerative agriculture at scale, however, will not happen without a fundamental shift in how agriculture investing happens. As many of the authors in this report highlight, investors need to embrace the following practices:
Invest patiently: Moving from conventional to regenerative ag requires more time than a focus on quarterly returns will allow.
Monitor impact: Ensure that regenerative ag investments are really going to such practices.
Support communities that historically have had limited access to capital: BIPOC farmers have had less access to affordable capital historically and investment in BIPOC farmers will have an outsized impact.
Avoid extractive finance: Fundamental to the premise of a regenerative food system is the idea that we cannot sustain a food system in which more value is extracted from the land, and from the communities that work on the land, than is generated. Invest in ways that give as much or more value back to the land and the people on the land as the investment takes.
Invest across asset classes: Investors can influence public companies through shareholder engagement; invest in private and venture funds and direct investments committed to sustainable and regenerative practices; real assets that help farmers convert from conventional to regenerative agriculture; private debt, especially to support historically marginalized farmers; cash alternatives through CDFIs that support regenerative agriculture practices; and philanthropy to support capacity building and supply working capital.
We hope you find the following essays to be inspiring and thought-provoking. We welcome debate, discussion and dialogue. Above all else, we look forward to partnering with the investment community to help seed a new era in agriculture that is equitable, restorative, and regenerative.
Defining Organic, Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture
To understand the differences between the often-used terms of Organic, Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture, we have relied on definitions provided by Farmland, LP (reproduced below with permission). Farmland LP is an investment fund that generates returns by converting conventional commercial farmland to sustainable. Founded in 2009, Farmland LP manages over 15,000 acres and more than $175 million in assets. For more information, For more information, see www.farmlandlp.com.
Certified organic: a trusted standard
You know when you purchase a product with the USDA Organic label that it has been produced without the use of non-organic compounds and has met stringent growing, labeling and handling standards. Certified organic producers must have an annual plan that addresses soil and ecosystem health, and their operations are reviewed each year by organic certifiers under the guidelines set by the National Organic Standards Board, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is a trustworthy, federally regulated standard. But as consumers become increasingly conscious of the long-term, environmental impact of their purchases and investments, the certified organic label may not in itself check all the boxes. Extensive crop rotations, creating healthy pollinator habitats and vigorously improving soil biology to create rich and thriving farmland are a few important considerations that the organic certification does not by itself guarantee.
Sustainable agriculture: not factory farming
The word sustainable encompasses a broad spectrum of principles and practices, with Merriam-Webster defining sustainability as “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Sustainability has connotations of continuity and maintenance, rather than the continuous improvement implied by regenerative agriculture — or certified organic, for that matter. Additionally, there is no national standard governing what constitutes sustainable farming, which creates room for interpretation and can open the door to misleading claims.
Regenerative agriculture: the optimal state
As with sustainable farming, there is no standard designation for regenerative agriculture. This is due, in part, to the fact that it is a relatively new concept that is still being defined and debated. But while exact definitions may vary, the value of regenerative agriculture is inherent to the terminology — essentially, regenerating the land for future better use by fundamentally improving the soil health, rather than simply maintaining the land for its current crops.
While we can point to specific practices that comprise regenerative agriculture, such as cover cropping, extensive crop diversity and a focus on the foundation of soil health, this is a case where the results are more important than the individual practices or methods used to get there. We are fans of a new emerging standards group called the Regenerative Organic Certification, which builds on top of the organic certification. Regenerative farming practices have myriad environmental benefits, from mitigating climate change to yielding nutrient-rich crops to improving water quality. (Be aware of one new label to avoid: “Leading Harvest” allows the largest and worst practitioners to essentially certify themselves. Legitimate certifications such as Organic and ROC require specific practices and third-party audits.)
For investors, regenerative agriculture at scale can offer higher price points, lower input costs and less vulnerability to market volatility. Big picture, regenerative agriculture can create a better agricultural ecosystem for the benefit of today’s consumers as well as future generations.
If you have any questions of would like to continue the conversation please contact us.