Food: Do We Have to "Kill-to-Grow"? Part II
During the last blog, I contemplated that we will serve over 175,000 meals each year to wellness resort guests who care about what they eat. Do we have to support the dangerous and ecologically destructive food production system that I described, or is there a better path? The short answer is “Yes”!
Regenerative agriculture (a sibling to the regenerative development paradigm we adopted) delivers positive ecological and social outcomes by building the capacity for all living systems to thrive. Focused first on building soil biology and benefitting from the resulting natural chemistry produced by a healthy soil biome, regenerative farming dramatically improves nutrient density, biodiversity, carbon capture, water quality, and worker/community wellbeing.
Best practices include reduced tillage/no-till and cover crops, more diverse crop rotations with higher frequency of perennial crops, grassed waterways and buffer strips, agroforestry (e.g., hedgerows, windbreaks), integrated livestock management with improved grazing management, and the conversion of marginal lands (poorly suited to annual cropping) to perennial grasses and trees.
Broadly these attributes are designed to more closely mimic native ecosystems which maintain much higher soil carbon stocks than conventional annual croplands. Studies show that these types of farms tend to have 10-30% lower yields than conventional farms. However, yield gaps are more than offset by 20-100% price premiums for truly organic crops. Operating costs per acre are often similar, as certain costs are eliminated (e.g., no need for genetically modified seeds, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers) while others are higher (e.g., more labor and automation spending to control weeds and handle diverse rotations).
The result is a more resilient farm that ends up being 50-500% more profitable per acre, with little reliance on government subsidies and synthetics. As well, the food is much healthier, with nutrient density as much as 200x! It is exciting to think that in the not too distant future, we will be able to measure nutrient density, thanks to amazing work by the Bionutrient Food Association.
All that said, it is a lot easier to write about doing regenerative agriculture versus actually doing it! There is a reason that only 1% of the land in the country is certified organic (despite demand being about 6x greater) and that less than 8% of farms in the country produce more than four products. A few of the barriers include:
Income loss during transition – It takes time to build soil fertility and wean the land off its chemical dependency. A farmer may also need to invest in new equipment and infrastructure.
Access to credit – Farmers rely heavily on the farm credit system for operating loans to buy seeds, fertilizers, and other inputs each year, but many agricultural lenders are unwilling to finance farmers through the 3-year transition.
Knowledge, skills and mindset – Regenerative agriculture requires a deep understanding of soil biology, a new set of skills, and a fundamentally different way of managing land. The average age of US farmers is 58 years, and older farmers may be less willing to try a new system and isolate from the mono-crop culture surrounding them.
Access to markets – Farmers must sell their crops through specific elevators, mills, traders and markets that require specialized marketing, certifications, and infrastructure.
Labor availability – More labor-intensive practices requiring hard work while dealing with the financial reality that most of the value accrues to the landowner, making it hard to attract and retain field workers.
So, with a full appreciation (and empathy) for all the pros and the cons -- and understanding that we have only scratched the surface in these blogs -- our goal is to source 100% of our land and water-based protein needs within 100 and 200 miles of our site, respectively; and 90% of the balance of our fruit/vegetable/legume/nut needs within 100 miles of our site.
We believe there are economies and shared infrastructure opportunities that our suppliers can collectively leverage, and thus plan to catalyze transitions to regenerative practices by providing partnership, visibility, and demand (which will start in early 2024).
Please reach out to Greg or myself (firstname.lastname@example.org), as we hope to deeply collaborate with the local community to serve fresh, local, flavorful, and nutrient dense meals -- my mouth is already watering!