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Photo credit: Cargill

Cargill wants to help farmers turn over 10 million acres to regenerative ag by 2030

September 18, 2020

Cargill has announced a new initiative aiming to support farmer-led efforts to adopt regenerative ag practices on 10 million acres of cropland in North America by 2030.

It will focus on row crop rotations that include corn, wheat, canola, soybeans, and other staple crops. 

The US agribusiness giant plans to work with a variety of stakeholders to provide technical and agronomic resources for farmers, training opportunities, and data collection support for benchmarking and visibility to downstream consumer-facing companies.

Acknowledging that converting to regenerative ag often comes with a high price tag, Cargill is also hoping to connect farmers to cost-sharing options. 

As more major players get involved with the regenerative ag movement, a key question still looms in the balance: What is it?

“It’s a system that’s about increasing organic matter, improving biodiversity while at the same time benefiting farmers,” Ryan Sirolli, global row crop sustainability director at Cargill, told AFN.

“Its foundation is really about soil health. Minimizing tillage, keeping the ground covered, more diverse cover crop rotations, growing roots in the soil, integrating livestock. We feel these are foundational and regardless of where farmers are starting on the farm there is a chance for us to think about how to advance soil health principles.”

Cargill’s incentive for investing time and capital into promoting regenerative agriculture lies in the movement’s potential to help farmers generate more profit  – either through increased yields, or by securing premiums for the crops they produce from downstream buyers. Promoting regenerative ag also appeals to Cargill in terms of fulfilling its sustainability commitments around carbon reduction and water quality.

This raises the question of whether Cargill views conventional agriculture as failing to accomplish these goals.

“I think so,” Sirolli said. “We see pockets of regenerative ag systems around North America but I think we need to advance well beyond that. The awareness of soil health and the science behind it is growing rapidly.”

Cargill is under constant scrutiny for its sustainability impacts. Last year, global environmental protection lobbying group Mighty Earth released a report naming Cargill as ‘the worst company in the world’ based on a list of its alleged wrongdoings, such as selling contaminated meat, child labor in its cocoa supply chain, water pollution in the US Midwest, and the displacement of indigenous populations and wildlife due to deforestation.

Some stakeholders also view corporate sustainability announcements through a lens of skepticism, questioning whether the effort is largely a hollow marketing ploy to keep up with shifting consumer demands.

“It shouldn’t just be a marketing campaign. It’s about letting our actions speak for it,” Sirolli contended.

“On this front, we already have something in the neighborhood of 750 farmers participating in 12 different programs on roughly 300,000 acres in North America […] We’ve been around for over 155 years and for us to be around for the next 155 we are going to need that strong legacy and a strong agriculture sector. We will have to continue to invest in these things to live. It’s near and dear to us.”

Cargill is backing carbon credit markets for ag

Cargill will also lean on some of its existing projects to support this new initiative. It’s teaming up with the Soil Health Institute to research the business case for soil health systems on farms, while also partnering with the World Wildlife Fund to pay US Great Plains ranchers for reseeding croplands with native grasses. Once established, ranchers will maintain the grasslands with cattle.

Through its BeefUp Sustainability program, Cargill is working with The Nature Conservancy, McDonald’s, and Target to support Nebraska farmers in adopting soil health practices that can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The five-year, $8.5 million project will impact 100,000 acres of row crops and feed production in the key beef-producing region.

In April, it became a founding partner of the Soil & Water Outcomes Fund (SWOF). The project onboards farmers who make proposals about the practices they’d adopt to improve their farm ecosystem. Cargill will then pay farmers for putting these proposals into practice in the form of carbon credits that it will use to offset its own carbon footprint.

“We’ve supported voluntary [carbon] markets,” Sirolli said. “I think it could be a huge opportunity for agriculture but I think there are a lot of questions that have to be solved. There are a lot of very bright minds and a lot of good science right now thinking about the barrier to carbon potential and permanence, and I think they’ll come together.”

As Cargill embarks on its latest initiative, Sirolli is realistic about the practical aspects and mindful of the need to take a farmer-centric approach.

“Many of [the farmers] are on different phases of their journey. Some already adopted different tillage practices, or maybe [have been] experimenting with cover crops or integrating livestock,” he said. “But it’s about meeting them wherever they are and thinking about how to help them take that next step. That requires removing a lot of those key barriers [with] educational assistance or economic assistance.”

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