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Farms and Foods of the Future

A woman holding a flat of small rice seedlings for use in System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Photo courtesy of © Sue Price/ sri4women.org for Lotus Foods

Since the dawn of recorded time, people have been trying to predict the future. We love to imagine what the world will be like someday, the good and bad. When it comes to farming and food production, science suggests our future has the potential to be more sustainable, healthy, affordable and abundant than we ever imagined.

The future of farming is regenerative

The benefits of organic are increasingly well-known, but recently, organic farming methods have been identified as having a roll to play in slowing climate change—part of a group of farming practices scientists have termed “regenerative agriculture.”

Regenerative agriculture goes beyond sustainable—it revitalizes and improves the environment (land, water and air) while producing abundant, nutritious and delicious food. This cutting-edge farming technology draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agro ecology and agroforestry putting it high on the list of Project Drawdown’s plausible climate change solutions (#11). According to Project Drawdown, regenerative agriculture is any annual cropping system that includes four of these six practices: compost application, cover crops, crop rotation, green manures, no-till/reduced tillage and/or organic production methods. There are currently over 108 million acres of farmland using regenerative agriculture techniques in the world and if the current rate of adoption continues, Drawdown estimates acreage will top 1 billion by 2050!

Farmers love regenerative agriculture because they benefit from increased yields, better crop resilience in extreme weather (drought, heavy rain), and enormous reductions in energy use. That adds up: the average regenerative farm yields 72% higher net profits per acre than a farm using conventional methods.

In case it sounds too good to be true, let us assure you—this is happening! This is real. Though industrial agriculture is the current norm in the U.S., these farming methods cost little to nothing beyond labor, making them accessible to farmers all over the world. Thousands of acres are being converted every day. In fact, farmers of over 177 million acres of land worldwide currently practice conservation agriculture (#16), a bridge technology to regenerative agriculture that utilizes crop rotation, cover cropping and reduced tillage. Practiced extensively in South America since the 1970s, an estimated additional 1 billion acres of conventional land will be converted to conservation agriculture by 2035, putting them in line to go regenerative, too.

That doesn’t mean regenerative methods are not being adopted in the U.S. The Rodale Institute convened a coalition of farmers, manufacturers and environmental advocates to establish regenerative organic certification for farmers. In addition to regenerative methods, this label will speak to animal welfare, social and labor issues, as well. This voluntary certification and label is likely to begin appearing on products in the near future.

The future of cereals is perennial

Cereal crops like corn, rice and wheat are staples of diets the world over. The way these annual crops are commonly grown, using conventional, industrial methods that are destructive to land, water and climate, is not sustainable, making them good candidates for crop improvement.

The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, has been selectively breeding wheat for the last 40 years, to improve its sustainability. Their Kernza®, a perennial form of wheat, tastes and bakes much like annual wheat, but develops long, complex roots and survives over the winter, blooming again in the spring. That change makes all the difference for farmers—reducing the need for annual tilling and planting, for starters. Perennial wheat also dramatically improves the soil and groundwater, and slows climate change. Patagonia Provisions and Cascadian Farm (General Mills) have made big investments to commercialize organic Kernza®.

Other crops being selectively bred to produce perennially are silphium, an alternative to canola (for vegetable oil) and sorghum, which can be used in processed foods to replace some corn products. In China, the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences is very close to a viable perennial rice.

At the same time, people are improving the way these annual crops are grown. Improved rice cultivation and System of Rice Intensification (for which Lotus Foods won an award from the Climate Collaborative last year) are agriculture techniques that make rice production efficient, dependable, sustainable and affordable for small-scale farmers. Because rice cultivation is responsible for at least 10% of the world’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (methane), this is huge!

Let’s make it happen

We can help these sustainable foods and farming methods take root by buying food that is currently being produced this way, and by sharing what you know with friends and family. Buying organic food is one way to support a transition to regenerative agriculture. Another good idea is to learn more about your local farms at your food co-op and farmers market. Find out if they are using these methods, and support them.

Food co-ops work together nationally to spotlight brands that are changing the way food is farmed and produced for the better—check out the National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative award winners for tips on products and companies helping to lead the way to a sustainable, healthy future!