The Food Conundrum: Can Regenerative Agriculture Feed the World?

With increasing challenges surrounding sufficient food production, can we also mitigate the negative climate effects caused by conventional agriculture?

By Kathleen Chappelear, Equity Analyst

We all know that we need large-scale agriculture to produce enough food to feed the world, but at the same time, current practices in conventional agriculture are rapidly destroying arable soil and other natural resources. This creates a predicament: how to keep growing food at scale without depleting the planet for ourselves and future generations.

But Who Will Go Hungry?

Most people believe that regenerative, sustainable, and/or organic agriculture requires small-scale, diversified farming practices, because this is the narrative so frequently on display. For example, one commonly voiced objection is, “sure, we could switch to 100% organic food systems, but which large portion(s) of the population will have to go hungry?” But is this criticism valid? In this post, we explore this seeming conundrum.

Agriculture’s Effects on Earth’s Ecosystems

As practiced today, conventional agricultural systems are built around one goal: maximize current yields. How much of a given crop is produced per acre is by far the most important factor reported in economic data, by the USDA, and in news articles. And from this perspective, agricultural systems appear to be thriving. However, by many other measures, it is clearly failing. And this failure to consider soil health, the oceans and more is dangerous for agriculture as it risks the planet that sustains it, its workers, and the people it’s trying to feed.

Many people don’t realize how deeply agriculture affects our ecosystems. The ways that food, fiber, and fuel are currently grown and raised do more harm than good to our underlying planetary health. The damage is occurring at an alarmingly rapid rate via water and air pollution, desertification, habitat destruction, oceanic dead zones, loss of biodiversity, and loss of topsoil. On top of these issues, conventional agriculture is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO; a United Nations agency), approximately 33% of the world’s topsoil has already been degraded through agriculture, and at the current rate over 90% could be degraded by 2050. Meaning that the world may only have 28 years of productive harvests remaining. Equally alarming, NOAA’s Oceanic Service has reported that “when water runs off farmland and urban centers and flows into our streams and rivers, it is often chock-full of fertilizers and other nutrients. These massive loads of nutrients eventually end up in our coastal ocean, fueling a chain of events that can lead to hypoxic ‘dead zones’ — areas along the seafloor where oxygen is so low it can no longer sustain marine life.”

Add it up, and it means current farming practices are diminishing our ability to feed ourselves and sustain our ecology by means of reducing our ability to grow crops going forward.

Does it Have to be Either/Or?

So, what’s to be done about the apparent contradiction between feeding everyone and preventing these problems? The key may lie in regenerative agriculture utilizing technological advancements to restore the health of our soil and ecosystems while still producing at conventional levels of scale. 

There is increasing interest among those growing our food to seek out improved agricultural practices. For many farmers in the United States, a shift in farming practices is now a matter of necessity and self-preservation, because as yields decrease due to increasing degradation, profitability and livelihoods are at stake. If farm systems are expected to produce the food, fiber, and fuel we need, practices must advance to preserve the long-term health of those systems.

Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming and ranching that applies systems-based approaches to land stewardship with the goal of bettering land productivity and health through improved soil quality and biodiversity. Another way to think about this is to imagine how food systems can do the most good for people and the planet, while doing the least harm.  

These practices, including cover cropping, crop rotation, rotational grazing, and animal integration, restore soil quality, are efficient at rebuilding water cycles, and are an extremely effective way to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, all of which are necessary pieces for fighting climate change and preserving soil health. Regenerative agriculture enhances and improves the vitality and resilience of soil which is essential to all food production. (To date, regenerative agriculture does not have a certification process as organic does, but this is likely to change.) 

Farming for the Masses

But the nagging question remains: can regenerative agriculture truly scale to feed everyone?

Yes, given the right tools, it can. AgTech is a rapidly growing industry and becoming increasingly vital to farming and ranching in more sustainable ways. Farmers are increasingly utilizing technology such as smart irrigation, GPS-enabled tractors, and moisture sensors to produce more sustainably and more profitably. Many ranchers now place wearable tracking devices on their cows to monitor location and behavior, health, water, and food needs. Farmers can put multispectral sensors on tractors deploying fertilizer to soil to track which crops need more, or less, nitrogen, thus eliminating wasted fertilizer. These practice changes will help preserve and protect the Earth for future generations and aid in boosting profits by increasing yields and cutting costs.

The use of technology—such as AI—in regenerative agriculture is key. Biotech is also increasingly creating potential solutions. For instance, biotech leader Ginkgo Bioworks is currently working on applications that use the power of plant microbiomes to improve strains for soil health, pest control, nutrient absorption, and disease resistance. By implementing solutions like that, farmland may maintain sufficient yield levels without the damaging results of methods in use today. Investing in projects and companies championing these and other practices is crucial for sustaining crop yields, soil health, and biodiversity.

Other biotech advancements under development include work on crops that require less fertilizer, that are pest resistant, and that can use less water, or even be irrigated with seawater. These are among the many innovations that, when implemented at scale, can bring the regenerative approach to agriculture at the scale we need to feed everyone without simultaneously and dangerously risking our indispensable ecological underpinnings. Regenerative and sustainable agriculture cannot exclude technology if the goal is more efficient and precise production, less depletion of natural resources, and better performance of functions such as soil augmentation to provide indefinite yields.

Investing in Solutions

At Green Alpha, and as part of the diversified portfolios we invest on behalf of our clients, we understand that it is imperative to support the projects and companies working towards restoring soil and water health through regenerative farming and ranching practices. This is an investment strategy that can and does look like many different things from multiple sectors and industries, not all of them immediately obvious as “farming solutions.”

With these innovations, Green Alpha believes that regenerative agriculture and biotech can feed the world, and moreover, may ultimately be the only way to ensure the entire world’s population can be fed.

If you enjoyed this post, look for our more in-depth treatment of the subject in our forthcoming whitepaper.

Green Alpha is a registered trademark of Green Alpha Advisors, LLC. Green Alpha Investments is a registered trade name of Green Alpha Advisors, LLC. Green Alpha Advisors, LLC is an investment advisor registered with the U.S. SEC. Registration as an investment advisor does not imply any certain level of skill or training. Nothing in this post should be construed to be individual investment, tax, or other personalized financial advice. At the time this blog post was published (July 28, 2022), Green Alpha did not hold shares of Ginkgo Bioworks (ticker DNA) in any client accounts.