Regenerative agriculture practices linked to 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation released the findings of its big food redesign study last week. Titled “The Big Food Redesign: Regenerating Nature with the Circular Economy“, the report outlined the actionable framework aimed at Big Food companies and major retailers, with five key concepts for redesigning food products for a positive impact on nature and the value chain.

The part that amazed me most was the modelling to quantify the benefits of regeneratively produced ingredients and the redesigned circular food system compared to the conventional food system. The modelling was done for the UK and EU and specific to three ingredients – wheat, potatoes and dairy.

Compared to conventional agriculture practices on average across the three ingredients, regenerative agriculture practices are projected to:

  • reduce biodiversity loss by 20 percent
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent
  • increase total food output by 5 percent
  • increase farmer profitability by USD200 per hectare
Benefits of regeneratively produced compared to conventionally produced ingredients.
Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2021) The Big Food Redesign: Regenerating Nature with the Circular Economy

When I presented at the Climate Resilience Forum in June 2021, I pondered why Big Food companies identified regenerative agriculture as a pathway towards reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. I postulated to the audience in Northam, Western Australia that they, the Big Food companies, perhaps knew something we didn’t.

We finally know what they know. This study released last week quantified the link between regenerative agriculture practices and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, cementing the role of regenerative agriculture in global climate change mitigation.

The Foundation went on to further quantify the benefits of food produced in their proposed circular food redesigned system compared to conventional system. In addition to regenerative agriculture practices, the report provides practical steps for food companies and big retailers to redesign their products. Ingredients for these redesigned products are:

  • DiverseMike Lee, Alpha Food Labs (a collaborator in this study), last week mentioned in the Future of Food Conference (Mandurah, Western Australia) the staggering statistic that 75 percent of our food comes from 12 plants and 5 animals. Increasing the diversity of our ingredient sources increases the resilience of the food system.
  • Lower impact – Switching to oat milk for example has a positive impact on the environment. The total food output per hectare for oat milk is more than 7 times that of conventional dairy, with greenhouse gas emissions 0.75% that of conventional dairy. However, every choice must be considered in the fullness of the entangled ecosystem. I am so pleased the report recognised the importance of incorporating animals in a regenerative farming system as well as the nutritional considerations of completely switching to plant-based milk.
  • Upcycled – this goes beyond just minimising waste or recycling unused parts of the ingredient. This concept turns previously unwanted and unused parts of ingredients into high value ingredients. The USD96 billion upcycled market is projected to grow 5 percent annually.  

Quantified benefits increased across all four categories, but the biggest jumps when compared to just sourcing regeneratively produced ingredients were in two categories: (1) total amount of food produced and (2) farmer profitability. Instead of a 5 percent increase in total food output produced by regenerative agriculture practices, the redesigned food system produced an increase of 50 percent. Farmer profitability per hectare jumped from an increase of USD 200 for the regenerative agriculture system to USD 3,100 in the redesigned food system.

So perhaps there is still hope for our planet to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2021) The Big Food Redesign: Regenerating Nature with the Circular Economy

To read this fascinating report, go to The Big Food Redesign page.

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