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Will McDonald’s Transition to Regenerative Agriculture?

For decades, food production has been all about efficiency and lowering cost. We now see what this approach has brought us — diminishing food quality, skyrocketing disease statistics and a faltering ecosystem. Regenerative agriculture that makes use of cover crops, no-till and herbivore grazing actually contributes to improved soil health and fertility. 

An interesting study that highlights the importance of grazing animals found that reindeer grazing on shrubs on the Arctic tundra actually help combat abnormal weather patterns on a global scale by increasing surface albedo, the amount of solar energy being reflected back into space.1 Overall, it’s become quite clear that regenerative agriculture is the only truly viable way forward, as factory farming is making everything worse.

Indeed, around the world, farmers are waking up to the many adverse effects of industrialized agriculture. While chemicals and machines have allowed farms to expand and increase production, there’s growing awareness about how these strategies harm the soil, ecology and, ultimately, human health. According to data from the University of Michigan’s Global Change Program, a whopping 96 percent of the soil erosion in North America is caused by food production.2

Regenerative Agriculture Gets Influx of Investment Funds

As a result of this awareness, a growing number of farmers are transitioning over to more sustainable and regenerative methods that do not rely so heavily on chemical and technological means. Impact investors are also flocking to sustainable agriculture, according to recent reports, convinced that this is where we’re ultimately headed. As noted by GreenBiz:3

“A growing number of investment companies in this realm are using capital to help ranchers switch to 100 percent grassfed beef production, connect small farms to communities with little access to fresh food and transition farmland used to grow commodity corn and soy to organic, regenerative systems.

‘There's total momentum right now around people rethinking about how their money is being put to work,’ said Kate Danaher, senior manager of social enterprise lending and integrated capital at RSF Social Finance. ‘Impact investing as a whole is growing very quickly, and my guess is that if you polled everyone interested, the most popular sector is sustainable food and ag.’

In fact, according to the Global Impact Investing Network's most recent survey,4 63 percent of impact investors said they were putting their dollars into food and agriculture, and impact investment in the sector has grown at an annual rate of 32.5 percent since 2013.”

McDonald’s Takes Aim at Carbon Sequestration

Restaurants are also starting to get on board, paying closer attention to the source of their ingredients and how the food was grown or raised. McDonald’s is one of the latest franchises to take the plunge into regenerative farming. Whether this is a greenwashing publicity stunt or an attempt to appease customer demand remains to be seen.

According to a recent report by GreenBiz,5 the fast food giant is “embarking on a small but potentially significant project to measure and analyze the ability of cattle farming to sequester carbon in soil, using a style of grazing called adaptive multi-paddock — AMP, for short,” adding:

“For years, a small number of farmers have used techniques such as conservation tillage, cover cropping and crop rotation to reduce soil loss and keep carbon in the soil, which can improve soil health and fertility and make land more productive. AMP is another tool in that toolkit.

It involves moving cattle around grazing land for short durations in small, fenced-off areas called paddocks. Then giving paddocks long periods of time to rest, which catalyzes accelerated grass regrowth along with other flora and fauna. The method mimics the migrations of wild herd animals, such as elk, bison and deer, as they move from place to place.” 

Should the program turn out to be a success, it could significantly alter the way that all of McDonald’s ranchers raise their cattle. After the formation of a “global roundtable” of beef producers and processing facilities in 2013 to define the term “sustainable beef,” McDonald’s began implementing the standards last year through a pilot program involving nearly 150 beef operations in its Canadian supply chain. According to GreenBiz:

“Just last month, Cargill, one of McDonald’s go-to beef suppliers, announced that its Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration pilot, by the end of 2018, will provide customers with beef ‘from operations that have been audited from 'birth to burger' using an industry-developed sustainability standard.’

The yearlong project will explore a variety of tracking technologies, such as DNA testing and blockchain, to design a process for producing verified sustainable beef ‘that is robust while still being practical, scalable and cost-effective,’ according to a Cargill press release.”

The Carbon Story

There are five main carbon sinks on the Earth: the atmosphere, oceans, forests, deep underground and in soil. Of these, soil is the best repository of carbon, as here it helps restore soil health and boost crop yields.

Destructive farming practices such as tilling effectively release soil carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide,  or into water by erosion. As noted by The New York Times:6

Many scientists and farmers believe the emerging understanding of soil’s role in climate stability and agricultural productivity will prompt a paradigm shift in agriculture, triggering the abandonment of conventional practices like tillage, crop residue removal, mono-cropping, excessive grazing and blanket use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide.

Even cattle, usually considered climate change culprits because they belch at least 25 gallons of methane a day, are being studied as a potential part of the climate change solution because of their role in naturally fertilizing soil and cycling nutrients.”

Scientists Support Regenerative Agriculture

A recent paper7 by James Hansen, a scientist and environmental activist, offers strong support for regenerative agriculture, urging farmers to take “steps to improve soil fertility and increase its carbon content”. 

According to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, soil can sequester carbon at a rate as high as 2.6 gigatons per year.8  And, as Lal told The New York Times, “Putting the carbon back in soil is not only mitigating climate change, but also improving human health, productivity, food security, nutrition security, water quality, air quality — everything. It’s a win-win-win option.”

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