Eating Our Way To Regeneration?

No food, no life. It’s as simple as that. But this is also an increasingly complex area as the soils-water-farming-food-diet-nutrition-health nexus confronts a series of systemic disruptions.

Are we eating our way to a global Dust Bowl?

Behind every meal and every menu, our current food system drives Black Swan outcomes like soil erosion, the climate emergency, species and habitat loss, obesity and chronic disease. No-one planned those outcomes – they are very much unintended consequences. But their sheer number and urgency underscore the fact that breakthrough solutions are needed.


Anyone wanting to understand where our farming and food systems may currently be taking us should take a look at Ken Burns’ PBS series on the American Dust Bowl. History never quite repeats itself, but there are times when it starts to rhyme energetically. Claims that we have only 100, 60 or even 30 harvests left are considered “over-blown” by some, but even skeptics would mostly accept that our farming systems are not in the most robust of health and face growing challenges. Even organic farming is now accused of creating Dust Bowl conditions in some parts of America.


No, simply stated. A WRI team has concluded that:

Regenerative agriculture has become the darling of many policymakers, food companies and farmers. Advocates claim a triple win: climate change mitigation, increased profit for farmers and greater resilience to a changing climate. Our view is that the practices grouped as regenerative agriculture can improve soil health and yield some valuable environmental benefits, but are unlikely to achieve large-scale emissions reductions.

But a growing number of initiatives that hold out the promise of using farming to solve at least some of our problems – as in the case of the sort of “regenerative ocean farming” advanced by GreenWave in Connecticut. Or trawling through the same issue of Atlas of the Future, there’s Solar Foods in Finland, using single-cell organisms to create food from “thin air”. And if conventional farming fails, the rewilding of the Knepp estate in Britain shows how returning land to wildlife can provide a viable future for unproductive farmland.


Insights from a session with Toniic, the impact investment network:

  • Regenerative agriculture is likely to play a central role in the Regenerative Economy
  • The use of precision fermentation will replace many of the products currently produced by big-carbon-footprint cattle.

Along the same lines, and probably the source of the Toniic forecast, a key 2019 study by RethinkX, Rethinking Food and Agriculture, predicted that:

  • By 2030: demand for cow products will have fallen by 70%
  • By 2035, demand for cow products will have shrunk by 80% to 90%.

“The current industrialized, animal-agriculture system will be replaced with a Food-as-Software model, where foods are engineered by scientists at a molecular level and uploaded to databases that can be accessed by food designers anywhere in the world. This will result in a far more distributed, localized, stable, and resilient food-production system.” 

– RethinkX, Rethinking Food and Agriculture

For a glimpse of how we may move from breakdown trajectories to breakthrough alternatives in agriculture, Kissing The Ground is an excellent and accessible film.


Counterfactual focuses on alternative proteins. They describe what they do as follows: “We believe factory farming is a problem. We create high-impact, profitable startups to solve it. We recruit founders to build these startups with our support.” With today’s animal-based proteins accounting for a considerable share of problems like soils degradation and the climate and biodiversity emergencies, solutions are urgently needed.

Initial Ugly Ducklings Scan

  • Biological pest controls have been around for a while, but new combinations of biologicals plus drone delivery systems and artificial intelligence could be an important stepping stone toward truly sustainable pest control. One company we are watching in this space is Holland’s Koppert Biological Solutions.
  • Hybrid farms producing both crops and volts on the same land could be a growth area in future, in what is called agrovoltaics.
  • Carbon Cowboys, a film by Peter Byck, focusing on farmers adopting multi-paddock grazing systems designed to capture and store much more carbon than current ranching approaches.
  • Nori, which provides a marketplace for verified carbon removals, incentivizing farmers to adopt regenerative practices that return carbon to the soil.
  • Biochar is emerging as a powerful climate fix for farmers, with pioneering businesses including Carbo Culture and Pacific Biochar
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screenshot-2021-05-21-at-12.25.42-1.png
  • Synthetic or alternative proteins will be critically important in future, with emerging contenders including businesses like Agrisea, Aleph Farms, Artemys Foods, BlueNalu, Impossible Foods, NovoNutrients, Vuna (a Nestlé brand that offers synthetic tuna) and Ynssect.
Synthetic tuna sandwich made by Vuna
  • Vertical farming has been much hyped, but the potential savings in terms of energy and agrochemicals are very considerable indeed. Among the farms we have visited is Growing Underground, housed in an old London Tube tunnel.

As part of the Green Swans Observatory Volans will work with leaders in the sector to reimagine the future. Here are some of the questions we will be investigating:

1. What are the implications for your business of the boom in regenerative agriculture?
2. How might you help boost the carbon content of agricultural soils?

3. Could you follow Unilever’s example with its Regenerative Agricultural Principles?

4. And how might you follow Mars in terms of wider ecosystem regeneration?

5. What are the implications of meatless diets and alternative proteins for your markets?6. How can we reimagine food so that it is net-zero – and then regenerative?

Do you know of an Ugly Duckling in this sector? Or an important organisation to involve in this collaboration?

Peter Byck, director of Carbon Nation, joins John Elkington as part of the Green Swan Observatory. They discuss climate change and soil-based solutions to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

Byck is promoting a feature-length documentary (in 10 parts), Carbon Cowboys, focused on regenerative grazing: He is also working on a long-form documentary on the AMP grazing research project. The Green Swan Observatory is a Volans initiative to improve business understanding of regeneration to accelerate the shift towards a regenerative economy. This is done by tracking, analyzing and sharing actionable examples of best practice.

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