Will McDonald’s Transition to Regenerative Agriculture?

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December 19, 2017 | 182,205 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Ninety-six percent of the soil erosion in North America is caused by food production
  • Impact investors are increasingly investing in sustainable agriculture. Since 2013, impact investment in this sector has grown at an annual rate of 32.5 percent
  • Last year, McDonald’s launched a pilot program to assess the ability of its cattle ranchers to sequester carbon in soil by implementing regenerative grazing practices
  • McDonald’s pilot program involves 150 operators in its Canadian beef supply chain. Should the program turn out to be a success, it could significantly alter the way that all of its ranchers raise cattle in the future
  • Sequestering carbon in soil helps stabilize climate by extracting carbon from the atmosphere. It also helps restore soil health, thereby boosting crop yields

By Dr. Mercola

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."

Healthy Eating Has Environmental Benefits

Of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, an estimated 20 to 30 percent have been linked to food production and the transport of food. According to a recent study published in PNAS, if people living in 28 high-income nations followed government dietary recommendations, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by as much as 25 percent. The amount of farmland required to produce food would also be reduced by 17 percent. How did they reach these conclusions? Los Angeles Times reports:9

"To come to this conclusion, Behrens turned to Exiobase, a massive input-output database that represents the entire world economy. It allowed him to track not only the environmental cost of growing and raising the various types of food we consume, but also the cost of the machinery involved in the production of that food, and the cost of getting it into our supermarkets and eventually onto our plates.

The database also takes into account that some countries are more efficient at producing food than others … Behrens gathered data on the average diets of people living in 39 countries as well as the dietary recommendations put out by governments in those countries … [H]e kept the calorie counts of both diets the same, and only altered the percentage of the different food groups that people actually eat, and how much their governments suggest they eat."

Once all the data was fed back into the Exiobase, the results of each scenario could be compared. A majority of the reduction in emissions if people followed dietary recommendations was linked to a reduction in meat consumption. I've frequently noted that most Americans eat far more meat than is needed or indicated for optimal health, so there's certainly room for a reduction there. Meanwhile, most eat nowhere near the recommended amount of vegetables.

That said, current efforts to create a meatless society by transitioning over to meat substitutes created by various natural and unnatural means is not part of the answer. Not only are animal products an important part of a healthy diet, grazing livestock also serve a very important function in the landscape of regenerative farming. For a refresher, see my previous interview with Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia.

Five Principles to Growing Topsoil

Another article well worth revisiting is my interview with Gabe Brown, whose regenerative North Dakota farm I visited this past July. In that interview, we discuss regenerative principles that can be applied just about anywhere, even if you live in the suburbs.

Again, the major focus of regenerative farming is the building of high-quality topsoil and a healthy soil ecosystem, which in turn will allow you to grow bountiful, nutrient-dense food — all without the addition of synthetic chemicals. Here are five key principles for accomplishing this, whether you're running a full-fledged farm or simply growing vegetables in your garden:

1. Avoid disturbing the soil microbiome with tillage, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. The less mechanical disturbance the better. The same applies in your home garden.

2. Protect the soil's surface with cover crops and cover crop residue. In your home garden, use mulch, wood chips or lawn clippings. You never want to leave soil bare, as bare soil will have a negative effect on soil biology and the water cycle. Cover crops and other forms of "soil armor," such as wood chips, effectively prevent water evaporation and lowers the soil temperature, thereby nourishing and protecting the plants' roots.

Simply applying biomass will convert to soil in a few years. Ideally, the wood chips should be finely ground and ideally have some leaves in the mix to balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio, but even then it will take a few years for the chips to convert to soil with high levels of humates.

Never plant directly into the chips, only below them. The chips and mulch help retain the moisture and decrease water requirements. My interview with Paul Gautschi, master arborist and gardener for more than half a century, goes into even more details.

3. Diversify. Having a diverse array of plant life is essential, and cover crops fulfill this requirement as well. Home gardens will also benefit from cover crops, helping to improve the soil, attract beneficial insects and capture more sunlight.

4. Maintain living roots in the ground as long as possible. Maintaining some kind of growth at all times is key. If you have a small vegetable garden, don't leave it bare once you've harvested your veggies. Plant a cover crop in anticipation for the next season.

5. Integrate livestock and other animals, including insects. Flowering plants that attract pollinators and predator insects will naturally help ward off pests that might otherwise decimate your main crop. Meanwhile, grazing animals, be they goats or cattle, mimic the natural movement of wild animals across the landscape. Even just having a few free-range chickens can make a big difference on your property.

Consider Growing Some of Your Own Food

During World War II, 40 percent of the produce in the U.S. was grown in people's backyards in so-called "victory gardens," and this trend has started taking root once again. If you currently have a lot of lawn and ornamental plants, consider transitioning over to more edibles. You can grow a significant amount of food in a rather small space. In the video above, Gabe shows off his own small garden, which produces enough veggies for four families for an entire year.

Even college students living in a dormitory and those who rent can grow sunflower seed sprouts or microgreens, or participate in a community garden if there's one nearby. Growing your own food is a practical approach that creates a great deal of security. If you grow a large portion of the fresh food you eat, that's hard-earned dollars you won't have to spend at the grocery store. And you'll have better quality food.

Invest in a Healthier Food System

Aside from growing some of your own food, another way to support the emergence of a healthier food system is to join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. As a CSA member, you basically buy a "share" of the vegetables the farm produces, and each week during growing season (usually May through October) you receive a weekly delivery of fresh food. Joining a CSA is a powerful investment in your local community and economy, as well as your own health. 

Thriving CSAs can help revitalize a community and allow residents to form strong bonds with the farmers who grow their food. It's also really helpful for the farmer, who is able to collect money needed to seed, sow and harvest up-front. Alternatively, buy as much food as you can from your local farmers or farmers market. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:

Demeter USA

Demeter-USA.org provides a directory of certified Biodynamic farms and brands. This directory can also be found on BiodynamicFood.org.

American Grassfed Association

The goal of the American Grassfed Association is to promote the grass fed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education.

Their website also allows you to search for AGA approved producers certified according to strict standards that include being raised on a diet of 100 percent forage; raised on pasture and never confined to a feedlot; never treated with antibiotics or hormones; born and raised on American family farms.

EatWild.com

EatWild.com provides lists of farmers known to produce raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other farm-fresh produce (although not all are certified organic). Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.

Weston A. Price Foundation

Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.

Grassfed Exchange

The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.

Local Harvest

This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass fed meats and many other goodies.

Farmers Markets

A national listing of farmers markets.

Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals

The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)

CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.

FoodRoutes

The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs and markets near you.

The Cornucopia Institute

The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.

RealMilk.com

If you're still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund10 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.11 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Climate News Network December 22, 2016
  • 2 University of Michigan’s Global Change Program
  • 3 GreenBiz.com October 24, 2017
  • 4 Global Impact Investing Network, Impact Investing Trends
  • 5 GreenBiz.com December 4, 2017
  • 6, 8 New York Times December 2, 2017
  • 7 Earth System Dynamics 2017; 8: 577-616 (PDF)
  • 9 Los Angeles Times December 4, 2017
  • 10 The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
  • 11 The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, State by State Review of Raw Milk Laws