Regenerative Agriculture: Going Back to Basics
“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of us all” — Wendell Berry
General Mills recently announced a commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland by 2030. GMI will partner with their suppliers to drive adoption across key ingredients, including oats, wheat, corn, dairy feed, and sugar beets.
Carla Vernon, president of the company’s natural and organic operating unit had this to say about this new initiative:
“Until our partners told us about regenerative agriculture, we were unaware of this form of agriculture even emerging. They taught us, they held our hand, they cheered us on, and together we’re scaling.”
So exactly what is regenerative agriculture and how will these practices impact beet and cane sugar production?
Regenerative agriculture describes a broad set of methods of food production with two clear and complementary outcomes: the production of high quality food alongside the improvement of the surrounding natural ecosystem. Some label it a radically different form of agriculture. More accurately, it borrows from an older pre-industrial form of cultivation, updated and improved based on a better scientific understanding of soil, water and the relationships that exist in natural ecosystems.
Regenerative agriculture recognizes that farms are part of a larger ecosystem, and that agricultural activities must not just make withdrawals from this larger system, but also pay into it. The overall ambition shifts from extractive, linear thinking that prioritizes high yields above all else, to establishing cycles of regeneration.
In Brazil, the executive vice-president of the Balbo Group, Leontino Balbo Junior, made the bet that restoring natural processes and modifying machinery in order to regenerate the ecosystem could revive ailing crops and land, as well as boost profitability.
The aim was to rebuild natural capital, rather than deplete it.
"We don’t worry too much about the crop itself - we take care of the whole ecosystem”
- Leontino Balbo Junior
To reduce dependency on expensive and potentially harmful artificial inputs, chemical fertilizers were replaced by a unique Integrated Organic Fertilization Program. Pesticides were exchanged for a natural pest and disease management system, which leverages naturally resistant crop varieties, a biological control program, and cultural control methods to inhibit pests and weeds.
The solid residue from juice filtration, the ash from the boilers, and the liquid residue left over after ethanol distillation, were all collected, applied back to the fields, and dry matter was fed directly into a furnace, producing 200 tons of steam per hour.
"At Native [the Balbo Group’s agricultural brand], our production system now achieves 20% higher productivity than conventional sugarcane production, with genuine concern for environmental, social, and economic factors. It is the first time that an organic, large-scale initiative has produced a higher yield than conventional agriculture!"
Businesses setting their sights on a circular economy will often need more than just resources and technical expertise: they’ll also need commitment to a vision and the belief that the journey will pay off.
Sugaright applauds the efforts of these forward thinking companies to change the way they think about food production.
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