Why we need to shift the focus from environmental practices to "environmental profits" if we want to achieve significant positive impact.
The term “regenerative” is synonymous with net positive. So it should mean that there is more of something than there would have been otherwise. When discussing regenerative agriculture, we intentionally start and stop that boundary and environmental impact. If we focus on the environment, you can think of regenerative grazing or agriculture as an “ecological profit.” This environmental profit comes from maximizing photosynthesis, collecting as much outside energy from the sun as possible can be considered a revenue stream. Every time you see bare ground, you should train your eyes to see a “solar spill” — a missed opportunity to put more positive energy, or ecological revenue, into nature.
In business, no one says “profitable practices.” Profitability is an outcome. It requires active planning, feedback loops, and ongoing adjustments. As part of that process, you build a budget — a proactive plan that maps out your resources and reasonable goals to achieve. There is an old adage, initially stated by British statistician George Box, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” That’s exactly what a budget is: a compilation of what we know today and our best guesses for the future based on many proven and new strategies to achieve those goals. Yet all budgets are wrong the day they are distributed. However, they are still an invaluable tool to help keep business on track and to: 1) identify what assumptions are working and warrant further investment of time and resources and 2) help identify strategies that are underperforming in the current context and need to be optimized. They help us see what to double down on and what to pivot away from.
No one comes out of business school with a proven list of “practices” to achieve profitable outcomes. Humans have an innate desire to reduce things to simpler forms, make them as linear as possible, and work in two dimensions. This reductionism fits the confines of what our brains can process. However, nature, human happiness, and finance are all incredibly dynamic, non-linear and utilize three and four dimensions. In those realms, the best we have is proactive planning and ongoing optimization. No two organizations will share the same context, even those in the same industry selling to the same buyers. Each needs to make a custom plan that fits their context, and it needs to be optimized over time. The same is true for farmers and ranchers. Even two neighbors will have very different contexts, and no set of best practices will be metabolized in their different contexts and achieve similar results. Society has accepted this truth for financial systems, but they have not yet adopted this mindset for how we grow the ingredients to feed and clothe ourselves.
Agriculture is constantly being widgetized and reduced to being treated like a mechanistic system when it is not. Humans hope and dream that it will be linear and predictable. Again, it is not! For at least hundreds of years, and with the best of intentions, civilization has set up institutions to create these recipes of best practices for farmers and ranchers to implement. I often jokingly refer to this as the magazine-cover approach of enticing you to buy with the promise of some list inside, such as “seven steps to flatter abs.” The reality is that there are no recipes, formulas, or list of approved practices that will get each producer to an environmentally profitable state while fitting into their broader context.
We need proactive planning, intentional design, and ongoing iteration based on feedback loops. This constant journey of creativity and optimization is critical to achieving profit in a business and agriculture. The best process we have seen for achieving regenerative outcomes, again think “environmental profit,” is to set “budgets” based on the resources available and the goals that a farm or ranch wants to achieve.
While not required for verification with Land to Market, our work of being a voice for the land and a solution for the marketplace to support regenerative outcomes stems from Allan Savory’s work in developing Holistic Management. It is a principles-based framework for building triple-bottom-line budgets that simultaneously address social well-being, environmental outcomes, and financial stability.
The public resistance to embracing the more complex approach of bespoke, context-specific solutions is high. The idea that we can simplify ecology is deeply ingrained into our thinking and our desire to build security in our lives from the notion that we can master nature — make it work like a factory or machine. However, changing our approach to this topic matters deeply to the future of civilization. Research indicates that how we manage soil at a global scale may determine whether civilization as we know it continues or not. There is a plethora of research to demonstrate this, from entities like Carbon Drawdown, the United Nations (both the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and UN Food and Agriculture Organization specifically speak to these topics often), and the 4p1000 initiative that emerged out of the COP21 Paris Climate talks.
When our collective lexicon employs reductionism in identifying best practices or formulas for ecological profitability, we limit humanity’s ability to move quickly and set the right expectations. Achieving financial profit can be challenging, yet we all accept it can be done. There is no panacea, no quick fix — but it is achievable with ongoing commitment. Our future heavily depends on our ability to create ongoing environmental profits. Let’s not risk the outcomes through oversimplification. Instead, let’s embrace our situation’s complexity which calls for a more inclusive perspective — one that has the potential to make room for widespread land restoration.