Saeed Rahman, Natalie Slawinski, and Monika Winn examine how pioneering companies in agriculture, agri-food, and other sectors can build and leverage ecological knowledge (knowledge about the very ecosystems they rely on) to develop innovative practices that help regenerate social and natural systems. In doing so, these companies can reap benefits for their business and help turn our unsustainable agricultural systems into systems that sustain a growing human population without severely degrading or destroying ecological systems necessary for agriculture and other industries.
Climate change and biodiversity loss have prompted businesses in a range of industries — from agri-food and agriculture to clothing, pharmaceuticals, forestry, fisheries, mining, tourism, and energy — to seek a more holistic understanding of their interdependence with ecosystems.
Firms rely on ecosystems for natural resources that are critical to their business, yet their business practices often deplete those very ecosystems and cause them to degenerate.
Ecosystems degenerate when their natural structure and processes are changed to the extent they are unable to fully recover from stresses (regardless of whether the changes were from human activities or large-scale natural disasters). In contrast, a regenerative ecosystem can bounce back from the stresses caused by seasonal floods, higher temperatures, or wildfires so that they can go back to their highest-functioning states.
Business practices involving the widespread use of chemicals, increased pollution and waste accumulation, or inefficient use of non-renewable natural resources can severely degrade ecosystems, threatening the survival of species that depend on them. Once an ecosystem reaches degenerative thresholds, it becomes unstable and may break down.
Armed with an increased awareness of the risks of ignoring this interdependence, many firms are not just rethinking their practices, but going further. By learning from the very ecosystems they rely on, they build ecological knowledge, allowing them to develop sustainable practices that contribute to the regeneration, rather than the degeneration (and associated risks), of social and natural systems.1
An industry that illustrates the complex interdependence between business, society, and nature especially well is industrial agriculture. With the world’s population projected to hit 10 billion by 2050, the demand for food worldwide is expected to rise by 56%, making us increasingly reliant on industrial agriculture.2
Unfortunately, the current chemical-based industrial agriculture system is already pushing far beyond the world’s environmental limits. The system primarily promotes monoculture cropping: the growing of the same commodity crops year after year. Monocropping, as it is often called, degenerates soil ecosystems by burning soil carbon instead of storing it and by degrading nutrients and biological activity in the soil.3
In addition to monocropping, industrial agriculture relies on synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. It is the largest source of water and air pollution, a major contributor to soil erosion, the biggest drain on fresh water, a leading cause of biodiversity loss — and it’s responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.4
Many companies continue to contribute to this fundamentally unsustainable system, often because they are embedded in socioeconomic system structures that make it difficult to change. Yet a growing number of innovative firms are engaged in creating ecological knowledge that allows them to build growing practices that restore and regenerate ecosystems. In doing so, these pioneers experience significant benefits from better understanding how ecosystems efficiently provide the natural resources they depend on. The resulting regenerative approaches are a dramatic departure from current industrial agricultural practices. In fact, if their take-up is nurtured effectively across supply chains, they have the potential to transform our food systems to become sustainable.
General Mills, one of the largest food producers in the US, offers a powerful example of such work. The company developed a partnership with farmers, suppliers, the University of Minnesota, and Xerces Society (a major pollinator and wildlife conservation nonprofit) to implement large-scale habitat restoration projects with the goal of conserving biodiversity and securing the long-term supply of its critical raw materials.5
California-based Bonterra Organic Vineyards is another good example. A leading producer of wines made from organically grown grapes, Bonterra regularly collaborates with a network of like-minded farms, local beekeepers, other wineries, environmental nonprofits, agricultural research organizations, and other supply chain partners to exchange knowledge and information about organic growing practices. These practices include using cover crops, integrating wildlife, composting soil, and reducing the company’s water footprint. The goal is to create a flourishing natural ecosystem, stronger plants, and greater yields, thus promoting both sustainability and organizational efficiency.6
What Is Ecological Knowledge?
As the General Mills and Bonterra examples illustrate, businesses are increasingly deepening their ecological knowledge. They are doing so by expanding place-based and geographically specific understandings, learnings, practices, and beliefs about the interrelationships and mutual interdependencies between living beings (including humans) and their (nonhuman) environment.7 Ecological knowledge is derived from systematic, long-term observations of natural phenomena and the relationships among species, ecological processes, and ecosystem functions.
Current sources and keepers of such knowledge range from scientific groups to diverse communities of natural resource users, including networks of professionals that generate knowledge through many years of observation and direct interaction with the natural environment.8 Examples include local communities, indigenous groups, and other users of natural resources that can offer substantial knowledge about ecosystems and ecosystem dynamics. Such knowledge ranges from understanding an individual species or species ecology to knowledge about the larger ecosystem of which they are part.9
Hunters, for example, develop knowledge about a specific ecosystem from their near-daily observations of the area covered, including one species preying on another species, fluctuations in populations of these predators, and other changes in ecology and the behavior of specific animals. Fishermen/women create experience-based knowledge about marine ecosystems, including fish behavior, specific fishing locations, local marine stocks, and how these things change over time.
Farmers can similarly develop a deep understanding of local ecological conditions, including agricultural production systems, species traits, watershed services, and traditional soil management measures. The agro-ecological knowledge held by farmers includes climatic conditions relevant to crop production, natural enemies of crops and pesticide alternatives, bird species and conservation, plant types and their insecticidal/medicinal properties, and seed varieties that have adapted to soil and weather patterns.10 Other types of ecological knowledge include traditional cropping practices, weather characteristics, irrigation practices, crop rotation, and the behavior of drought-resistant species and varieties.11
Businesses both large and small are also becoming important sources and keepers of ecological knowledge, often through partnerships. One example is Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse on Vancouver Island in Canada. Sea Cider turned to ecological knowledge about pollination, soil health, water usage, and invasive species to improve the company’s overall sustainability performance. Ivy invades forest ecosystems, and another invasive plant, gorse, is destroying coastal sand ecosystems on Vancouver Island. Sea Cider partnered with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (Canada’s largest national land conservation organization) and leading biologists and environmental studies researchers from Vancouver Island’s University of Victoria to strengthen its knowledge about invasive species and the island’s unique ecology. The company is using the resulting knowledge to manage invasive species in its apple orchard.
How Businesses Acquire & Use Ecological Knowledge
Transforming a firm’s in-depth understanding of its embeddedness in (and interdependence with) nature into organizational knowledge can enhance the firm’s performance and reduce its negative impact on nature.12
Companies in a variety of industries increasingly use their knowledge about ecosystem dynamics to strengthen their capacity to improve their relationships with nature and contribute to ecologically and socially sound development.
Below, we examine how two companies in very different industries discovered important knowledge about the complex relationships between their organizations and the ecosystems they rely on. This, in turn, enabled them to source critical raw materials for their businesses.
Barilla, the world’s largest user of durum wheat semolina, implemented a sustainable agriculture project between 2010 and 2014 to bring systemic changes to the cultivation of durum wheat. At the time, durum wheat was responsible for more than 80% of the ecological footprint of pasta, including very high water consumption and reduced land biodiversity.
The project’s main goal was to generate knowledge about complex agriculture systems to help achieve a consistent supply of high-quality wheat while preserving soil and ecosystem functions, thus reducing the negative ecological impact of pasta.
A cross-functional team of Barilla managers from global supply chain, R&D, and others formed a multi-stakeholder partnership with Horta, an organization with expertise in scientific research and technological innovation; Life Cycle Engineering, an Italian consulting firm with expertise in lifecycle assessment and eco-design; and — importantly —with farmers, farmer organizations, and local authorities from the northern, central, and southern parts of Italy.
In the first phase, an in-field experiment applied new ecological knowledge about crop rotation and generated many surprising results: CO2 emissions went down by nearly 50%, and soil productivity, final yield, and product quality improved dramatically, increasing farmers’ profitability.
In the next phase, the ecological knowledge this multi-stakeholder partnership generated was codified into a “Handbook for Sustainable Cultivation of Durum Wheat” to provide farmers with practical suggestions on crop rotation, soil preparation, the choice and amount of seeds, controlling weeds, disease protection, and more. Using this knowledge, Barilla’s partner Horta built the interactive Web tool granoduro.net to provide practical decision support to farmers on weed and pest management, water balance, crop lifecycles, and environmental impacts.13
The effort led Barilla to launch “Barilla Sustainable Farming” in 2013, a project that now promotes sustainable agriculture practices to more than 10,000 farms around the world.
For IKEA, cotton is an essential raw material. In the early 2000s, health risks to farmers, soil erosion, and water scarcity made the harmful environmental and social impacts of conventional cotton production an urgent issue for the company. The firm ventured far upstream into its cotton supply chain to work with farmers, farmer organizations, and local nongovernmental organizations to understand how cotton is cultivated and processed in places like Pakistan and India.
The resulting knowledge helped the company initiate sustainable cotton-farming practices that not only reduced the negative environmental impacts of cotton production, but also lowered the cost of production and improved the quality of raw materials.14
IKEA then formed the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a multi-stakeholder partnership with Adidas, Gap, H&M, International Federation of Agricultural Producers, International Finance Corporation, World Wildlife Fund, and several local development organizations. The projects initiated by BCI have helped more than 1 million farmers in 20 countries to significantly reduce the use of pesticides, water, and fertilizers in cotton production while increasing soil health and biodiversity. The organization has also helped improve socioeconomic conditions in farming communities. BCI’s 600 members now source and supply sustainable cotton at all stages of the textile supply chain.
These two stories illustrate how a new breed of business organizations is pushing beyond traditional boundaries by explicitly incorporating their understanding of nature into their strategies.15
They also demonstrate that a large-scale, system-level change toward more ecologically sustainable production systems is an evolutionary process, one that requires organizations to access as many sources of ecological knowledge as possible.
How Ecological Knowledge Can Contribute to Positive Systems Change
Over the last four decades, we’ve observed a growing movement toward sustainable agriculture, with a focus on creating food production systems that do not degrade the natural resource base, thus ensuring the ability of future generations to produce and flourish. The examples above show how innovative businesses are adopting the principle of regeneration: creating and strengthening the capacity of nature, organizations, and communities such that each can support the other in mutually beneficial ways.
Project Drawdown, a nonprofit led by climate activist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken, compiles the world’s leading information resources on science-based climate solutions. It ranks regenerative agriculture systems as a critical opportunity for humanity to achieve climate health while ensuring financial well-being for farmers.
Given the current destructive impact of agriculture on nature (and with that, the long-term detrimental effects on human society as a whole), the question arises whether this movement can be the start of a large-scale transformation of current food production and farming systems.
In theory, a widespread systems change in the sector is possible if it can invent food production systems that work with nature, lower unsustainable use of water and other nonrenewable natural resources, regenerate healthy soil by restoring its carbon and nutrient content, and ultimately enhance biodiversity and natural habitat in farming areas.
The efforts of pioneering firms and other organizations discussed earlier suggest that a drastic shift toward regeneration could indeed help achieve such a system-level transformation in the agriculture sector.16
Core to the discovery, implementation, and promotion of the lessons learned about regenerative practices are strong partnerships between businesses, including farmers, researchers, environmental nonprofits, investors, and other community stakeholders. Such deliberate collaboration helps companies scale up regenerative food production systems and adopt regeneration-oriented sustainability principles.
For example, General Mills partnered with Nature Conservancy, Soil Health Institute, Soil Health Partnership, and National Wheat Foundation to support research into achieving widespread adoption of regenerative soil health practices.17
Equally inspiring, since 2017, Patagonia has worked with Rodale Institute (which pioneered the organic food movement in the US), Dr. Bronner’s soaps, Wild Farm Alliance, National Science Foundation, and Nature’s Path (a leading producer of certified organic foods) to form the Regenerative Organic Alliance to promote practices and standards that align with the principles of regenerative agriculture.
Businesses like General Mills and Patagonia do not only adopt the principle of regeneration based on ecological knowledge to embed sustainability throughout their own organizations; they promote its understanding and adoption through powerful networks of other social actors.
Joining the many parties engaging in and pushing for change are governing bodies. Many municipal, regional, and higher-level government entities are taking a proactive approach to building knowledge about and using the principles of regenerative agriculture.
In 2021, the University of Missouri with support from the Missouri Department of Conservation launched the Center for Regenerative Agriculture, the first of its kind in the Midwest. In collaboration with the local government, local farmers, farm and conservation organization representatives, and local agribusiness, the center develops innovative tools and regenerative farming methods that can lead to more resilient local food systems.
Regeneration Canada, a nonprofit organization founded in 2017, is working closely with governments, farmers, scientists, agronomists, businesses, indigenous communities, and citizens to create awareness of how soil regeneration can support a healthy food system.
The Regenerative Agriculture and Agritech Network launched by the Government of British Columbia (BC) offers a useful support system for local farmers to help them learn about, adopt, and expand regenerative farming practices. With this initiative, the BC government hopes to build a more resilient provincial food system to better respond to long-term, climate-related challenges.18
All these developments suggest that regenerative agriculture is much more than a buzzword. We must also note the changing role of consumers. Consumers are starting to pay attention to the fact that foods produced using regenerative principles can help with environmental challenges, including climate change.
The phenomenon has become part of the larger consumer conversation and is beginning to shape consumer choices. Some argue that regenerative agriculture has the potential to produce the next generation of foods that are beyond organic.19 Momentum is growing thanks to recent popular documentaries such as Kiss the Ground and The Biggest Little Farm and widespread coverage of issues like local food security, food safety, global supply chain complexities, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Many large investors, yet another vital party in prompting change, have recently taken special interest in promoting regenerative agriculture. For example, US-based investment fund Farmland LP, a certified B Corporation, invests in converting monocropping-focused industrial agricultural land into organic farmland using regenerative farming practices. The company manages more than US $175 million in assets and more than 15,000 acres of sustainable farmland in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.
Clearly, more businesses need to adopt the principles of regeneration to generate large-scale system change. This requires recognizing the power of ecological knowledge to: (1) fundamentally strengthen an organization’s capacity to manage its relationships with nature more sustainably in the long term; and (2) provide a profitable business model in the short term.
The time is right for innovative tools, metrics, frameworks, and models that can convince businesses, governments, investors, and practitioners that systemic change is both needed and possible. For agriculture in particular, regenerating and revitalizing the entire ecosystem of the farm (from soil biodiversity and organic matters to plants and other species) can and needs to contribute to mitigating climate change effects, strengthening biodiversity, and ensuring a satisfactory livelihood for farmers.20
By reintroducing crop-rotation practices, restoring natural pollinators, improving irrigation techniques, and/or reintroducing some traditional crop varieties, organizations can profitably strengthen ecosystems and ensure the well-being of the planet’s entire social-ecological system.
From giants like Nestlé and General Mills to family-owned operations like Nature’s Path, businesses are going beyond typical routines, structures, processes, and markets to embed new knowledge about their business-nature interface into their strategies and management processes. Global multinational companies like Unilever increasingly acknowledge that a healthy natural ecosystem with the ability to regenerate is essential for the resilience of both their business’s supply chain and long-term sustainability.
This approach challenges established ways of doing business and requires new and radical thinking, but embedding ecological knowledge throughout an organization can create deeply innovative and economically successful business models while strengthening biodiversity and restoring/regenerating ecosystems.
After years of incremental efforts in response to environmental regulations and stakeholder pressure, this is both surprising and encouraging. Further strengthening of this emerging movement may well promise more fundamental system shifts toward truly sustainable business practices.
In this article, we have shown that businesses can boost knowledge creation by entering into wider partnerships and alliances with suppliers, research institutions, and scientific communities and by developing dynamic relationships with governments, customers, investors, and local communities.21
Notably, such partnerships help businesses (and all network members) develop a more sophisticated understanding of interdependent social, economic, and ecological systems. They also allow firms to significantly shift their strategic approach and outcomes, going beyond business as usual to learn new ways of doing things.
Once organizations across a variety of industries better understand their deep interdependence and interactions with social and ecological systems and apply the resulting knowledge to their business practices and strategies, we’re likely to see positive, system-level changes on local, regional, national, and even global levels. The agri-food industry provides an excellent example of how ecological knowledge can contribute to the systems-level change that will be required to thrive within our ecological limits and ultimately to sustain the 10 billion people projected to be living on our planet by 2050.
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