Regenerative agriculture improves crop yields by focusing on soil health, and a new study indicates that it could also improve the nutritional quality of crops. That’s good news for fans of Guinness beer, which has just launched a new regenerative agriculture pilot project in Ireland.
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Regenerative Agriculture Gets Its Big Ag Moment
Not too long ago, regenerative agriculture was perceived as a fringe offshoot of the organic farming movement. The two areas are not identical, but the focus on soil conservation and soil health does cut across both.
The coining of the term “regenerative” is attributed to the work of the father-son sustainable agriculture pioneers J.I. and Robert Rodale in the 20th century. The key goal of regenerative agriculture is to build better soil by minimizing plowing, planting cover crops, and planting more diverse crops.
These practices can also help sequester carbon, so it’s no surprise that regenerative farming has been bubbling up into the mainstream in recent years, partly because it can provide big corporations with another tool in their carbon offset toolkit.
Last April, for example, Pepsico announced a goal of promoting regenerative agriculture across 7 million acres of farmland. “The company estimates the effort will eliminate at least 3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by the end of the decade,” Pepsico enthused.
PepsiCo makes it clear that the figure of 7 million acres does not refer to land under its own supply chain. The company estimates that 7 million acres is the equivalent of farmland used for growing its own crops and ingredients. Apparently the company does not expect their own supply chain to convert to regenerative agriculture overnight.
Guinness Goes For Regenerative Agriculture
The PepsiCo approach is a realistic one, considering that the goal of a massive shift in farming practices over millions of acres can be impeded by existing contracts, market availability, and other factors. The equivalency approach provides PepsiCo with the flexibility to target regions where regenerative practices are more likely to scale up quickly.
Conversely, that could explain the relatively small size of the new Guinness regenerative agriculture program, which focuses exclusively on farms that are directly within the Guinness supply chain. Last month, the brewery’s parent company Diageo announce that Guinness has tapped an initial cohort of 40 barley farms in Ireland for a 3-year pilot project, with the barley going directly into the making of Guinness beer.
Big Test For Regenerative Agriculture
Guinness is billing the Ireland initiative as “one of the most ambitious regenerative agriculture pilots to take place on the island of Ireland.”
“This extensive, three-year farm-based programme intends to highlight opportunities for reducing the carbon emissions of barley production,” Guinness explains, adding that it expects to achieve “improvements in soil health and its carbon sequestration potential.”
The company also anticipates benefits involving biodiversity, water quality, and reduced use of synthetic fertilizer, along with a better financial outlook for the participating farmers.
The project gets under way this year, and Guinness apparently expects the initial results will attract additional farmers while the pilot is still under way.
Other partners in the project include the expert malting firm Boortmalt, and the leading Irish cereal importer Comex McKinnon.
Better Soil, Better Guinness
In an especially interesting twist, another key partner in the project is the global nutrition company Glanbia, which is on a self-described mission “to help people lead healthy, active lives.”
“We work with nature and science to create better, healthier, more sustainable sources of nutrition. We are innovators and tastemakers, with a portfolio of leading brands enjoyed by customers worldwide,” the company explains, adding that its focus is on carbon, waste and water, in alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Science Based Targets decarbonization initiative.
That brings us around to the new University of Washington study of the connection between regenerative agriculture and the nutritional quality of crops, recently published in a peer-reviewed PeerJ journal.
The sample size of the study consists of just 10 farms in the Midwest and Eastern US, so the results are more suggestive than conclusive. However, the study does reveal a pattern worthy of more study.
“Results of the preliminary experiment…show that the crops from farms following soil-friendly practices for at least five years had a healthier nutritional profile than the same crops grown on neighboring, conventional farms,” UW observes. “Results showed a boost in certain minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals that benefit human health.”
Is Guinness Really Good For You?
The UW study involves peas, sorghum, and corn crops, so the impact of regenerative farming on the nutritional quality of barley is yet to be determined. However, it does indicate that soil health is related directly to nutritional content.
Soil in the study group had double the carbon in their topsoil and triple the soil health score of the control group.
“The food grown under regenerative practices contained, on average, more magnesium, calcium, potassium and zinc; more vitamins, including B1, B12, C, E and K; and more phytochemicals, compounds not typically tracked for food but that have been shown to reduce inflammation and boost human health,” UW explains.
“Crops grown in the regenerative farms were also lower in elements broadly detrimental to human health, including sodium, cadmium and nickel, compared with their conventionally grown neighbors,” they add.
As for Guinness beer, every year when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, the nutritional content of Irish beer comes under scrutiny, and Guinness is a particular focus of attention because of its original “Guinness is good for you” slogan.
It’s all true! Well, partly. Last year our friends over at CNN consulted a university-level brewing expert, Charlie Bamforth of the University of California-Davis, who explained that “most beers contain significant amounts of antioxidants, B vitamins, the mineral silicon (which may help protect against osteoporosis), soluble fiber and prebiotics, which promote the growth of ‘good bacteria in your gut.”
In particular Guinness had the highest folate content of imported beers analyzed by Bamforth and his team, and it was also among the group with the highest fiber content.
Alcohol & Solar Power
When the topic of regenerative farming comes up, nowadays the emerging field of agrivoltaics often follows along. Researchers have found that a field of raised solar panels can help conserve soil and water while enabling some types of farming to take place within the array.
The agrivoltaic concept began with grazing fields and pollinator habitats, and now it is branching out into vegetable crops.
Barley farming does not fit the agrivoltaic bill, at least not yet. However, Guinness’s parent company Diageo is finding other ways to incorporate renewable energy into its brand portfolio.
Last year, for example, the company opened the Bulleit whiskey distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky as a carbon neutral facility featuring processes powered by solar and wind, too.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Guinness and barley courtesy of Guinness.
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