The Triple Planetary Crisis
We’re in the midst of a triple planetary crisis: climate change, biodiversity loss, and runaway pollution and waste accumulation. For centuries we’ve undermined the planetary and natural systems that exist on Earth - extractive processes benefiting humanity all at the expense of planetary health.
Significant work is being done globally on climate change and the transition to net zero. Whilst there is much to continue and accelerate in those spaces, more must be done at the intersecting crises of food security and biodiversity loss, which people are only beginning to wake up to.
Our vision at Deep Science Ventures (DSV) is a future in which both humanity and the planet thrive, maximising the overall global human experience, while minimising our environmental impact. To this end, we’ve built companies to enhance reforestation using mycorrhizal fungi (Rhizocore) and enable farmers to expedite remediative action in soil health, using microbial sensing (PES), but there is much more to be done.
In this article, we’re going to outline why regenerative agriculture and restorative cultivation are so crucial, ahead of outlining our approach to venture creation in Agriculture, which focuses on delivering food security and restoring ecosystem services on a bioregional basis.
Agriculture is the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil and seas for growing crops and rearing animals to provide food, fuels, fibres and other products. Our current agricultural system is almost entirely extractive: trading natural resources and lands of high biodiversity and ecosystem service value for agricultural “berths” that are almost temporary on Earth’s geological timelines.
The issue is that these extractive processes reduce the ancient natural potential of an ecosystem and its service value over a human lifetime. We can see this in the industrial food system, which incentivises mega-sized farming and monoculture, degrading the soil, wasting fertiliser and directly increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.
Regenerative Agriculture practices minimise negative externalities, and maximise positive outcomes beyond food security alone - including the restoration of these fundamental ecosystem services. The DSV Agriculture Thesis has been inspired by the principles of regenerative agriculture, without being strictly tied to its traditional ideology which eschews technological innovation. Instead, we propose to align and accelerate regenerative outcomes using cutting edge technology and making it highly accessible through venture-scale agribusinesses, a vision we refer to as “Restorative Cultivation”. However, getting it right requires an understanding of the problems industrial agriculture has created for the environment, as well as the problems we want to solve, and the outcomes we want to achieve.
How does agriculture clash with natural ecosystems?
Our current agriculture system essentially competes with the planet’s natural ecosystems over space, in turn disrupting the ecological balances that sustain human and planetary health. Over the last 50 years, the global population has more than doubled to 7.7bn people. Each additional person means that farmers and agribusinesses must produce more food, either by farming additional land or intensifying production in existing farmlands, at greater cost to the planet’s supportive ecosystem services, and oftentimes with worse outcomes for human nutrition. Agribusinesses seeking to rebalance the ecological impacts of expanding agriculture must contend with a number of complicating factors:
💰 FARMERS ARE TYPICALLY DRIVEN BY SHORT-TERM PROFIT
This focus on seasonal profit requires farmers to be hyper-focused on annual yield, driving adoption of monoculture and maximising extraction on a seasonal basis. This behaviour often means that farmers do not take long time frames into account, over which negative ecological imbalances accrue. The result is a decline in the diversity of their soil and the local predators and herbivores that might come into their farmland, which might have improved longer term soil health in a manner short-term synthetic fertilizers cannot. This is not the fault of farmers per se (and many farmers are aware of this), but rather the way the system and culture has evolved to incentivise certain practices.
📊 A LACK OF TRUSTED DATA AROUND BIODIVERSITY & REGENERATIVE PRACTICES
The net zero transition benefits from a clear narrative that reducing CO2 emissions will mitigate the climate crisis, which has now been indexed to almost every human activity. However, while yield is the primary metric for agriculture, and can be correlated to CO2 metrics, no single ecological metric can be directly or easily measured alongside these to understand equivalent biodiversity impacts. Instead a combination of outcomes must be measured, from acidification to soil quality, to improved native species count and reduced invasives, to a reduction in nitrogen runoff and eutrophication potential. Even where data is gathered, it is often done only by conservationists, and rarely by practitioners of traditional mass agriculture who do not always seek these outcomes. Emerging practitioners of regenerative agriculture appear to only rarely measure all of these metrics to the standards of conservation groups, meaning their results are often questioned by traditional farmers. Whilst this is a problem, science-backed ventures with ample evidence and metrics could reliably convince all three groups of stakeholders.
🔧 POOR PENETRATION OF SCALABLE REGENERATIVE TOOLS
There is a perception by many people in industrial agriculture that changes to contemporary practices will drive yields down in the short-term. Contrary to this, there are many in regenerative agriculture that state, and are able to show, quite the opposite. While this can be attributed to a lack of collaboration and siloed data, it also highlights the fact that, by comparison to extractive industrial techniques, which are well-supported by scalable tools and technologies, regenerative agriculture is a relatively new field that not only lacks best practice and widespread trust among a larger, profit-focused farming community today, but also the types of readily purchasable tools that can meet the needs of 7.7 billion people.
⏳ DIVERGENT AND UNCERTAIN TIMELINES FOR DIFFERENT PRACTICES
There are two dimensions to ecological balances: physical scale and the time frames during which they occur. On the physical scale, we can act upon an entire ecosystem or a small patch of soil, using either megafauna or microfauna. Time adds an additional dimension of complexity. For example, at the micro-scale, soil chemistry and biology can be quickly transformed by the application of nutrients and good husbandry; yet, at the macro-scale, reintroducing animals into ecosystems and attempting to accelerate the growth of primary forests can take centuries. Both are reasonable endeavours for a regenerative approach to agriculture, but the different timelines on which scalable impact can be achieved, alongside a lack of tools to scalably deploy regenerative practice compound a focus on short term thinking and action by farmers. Without convincing data, timelines and tools to transition to regenerative practices, and a perception by the majority that doing so might even drive a temporary decrease in yield and annual profits, farmers may be disincentivised to use regenerative practices, depending on their beliefs and financial position.
Every company we build at DSV is rooted in our vision for a thriving future. The DSV company creation process makes use of a collaborative outcomes graph that translates our bigger vision at the human and planetary levels into promising sector-based approaches. In Agriculture, we primarily use this to explore how we will reverse extractive and depletive practices that are undermining ecosystems and collapsing the agricultural yields they support.
Biome collapse has already been observed in coral reefs and rainforests, where highly complex ecosystems that support millions of species (and jobs) have undergone irreversible downgrades to their life support capacity. When corals bleach, they become dead reefs, coated with algae and unable to support various lifeforms and the people who depend on them. Former rainforest zones have downshifted into savannahs as their water retention capacity is lost, and trees are replaced by grasses. While these processes might occur naturally, agriculture misuse can accelerate the loss of complexity by undermining the dynamics that allow biodiversity to be preserved. It will take thousands of years for that ecological complexity to naturally reform. The worst case scenario is that this same phenomenon collapses further within our agricultural heartlands. The truth is, compared to how they were thousands of years ago, many have, and the change now threatens to accelerate into our uncertain future.
To avoid this, our team aims to not only deal with factors we describe above, but tackle agriculture-driven ecosystem collapse in a scalable manner. We are doing this by creating a detailed picture of each ecological and agricultural landscape at a granular level, to get a good grasp of the ecological balances we want to restore, and develop prioritisation criteria for pursuing the optimal solutions in different environments, by different actors. This thinking has led us to four core principles:
1. Accelerated restoration technologies - to rapidly pay back into ecosystem services that support greater biological complexity and yields
2. Scientific evidence & metrics - to convince farmers to make the shift to practices inspired by regenerative agriculture
3. Sustainable intensification - greater production using the least amount of land, to support natural ecosystem regrowth
4. Bioregional tailoring - considering all of the above in the context of similar ecosystems and the agricultural systems they support, so we can scale outcomes from one part of the world to another