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The investment case for ecological farming

Author: Paul McMahon

Farmland investing today

Farmland has emerged as a new asset class for investors over the past decade because of higher food prices. Historical returns have been good. However, commodity prices have dropped and farmland values are plateauing in many regions. In addition, most investment has gone into high-input, industrialised farming systems that are exposed to hidden risks. In future, investors will need to be smarter and more environmentally-aware to capture the opportunities.

The risks of industrial  agriculture

The profitability and sustainability of industrial agriculture are exposed to five major risks, which are set to intensify in coming decades:

  1. Exposure to high and volatile input costs
  2. Degrading natural assets such as soils and water reserves
  3. Vulnerability to a changing climate, especially extreme weather events
  4. Negative environmental externalities that will be increasingly taxed or regulated
  5. Shifting consumer trends, as people demand clean, green, healthy and tasty food
  6. Ecological farming: an attractive alternative

There is an alternative way to manage land that can minimise these risks, while increasing profitability. Ecological farming seeks to build soil health, minimise external inputs, recycle nutrients and energy, embrace diversity of crops and animals, and produce high value food and commodities. It is not necessarily organic (although it often can be), it can be practised on a commercial scale, and it is firmly science-based.

We have identified a number of proven systems that have investment merit. They include:

  • Holistic planned grazing for cattle and sheep
  • No-till cropping with diverse cover crops
  • Agroforestry systems
  • Low input pasture-based dairy
  • Certified organic farming in certain countries

Seven reasons to go ecological

There are a number of reasons why these types of systems can deliver superior risk-adjusted returns:

  1. Comparable or better yields in most cases
  2. Lower operating costs because of less reliance on external inputs
  3. Enhanced natural capital, with the opportunity to increase asset values by regenerating
    degraded land
  4. Climatic resilience because healthy soils cope better with droughts and floods
  5. Positive environmental externalities and the chance to be paid for them, for example through carbon credits
  6. The ability to sell to higher value markets such as organic or grass-fed
  7. Higher profitability with less volatility
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We can save individual species — but can we save entire ecosystems?

Author: Daniel Ackerman

The 1973 Endangered Species Act has rescued numerous individual species from extinction in the United States — think Rocky Mountain wolves or Florida crocodiles, for instance. But as the climate changes and humans continue to modify the landscape in a frenzy of plows, pastures and pavement, single species are not the only things in need of protection from extinction. Entire ecosystems — biological communities created through millions of years of evolutionary interactions between organisms — are at risk as well. Saving single species alone will not restore the intricate tapestry of relationships that shape ecosystems. To protect the habitat that supports those species and preserve services we humans rely on, from cleansing water for our cities and homes to buffering impacts of climate change, we need to save not just species, but also ecosystems, from extinction.

The concept of ecosystem extinction has been recognized for some time in the scientific literature, but is just now beginning to gain widespread application in land management. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature — source of the Red List of Threatened Species, our planet’s premier “high alert” when species start going down the tubes — is developing a red list of endangered ecosystems, similar to its threatened species list.

Thanks largely to agriculture, tallgrass prairie has been reduced by 99 percent.

Among those most threatened are grasslands. Historically, these ecosystems served as valuable habitat for a spectrum of species and provided humans with natural plant- and animal-based foods, as well as wide-open spaces valued for aesthetics and recreation. Today the IUCN calls them “the most altered biome on the planet.” Tallgrass prairie, for example, once covered a Texas-sized swath of North America. From the Canadian Great Plains to the Oklahoman Panhandle, tallgrass prairie supported a diverse array of native plants, pollinating insects and large animals, from grizzlies to bison and elk. Thanks largely to agriculture, tallgrass prairie has been reduced by 99 percent down to a few slivers of road margins and sandy hills throughout the Midwest, now totaling an area smaller than Rhode Island.

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