Thought Leadership

Forbes IGNITE: Regenerative AgTech

February 25, 2024
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How Tech Will Transform Sustainable Agriculture

In the heart of the United States, under an open sky, lies an age-old wisdom, bound by the rhythms of nature and the cyclical dance of seasons. This wisdom is enshrined in regenerative agriculture, a system that doesn't just sustain our land but restores and revitalizes it.

Yet, this wisdom of old stands at the precipice of a new era, one shaped by bytes and pixels, algorithms and drones. Technology, in all its disruptive glory, is staking its claim in the domain of the farmer, and in doing so, is poised to revolutionize how we grow, sell, and consume our food. It could also contribute to the intergenerational fight against climate change. 

That’s why Forbes Ignite gathered eleven diverse leaders from every part of the food and agricultural technology (AgTech) ecosystem to come to grips with the challenges facing regenerative agriculture and to explore ways that technology can help advance the cause. In a virtual roundtable, held in late 2022, these experts representing fields as diverse as organic rice farming to producing crop sensors powered by the energy of bacteria in the soil, debated and discussed how to scale the impact of regenerative agriculture.


Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to farming, rooted in practices that enhance biodiversity, enrich soils, improve watersheds, and enhance ecosystem services. It strives to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, such farming methods enhance crop resilience to climate instability. 

However, defining what is "regenerative" can become a complex task. Is it a strict set of practices, or is it a philosophy? The debate over who gets to define this term - centralized government bodies, multinational corporations, or local farming communities - can deeply influence the transition to regenerative practices.

“We recently wrapped up a study with The Nature Conservancy to try to better define regenerative agriculture,” said Jason Heckathorn, Founder and Chief Sustainability Officer of Forever Oceans, a company that is reimagining aquaculture (fish farming) using a multidisciplinary approach and the latest technology. “They defined it as a food system that creates positive and quantifiable growth for communities, economies and the planet without eroding the underlying resources. What I like about this is that if we want that definition to have any meaning, we have to be able to measure it. But it’s still flexible enough that we leave room for tradition, creativity and that we're not disrespecting the people in the global south and beyond whose perspectives can add the most value.” 

Traditional farmers across the globe, particularly those in the global south, have long employed practices that are innately regenerative, although they may not label them as such. Strict, top-down definitions might risk marginalizing such farmers, whose wisdom and experience could be invaluable in the global shift towards more sustainable farming. The challenge lies in building bridges, not barriers, between these diverse understandings of regenerative agriculture. 

Simultaneously, this wisdom of old is interacting with the disruptive forces of the new age – technology. 

The buzz of drones, the calculated precision of AI, and the vast networks of data have started to permeate the pastoral calm of the fields. 

With potential to revolutionize everything from sowing to selling, technology could reshape agriculture as we know it. 

“Regenerative agriculture in the United States has been primarily supported by philanthropy.”” said complexity scientist and ecologist Eric Berlow, who now serves as CEO of Vibrant Data Labs, a data science organization tracking the flows of over $400B in private investments and philanthropy to climate solutions. “We are now seeing growing momentum of venture investments in agricultural technologies that are aligned with regenerative practices and climate solutions goals.” 

Yet, the journey from an industrial, extractive agricultural model to a regenerative future is not without obstacles. It calls for more than the redefinition of farming practices; it requires a radical rethinking of the socioeconomic structure underpinning it. Issues of diversity, land ownership, and community profits are as vital to this transition as the seeds sown in the field.

As we step into this brave new world of agriculture, we are called to examine this intricate intersection of tradition and innovation. How can we shape a future of farming that not only delivers food to our tables but ensures justice and inclusivity within our communities? How can technology be integrated into this complex puzzle as both an enabler and a potential challenge? Embark with us on this journey into America's heartland, where silicon meets soil, where the age-old wisdom of regeneration converges with the algorithms of the digital age. Together, let's explore the barriers, the breakthroughs, and the promise of a technologically-enabled regenerative future.


In the vast expanse of American farmland, the soil tells a story. It speaks of centuries-old practices that have morphed into an industrial behemoth feeding millions, but at a cost. Our current agricultural system, although a testament to human ingenuity, grapples with environmental degradation, economic inequality, and social dislocation. The pursuit of higher yields has come at the expense of soil health, biodiversity, and, ironically, the very communities that till the land.

For centuries, farming across America and indeed, the world, was grounded in principles that today, we would recognize as regenerative. Diverse crops were grown in harmony with the local ecosystem, maintaining soil health, conserving water, and supporting biodiversity. The balance between giving and taking was deeply respected, ensuring the well-being of both the land and the communities that depended on it. Farm sizes were dictated more by nature's whims and the farmer's ability than by industrial logistics, making for a landscape dotted with smallholder farms. 

However, post World War II, a seismic shift began to disrupt this delicate balance. The advent of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, mechanization, and monoculture cropping systems promised greater productivity and food security. Enticed by these potential benefits and under economic pressure, farmers transitioned towards industrial agriculture. This new-age model of farming transformed the land into a production line, creating an intricate assembly system powered by heavy machinery, chemical inputs, and vast monocultures.

I grew up farming in Nebraska in the 70s, and we used to farm in a way that was called conservation crop rotation.” said Matt Dillon, a sustainability consultant who held senior roles at Clif Bar & Company as well as the sustainable poultry brand, Farmer Focus. “If you look at the definition of conservation, crop rotation, it looks a lot like regenerative farming. You don't just plant corn and soy, you do corn, soy, alfalfa, small grain, and you run your cattle through your fields after harvest, putting manure back in there for natural fertilizer. So all the farmers around here did that. They no longer do that, because what were relatively small farms of 400 acres are now 4000 acres, and they just had been scaled to an economy of corn and soy with no animals, no small grains, and no alfalfa to rest the soil. It's really happened in a generation. I'm 55. We grew up doing conservation and crop rotations. That doesn't exist here anymore.”

The consequences of this transition were far-reaching. The landscape, once a mosaic of diverse, small to medium-sized farms, began to shift towards larger, more specialized operations. This process, known as "farm consolidation," was driven by technological advancements and market forces favoring economies of scale. Today, large farms account for over half of all farmland and dominate the production of major commodity crops.

With the burgeoning of these 'mega-farms,' power dynamics within the agricultural sector began to tilt. Large-scale farmers and massive agribusinesses found themselves in a position of growing influence, shaping agricultural policies, market dynamics, and even the research agenda. This consolidation of power has often sidelined smallholder farmers, pushing them to the periphery of the agricultural narrative.


These subsidies, originally intended to stabilize food prices and support farmers' incomes, often end up distorting market dynamics, reducing crop diversity, and perpetuating the industrial farming model.

“One of the staggering facts is that 80% of the billions of dollars that we as taxpayers spend on agricultural subsidies every year, mostly on corn, wheat and soybeans, goes to just 20% of the farmers,” Dillon continued. “And those farmers are the biggest farmers, not the small or medium ones who might be interested in changing.”

As farming practices transformed, so did the economic fundamentals of agriculture. Industrial-scale farming required heavy upfront investments in machinery and infrastructure. The reliance on commodity crops and the slim profit margins associated with them necessitated large volumes to stay profitable. These dynamics put smaller farmers at a disadvantage, contributing to the decline of smallholdings and further perpetuating farm consolidation. While productivity per acre has skyrocketed, farmers’ share of the retail food dollar has shrunk to historic lows, according to USDA's Economic Research Service.

“Our farming infrastructure was set up for large farms, for standardization, and for getting things across the country really easily,” said Kashi Sehgal, founder of Retaaza, a platform that helps farmers sell surplus food to avoid waste while feeding their communities. “Our system wasn’t set up to just farm for your community - which is what farming once was - and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard as a farmer to make a living.”

Our focus on monoculture and short-term gains has also disrupted the natural equilibrium. Soils are eroded, rivers are polluted with runoff, and biodiversity is shrinking. A UN-backed study warns that most agricultural land is "degraded," and another recent study estimates that soil erosion costs the U.S. up to $44 billion annually. But the problem doesn't stop at environmental boundaries.

Parallel to the shifting economics of farming, the impact on the quality and accessibility of food was significant. Industrial farming, with its emphasis on high-yielding commodity crops, led to an abundance of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. The production of diverse, high-quality, and nutrient-rich foods became a challenging and often unprofitable endeavor. The result? A food system where high-quality nutrition is often unaffordable to those without means, exacerbating food insecurity and health disparities.

One of the key things missing from most conversations around regenerative agriculture is the people,” said David LeZaks, a senior fellow at the Croatan Institute, a nonprofit research institute whose mission is to harness the power of investment for social good and ecological resilience by working at the critical nexus where sustainability, finance, and economic development intersect. “It’s about health. The health of the consumer – whether it's exposure to toxic pesticides, or it's the nutritional qualities of the food. It’s about the health of the farmers as well, those stewards of the land and how they're being treated. It’s about regenerating the health of our communities as well.”

It's here that the question of land ownership becomes pressing. Today, most farmland is owned by those who don't farm it. The USDA reported that in 2014, 39% of the 911 million acres of farmland nationwide - roughly 360 million acres - was rented. This scenario creates a skewed incentive structure where farmers, who may not have long-term rights to the land, prioritize immediate profits over long-term soil health.

Closely tied to land ownership is the issue of diversity. A study by the Center for American Progress found that 98% of U.S. farmland is owned by whites, starkly reflecting racial disparities. Moreover, the face of farming is overwhelmingly male. The USDA Census shows that while the number of female farmers is on the rise, they still account for only 36% of all farmers.

“We'll talk about biodiversity all day long, but we'll ignore the screaming fact that 98% of the agricultural finance space is white male, and 96% of the farming community is white, of which 70% are white males,” said Robyn O’Brien, Co-Founder of rePlant Capital, a private investment fund that’s financing the transition of farmland to regenerative and organic agriculture by focusing on soil health and farmer profitability. “We have lost so much diversity. We talk about all the loss of biodiversity, but we've lost so much of the diversity that makes a system resilient and strong.”

The implications of these disparities extend beyond the field. When land ownership is concentrated, and when women and minority farmers face systemic barriers, entire communities grapple with the consequences. Local economies weaken as profits are siphoned away, and the disconnect between producers and consumers widens.

But as the cracks in this system become more apparent, there's a growing realization that we must reevaluate and restructure. Climate change, declining soil health, a burgeoning global population, and increasing socioeconomic disparities have prompted a reconsideration of our agricultural paradigm. There's a growing call for a shift towards more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient food systems – a call that echoes the principles of regenerative agriculture.

These are the barriers that stand between our current state and a regenerative future. They are the Gordian knots that must be untied if we are to break the cycle of degradation and disparity. In the following sections, we'll explore how technology is stepping up to this formidable challenge, not just to disrupt, but to mend, heal, and regenerate. 


Embarking on a journey towards regenerative agriculture is akin to stepping into a complex labyrinth. Each phase, from the acquisition of quality inputs to marketing and distribution to the end consumer, presents intricate challenges that must be surmounted. Against this backdrop, technology shines as a beacon, offering innovative solutions and expediting processes that once seemed insurmountable.


A regenerative farm's journey begins with procuring the right inputs - seeds adapted to local ecosystems, organic fertilizers, and precision farming equipment. Organic fertilizers, unlike their synthetic counterparts, nourish the soil with natural elements, fostering soil health and promoting a vibrant soil microbiome. Precision farming equipment, including GPSenabled machinery, soil sensors, and irrigation systems, allows farmers to optimize resource use, applying inputs exactly where and when they're needed, reducing waste, and promoting sustainability.

However, for many farmers, these essentials can prove elusive. Supply chains for locally adapted, non-GMO seeds are often fragmented or non-existent. Compost and other organic fertilizers are very expensive and in short supply and the cost of cutting edge precision farming equipment can be prohibitively high.

In response to these challenges, technology offers an innovative solution: blockchain-enabled supply chains and fintech solutions. Blockchain ensures transparency and traceability, guaranteeing the quality of seeds and fertilizers. Fintech solutions, like peer-to-peer lending platforms, can help offset the initial high costs of precision farming tools, making regenerative agriculture a feasible pursuit for even small and medium-sized farms.

“The other piece that we're consistently hearing is the lack of an insurance policy program,” added Robyn O’Brien. “So we're in conversations with different insurance carriers about what it would look like to insure farmers transitioning to regenerative agriculture, because most conventional lending institutions won't touch that.”


Transitioning from conventional to regenerative farming is a shift of paradigm. It requires the adoption of practices such as cover cropping, diversified crop rotations, and agroforestry. Cover cropping involves planting specific species that improve soil health and biodiversity when no cash crops are in the ground. Diversified crop rotations, on the other hand, require alternating different types of crops over several seasons to break pest cycles and improve soil fertility. Agroforestry combines trees, crops, and sometimes livestock in a system that mimics a natural ecosystem, increasing biodiversity and resilience. These practices are markedly different from conventional farming methods that often rely on a single crop (monoculture) and heavy chemical input.

"When I think of farming, I think of culture. I think of the inherited knowledge and the relationship to the land and what we value," said Iriel Edwards, an organic rice farm manager at Jubilee Justice, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting black and brown people in agriculture. "There have been moments that I've had as a farmer where, you know, I go to do something because I've been told that that's the best practice or the right way to do it. But, you know, there's this feeling inside based off of how I was raised with land to rethink and innovate. Technology can help with that."

To help farmers navigate this complexity, myriad companies have launched AI-based decision intelligence software for regenerative agriculture – including industry stalwarts like IBM. These tools provide data-driven recommendations, transforming complex soil health data, weather patterns, and historical yield information into actionable insights, eliminating much of the trial and error typically associated with adopting these new practices.


Diverse and seasonal produce inherent to regenerative farming often find little harmony with traditional channels that are tailored for uniform, mass-produced commodities. This is primarily because conventional marketing and distribution networks are designed for volume and consistency - think of supermarket shelves stocked with identical apples year-round. The varietal diversity and seasonality of regenerative farming do not fit this mold, leading to challenges in accessing markets and fair prices.

I think that consumers care about convenience and cost. People are so busy that they're not necessarily even taking the time to think much about where their food comes from. They're not thinking about the additives, and all the other things that are in them,” said Jane Wei-Skillern, a professor at U.C. Berkeley and an expert in network leadership for social and environmental impact. “We need to find allies within the existing large food companies and help them find their way out of this. It's important to support the small organizations and entrepreneurs who are doing this work in advancing the technology. But the big levers are still going to be getting the big food system that conglomerates to change their behavior.”

Fresh Harvest, an Atlanta-based technology company, is leaning into consumers’ changing online shopping habits. They’ve aggregated a full grocery store’s worth of products into their intuitive app, all of which come from different local farms within the Atlanta area and are seamlessly delivered each week to customers’ doors. To boot, the quality and price of the produce are so much higher than what you’d get access to in a traditional supermarket, partly because expensive middle men are cut out of the process.


The introduction of new farming practices and technologies necessitates not only skillbuilding in tech usage but also knowledge sharing about regenerative agricultural practices. GreenVale, a farming cooperative in Georgia, faced these twin challenges when they introduced IoT devices for precision farming to their workforce.

“There are a lot of resources out there but it's really hard to completely stop the way you have been doing something and completely change course,” said Kashi Sehgal. “They can go attend some seminars, maybe if they have money, they can hire a consultant. Most small farmers can't do that. So how do they really put in these new processes?

Digital learning platforms, like free e-learning courses from the Rodale Institute or Future Learn, rose to the challenge. Alongside interactive courses on tech utilization, they provided resources on regenerative agriculture - from understanding soil health to implementing crop rotations effectively. By building both technological skillsets and agricultural knowledge, platforms like these are playing an instrumental role in facilitating the transition to regenerative agriculture.


Inclusivity is a cornerstone of regenerative agriculture - providing equal opportunities for all, including smallholders, minority, and women farmers. For the burgeoning movement of African Americans aspiring to become farmers, barriers such as limited access to land and capital pose significant hurdles.

We need to create more entry points for young, diverse people to enter farming,” added Iriel Edwards.

“Right now, there’s not many ways for a young person to get started – especially if they’re a person of color. We need programs with on the ground training, even pairing younger farmers with older ones so we can drive an intergenerational knowledge exchange.”

Edwards’ own organization, Jubilee Justice, is an excellent example of this. Their rice farm is designed as much to train black and brown farmers across the U.S. on how to create a thriving farm that can support them and build intergenerational wealth as it is about rice. On the technological side, another example is the LEAP Coalition, a partnership between John Deere and the National Black Growers Council and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund which provides resources and the latest technology to black farmers and landowners.


At its core, regenerative agriculture aims to nurture both the land and its people. In this mission, technology plays a pivotal role. SoilHealth, a tech startup, uses remote sensing technology and machine learning to assess soil health - specifically, its carbon sequestration potential and soil microbiome vitality.

Carbon sequestration refers to the soil's ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a critical process in mitigating climate change. Soil microbiome vitality pertains to the community of microorganisms in the soil, which plays a crucial role in nutrient cycling and disease suppression, thus maintaining the soil's fertility.

By providing farmers with data on these two vital indicators, technology allows for ongoing adjustments and improvement in farming practices. At the same time, digital marketplaces like AgriConnect are fostering resilient local economies, strengthening local food systems, and ensuring profits remain within the community. By doing so, they reduce dependence on volatile global commodity markets and promote local resilience.

By acknowledging and addressing these multifaceted challenges, technology is leading us towards an agricultural future that is not only sustainable but also regenerative. In this journey, the goal is to strike a harmonious balance with nature, giving back to the land as much as we take from it, and fostering resilient, inclusive communities.

Through each obstacle, each hiccup, and each hurdle, we are carving a new path. It's a path that leads us away from the shadow of industrial agriculture and into the embrace of a future that is regenerative, sustainable, and equitable. A future where we do not merely survive, but thrive in harmony with nature. By unearthing technology's potential, we are sowing the seeds of change - not just for the present, but for generations to come.


The transformative potential of technology in agriculture is palpable, yet it's not without limitations. As much as we envision a future where drones dance above fields and AI informs every decision, we must grapple with some fundamental challenges. 

1. Equity, Access, and Affordability 

While the ag-tech revolution promises efficiency and sustainability, it also raises the question of who gets left behind. High-tech solutions often come with high price tags, and this can exclude smallholder farmers who can't afford them. This digital divide can exacerbate existing disparities in the agriculture sector, particularly along the lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. 

Furthermore, a large proportion of the farming community in the U.S. is older, and may not be as comfortable or familiar with digital technology. Tech adoption requires not just financial investment, but also a significant commitment of time and energy for learning and adaptation. 

2. Unintended Consequences of Tech Reliance 

There is also the issue of overreliance on technology and potential for unforeseen environmental impacts. For example, the heavy use of drones and IoT devices can lead to electronic waste. Additionally, data centers that store vast amounts of farming data are known to consume large quantities of energy, which could contribute to climate change.

3. The Cultural Tension 

A key challenge in marrying technology and farming lies in the pace of change. Farming is a profession steeped in tradition, tied to the slow rhythm of seasons and the land's inherent variability. Technology, on the other hand, often moves at a breakneck pace, with constant updates and disruptions. This cultural tension can be a barrier to technology adoption and integration into farming practices. 

Yet, these challenges don't signify a dead end. Instead, they shed light on areas that need our attention as we move forward. In the next section, we explore case studies that exemplify how these obstacles can be navigated and how technology can successfully support regenerative agriculture, including from a diversity and community economic perspective.


As we stand on the brink of a potential paradigm shift in agriculture, one thing is clear: technology can and should play a significant role in steering us towards a more regenerative, equitable, and resilient future. Yet, as our journey through the landscape of tech-enabled regenerative farming illustrates, technology is not a silver bullet, but a tool—one whose use must be tempered with foresight, inclusivity, and a profound respect for the land and communities it serves.

For technology to fulfill its promise, we must address critical issues of access, affordability, and training, ensuring that digital transformation in agriculture bridges rather than widens the social and economic divide. Policies and business models must align to support this vision, creating an environment where technological innovation can flourish without compromising social equity.

Furthermore, while technology can help mitigate the environmental footprint of farming, we must stay vigilant about its own impact. The digital revolution in agriculture must go hand in hand with sustainable practices in technology production and disposal, ensuring that the cure isn't worse than the disease.

Finally, technology's role must extend beyond the fields and into the social fabric of farming communities. As seen in our case studies, when technology serves not just as a tool for productivity but as a catalyst for community development and empowerment, its impact can ripple through society.

Regenerative agriculture is more than a farming methodology—it's a philosophy rooted in harmony with nature, respect for the land, and care for the community. Technology, if wielded with these principles in mind, can be the ally we need in this transition.

It won't be an easy journey. The path to regeneration is strewn with obstacles and uncertainties. But it's a path we must tread. And as we do, the marriage of technology and tradition, of innovation and wisdom, could be our guiding light.

To explore the complete article, "Forbes IGNITE: Regenerative AgTech," visit here.

To read more Forbes IGNITE resources, visit here.

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