Manulife: Adding value through sustainable improvements

Sustainable agriculture can promote healthier and more diverse farmland ecosystems alongside enhanced efficiency and profitability, write Manulife Investment Management’s Brent McGowan, Holly Evers and Oliver Williams.

This article is sponsored by Manulife Investment Management

Brent McGowan

Businesses, governments and people from all walks of life are increasingly recognizing sustainable and responsible business practices as crucial to confronting some of the world’s most pressing economic, social and environmental challenges. From a finite supply of arable land, the planet needs to nourish and sustain a global population that has already grown to 7.8 billion and is expected to continue to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050.

Recognizing the challenge to feed our increasing population, there has been growing demand for assurance around sustainable practices. More now than ever, consumers want to know that the food they are buying and eating was produced sustainably, maintaining the capability to continue to supply the needs of future generations.

At Manulife Investment Management, our agriculture business has long focused on soil health and resource conservation, which are critical for long-term productivity. Put simply, good stewardship is good business because preserving the precious natural resources with which we are entrusted is essential to meeting the goals of our investors and producing the agricultural products necessary to meet global nutrition demands. And our vertically integrated operating structure has enabled this foundational principle that is embedded in every level of the organization from strategy and portfolio development to on-the-ground farming and oversight of our lessee farmers.

Holly Evers

We focus on three key areas. The first is sustainable and regenerative practices, which involve integrated pest management and precision agriculture which can help to reduce the need for synthetic crop inputs while reducing costs, along with practices such as cover cropping, low tillage and orchard reincorporation, which can help maintain and improve soil health, restoring soil biodiversity while enhancing carbon sequestration potential.

The second area is water resource management, which can include upgrading irrigation systems to maximize efficiency, only irrigating as indicated by moisture management sensors and direct monitoring by farm management personnel of weather and field conditions, which reduce water use and therefore farming costs. Tailwater recovery systems are further used to capture and recycle water while reducing runoff and erosion potential.

Third is agricultural innovation. This involves land leveling and irrigation system improvements along with additional on-farm storage capacity, as this can enhance rental value to tenants, increasing income potential and long-term value. We are continually analyzing and testing the latest offerings from the ag technology space to become more effective, efficient and sustainable, while adding value for investors. Examples of this include tools to optimize activity with a goal of reducing costs and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Sustainable management in action

Oliver Williams

The ability to employ regenerative farming practices at scale is an important factor in achieving sustainability goals within the agriculture industry. We define regenerative agriculture as a farmland management framework where optimal soil health and productivity guide our management decisions, which in turn can lead to optimized farm production, biodiversity protection and increased carbon sequestration into the soil.

Our entire US agriculture platform is certified to the Leading Harvest Farmland Management Standard, which embraces soil health and conservation among its 13 sustainability principles, and we are seeking certification in our other locations as this global standard expands to more countries.

We currently use regenerative farming techniques where they make environmental and economic sense, and we look to build on the use of practices such as orchard reincorporation, which is the grinding of annual pruning and old trees and reincorporating the woodchips/organic material back into the ground as an alternative to burning the removed orchards, while also promoting and implementing the use of cover crops, reduced tillage and minimized use of pesticides.

In addition, we are continually innovating, testing new approaches and practices incrementally, such as those conducted at one of our California almond orchards where we are trialing several acres of organic production, which means no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are applied. We are also trialing regenerative practices, which involve planting cover crops and applying fertilizer blended with compost and green waste.

Results will be compared to our current sustainable practices to determine relative benefits in terms of soil health and carbon sequestration capacity balanced against any additional cost, water use and GHG emissions. We believe these and other long-term trials will help us to confidently identify the regenerative practices with the highest potential to optimize soil health and improve sustainable productivity on our properties.

These are the practices that we will then look to scale across our platform. Similar incremental exercises have already enabled us to improve the timing of applications to help reduce the use of pesticides, reduce GHG emissions with fewer and minimized tractor passes through the field when possible, and reduce water use through irrigation technology and innovation.

Increasing efficiency and resource conservation

The use of resource-conserving technologies such as precision agriculture and modern irrigation systems, along with the gradual conversion to alternative energy sources, can increase operational efficiencies and lower costs of production while contributing to climate change adaptation and mitigation by reducing the use of water, fertilizer and pesticides, displacing fossil fuel use and minimizing waste.

One of our current research trials focuses on the potential promise of biochar – a charcoal-like material made by burning biomass such as agricultural waste in an oxygen-poor environment through a process known as pyrolysis. Biochar’s unique properties – high porosity and a negative charge that can attract and bind to nutrients and/or water – make it a potentially beneficial soil additive.

At a cherry orchard in Washington state, we are partnering with university researchers to mix biochar with manure then incorporate it into the soil in the tree root zone. Mixing the biochar with the compost charges it, allowing it to bind with the microbes and nutrients in the compost and protecting them from inhospitable temperatures and environmental fluctuations within the microscopic pores of the biochar until the plants can actively use them. The aim is to increase the health of the soil and in turn the overall health of the plant, reducing the need for synthetic inputs.

The expected global growth in population coupled with rising incomes over the next 30 years will increase demand for agricultural products such as fruits and nuts. This will put more and more pressure on food production capabilities and global supply chains amid the additional challenges caused by a changing climate. We recognize that continuous innovation and adoption of new sustainable practices and technologies are essential to the future success of our agricultural investment program.

Water resource management

“Good stewardship is good business because preserving the precious natural resources with which we are entrusted is essential to meeting the goals of our investors”

Access to reliable, affordable and high-quality water is essential to the viability of irrigated agriculture. With our significant presence in California’s central valley, a key agricultural growing region, we are committed to meeting the requirements of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which seeks to restore over-drafted groundwater basins.

Among other measures to limit water use, we are building a framework for healthy groundwater replenishment and storage on many of our California ranches by creating recharge blocks, which are reservoirs filled with surface water from precipitation, excess river flows or floodwater to benefit not only our crops but the needs of all users of the subbasin. In the Mississippi Delta region, a reservoir project with a tailwater recovery system on a large farm has enhanced the sustainability of the existing aquifer and eliminated the need to build several wells to protect our 5,000 acres of cropland.

Irrigation system upgrades and the use of soil moisture sensors can reduce both water use and costs, and we are also trialing several different automated systems that provide real-time data on soil moisture, water levels and applied water. By analyzing soil data from our land, our dedicated water team develops a weekly irrigation schedule based on actual consumption and daily review of the crop response.

We also use third-party expertise, scientific data, and local, on-the-ground knowledge to determine when and how much water to apply. This data is then used to optimize water use for the benefit of both crops and community. Our goal is to combine both ecological and financial sustainability for the best long-term results for our investors and for the environment.

Providing investors with opportunities to invest in key global agricultural regions where food is grown in a way that preserves the environment and benefits local communities requires expertise, experience and the ability to nimbly adapt to a rapidly shifting ecological and regulatory landscape. We will continue to invest in groundwater storage, recycling and recharge programs on our properties, and we will continue to innovate, seeking ways to grow “more crop per drop.”

Our commitment to sustainable and responsible investing has always been a foundational, core guiding principle, and we will continue to focus on adding value for our clients while protecting the environment. The agriculture investment industry has a responsibility to preserve natural resources and protect their ability to provide for both investors and the local community while meeting the world’s most fundamental needs.

Brent McGowan is managing director and head of agricultural operations, Holly Evers is environmental certification specialist, and Oliver Williams is global head of agricultural investments and CIO at Manulife Investment Management