As an intern with the San Diego Food System Alliance, I recently had the opportunity to attend the Regenerative Earth Summit in Boulder, Colorado. The event was a convening of farmers, academics, business leaders, and food system advocates, all of whom share a common goal: to improve soil health and mitigate climate change through the widespread adoption of regenerative farming practices.
The conference began on Monday morning with a powerful presentation by Hazel Henderson, a consultant on equitable ecologically sustainable human development and socially responsible business and investment. The premise of her talk was that stress is evolution’s tool, and systemic breakdowns drive breakthroughs. Thus, the degradation of the world’s soils provides us with a massive opportunity to shift towards a regenerative paradigm, an economic system that considers the health of natural resources (water, soil, ecosystems) and human beings.
Building the Path to Regenerative Farming
The fundamental question, which we grappled with throughout the conference, is: how do we build a marketplace that supports regenerative farming? Subsidized monoculture farms and the overuse of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers have resulted in an unprecedented low cost of food. Yet the consequences of producing food in this manner threaten our existence as a species. Current rates of soil degradation suggest that we have only 60 harvests left; in other words, conventional agriculture is stripping away the topsoil, and we have approximately six decades to reverse this trend.
A panel of business leaders in the organics industry discussed the best way to scale regenerative agriculture. They agreed that education and transparency are critical on all levels of the supply chain, and that we need better systems to aggregate data to demonstrate the viability of regenerative practices.
But what exactly is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture requires a shift of thinking—from “doing less harm” to actively improving systems.
Currently a Regenerative Organic Certification is being developed which evaluates the three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. To obtain the Regenerative Organic Certification Label, a product must meet up to 20 criteria, some of which include no/low tillage, use of cover crops and crop rotations, pasture-raised animals, and living wages for farm workers.
A reoccurring theme throughout the conference was the controversial nature of the label. Some claimed that a “beyond organic” label is necessary to prevent greenwashing and facilitate authentic socially and ecologically-conscious purchasing practices. Others held the viewpoint that another label would be confusing to consumers and subject to being watered down over time. They cited the Organic label as an example; organic farming was once a cutting-edge philosophy, but now “industrially grown” organics make up a huge share of the market.
These differences aside, everyone involved in the regenerative agriculture movement can agree on its enormous potential for combatting climate change and increasing global food security.
Gregory Landua of Terra Genesis International, an international regenerative design consultancy, helped us navigate the topic of regenerative supply webs. Making a large scale global shift for regenerative agriculture will require us to transition from monoculture farms and supply chains to what Gregory calls “biodiverse supply webs.” Businesses can add value to their products and generate eco-social benefits by purchasing ingredients from farmers that are enhancing local landscapes through carbon sequestration, soil building, and crop diversification.
Policy for Supporting Carbon Farming
Although it is essential for the business community to commit to ethical and ecological sourcing, the public is equally responsible for reaching out to their elected representatives. Soil has large traction on each end of the political spectrum. While organic farming traditionally appeals to the left, republicans view agriculture as a potential vehicle for rural development.
Soil health is not yet a politicized issue. In order to engage a broad political audience, those of us involved in the regenerative movement must be conscious of how we frame it; though it is indeed about climate, water quality, and public health, it is also a rural farmer’s issue, endemic to who we are as Americans.
In terms of practical solutions, at the state level, we can work to ratify soil health as part of economic policy. Overturning Citizens’ United and reforming campaign finance policy will also be an essential step. As a grassroots movement, we must actively participate in the political process to demand structural change from politicians at local, state, and federal levels.
The Regenerative Earth Summit was at once overwhelming and inspiring. Though the problems we face are massive, I believe the regenerative agriculture movement is unequivocally capable of tackling them head on. The passion, energy, willingness, and creativity present in the conference room was unparalleled, and it filled me with tremendous hope and gratitude. The soil under our feet is literally the common ground we all share. It has the profound capacity to transcend political polarization and guide us toward a better world. In our collective effort to revitalize the soil, we can simultaneously build a food system that prioritizes farmers and rural communities, nutrient-dense food, and a livable climate for all.
By Livvy Stanforth, Intern