The Trials of 2020…and How Regen Ag Can Save Us

Pandemics, food insecurity, climate change, social injustice...changemakers answer our questions about the hard lessons learned from COVID-19, and essential steps forward for people and the planet.

Young green corn growing on the field at sunset. Young Corn Plants. Corn grown in farmland, cornfield.
  1. COVID-19 has raised awareness about the importance of regenerative agriculture. Please discuss the most pressing issues.

Tom Newmark, Chairman, The Carbon Underground: “We have known for some time, to borrow the title of epidemiologist Dr. Rob Wallace’s recent book, that ‘Big Farms Make Big Flu.’ We have known enough to have predicted that this type of pandemic could arise, to the extent that David Quammen in his book Spillover anticipated that a breakout virus would likely emerge out of China due to human invasion of habitat and factory farming. Dr. Felicia Keesing has written, ‘All over the world there are fewer and fewer of most kinds of wild creatures and more and more domesticated creatures and humans….We’re losing wild species, but we’re doing it at the expense of increases in a very small number of species. Those domesticated species tend to be less diverse. We’re growing a lot of the same crops worldwide and raising a lot of the same animals, which makes for easier targets for pathogens. It’s much easier for them to move around.’ Simply put, this pandemic was inevitable, and it’s likely that we’ll see many other such outbreaks if we continue to grow food at the expense of biodiversity and habitat. There’s nothing like a pandemic and the breakdown of the world’s economies to focus attention. Now we’ve got to start farming in a way that reintroduces and regenerates the biodiversity that has been sacrificed at the altar of cheap food produced with little or no regard to consequences.”

Jeff Moyer, CEO, Rodale Institute: “The 2020 COVID pandemic has exposed the flaws and weaknesses in a broken food system that depends on high volumes of external inputs, long distances and international supply chains, and operation with a disregard for soil health and the health of those who consume the food. Our current food system is most adept at producing low-cost, highly processed, hyperpalatable, nutrient-poor foods and commodities. Agricultural intensification and consolidation have enabled the mass-scale production of inexpensive, low-quality crop and animal products while sacrificing our health. Yet, scientific research overwhelmingly supports the adoption of a diet high in nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, grains, and livestock products. Simply put, our farming systems aren’t aligned with what science has identified as the best foods for citizens to properly maintain health and rebuild our natural immune systems. The recent pandemic has merely pointed out a problem that has been lurking on the sidelines for decades: Our medical system is overburdened, attempting to treat lifestyle-related diseases with pharmaceutical intervention rather than dietary and lifestyle changes. Farmers have never thought about human or soil health as a metric by which they are judged. The fact that our soils are being depleted of the nutrients we need to sustain our health and regenerate our immune systems, and that the way we are farming is destroying the environment and ecosystems we need to survive, is not considered in conventional production.

“At the same time, our modern, conventional farming systems contribute up to a quarter of global greenhouse emissions and rely on toxic inputs that threaten our health, biodiversity, clean air and water, and our soil’s long-term capacity to produce food—all of which ultimately jeopardize the future of human health and all of which can be mitigated by changing the model.

“Regenerative organic agriculture, on the other hand, envisions a future in which farming, healthcare, and food production practices inform a prevention and intervention-based approach to human and planetary health. By integrating our food production and healthcare systems, transitioning to a regenerative organic farming model, building in access to food that improves health rather than compromises it, and emphasizing nutrition and lifestyle choices that prevent disease, we could radically change the system and take control of our health through farming.”

Bethany Davis, Director of Social Impact, Advocacy and Government Relations, MegaFood: “COVID-19 caused major supply chain disruptions and had consumers become more aware of where their purchases come from, especially food. Media reporting on the impact of heavily disrupted supply chains had consumers thinking about where their food comes from. When Disney closed down, we saw giant piles of rotting zucchini and summer squash in Florida, which would have cost more to reroute to a new buyer, and milk being poured down the drain. The fragility of our delicate food system was revealed, opening people up to consider how we can have a more secure food supply web. Furthermore, COVID-19 brought overdue attention to farm workers that work in precarious conditions. Lack of proper PPE for these essential farm workers is only one of the concerns when we engage in an extractive form of agriculture. The fact that agricultural workers were among those at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19—most of them without health care options—highlighted what doesn’t work around our current system. And as the rest of us received financial support from the government, most farm workers were ineligible for support of any kind, but they never stopped working. Extractive industrial, inequitable systems of agriculture are hard to face and COVID pushed us to not turn a blind eye. With grocery stores dealing with out of stocks due to hoarding, we saw people turning towards their local farmers, with many CSAs selling out within weeks of the beginning of the pandemic. All these pressures have people thinking about our food system and how it can be improved. Regenerative agriculture is the answer.”

Monique van Wijnbergen, Sustainability and Corporate Communication Director, Natural Habitats: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us once more how human and planetary well-being are fully connected. The dependence of our economies, business, and human wellbeing on nature has become even clearer. This realization increased our awareness that we need to transition to a nature-positive economy. Regenerative agriculture provides us this new pathway.”

Steve Rye, CEO, Dr. Mercola: “The events of COVID-19 have encouraged many people to start paying particular attention to their health and proper immune function, as they look to organic and regenerative food options to establish a healthier, balanced diet. Of course, a healthy diet and regular exercise have always been the foundation for both physical and mental health. People want more nutritious, better-tasting foods sourced from small, family farms. The shift to regenerative foods simultaneously creates diverse ecosystems—separate from monocultures producing much of the conventional foods from corn and soy fields that are degenerative and negatively affect our planet.”

Phoenix Dugger, CSR Manager, Ardent Mills: “COVID-19 showed us that building a resilient food system is the key to surviving any type of crisis—whether it’s a global pandemic or even more significant long-term problems, including climate change, water scarcity and more. While COVID-19 exposed the food system’s vulnerabilities in some ways, it also magnified the potential of regenerative agriculture. As a result of the pandemic, people who may not be actively involved in agriculture became more aware and curious about food production and where their food comes from. Now, there is more consumer demand for products that are produced sustainably and ethically—regenerative agriculture can play a big role here.”

 

  1. What are the biggest lessons we should take away from the crises of the past year?
    When it comes to regenerative, what can members of the natural products industry do better?

Moyer: “Listen to consumers. No matter where consumers find themselves in the social, cultural, or economic spectrum it’s clear that our personal health and the health of those we care about is incredibly important, and that health, alongside social justice and equity, are the responsibility of all of us. These are values that are going to build the foundation of the food system of the future. Along with supply chain flexibility, natural products manufacturers must integrate these strategies up and down their supply chains, starting with the soil on farms and ranches. We’re already seeing that shift: starting with the Regenerative Organic Certified label, and now with relationships Rodale Institute is forging with a broad spectrum of partners in the food, fiber, and fashion spaces, as well as personal care brands, who are all seeking a regenerative organic path forward. Soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness, along with organic certification, are the pillars of regenerative organic. And now, they’re poised to become the pillars of consumer goods as a whole.”

Davis: “The biggest lessons are that life, much like our ecosystems, doesn’t thrive when they are suppressed and under supported. When it comes to regenerative agriculture, we aim to move away from creating challenges and demands on a fragile system and instead, we reorient towards supporting soil health and the encouraging thriving ecosystems. It’s ‘how can we help?’ vs ‘what can we get?’ and it’s an important shift in focus. The natural products industry is already known for caring about more than sales and being rooted in doing good and supporting optimal health. That needs to be extended beyond our consumers into our supply webs and our agricultural partners and even all the forms of life that make up the ecosystem.”

van Wijnbergen: “What we can do better as an industry, is to collaborate and create the incentives to adopt regenerative organic practices. The investments and transition towards regenerative agriculture needs to be rewarded upfront. Involving the consumer and tapping into their influence to realize the transition also requires joint efforts from farmers, manufacturers, retailers and other stakeholders. We need to build new models to realize the transition. We also need the right narratives to activate all actors in the chain. This will need to be a joint effort.”

Rye: “Planning is the key to success. No one could have predicted what unfolded last year, but we can always prepare ourselves for a better future, starting with our health. We’ve learned that it’s better to be proactive with the tools we have—healthy food, regular exercise and supplementation where needed. With regenerative practices taking flight in the natural health industry, brands should take this opportunity to address the questions customers may have, such as explain how this practice differs from organic, why we support this movement (being sure to highlight the multiple-benefit reason), and where to find authentic Demeter Certified Biodynamic foods or American Grassfed Association meats that are among the best certifications supporting regenerative agriculture.” (Dr. Mercola helps educate on these topics in “What is Biodynamic?” on YouTube).

Dugger: “One of the biggest lessons we can learn from the global pandemic is to respect how closely intertwined everything in the world is. A decision or action that may appear inconsequential could have irreversible ramifications for the environment. Many industries and businesses tend to look at separate parts of the supply chain individually. What’s interesting about regenerative agriculture is that it takes a holistic view and approach to food production. The farm, environment, and society are seen as interconnected with distinct physical, biological and social limits. It relies on strong local and regional food systems that help build resiliency into the food supply chain. When it comes to regenerative agriculture, industry stakeholders can reevaluate their current supply chains to understand how they can support the incorporation of regenerative practices. For example, carbon sequestration is here to stay, and we see many CPG companies making pledges to source ingredients from a regenerative supply chain. Even in an age-old industry such as flour milling, it is important to continue to innovate to reduce the operational impact on the Earth. Ardent Mills is working to ensure a clean, green, better world for future generations. We strive to make strides in sustainability by aligning projects with one of our three focus areas: Sustainability, People, and Nutrition. Our projects prioritize reducing inefficiency, supporting customer goals, improving sustainability or impacting a community where we operate. Recently, we announced the advancement of our regenerative agriculture program. By the end of this year, we’ve committed to enrolling 250,000 acres of spring and winter wheat into our program with the goal of advancing regenerative agriculture practices and building the grower base over the next three years. In 2020, we also announced a new major sustainability goal: By 2025, 50% of all of Ardent Mills’ electricity usage will be powered by renewable energy. We’re working diligently to achieve this goal through a mix of projects including directly sourcing renewable energy and retaining project specific renewable energy credits (RECs), engaging in community solar projects, and purchasing replacement RECs to support green claims. We are only purchasing RECs to support our 50%goal when necessary. We’re already well on our way to that goal.”

John Parziale, Farm Manager, Common Ground: “In addition to the pandemic, 2020 brought the crisis of climate change to center stage. The massive potential for regenerative practices to sequester CO2 and reverse greenhouse gas emissions is now well documented. The transformation of agricultural practices on a global scale is well recognized as imperative for the prospect of organized human civilization in the future. By sourcing from regenerative farms and inquiring about production methods from vendors, the natural products industry can increase demand for products produced regeneratively. The industry will be able to support regenerative agriculture more easily as new certifications become more widely adopted.”

Newmark: “There’s no long-term path forward other than for producers to farm regeneratively and purchasers to reimagine their supply chains. Industrial agricultural malfeasance is costing the planet approximately 35 billion tons of topsoil a year, water cycles have broken down, and degenerative agriculture is basically a zombie, a monster sucking the life out of the biosphere. Every company needs to honestly assess the resilience and reliability of its supply chain, and if that’s done the company will realize that it must source regeneratively or face supply catastrophes. We must stop talking about ‘sustainability’—there’s virtually nothing about the current state of the planet that we’d want to sustain. You can’t sustain something that has been largely destroyed: The whole mindset of sustainability is a joke, a balm for the deluded, a mere linguistic trick that excuses taking the action needed to revive and regenerate. It’s the same with the concept of ‘net zero.’ We already have a trillion tons of legacy CO2 in the atmosphere, and a ‘net zero’ approach doesn’t do anything to draw down those toxic greenhouse gases.”

More to Know on Regen Ag!

Head to www.WholeFoodsMagazine.com for a wealth of education information and industry viewpoints on this urgent topic, including:

Perspectives: How Farming Changed One Woman’s Life
Patricia Hodge, Intern with the Rodale Institute Veterans Farmer Program, Veteran and former police officer, talks to WholeFoods’ Rachel Appleton about how farming has changed her life and how she plans to give back to her South Philly community.

Global Healing’s Mission to Effect Healthy Change
As an alternative health advocate, Dr. Edward F. Group III, Founder and CEO of Global Healing, is dedicated to spreading his message of positivity, hope, and wellness throughout the world. In this episode of The Natural View, Dr. Group fills WholeFoods’ Maggie Jaqua in on the company’s eco-friendly facilities, work with farmers, and more. “I’m into quantum dynamic farming, which is above organic….Even in organic growing, in some cases they use tap water, which is putting all kinds of chemicals back into the soil. So it’s more about looking from the seed all the up way through to when the supplement is created.”

Native American Fight for Food Security, Healthy Land
The film GATHER looks at the ways in which food and land have been stolen from Indigenous Americans—and how the Indigenous are fighting to take it back, along with their health, rights, and traditions. Read our overview, and stream the film on iTunes (US/UK/Canada) or Amazon (US/UK).

The SynBio Epidemic Secretly Sweeping the Nation
How can we as an industry stop a swell of synthetically derived ingredients from appearing on shelves? Karen Howard of Organic & Natural Health Association tackles this controversial topic.

Confessions of a Middle Age “Glyphoholic”
4th generation farmer James Johnson shares the struggles he endured with conventional farming—and the a-ha moment that made all the difference.

Move Over GMOs…Hello, Regenerative Organic Ag!
There is a wide-open opportunity for food manufacturers to have a whole new marketing angle: nutrient-dense, safe food from regenerative organic farms, says Zen Honeycutt of Moms Across America. Read up on her perspective.

#NaturallyInformed: Saving the Planet, Soil First
For a wealth of education on the topic of regenerative agriculture, catch all of the sessions from the Naturally Informed event Driving Value Through Sustainability Across the Supply Chain.

  1. What are the challenges, opportunities, and benefits of incorporating regenerative agriculture into your company’s supply chain?

Newmark: “The challenge is simple: People are stuck in an extractive mindset. They’ve made peace with sourcing agricultural products that have impoverished the ecosystem and put in doubt our ability to sustain the human experience going forward. We’re in a mass extinction event of our own causing, and people can’t see their way out of the grip of the prevailing paradigm of exploitation. And so we’re being crucified on the myth of there being ‘no other way.’ But of course there are other ways. Surely many other ways—we’re just getting started on our regenerative journey. So the challenge is to get people to reject the current agricultural model and be open to alternatives. Be experimental. Support innovation. Reject the slogan of ‘sustainability’ or certifications that presume regenerative and insist instead on real ecological outcomes. There are great resources available to companies: Rodale, the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at California State University/Chico, and others, eager to help in the transition.”

Moyer: “Transitioning to a future based on regenerative organic agriculture is not without its challenges. New tools will need to be put to work, new protocols will need to be learned and new support policies will need to be put in place. But together, science, markets, and people can forge a new food production model that ensures local control and access, demanding that the long-term health of our soils and ecosystems be considered in the process and that our food production systems work to ensure our health. We need to encourage and support a conversation between soil scientists, medical practitioners, farmers, and food professionals that focuses on the health of the people we are charged with feeding and keeping healthy. If we take advantage of this opportunity for change and open the conversation in ways that foster innovation, with a goal where human health starts with the soil, we will achieve a future that prioritizes health as the primary metric of our food system.”

Rye: “Building relationships between businesses is more crucial than ever before, and the success of developing those relationships over Zoom alone, for many, has been questionable at best. However, companies that have continued facilitating impactful communication that builds trust and strengthens relationships with the farmers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are the winners through the challenging circumstances. For us, creating a business model in which the connections are personal has improved the overall strength and quality of the product. Improving the quality of our food starts with the commitment to farmers. It’s apparent that consumers want unique and more healthful foods and are willing to pay for them, so businesses should be taking the next steps to secure these opportunities for a regenerative future. Leaders in the natural health industry since 1997, we are among the original supporters of regenerative agriculture—the holistic approach to farming that partners with nature instead of competing with it. Our passionate dedication to regenerative practices and advocacy for GMO labeling started more than a decade ago to help rebuild healthy, rich soil that transforms food while healing the planet. Impacting the lives of many across five continents, in eight countries—from the U.S. to India—we support the success of Biodynamic farms and pay farmers a premium price for their harvests. The rich, nutritious foods harvested from these farmers make up Solspring, an authentic food brand that offers unique Demeter Certified Biodynamic and organic foods…we also initiated the first-ever standards for Demeter Certified Biodynamic supplements.”

van Wijnbergen: “We have integrated regenerative organic practices in Palm Done Right’s palm growing model and support farmers in transitioning their conventional oil palm growing to regenerative organic practices.There is interest on the side of farmers, as they’re experiencing health benefits for themselves, their workers, and their natural environment. With more awareness of the importance of transitioning to more natural systems in the market, there are opportunities for growth and better prices. Yet, there are challenges that influence the scaling of the regenerative organic model. It takes investments and at least a 3-year transition period that growers need to bridge before receiving their official organic status. That poses financial risks on the side of the farmer. At the market side we’re experiencing challenges in the uptake of and reward for organic palm oil. The majority of brand manufactures are not yet willing to pay the premium that regenerative organic palm cultivation demands. The substantial price difference is halting its further uptake. Yet, the trend of mission-driven brands taking the lead for change is promising.”

Parziale: “Challenges to incorporating regenerative agriculture products into supply chains include lack of awareness of the concept itself, slow adoption of certification or identification of regenerative production by farmers/ranchers, increased costs of production. Benefits for CG include sourcing products that align with the mission and vision of the organization and helping to spread awareness and adoption of regenerative practices in the local agricultural landscape. Resources include Project Drawdown, drawdown.org, which outlines many regenerative agriculture practices with metrics on their ability to sequester CO2.”

Davis: “The Soil Carbon Initiative is an incredible resource that can help companies evaluate the health of the soil in their supply chains as it is a global soil health standard that is verified and peer reviewed. It’s important to think about both qualitative and quantitative ways of measuring success. A model for this is MegaFood’s Healthy Farm Standard, a supplier scorecard that evaluates regenerative practices and outcomes that focuses on three pillars: building healthy soil, conserving resources and supporting thriving livelihoods. The opportunity is to just start somewhere and look for partners. Another opportunity is to align incentives by financially supporting farmers who are willing to focus on regenerative practices and soil health. The benefits are that those that move towards regenerative supply webs will reap the benefits of more stable and reliable supply chains that are more drought and flood resistant. It’s a hedge against the risk of a changing climate. Not only will their businesses and supply chains be more secure, life on this planet will be more secure as we use agriculture to draw down greenhouse gases and stabilize the extreme weather we are experiencing. And the risks are quite serious. If we don’t collectively move towards regeneration quickly, we may end up with desertified soils, unable to grow the food we need to support life on this planet within a generation. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the benefits couldn’t be more compelling.”

Dugger: “Because we partner with farmers every day, we see an opportunity and responsibility to seek sustainable outcomes for agriculture. This means partnering with family farmers to understand how we can introduce sustainable practices into their day-to-day work. This year, Ardent Mills completed its first year of a continuous improvement focused project with farmers in the Snake River Valley of Idaho. The goal of this project is to introduce regenerative practices and sustainable methods to partner farmers to protect land for future generations. In our first year of data collection, we engaged more than 7,800 acres and 300,000 bushels of spring wheat. We have already identified prevalent practices and areas where we have an opportunity to make sustainable practices more widespread. We will work with Nutrien Ag Solutions and their digital ag platform, Agrible, in partnership with our farmers in the program to continue identifying opportunities and practices that make the most sense for their operations.

“Understanding the challenges of incorporating regenerative agriculture practices will be key to successful adoption. In order to fully understand the impact of regenerative practices, we need better tools to quantify results. Developing tests to accurately measure the amount of carbon sequestered or measure the biodiversity in the soil are critical for understanding outcomes and refining objectives. Our partner, Nutrien Ag Solutions, is doing great work in this space. Another challenge is that results take time to achieve and progress may not be immediately recognized. Regenerative agriculture is a lifelong commitment, so companies must have a long-term, big-picture vision as they’re setting goals and milestones, and have solid partnerships along the supply chain to be successful.

“The benefits of regenerative agriculture on our supply chain are clear. As farmers incorporate additional continuous practices, there is potential to help the soil, air and water, while boosting economic resilience and local jobs. To overcome some of the challenges of regenerative agriculture, we must facilitate market access and level the financial and regulatory playing fields for smaller farmers interested in adopting sustainable practices. Reimagining the future of agriculture requires creativity, innovation, holistic vision and strong partnerships.” WF