At the recent Regenerative Agriculture and Food Systems Summit, more than 200 senior decision makers throughout the food supply chain met to discuss opportunities and challenges for the future of the food system.
Regenerative agriculture is “a way of being, thinking, understanding who we are,” says Reginaldo Haslett Marroquin, Co-Founder and CEO of Tree Range Farms. Haslett-Marroquin urged attendees to embrace “innate intelligence” and “ancestral knowledge” to rectify the damage caused by extractive agriculture practices over the last fifty years. He also emphasizes that farmers must be part of the solution to forge a regenerative future.
Research presented by Sonya Hoo, Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group shows regenerative systems may generate up to 120 percent increases in farmer profits. Despite these positive insights, many farmers fear economic losses over the first three years of implementation. Out of 100 row crop farmers surveyed in Hoo’s study, 45 percent cited potential yield declines and prohibitive upfront costs for seed and machinery as their top concerns around transitioning from conventional to regenerative agriculture practices.
Small-scale farmers who want to implement regenerative agriculture practices often face barriers to implementation. Candance Clark, Sustainable Food Resource Specialist at Tuskegee University explains that the goals of her work have been to amplify the barriers Black farmers in America face. Tuskegee Cooperative Extension assists farmers in the Black Belt region of Alabama. They provide the resources needed to build soil health and feed communities who have traditionally been marginalized. Clark stresses that policy shifts that increase access to resources for small, marginalized farmers are necessary to achieve equitable, regenerative food systems.
Technical assistance is also essential, argues Erica Campbell, Policy Director of Kiss the Ground’s Regenerate America Coalition. She points to opportunities to provide this support through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Regenerate America is advocating for more than 100 Farm Bill priorities that advance rural communities and accelerate research and infrastructure for regenerative agriculture initiatives.
Ahead of Farm Bill discussions, the USDA recently funded 40 different projects across the country through the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Grant, totaling US$3.1 billion in grant funding. The projects focus on regenerative, climate-smart practices such as cover cropping, no-till, and sustainable forestry management. Partnerships include collaboration from over 100 universities, 11 historically black colleges and universities, and 20 tribal groups.
Sean Babington, USDA Senior Advisor to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, says that the USDA is also in the process of signing agreements with awardees and anticipates seeing additional revenue across 25 million acres of working farm and forest lands. Babington particularly emphasizes how measuring, monitoring, reporting, and verifying these climate smart practices will be a crucial outcome of the projects.
Speakers also points out that the private sector company has an opportunity to work with farmers. Brands like Simple Mills are “disrupting the CPG space” by “bringing farmers to the table in the development process” of creating their snack products, says Christina Skonberg, Head of Sustainability and Mission at Simple Mills. Skonberg believes the biggest barrier she sees from food companies in adapting regenerative models is the “fear of taking risks” and resistance to “reframe the metrics of success” by valuing human and social capital the same as financial capital.
In addition to bringing farmers into a brand’s decision-making process, “consumer buy-in” is critical to expanding regenerative agriculture, says Jess Newman, Senior Director of Agriculture and Sustainability at McCain Foods. Newman mentions McCain has been engaging with younger consumers through gamification, using roblox to educate consumers on the benefits of regenerative farming.
While speakers stressed the urgency of accelerating regenerative agriculture in the food system, labor and workers rights were left out of the discussion. “We support new and beginning farmer programs in our platform,” Campbell says, “but immigration is really important and we have to work on that issue as a country.”
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Photo courtesy of Derek Liang, Unsplash