Climate change is not a purely environmental issue, and neither is the fight for a sustainable food system. Regenerative agriculture, environmental justice, and diversity play a major role in navigating the future of these intertwined issues.
Climate change is having immense direct and indirect effects on individual human health and the stability of our societies and systems at large. It is a complex issue with drivers across industries, policies, and around the globe. Because of this diversity of sources and vast impacts, we need a multidisciplinary approach towards positive change, but this is largely hindered by existing boundaries—geographical and ideological—and organizational silos around how we talk about and approach the issue.
This term—organizational silos—is rooted in business-speak, referring to when parts of a company or industry don’t want to share information or work together for fear of undercutting their own priorities. Silos may form due to a lack of common language or organizational structure that does not allow for collaboration. With enormous cross-cutting issues like climate change and our broken food system, these silos dramatically reduce progress. We are entering the new territory of a climate-altered world without clear direction, in the face of limited resources and strained political relationships, and we need a multifaceted strategy and collaboration amongst diverse stakeholders for approaching these complex challenges.
Looking at these staggering tasks—climate change adaptation and mitigation—through the lens of the food system is helpful. Similar to climate change, issues within the industrial food system are complex and deeply intertwined with other social, environmental, and economic systems and stakeholders across the globe.
Agriculture is a major driver of climate change, but it also has the potential to be a solution. We’re here to advocate for regenerative agriculture and explore how it can guide our approach to the larger fight to “unsilo” efforts and join forces against climate change. For certain, a diversity of management techniques and knowledge systems are needed to address the twin issues of climate change and a degenerative, chemical-intensive food system. And, without a doubt, environmental justice is central to addressing both cases. A truly regenerative agricultural* system can restore soil health, sequester carbon, protect local communities, improve labor conditions, and provide healthier foods.
Using the Transition to Regenerative Agriculture as a Roadmap
The goal of regenerative agriculture is to restore rich soils that sequester and store carbon that would otherwise act as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. But, proponents of this approach recognize that this does not happen in isolation. Regeneration’s climate benefits can only be realized when healthy farmlands combine with supported farmers and farmworkers, protected local environments, and informed and empowered consumers. These issues, from the local to global, are all intimately related.
As activist Vandana Shiva said: “Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the health crisis, the climate crisis and the crisis of democracy."
Sure, but how?
We’re already seeing strong partnerships and support for this multi-faceted approach to a complex challenge. Civil society is creating strong alliances across race, gender, social, political, and economic issues—It Takes Roots and The Climate Justice Alliance, are two examples of this approach that joins advocacy, education, and empowerment. The efforts of nonprofit research centers like the Rodale Institute and state-level initiatives like the California Healthy Soils Initiative are supporting this transition with research, testing, and promotion of successful methods. Farmers pioneering regenerative agriculture are engaged and thriving, just look at Singing Frogs Farm. Businesses like Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia are propelling the movement forward in the marketplace, and consumers will soon look for products that are Regenerative Organic Certified.
These stakeholders come from different silos—individuals, nonprofits, large businesses, and government—but all have the same goal of promoting regenerative agriculture and reducing climate change (along with many other benefits). While the regenerative agriculture movement is still in its early stages, this collaborative approach and systems-level thinking is right on. These groups chip away at the problem from many angles. With such a diversity of drivers and impacts in both climate change and the food system, we need equally unique and innovative solutions. This approach includes the voices of those who are traditionally marginalized to ensure the impacts are not just shifted to them.
Diversity’s Role in Smashing Silos
According to the 2012 USDA Agricultural Census, women were the primary operators (those managing the day-to-day) of 14 percent of farms in the United States, and minorities—including Spanish, Hispanic, Latino, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian, Black, African American, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander—accounted for 9 percent.
This isn’t insignificant. Women and minorities were responsible for approximately $40 billion of the agricultural market that year. And, with this year’s census, we expect this to increase, as statistics show that beginning farmers are more likely to be female and more likely to be minorities. That’s not to mention the immense labor force of migratory and seasonal farmworkers, with population estimates around three million, 80 percent alone who are Hispanic.
Our world is diverse. Our food system is vast. The overarching lesson to be learned from this is the need for inclusivity and a justice-oriented approach to transition, whether we’re talking about the food system or global climate change.
Unlike chemical-intensive industrial farming, regenerative agriculture is knowledge-intensive and has much to gain from nonmainstream approaches and stakeholders. These farmers often have a strong interest in moving towards more sustainable and less chemical-intensive farming practices. Or, some beginning farmers are starting with these methods rather than having to transition to them. In many cases, farmers are pursuing regenerative agriculture because they have a passion for environmental regeneration and the wellbeing of farmers and farmworkers, but also because there is very real potential for greater revenues using these methods. A great example of this is Casitas Valley Farms, where they produce healthy food with methods that build soil, support pollinators, and care for those working on the farm.
From foodies to feminists, Standing Rock to Salinas, if we are going to break out of the silos and transition to more people- and place-based systems, we have much to learn from diversity. Indigenous, minority, and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to pollutants and are hit hardest by environmental tragedies; they have much to contribute if we broaden our perspective to accept that these issues affect us all.
Regenerative agriculture will have major impacts in the realm of environmental justice, showing the potential and need for similar approaches in climate change. It has the potential for widespread social and economic benefits, not to mention environmental. These methods reduce water and air pollution, while increasing food access. They reduce pesticide use and, therefore, exposure of farmers and farmworkers to harmful chemicals. There’s the potential for green job creation and an increased bottom line for farmers making management decisions that protect their soils. In a regenerative system, immigrant’s rights and women’s rights stand alongside farmer and consumer advocacy.
It is our responsibility to ensure that all these voices are heard, especially those disproportionally affected by the many impacts of a broken food system and global climate change.
Regenerative agriculture thrives on diversity below ground and it cannot succeed in the fight against climate change and industrial agriculture without a diversity of people and efforts above ground. While the silos may seem unsurmountable at times, our diversity and breadth of experience and knowledge are our biggest assets. As more stakeholders join this agricultural movement and transition towards regeneration, the silos matter less and the ultimate goal becomes clearer.
*This is an exciting time in the worlds of sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation, when these two fields have the opportunity to collaborate and reinforce one another. This partnership is in its early stages, and terminology is constantly evolving. Regenerative agriculture is a new term that is still being defined and debated. Green America is proud to be a part of this discussion and stands behind agriculture that builds healthy farmlands, supports farmers and farmworkers, protects local environments, benefits consumers, and contributes to the fight against climate change—regardless of the term used to describe it. The organization recognizes that implementation of these agriculture methods will always be site specific and depend on soil characters, crops grown, and local climates. Green America's long-term goal is agriculture production that is regenerative and meets the USDA organic standard, the best way to achieve this is through the Regenerative Organic Certification. Green America supports all farms reducing chemical inputs and enhancing soil preservation techniques to move closer to those twin goals.