Green America and Kiss the Ground hosted a live Q&A about the film Kiss the Ground, where we discussed regenerative agriculture and its game-changing potential to combat the climate crisis and revive the planet’s health, and ours too.
Below are questions from the audience and the panelists’ answers, grouped in these categories:
About Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative Agriculture and Animals
Increasing Regenerative Agriculture Through Government, Education, and Financing
Ryland Engelhart, Executive Director, Kiss the Ground
Don Smith, Stewardship Program Advisor, Kiss the Ground
Alisa Gravitz, President/CEO, Green America
Zach Ducheneaux, Executive Director, Intertribal Agriculture Council
Kellee James, CEO, Mercaris
Ken Roseboro, Editor, The Organic & Non-GMO Report (Moderator)
Thanks again to our panelists!
ABOUT REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
In the short run, how many humans on this planet can regenerative agriculture support? With 6 billion people, is regenerative agriculture productive enough to support us all?
Zach - I think we need to first breakdown our calorie consumption. The average American consumes more than 3,600 calories daily – a 24% increase from 1961, when the average was just 2,880 calories. (Business Insider via google.) Given that, and then analyzing the nutrition per calorie, I’m pretty certain that Regenerative Ag can feed the planet. There’s probably an entire panel in that alone! Not to mention food waste. On average, every person in the U.S. throws away over 1,500 calories worth of food each day, a study has found. According to the authors, the findings suggest the problem of waste could be twice as big as previously thought. (Newsweek). In short, the current system of ag, overproduces to make up for a lack of nutrition that our bodies seek to fill with excess consumption, then we can’t eat it all.
Are some land areas generally "doomed" to be deserts regardless of what we do? I'm thinking of places such as Saudi Arabia. I'm primarily interested, though, in the African countries -- is there hope for regenerating them?
Zach - That's where Allan Savory continues to prove his model. We just need to figure out how to stimulate the biology to grow in the sand. Imagine if we put as much science and research into that and desalination of ocean water as we do into digging through the sand to harvest the solar power that is buried thousands of feet below the surface.
Where does agroforestry fit into this picture?
Green America - Agroforestry is an important element of integrating further diversity into agricultural lands. Tree roots are much deeper then crop roots and can further secure soil as well as creating additional nutrition and water holding capacity. Trees can also create an additional source of revenue for farmers, tree crops can take 3-5 years to produce which can be a financial burden for farmers.
How are the crops harvested with all the cover crops mixed in with them?
Zach - I think there is probably both a technological, and a biological solution. Technology will develop that will allow for segregated harvest of diverse crops as the movement grows. Look at this video.
Biological solutions can take the form of human interaction, paying folks a fair wage to harvest, based on a more equitable distribution of the food dollar, or by embracing a multicrop environment and breeding for it. I’ve got a friend that selects his corn variety by choosing for lower ears so the ducks can more easily reach them when he floods the fields in the fall for hunting season.
What obstacles does regenerative farming face from lobbyists and farmers?
Zach - The system is working the way it was designed. Cheap production at the expense of nutrition, that allows for corporate skimming of the value in the form of capital. The system of finance is the foundation of all of this, and it serves the operators of the system well. The biggest obstacle is the lie that there isn’t enough capital in this system to do what’s needed. Farmers, who should be our biggest ally, are put in opposition to consumers, by lobbying groups and industry, and told that these things must be funded from the outside. It’s akin to planting a perennial crop and tilling it up to do the same thing after the first harvest. The money never takes root and has an impact because it’s torn out before it can.
How significant is the financial penalty for farmers switching to regenerative agriculture before their soil is healed, and is there enough support for farmers to survive until the benefits kick in?
Zach - Again, it’s a misconception that this has to be a change founded on absence, or penalty. The same amount of capital, deployed in a patient manner, can do this. Our investment model of ag finance is just one. RePlant Capital and MadAg’s Perennial fund are others. It’s not a penalty, it’s greed that is keeping existing production income from being used for the conversion.
REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE AND ANIMALS
There is a debate about putting livestock back on pasture. The average American eats about 220 pounds of Big Meat a year. Isn’t it better to eat less big meat and transition to eating a smaller amount of small regeneratively raised small meat?
Zach - This is one of my favorite topics. I harken back to the answer about feeding 6 Billion people. We overproduce and undernourish. It’s the same with meat. Currently, I’m aware of two successful models of meat marketing. McDonalds, where the flavor is all so artificially manipulated that you’re buying consistency. Then there is the Certified Angus Beef model, where you’re buying the concept, and that’s telling you what it’s going to taste like instead of the actual flavor.
We need to move towards a third model. Nutrition and flavor profile. I would scoff at my mother, (you were right Regina!) when she said she could taste the fish in the Purina Accu-ration fed beef we’d eat. We need to embrace the taste. Let our biology tell us. Our olfactory sense is so tremendously underestimated, but the vintners have decided to embrace it. We need to sell our meat based on improved nutrition and diverse flavor; not commodified.
It's well accepted that farming with plants can and does improve soil health including carbon sequestration. But, there is a great deal of debate regarding farming with animals, ranching, and its impact. What is your perspective on the movements to open all lands to open grazing?
Zach - I’m not aware of those movements, however I’d offer that anything that isn’t done thoughtfully, as though your part of the ecosystem, probably isn’t going to work out. Grazing for the sake of grazing, without us embracing our role as a biological creature in the ecosystem isn’t going to do much good.
INCREASING REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE THROUGH GOVERNMENT, EDUCATION, AND FINANCING
Is it feasible for Big Ag in the US to become regenerative? How can these large farms get support and money to start undertaking this transition, such as government subsidies? Are there ways to encourage larger-scale farmers to adopt this methodology?
Zach - We first need to convince them it’s worth undertaking, and continue to have the conversations about the investment opportunity that is ag and food, especially in a regenerative sense. Not only is it feasible, it can be profitable in the long term if we stop focusing on short term gains.
How can we encourage and provide support to local farmers to move to regenerative, when the Ag Bill uses our tax dollars to dis-incentivize farmers?
Green America -
Support local and state initiatives around healthy soils
Reach out to brands you purchase from and ask them to source ingredients from regenerative farms
Is there anyone we can support for new Secretary of Agriculture who will be a proponent?
Zach - Janie Hipp has our support. I think much like Regenerative Agriculture, we’ll make more headway talking about what, or who, we’re for, than what or who we’re against. Except banks, I’m against banks. ;)
I work for a local school district and have kids in high school and at university. How can we expose all of them to this message of hope?
Zach - I recommend the book Indian Givers for any kid that can read. It helps illuminate the origins of many of the “groundbreaking” concepts we aspire to. Long term agriculture, food as medicine, value-added, even freedom and the U.S. governmental structure, all had their foundations in Indigenous practices in the western hemisphere.
Why is regenerative farming not a bigger part of the political debate? Is it even mentioned in the Green New Deal? Regenerative agriculture seems like such a powerful tool to help rural America AND the planet which would also bring our country together.
Zach - It behooves those that are currently hoarding the profitability in the ag and food to keep us convinced that the only solution is carbon credits, philanthropy, and hard, hard work that are the key. The successfully pit rural folks against urban folks against each other; and have most farmers and ranchers advocating against environmental concerns. Think about that for a minute. Some of the loudest anti-EPA voices come from cattlemen and farmers. Well played.
Is it worthwhile to talk to cities about implementing regenerative practices on their parks and city owned land?
Zach - Not just cities, citizens. Lawns serve no practical purpose but to make work. Might as well be getting some of your fruit/vegetable, or even eggs from your land.
ACTIONS INDIVIDUALS CAN TAKE
What grassroots actions can be taken? Are people working with their state or local Ag departments? What can I do in my area to help out?
Green America -
Support local and state initiatives around healthy soils
Reach out to brands you purchase from and ask them to source ingredients from regenerative farms
Buy local and get to know your farmers. You can start with these sample questions to ask your farmer about regenerative agriculture.
Share the importance of regenerative agriculture with your friends, families, communities.
Video on regenerative agriculture with Rosario Dawson and Ron Finley
Start a Climate Victory Garden
How can I as a consumer purchase products from farms that support regenerative agriculture? It's not so easy to find. Not like organic food that is clearly labeled. Is there a way to find products that would support regenerative agriculture in my local grocery store??
Green America -
The easiest way to ensure what you are purchasing is to buy local and get to know your farmers. Otherwise, it does require research into companies and products individually. You can start with these sample questions to ask your farmer about regenerative agriculture.
Reach out to brands you purchase from and ask them who they source from and that you want them to source ingredients from regenerative farms
I would love a step by step, simple and user friendly way for those of us that are starting to take action to join the movement.
Green America - See the advocacy opportunities and trainings offered by Kiss the Ground
What are some resources that would provide me with talking points that I could use in pushing for composting in my area, where we have available land?
Green America - A simple google search will give you lots of results – here are two for starters
Is there a main ‘regenerative farms’ map so we can locate farms near us we can buy from?
Green America - Unfortunately, at this time there's not a lot of aggregated information out there. You might take a look at Regeneration International's map. We also suggest buying local and getting to know your farmers and their practices. Otherwise, it does require research into companies and products individually. You can start with these sample questions to ask your farmer about regenerative agriculture.
How do you start this process on the barren fields? Do you put hay out for the cows to eat so they poop on the barren land and that’s how it starts?
Green America - The first step would be to take some soil samples to see what the soil needs. Then beginning with a multi-species cover crop and let it take hold and begin to improve the soil structure and then allow animals to graze on the crops. After that the land can be planted with a cash crop.
I live in the Northwest where fires rage every summer so growing grasses and brush which dry out and are tinder for fast moving fires are a problem. So should we grow or mow? Plus, fires put carbon in the air.
Don - The goal is to grow plants that are perennial and establish deeper roots so they don’t dry out in the summertime. You need to maximize photosynthesis so that the growing plants can pump more carbon into the soil which will help with water infiltration during the rainy season. If your annual grasses are already there and you know they will turn brown, try and graze them regeneratively and then you are setting the system up for success in the future.
What about covering bare ground that is not part of the garden at home? Should we encourage residents to do sheet mulching?
Don - Mulch is good, but having a living ground cover is even better, because it helps absorb carbon, feed the soil and keep the temperature lower. There are lots of different plants that can be used including certain herbs that even smell good as you walk on them.
How can regenerative principles, e.g. no GMOs and no glyphosate, be applied to 1000+ acre wheat production?
Green America - There are no GMO wheat varietals on the market, so all wheat farmers are already using non-GMO seeds. From there you would follow the process of conducting soil tests to see what the soil needs to be productive and then planting multi-species cover crops and using other natural biologicals to improve soil health.
Don - Check out what the Haggerty’s are doing in Western Australia.
What do you feel about the use of biochar in building healthy soils?
Don - Biochar is a complex story, because a lot has to do with how the biochar is created - it’s not all the same quality, just like not all compost is the same quality. How much needs to be used for optimum improvement in a given context, if any. And how much does it cost per acre to use and apply? Can it produce benefits, yes, it’s pure carbon and will generally not go away or get used up. It’s been shown to be best when added to compost or inoculated with a diverse amount of biology than to just be used straight.
Why did native plants seem like a glaring omission from almost the entire film?
Zach - Maybe the concept of native species isn’t what we need to be thinking of, maybe soil-friendly. At some point all plants came from somewhere or another, by way of bird, animals, wind, what have you.
If I started a contest among the farmers I work with, can I use 'worms per cu.ft. as a measure of success?
Green America - Yes, but you should include additional measures and not just one variable. And you might want to look at soil organic matter, water infiltration rates, nutrient profiles, etc. I could create a worm rich soil, but not be making any money as a farmer. Profit per acre and worms per cubic foot might be a fun metric to track.
What part do worm farms play in helping regenerative agriculture?
Don - Generally speaking as your soil carbon goes up and your water holding capacity goes up you can create a better habitat for worms, which do an amazing job of increasing nutrient cycling in the soil, which makes for healthier plants, which means more photosynthesis, which means more carbon flowing back into the soil to feed microbes, which means more worm food, etc. Don’t focus on one organism – yes, they might be obvious and they are generally very beneficial, but we need diversity and you should be just as excited seeing more dung beetles!
We are starting from scratch, with suger sand/silty sand. It was farmed in old timey tilling fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, and they grew hay. How should we start? Bring in compost and grow on top of the soil we have without tilling into the sand?
Don – That isn’t enough context, but you could try that. It might be too expensive to add compost, in which case you might be better just growing cover crops and grazing them, if that is an option. You really need to think about the entire farm and what you are trying to accomplish. I would read a few more books before you do anything. Holistic Management, The Reed Warbler, would give you two different ways to start thinking about the land.
Does non-soil growing techniques such as hydroponic have any impact on carbon sequestration?
Don - It depends on context. Most hydroponic systems require a lot of plastic and chemicals to run, and really do nothing about getting extra carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil where it can do some good. Now if you can show that your hydroponic system is carbon negative because it is hyper local and using renewable energy, then it could still be a net positive to the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.
Can raised bed gardens help maintain soil and help regenerative gardening?
Don - It depends on the context. Why are you making the raised bed? What materials and carbon costs are involved in making the raised bed? Are you importing soil to fill the bed? How are you going to manage the soil once it is in the bed? How are you irrigating your bed and what is the water source? I could go on...
For someone who wants to go into this field full-on, is it worthwhile to get a PDC and what is your favorite one? There are some online PDC as well as local, and some supposedly more cutting edge than others such as Matt Powers?
Don - It all depends on your context, every course and each group of teachers has different styles. What country are you in? Do you like online learning or face to face? Part of the course is the community you get thrown together with – in person is vastly different than online. There are plenty of great teachers and systems out there beyond Permaculture, which is really based on indigenous wisdom and not new “cutting edge” info. Yes, you can use a microscope, but an indigenous person didn’t need a microscope to “see” if something was good!
What efforts are being made nationally and throughout the world to create pollinator corridors?
Don - not nearly enough!
Can you speak about the rise of mosquito spraying in the suburbs? Does this harm vegetables and soil?
Don - Generally I think anytime we are applying something toxic in the environment it has some unintended and unknown consequences. Obviously they say it is a “safe” amount of pesticide, but what does that really mean to a microorganism that comes into contact with it?
Is anyone in the US converting animal waste to biochar at commercial scale to help regenerate depleted land?
Don - Generally, I would say no. I do know of some chicken farms that are turning their manure into biochar, but I don’t think they are using it to “regenerate depleted land”. Probably someone is and I just haven’t really looked for them.