Young Urban Farmer Plots Growth of Regenerative Agriculture Endeavor

Chander Payne digs dirt.

The budding farmer’s fondness for linking humans to the promise of the oft-disregarded ground beneath their feet spurred him to launch a social — and earthy — enterprise as a high schooler in metropolitan Washington, D.C.

Chander Payne headshot

Chander Payne

His hands-on effort to connect farming with homeless shelters and schools in underserved communities has thus far delivered 3,600-plus pounds of fresh vegetables to residents of local food deserts.

Payne, now in college, named his city-centric endeavor Urban Beet. The ambitious effort to connect students with gardening, families with real food and everyone with the soil was awarded a Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes in 2020, the year he graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase, a top-ranked high school in Montgomery County, Maryland. The Colorado-based nonprofit affiliated with the prize annually recognizes 25 young, inspiring and public-spirited leaders across the United States and Canada who have made a significant difference to people, their communities and the environment.

Payne was introduced to the concept of regenerative agriculture at a summer job where he learned how pesticides and tilling had severely disrupted the natural carbon-capturing ability of plants and soil microorganisms. Reversing those modern trends can mitigate climate change in at least a couple of ways. Healthy replenished soil can store carbon underground, offsetting some of the emissions from fossil fuel power plants and vehicles. Urban gardens can also reduce what’s known as the heat island effect when they replace asphalt and other heat-absorbing hard surfaces.

These lessons led him to see his surroundings as a garden that needs tending. Beyond food, he wants his farms to offer joy, empowerment and healing to children.

“My work has led me to see the world as a regenerative farmer, to be perceptive and empathetic,” said Payne, now a freshman at Williams College in Massachusetts, leaning toward a major in environmental studies. “I envision a world where I walk into underserved neighborhoods and see colorful beets and tomatoes growing — a world where every kid has a close relationship with living soil and fresh food.”

Chemistry teacher Christopher Knocke was part of the team that nominated Payne for a Barron Prize. Author T.A. Barron established the prize two decades ago to honor his mother, Gloria, who labored for years to create a nature museum at the Colorado School for the Blind.

Payne’s idea for Urban Beet sprouted as a single raised bed filled with soil, compost and seeds in his high school’s courtyard. It’s still thriving and has expanded to 200 square feet, with an additional solar-powered vertical farm.

Now, the 18-year-old is executive director of what’s evolved into an LLC fueled by donations. His team of young go-getters has constructed farms at three high schools in suburban Maryland and five at homeless shelters and related facilities in the nation’s capital and Delaware. Urban Beet plans to create 10 additional farms in Virginia and elsewhere around the region later this year.

“I am eager to continue investigating the relationship between the well-being of soil microbiomes, families and farming communities,” he said.

In an interview with the Energy News Network, Payne explained how and why food insecurity, urban heat islands and soil degradation in his own backyard inspired his passion for global soil health and the climate fight. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What prompted your interest in growing vegetables?

A: It all started when I noticed food inequality at my high school when I was a sophomore. My classmates who ate in the cafeteria, typically those without extra money to eat off campus, had french fries as their only vegetable. That motivated me to ask to see the school kitchen. When I looked into the vegetable refrigerator, it was empty. I took a photo to remember.

Three labeled shelves for fruits, vegetables and dairy; the veggie shelf is empty.

Credit: Chander Payne / Courtesy

Q: The photo evidently had an impact on you. What did you do next?

A: I wanted to address the disparity in access to nutritious food, so I created a partnership between a local rooftop garden and my school’s food pantry in 10th grade. Previously, the pantry provided families with canned food. Soon, needy families had access to 20 pounds of fresh produce weekly. Besides lettuce and tomatoes, the harvests include beets, kale, corn, chard, okra and spinach.

Q: Then, you decided to get your hands dirty. How did that work out?

A: I spent the summer of 2017 building vegetable gardens around the District of Columbia for Love & Carrots, a local company. That’s where I learned the practice of regenerative agriculture, farming techniques that build healthy soil by sequestering carbon in the ground.

Q: And that, literally, laid the groundwork for what is now Urban Beet?

A: Yes. As the school year began, my aspiration was to make urban farming accessible. I wanted to help marginalized young people grow food regeneratively while sharing the soothing mental escape that gardening provides.

Q: How did you find like-minded classmates to work in that courtyard garden at your high school?

A: It was challenging because soil is not the most thrilling topic to all 16-year-olds. But I eventually assembled a dedicated team of nine. We called ourselves the Avengers of Urban Farming.

One of our first partnerships was with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a nonprofit. I invited them to receive produce by joining us on summer field trips to our regenerative farm. When we host community workdays at our farms, children enjoy their harvest as farm-fresh meals made by True Food Kitchen.

Q: You refer to soil as the silent hero beneath our feet. Why?

A: I have found the magic of soil. It connects everything, capturing carbon from the air and nourishing families. My love for soil is why my initial intention to fight food deserts through produce deliveries has transformed into a project connecting people with their environment and each other.

Q: You mentioned that your mentor from Paraguay at Love & Carrots, Manuel Rojas, showed you how to read plants as closely as scholars read texts. What does that mean?

A: I learned to relate the tiniest detail to the whole. For instance, a single wilted leaf on a sunflower can reveal a garden-wide need for water. Manuel’s lessons opened my heart and eyes as he inspired me to act with the compassionate vigilance of a regenerative farmer in other areas of my life.

Urban Beet’s Free Little Farms offered relief to struggling families during the coronavirus pandemic by offering portable container gardens. Credit: Chander Payne / Courtesy

Q: What are Free Little Farms, another offshoot of Urban Beet? 

A: These windowsill planters, complete with soil, seeds and a note of support, are created for families and people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. We partnered with homeless shelters and food pantries to distribute these portable container gardens and have donated 205 so far throughout the region.

Q: Does gardening or farming run in your family?

A: My “Namma,” or grandma, was my family’s original urban farmer. She grew up on a farm in Southern India where she grew food in harmony with the Earth. When she immigrated to America, she started growing a thriving garden.

Q: Lastly, you refer to yourself as a natural introvert. Did that make it hard for you to act on this project?

A: Nourishing young people with education and complete meals has taught me the beauty of courageous openness when communicating with others.

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Ethical Meat Standards Need to Be about More than Just the Animals

Most discussions around the ethics of meat center on the animal—raising, processing, carbon footprints, and packaging—while so often neglecting the people behind that process. Even Whole Foods’ widely popular quality meat standards focus on everything but the farmer and the workers.

If we are to reimagine the way we eat meat, and do so in a way that’s truly humane, we must apply ethical standards to all aspects of food production and acknowledge what is required to meet them.

The People

As COVID-19 laid bare, inhumane conditions in large meatpacking plants extend to employees. Forced to stand elbow to elbow in a pandemic, line workers fell ill in record numbers. Sick workers without benefits had to choose between infecting their colleagues or forfeiting their already low pay. Plants shut down one after another, halting the food production that people relied on, while leaving both sick and healthy workers without the means to survive. Meanwhile, big meat companies looked to replace jobs with automation, rather than address animal and employee abuse.


Aguacate: ¿amigo o enemigo?

Los aguacates son uno de los alimentos más saludables que se pueden consumir. Rico en grasas monoinsaturadas, fibra, magnesio, potasio, vitaminas B, vitamina K, vitamina E y carotenoides. Además, los aguacates no solo reducen el hambre y combaten la obesidad, sino que también contienen avocatina B, que es una molécula con propiedades que combaten el cáncer.

Los estudios han encontrado que la avocatina B combate la leucemia mieloide aguda al atacar las células madre de la leucemia.

Pero, un documental del año 2018, titulado: “El aguacate – El lado oscuro del superalimento”, el cual fue realizado por el canal alemán DW, revela el lado desconocido de los aguacates que provoca la destrucción del medioambiente. Y es que este superalimento que ha ganado tanta popularidad en las últimas décadas es un gran acaparador del agua.

Para cultivar un solo aguacate se requiere de 70 litros (18.49 galones) de agua, mientras que para cultivar una naranja se necesita un promedio de 22 litros (5.8 galones) y 5 litros (1.32 galones) para un tomate.

En áreas propensas a la sequía, como la provincia de Petorca en la región de Valparaíso, en Chile, tales requerimientos para el cultivo de aguacate a gran escala han causado la destrucción del medioambiente y la pobreza de los agricultores.

Mientras que muchos países se han enamorado del aguacate, el documental mencionado anteriormente muestra el lado poco ético y ambientalmente perjudicial que puede cambiar nuestra forma de pensar sobre los aguacates.

Los aguacates que disfruta Europa son el resultado de la sequía forzada en Chile

La provincia chilena de Petorca en la región de Valparaíso siempre ha sido una zona con sequías. Durante el verano la sequía es tan severa que a menudo se declara un estado de emergencia. Aun así, los agricultores podían sobrevivir al cultivar la tierra y mantener el ganado, pero, eso cambió cuando llegó el cultivo masivo de cientos de hectáreas de aguacates por parte de los exportadores millonarios. (Una hectárea equivale a 2.47 acres).

Desde que las grandes plantaciones de aguacate invadieron esta región chilena, comenzaron las sequías de las corrientes que utilizaban los granjeros y la población rural, lo que les obligó a depender de pipas de agua para sobrevivir, según el documental.

¿Cómo es que los exportadores acaudalados lograron quitarle el agua a los pobres? Lo hicieron de dos maneras, explica el documental. Primero, Carlos Estévez, director de Recursos Hídricos de Chile, admite que las licencias emitidas por el estado se subastan y “pueden venderse nuevamente a quien ofrezca la mayor cantidad de dinero”. Y son derechos de por vida.

Segundo, además de la subasta autorizada por el estado, los magnates desvían el agua de los canales subterráneos de manera ilegal. Se encontraron cerca de 65 canales subterráneos para extraer el agua de los ríos hacia las plantaciones de aguacate. Pero, las sanciones son insignificantes para estos infractores, explica el documental.

Para demostrar esta práctica ilegal, Rodrigo Mundaca, un activista de conservación del agua, ingresó en un área donde se encuentra uno de los canales ilegales. Es posible observar una tubería que fluye directamente hacia los cultivos de aguacate.

Alcalde chileno se opone al robo de agua

Gustavo Valdenegro Rubillo, el alcalde de Petorca, explica que la industria del aguacate que se estableció inicialmente parecía ser algo beneficioso, pero no por mucho tiempo:

“A partir del 2006, el “oro verde” que cultivaron los grandes productores fue considerado como una gran oportunidad para Petorca. Era la solución a todos los males. Nuestra vida iba a mejorar, así como los trabajos… Pero los residentes explican que los más beneficiados son los productores de aguacate, mientras que muchos de los empleos creados son a corto plazo y no a largo plazo como esperaban”, explicó el alcalde.

El alcalde apoya a los activistas locales de conservación del agua, pero explica su incapacidad cuando se trata de mediar con los grandes productores de aguacate. En una reunión, les explicó a los ciudadanos de Petorca que los productores se rehusaron a compartir el agua en tiempos de sequía. Se negaron inequívocamente, ya que las ganancias son su único interés.

Mientras tanto, los activistas reciben amenazas y, según Mundaca, son tildados de “ecoterroristas” y “revolucionarios”. Verónica Vilches, presidenta de una organización sin fines de lucro que proporciona agua a 1000 personas de un pozo cercano a los cultivos, explica que su grupo ha experimentado represalias de parte del gobierno.

“Sucedió cuando nos rehusamos a entregar nuestra agua a una empresa privada”, y añade: “Nuestra agua es para la gente y la comunidad”.

El lado oscuro de la agricultura

Las imágenes que se muestran en el documental de una tierra estéril y asolada por la sequía, junto a exuberantes cultivos de aguacate, causan un gran impacto ya que esta es un área donde en algún momento fluyeron corrientes de agua y que se convirtió con el tiempo en un desierto desolador.

En el año 2019, el ministerio de agricultura chileno informó que 106 000 animales fallecieron por la falta de agua y alimentos, mientras que cerca de 37 000 agricultores se encontraban en riesgo por la sequía. Mientras los plantíos de aguacate florecen, las áreas circundantes están desoladas, según el KCET:

“Como no se han cumplido las demandas de los residentes, muchos se han visto obligados a depender del agua de las pipas que se entregan dos veces por semana. Cada persona tiene derecho a 13 galones al día y, según Mundaca, más del 60 % de la población depende de tales entregas, que a menudo están sucias o fuertemente cloradas.

Carolina Vilches, quien administra la división de recursos hídricos del gobierno municipal de Petorca, considera que la solución radica en abordar la raíz del problema en lugar de disiparlo con medidas a corto plazo: ‘Es importante monitorear los niveles del agua, así como democratizar la gestión de recursos y priorizar el uso’”.

Antes de la llegada de las gigantescas plantaciones de aguacate, Zoila Quiroz, una agricultora, contaba con 300 árboles de aguacate, manzana y albaricoque, así como con suficiente agua para criar vacas y cabras. Ahora, su tierra es estéril. Con el agua que se entrega en las pipas, darse un baño es un lujo en el verano, mientras que la lavandería solo puede hacerse una vez al mes.

Verónica Vilches concuerda con las dificultades, al afirmar que “las personas se enferman a causa de la sequía, ya que tienen que elegir entre cocinar, lavar y hacer sus necesidades en agujeros en la tierra o en bolsas de plástico, mientras que las grandes empresas continúan ganando mucho dinero”.

Además de la abrogación del agua, existen otros efectos ambientales negativos de la popularidad del aguacate. Los aguacates se envían en contenedores especiales con aire acondicionado, los cuales tienen un costo ambiental adicional.

Y dado que los consumidores buscan aguacates listos para su consumo, estos se maduran en “enormes depósitos con una temperatura controlada que simula la humedad y el calor de su entorno natural”.

Las imágenes de las grandes filas de aguacates maduros muestran una de las trampas de la industria del aguacate, junto con el hecho de que no existe nada natural en el cultivo de cientos de hectáreas de un solo fruto, en una práctica conocida como monocultivo.

La tendencia en Instagram

Los aguacates han pasado de ser un alimento muy popular y saludable, a ser casi un culto. Las ventas se han disparado en Europa, Estados Unidos y China. Así es como el canal culinario Munchies de la compañía Vice describe esta obsesión, especialmente entre los jóvenes:

“¿Es posible recordar la vida antes del exceso de aguacate? Desde los montones de guacamoles que coronan nuestros nachos hasta los panes tostados que abarrotan nuestro Instagram, esta seductora fruta se ha vuelto tan omnipresente en nuestras cocinas como los huevos y la leche.

Las personas incluso utilizan el aguacate para proponer matrimonio a su pareja; solo para aclarar, son personas que no conocemos y con las que no nos gustaría fraternizar voluntariamente”.

En la actualidad, existen restaurantes temáticos en donde todos los platillos se realizan con esta fruta popular. Uno de los primeros, el cual es dirigido por expertos en mercadotecnia, se encuentra en Amsterdam, según el documental. “No queríamos abrir otra hamburguesería o pizzería”, explica Ron Simpson, propietario de la nueva cadena de restaurantes The Avocado Show.

Pero, el portal de noticias The Independent desaconseja culpar a una cierta moda, alimento o hábito alimenticio por la destrucción ambiental que se observa con los aguacates:

“Esto nos recuerda a un debate que existió en el año 2013 sobre la quínoa, cuando surgieron informes de que la demanda de quínoa estaba incrementando los precios en la región andina, lo que genera ciertas dudas sobre si los peruanos y bolivianos pobres podían permitirse el lujo de consumirla.

‘¿Los veganos pueden soportar la verdad desagradable sobre la quínoa?’, exigió un artículo de opinión indignado, pero las críticas no siempre resisten el escrutinio. Más tarde, los estudios encontraron que el aumento de los precios de la quínoa no estaba afectando de esa manera a los agricultores pobres”.

Resulta claro que la mayor parte de esta falla radica en las prácticas agrícolas poco éticas.

Los productores y comerciantes de aguacate defienden su negocio

Cuando los realizadores del documental le preguntaron si sus operaciones estaban causando escasez de agua entre los pobres, Matias Schmidt, uno de los mayores exportadores de aguacate, explicó que desconoce “en qué medida” existe una escasez de agua. También admite que tiene que perforar 120 metros (393.7 pies) para obtener agua para sus cultivos.

Francisco Contardo-Sfeir, gerente de mercadotecnia de la industria del aguacate, lleva las negaciones un paso más allá. Los productores siempre se esfuerzan para que haya suficiente agua “de sobra”, explica.

“Por un lado, ahorran dinero cuando utilizan una menor cantidad de agua por plantación y por árbol”. El mito de que los productores de alimentos se interesan en la población es un arma de muchas industrias indignantes, incluyendo a las operaciones concentradas de alimentación animal (CAFO, por sus siglas en inglés).

El documental termina en una feria de productos en Alemania. Los compradores y comerciantes éticos de aguacate, como Jan Willem Verloop de Nature’s Pride, les explican a los realizadores del documental que evitan los productos que provienen de Petorca debido a los problemas de agua.

Pero el exportador Diego Torres de ProChile en Alemania, se equivoca cuando los realizadores le preguntan sobre la sustentabilidad de exportar aguacates desde Petorca, después de afirmar que todas las exportaciones son sustentables y éticas. “Desconozco el tema”, explica despectivamente.

Problemas del cultivo de aguacate en otros países

Chile no es el único país donde el cultivo de aguacates ha producido sufrimiento social. El primer episodio en la segunda temporada de la serie titulada Rotten en Netflix gira en torno a la industria del aguacate. Este episodio se titula “La Guerra del Aguacate” y demuestra cómo el éxito de las plantaciones de aguacate en México (el principal productor mundial), condujo a una práctica del crimen organizado.

Esta es una parte de la historia de un periodista canadiense:

“Durante mucho tiempo, el incremento de los aranceles mantuvo a los aguacates mexicanos fuera de los Estados Unidos. Pero con la aprobación del acuerdo de libre comercio entre Estados Unidos, Canadá y México a principios de 1990, comenzaron a llegar toneladas de aguacate al mercado de los Estados Unidos.

Cuando un cartel de drogas trató de involucrarse en este comercio, el gobierno mexicano intervino de manera ineficaz. Los delincuentes obligaron a los agricultores a establecer fuerzas de autodefensa, pero la lucha continúa y Michoacán continúa siendo un área peligrosa. Como resultado, el Departamento de Estado de los Estados Unidos aconseja evitar las visitas a este estado”.

En el estado de Michoacán, donde se produce el 80 % de los aguacates en México, los carteles se roban hasta cuatro camiones de aguacate todos los días porque lo consideran tan lucrativo como las drogas.

El episodio “La Guerra del Aguacate” de la serie Rotten muestra cómo los agricultores se han visto obligados a establecer sus propias fuerzas de protección para defenderse de los carteles y revela que sus esfuerzos no siempre han sido exitosos.

Los locales no logran distinguir entre los “buenos” y los “malos”, ya que la diferencia entre la policía y los delincuentes no es clara. Es triste pensar que un alimento tan saludable y delicioso pueda generar tanto sufrimiento y daño ambiental. En mi opinión, es importante mantener nuestros hábitos en función de la información de estos documentales.

Al comprar aguacate, se recomienda buscar fuentes de cultivo responsable y alentar a los demás a hacer lo mismo. Lo mejor sería plantar un árbol de aguacate en nuestro hogar.

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Food Systems Responsible for ‘One Third’ of Human-caused Emissions

“Food systems” were responsible for 34% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to new research.

The study, published in Nature Food, presents EDGAR-FOOD – the first database to break down emissions from each stage of the food chain for every year from 1990 to 2015. The database also unpacks emissions by sector, greenhouse gas and country.

According to the study, 71% of food emissions in 2015 came from agriculture and “associated land use and land-use change activities” (LULUC).The rest stemmed from retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.

The study finds that CO2 accounts for roughly half of food-related emissions, while methane (CH4) makes up 35% – mainly from livestock production, farming and waste treatment.

Emissions from the retail sector are rising, the study finds, and increased by 3-4 times in Europe and the US between 1990 and 2015.

The authors also find that “food miles” contribute less to food emissions than packaging. The authors add that 96% of the emissions from transporting food come from local or regional transport by road and rail, rather than international transport.


Will Regenerative Agriculture Change How We Grocery Shop?

Look for the word “regenerative” at your local grocery store. Chances are, you’ll spot it on boxes of mac and cheese, cartons of milks, or even bags of chips. Regenerative agriculture, also called carbon farming, has become the latest darling of everyone from food companies to universities to politicians. But what is regenerative agriculture? How do products made with these practices differ from others, and can buying them help consumers fight the climate crisis? Here’s what you need to know about this farming philosophy.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Ask 10 different people to define regenerative agriculture, and you’ll get 10 different answers. There is no one single definition, although several organizations are currently working to establish formal guidelines.

“The idea with regenerative agriculture is to make the land better than it was,” says Dawn Pettinelli, associate cooperative extension educator at the University of Connecticut’s Institute of the Environment.

In essence, regenerative agriculture is farming done in a way that helps build soil health, increase organic matter, store water more effectively, and draw carbon out of the atmosphere.


Big Banks Make a Dangerous Bet on the World’s Growing Demand for Food

As global banking giants and investment firms vow to divest from polluting energy companies, they’re continuing to bankroll another major driver of the climate crisis: food and farming corporations that are responsible, directly or indirectly, for cutting down vast carbon-storing forests and spewing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

These agricultural investments, largely unnoticed and unchecked, represent a potentially catastrophic blind spot.

“Animal protein and even dairy is likely, and already has started to become, the new oil and gas,” said Bruno Sarda, the former North America president of CDP, a framework through which companies disclose their carbon emissions. “This is the biggest source of emissions that doesn’t have a target on its back.”

By pouring money into emissions-intensive agriculture, banks and investors are making a dangerous bet on the world’s growing demand for food, especially foods that are the greatest source of emissions in the food system: meat and dairy.


Plant-based Meat Doesn’t Stack up as a Planet Saver, Scientists Warn

The environmental credentials of alternative proteins and plant-based foods are increasingly being scrutinised by scientists and academics and the report card is far from rosy.

Some experts are now warning the spin doctoring employed by promoters of fake beef is distracting from real climate solutions and the big polluters.

Ultra-processed plant foods do not stack up as a climate-friendly alternative to natural red meat, they say.

In the wake of a United Nations opinion poll which found switching to plant-based diets was not a favoured solution for addressing climate change in any one of the 50 countries surveyed, the focus has been on what livestock’s real impact on the climate is.

Regenerative Food and Farming: The Road Forward

My usual response to the question “What is Regenerative Food and Farming?” goes something like this: Regenerative agriculture and animal husbandry is the next and higher stage of organic food and farming, not only free from toxic pesticides, GMOs, chemical fertilizers, and factory farm production, and therefore good for human health; but also regenerative in terms of the health of the soil, the environment, the animals, the climate, and rural livelihoods as well. Or as my fellow steering committee member for Regeneration International, Vandana Shiva puts it: “Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the climate crisis, and the crisis of democracy.”

In 2010 Olaf Christen stated that: “Regenerative agriculture is an approach in agriculture that rejects pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and is intended to improve the regeneration of the topsoil, biodiversity and the water cycle.”

This corresponds almost exactly with the stated principles of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) or Organics International. Since 2014, the Rodale Institute, IFOAM, Dr. Bronner’s, Dr. Mercola, Patagonia, the Real Organic Project, the Biodynamic Movement, the Organic Consumers Association, Regeneration International, Navdanya, and others have also been discussing and implementing organic standards, practices, and certification which incorporate regenerative principles.

According to Australian regenerative pioneer Christine Jones: “Agriculture is regenerative if soils, water cycles, vegetation and productivity continuously improve instead of just maintaining the status [quo]. The diversity, quality, vitality and health of the soil, plants, animals and people also improve together.“

In September 2014 when a group of us, including Vandana Shiva, Andre Leu, Will Allen, Steve Rye, Alexis Baden-Meyer, and staff from Dr. Bronner’s, Dr. Mercola, Organic Consumers Association, and the Rodale Institute organized a press conference at the massive climate march in New York City to announce the formation of Regeneration International, we set for ourselves a simple, but what seemed like then, ambitious goal. We all agreed we needed to fundamentally change the conversation on the climate crisis in the US and around the world—then narrowly focused on renewable energy and energy conservation—so as to incorporate regenerative and organic food, farming, and land use as a major solution to global warming, given its proven ability to drawdown and sequester massive amounts of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, forests, and plants.

Now, less than a decade later I believe our growing Regeneration Movement has achieved this goal. Regeneration is now the hottest topic in the natural and organic food and farming sector, while climate activists including the Sunrise Movement and in the US regularly talk about the role of organic and regenerative practices in reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. More and more people now understand that we can achieve, through enhanced photosynthesis and drawdown, the “Net Zero” emissions goal in 2030-50 that nearly everyone now agrees will be necessary if we are to avoid runaway global warming and climate catastrophe.

Inside Regeneration International, which now includes 400 affiliates in more than 60 countries, our conversation has shifted to identifying regenerative and organic “best practices” around the globe. Our goal is to strategize how we can help qualitatively expand and scale-up regenerative best practices so that organic and regenerative becomes the norm, rather than just the alternative, for the planet’s now degenerative multi-trillion dollar food, farming, and land use system.

Of course our discussions and strategizing are not just an academic exercise. As most of us now realize, our very survival as a civilization and a species is threatened by a systemic crisis that has degraded climate stability, our food, and our environment, along with every major aspect of modern life. This mega-crisis cannot be resolved by piecemeal reforms or minor adjustments such as slightly cutting our current levels of fossil fuel use, reducing global deforestation, soil degradation, and military spending. Either we move beyond merely treating the symptoms of our planetary degeneration and build instead a New System based upon regenerative and organic food, farming, and land use, coupled with renewable energy practices, and global cooperation instead of belligerence, or else we will soon (likely within 25 years) pass the point of no return.

A big challenge is how do we describe the crisis of global warming and severe climate change in such a way that everyday people understand the problem and grasp the solution that we’re proposing i.e. renewable energy and regenerative food, farming, and land use? The bottom line is that humans have put too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases (especially methane and nitrous oxide) into the atmosphere (from burning fossil fuels and destructive land use), trapping the sun’s heat from radiating back into space and heating up the planet. And unfortunately, because of the destructive food, farming, and forestry practices that have degraded a major portion of the Earth’s landscape, we’re not drawing down enough of these CO2 emissions through plant photosynthesis to cool things off. In a word, there’s too much CO2 and greenhouse gas pollution blanketing the sky (and saturating the oceans) and not enough life-giving carbon in the ground and in our living plants, trees, pastures, and rangelands.

Increasing plant and forest photosynthesis (accomplished via enhanced soil fertility and biological life, as well as an adequate amount of water and minerals) is the only practical way that we can draw down a significant amount of the excess CO2 and greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that are heating up the Earth and disrupting our climate. Through photosynthesis, plants and trees utilize solar energy to break down CO2 from the atmosphere, release oxygen, and transform the remaining carbon into plant biomass and liquid carbon. Photosynthesis basically enables plants to grow above ground and produce biomass, but also stimulates growth below ground as plants transfer a portion of the liquid carbon they produce through photosynthesis into their root systems to feed the soil microorganisms that in turn feed the plant. From the standpoint of drawing down enough CO2 and greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and sequestering them in our soils and biota to reverse global warming, qualitatively enhanced photosynthesis is all-important.

As my contribution to the global expansion of regenerative and organic food and farming practices, I have spent the last several years working with Mexican farmers and ranchers, consumer organizations, elected political officials (mainly at the local and state level), and socially and environmentally-concerned “impact investors.” Our goal is to develop and qualitatively expand what we believe is a game-changer for much of the 40% of the world’s pasturelands and rangelands that are arid and semi-arid, areas where it is now nearly impossible to grow food crops, and where it is too overgrazed and degraded for proper livestock grazing. We call this Mexico-based agave and agroforestry/livestock management system Agave Power: Greening the Desert, and are happy to report that its ideas and practices are now starting to spread from the high desert plateau of Guanajuato across much of arid and semi-arid Mexico. We now are receiving inquiries and requests for information about this agave-based, polyculture/perennial system from desert and semi-desert areas all over the world, including Central America, the Southwestern US, Argentina, Chile, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Australia, Myanmar, and Oman. You can learn more about this Agave Power system on the websites of Regeneration International and the Organic Consumers Association.

What I and others have learned “on the ground” trying to expand and scale-up regenerative and organic best practices is that there are four basic drivers of regenerative (or conversely degenerative) food, farming, and land use. The first is consumer awareness and market demand. Without an army of conscious consumers and widespread market demand, regenerative practices are unlikely to reach critical mass. Second is farmer, rancher, and land stewardship innovation, including the development of value-added products and ecosystem restoration services.

The third driver is policy change and public funding, starting at the local and regional level. And last but not least is regenerative finance—large-scale investing on the part of the private sector, what is now commonly known as “impact investing.”  In order to qualitatively expand organic and regenerative best practices and achieve critical mass sufficient to transform our currently degenerative systems, we need all four of these drivers to be activated and working in synergy.

Let’s look now at four contemporary drivers of Degeneration—degenerative food, farming, and land use, in order to understand what the forces or drivers are that are holding us back from moving forward to Regeneration.

(1) Degenerated grassroots consciousness and morale. When literally billions of people, a critical mass of the 99 percent, are hungry, malnourished, scared, and divided, struggling to survive with justice and dignity; when the majority of the global body politic are threatened and assaulted by a toxic environment and food system; when hundreds of millions are overwhelmed by economic stress due to low wages and the high cost of living; when hundreds of millions are weakened by chronic health problems, or battered by floods, droughts, and weather extremes; when seemingly endless wars and land grabs for water, land and strategic resources spiral out of control; when indentured politicians, corporations, Big Tech, and the mass media manipulate crises such as COVID-19  to stamp out freedom of expression and participatory democracy in order to force a “Business-as-Usual” or “Great Reset” paradigm down our throats, regenerative change, Big Change, will not come easily.

Dis-empowered, exploited people, overwhelmed by the challenges of everyday survival, usually don’t have the luxury of connecting the dots between the issues that are pressing down on them and focusing on the Big Picture. It’s the job of Regenerators to connect the dots between the climate crisis and people’s everyday concerns such as food, health, jobs, and economic justice, to globalize awareness, political mobilization, and most of all, to globalize hope.

It’s the job of regenerators to make the connections between personal and public health and planetary health, to expose the truth about the origins, nature, prevention, and treatment of COVID-19 and chronic disease, and to mobilize the public to reject a so-called Great Reset, disguised as fundamental reform, but actually a Trojan Horse for a 21st Century Technocracy that is profoundly anti-democratic and authoritarian. Regenerators have to be able to make the connections between different issues and concerns, identify and support best practitioners and policies, build synergy between social forces, effectively lobby governments (starting at the local level), businesses, and investors for change; all the while educating and organizing grassroots alliances and campaigns across communities, constituencies, and even national borders. But this of course will not be easy, nor will it take place overnight.

Our profoundly destructive, degenerative, climate-destabilizing food and farming system, primarily based upon industrial agriculture inputs and practices, is held together by a multi-billion-dollar system of marketing and advertising that has misled or literally brainwashed a global army of consumers into believing that cheap, artificially flavored, “fast food” is not only acceptable, but “normal” and “natural.” After decades of consuming sugar, salt, carbohydrate-rich, and “bad fat”-laden foods from industrial farms, animal factories, and chemical manufacturing plants, many consumers have literally become addicted to the artificial flavors and aromas that make super-processed foods and “food-like substances” so popular.

(2) Degenerate “conventional” farms, farming, and livestock management. Compounding the lack of nutritional education, choice, poverty, inertia, and apathy of a large segment of consumers, other major factors driving our degenerative food and farming system include the routine and deeply institutionalized practices of industrial and chemical-intensive farming and land use (mono-cropping, heavy plowing, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMOs, factory farms, deforestation, wetlands destruction) today. These soil, climate, health, and environmentally-destructive practices are especially prevalent on the world’s 50 million large farms, which, in part, are kept in place by global government subsidies totaling $500 billion a year. Meanwhile there are few or no subsidies for organic or regenerative farmers, especially small farmers (80% of the world’s farmers are small farmers), nor for farmers and ranchers who seek to make this transition. Reinforcing these multi-billion dollar subsidies for bad farming practices are a global network of chemical and agri-business controlled agricultural research and teaching institutions, focused on producing cheap food and fiber (no matter what the cost to the environment, climate, and public health) and ago-export agricultural commodities (often pesticide-intensive GMO grains). Of course what we need instead are subsidies, research, and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to produce healthy, organic, and regenerative food for local, regional, and domestic markets, rewarding farmers with a fair price for producing healthy food and being a steward, rather than a destroyer, of the environment.

Monopoly control. Another driver of degeneration, holding back farmer adoption of regenerative practices, and determining the type of food and crops that are produced, is the monopoly or near-monopoly control by giant agribusiness corporations over much of the food system, especially in the industrialized countries, as well as the monopoly or near monopoly control by giant retail chains such as Wal-Mart and internet giants like Amazon. The out-of-control “Foodopoly” that dominates our food system is designed to maximize short-term profits and exports for the large transnational corporations, preserve patents and monopoly control over seeds, and uphold international trade agreements (NAFTA, WTO) that favor corporate agri-business and large farms over small farms, factory farms over traditional grazing and animal husbandry, and agro-exports instead of production for local and regional markets.

Food and farming is the largest industry in the world with consumers spending an estimated $7.5 trillion dollars a year on food. In addition, the largely unacknowledged social, environmental, and health costs (i.e. collateral damage) of the industrial food chain amounts to an additional $4.8 trillion dollars a year.

(3 and 4) Degenerate public policy and public and private investments. Agriculture is the largest employer in the world with 570 million farmers and farm laborers supporting 3.5 billion people in rural households and communities. In addition to workers on the farm, food chain workers in processing, distribution, and retail make up hundreds of millions of other jobs in the world, with over 20 million food chain workers in the US alone (17.5% of the total workforce.) This makes public policy relating to food, farming, and land use very important. Unfortunately, thousands of laws and regulations are passed every year, in every country and locality, that basically prop-up conventional (i.e. industrial, factory farm, export-oriented, GMO) food and farming, while there is very little legislation passed or resources geared toward promoting organic and regenerative food and farming. Trillions of dollars have been, and continue to be, invested in the so-called “conventional” food and farming sector; including trillions from the savings and pension funds of many conscious consumers, who would no doubt prefer their savings to be invested in a different manner, if they knew how to do this. Unfortunately, only a tiny percentage of public or private investment is currently going toward organic, grass-fed, free-range, and other healthy foods produced by small and medium-sized farms and ranches for local and regional consumption.

Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals, healthy people, healthy climate, healthy societies . . . our physical and economic health, our very survival as a species, is directly connected to the soil, biodiversity, and the health and fertility of our food and farming systems.  Regenerative organic farming and land use can move us back into balance, back to a stable climate and a life-supporting environment.

It’s time to move beyond degenerate ethics, farming, land use, energy policies, politics, and economics. It’s time to move beyond “too little, too late” mitigation and sustainability strategies. It’s time to inspire and mobilize a mighty global army of Regenerators, before it’s too late.

How To Fix A Food System That’s Not Designed To Feed People

Earlier this year, Americans learned what it looks like when a food system reliant on industrial agriculture, near monopolies and exploited laborers breaks down.

Just two months into the pandemic, the meat industry in the most powerful nation in the world was buckling.

In March and April, COVID-19 swept through meatpacking plants, infecting thousands of workers. In Colorado, an outbreak at a huge JBS beef processing facility killed six workers. In South Dakota, as cases surged in a Smithfield pork plant, officials offered bonuses to employees who kept coming to work (although the company said any worker missing work due to COVID-19 exposure or diagnosis would still get the money). By November, more than 11,000 Tyson Foods workers had been diagnosed with COVID-19 ― 9% of its total workforce.

“It was like drinking out of a fire hose,” said reporter Leah Douglas, who began tracking COVID-19 outbreaks across the food system in April. “The pace of the spread was so intense.”

Want a More Sustainable Food System? Focus on Better Dirt

Four years ago, Cody Straza went “down the YouTube rabbit hole” of regenerative agriculture. “And I haven’t come up since,” he cracks.

For the past decade, Straza and his wife Allison Squires have been the owners of Upland Organics, a 2,000-acre farm near Wood Mountain, Sask. While their approach to farming was guided by organic principles from the start – Straza and Squires met at the University of Saskatchewan where he was studying agricultural and bioresource engineering and she was completing her PhD in toxicology – they transitioned to a regenerative agriculture farming model in 2016. (Squires went down the rabbit hole soon after her husband did.)

Regenerative agriculture is a system of principles designed to boost the farm ecosystem through the enhancement of soil health. This system is rooted in five pillars – better water management, low or no tillage (mechanical agitation of the soil), crop diversity, year-round cover crops and livestock integration.