Agriculture is the starting and endpoint for many of the biggest issues of our time: population growth, world hunger, and climate change. Farmers across the globe have to maneuver these present and future realities, attempting to provide lasting solutions into the future, while also providing in the short term for themselves. Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, thinks we can fix it all through the lifeblood of our planet: soil.
Soil is directly connected to human health as the source of life, the bed of our survival, if you will. In our conversation on the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, Elizabeth explained that the microbiome in the soil is a mirror of the human microbiome. She elaborated, “There’s plenty of science showing that [the soil] affects the human microbiome…and as we deplete the soil, we deplete our own microbiome. What we do to the soil we do to ourselves.”
Well, it’s safe to say we don’t want to be dry, dead, dust when we could instead be rich, nutritious soil! Ahh, I can feel it in my hands now!
The Regenerative Organic Alliance is teaming up with farmers around the world to repair the damage done by industrial farming practices, which have caused soil erosion, threatened human health, and depleted the nutrients in our food. How are they doing this? Through regenerative organic agriculture.
Elizabeth and the Regenerative Organic Alliance are on a mission to collaborate across the boundaries drawn between policy, people, and planet, and create a healthy food system that is both empowering, nutritious, and delicious. And they couldn’t have come at a more critical time: if we continue business as usual on industrial farms, we only have 60 years (meaning 60 harvests) left. Total.
What Does the Future of Agriculture & Farming Look Like?
A Brief History of Agriculture
In the millions of years humans have been on the earth, only the last few thousand have been dedicated to organized farming. The transition from hunter-gatherer nomadic tribes to agrarian communities prompted the development of civilizations. With reliable food sources, people could spend time creating art, forming governments, and growing the population. Along with cultivating crops and rearing animals, came the entire course of mankind shifted.
Many ancient civilizations faced collapse due to resource degradation, drought, and overpopulation. For many of the most prominent ancient communities, archaeologists are still not in agreement on what caused their demise. However, in addition to the factors already listed, climate change may have played a role. The Maya were able to adapt farming practices according to the changing climate, but were ruined by severe drought, which may have contributed to their ultimate fall. The Romans’ development of the plow and irrigation brought higher crop yields, but at the devastating expense of soil quality. Time and time again we’ve seen that humans struggle to maintain a balance between land health and food cultivation.
Modern Industrial Agriculture
In the early 1900s in the United States, farmers had diversified crops and raised animals on the same land. They did mostly manual labor and animals had access to pastures and fields.
But in the mid-1900s, and especially after World War II, new farming technology in the United States shifted farms to monocultures, meaning the entire farm would be dedicated to one type of crop, like corn or soybean. The development of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides reinforced the need for monocultures because more diverse crops are naturally resistant to pests. Despite its shortcomings, this is how most farms continue to run today.
The consequences of unnatural practices of monoculture can be sprawling. In the last few years, for example, you might have heard about the herbicide “glyphosate.” Since 1974, more than 1.8 million tonnes of the herbicide glyphosate have been applied to crops. Not only is this harmful to the soil, but glyphosate also has a known connection to cancer. The manufacturer, Monsanto, has paid over $289 million in damages to those whose health has been affected by glyphosate. This herbicide is affecting not only our food, but also our groundwater and even breastmilk, causing birth defects, Attention Deficit Disorder, and other health issues.
The demolition caused by modern industrial farming practices extends further to global agriculture. In Brazil, the need for cattle ranching and soybean cultivation has pushed farmers deep into the Amazon, where illegal deforestation takes place to accommodate their farming practices. Farming related deforestation accounts for 80% of the deforestation of the Amazon, which is an essential carbon sink for fossil fuel emissions for the entire planet.
The unfortunate reality we are all having to face is that modern agriculture depletes nutrient-rich soil, leaves crops more susceptible to drought and puts less nutrient-dense food on our plates as a result. Luckily, there is a growing movement towards sustainable practices that are able to replenish the damage done, grow nutrient-rich food, provide livelihoods for growers, and fight climate change all in one fell swoop.
Moving Towards Sustainable Agriculture
It’s clear that farming needs to become more sustainable to secure the future and ensure our important ecosystems can thrive. Certifications like Non-GMO, Fair Trade, and USDA Organic are big steps towards more sustainable farm management. One more recent, and even more monumental, development in agriculture is that of regenerative agriculture, which aims to protect people and the planet by giving back what we take from nature in the cultivation of food.
This is no pipedream! The tools needed to reverse the negative effects of industrial farming already exist. Elizabeth Whitlow filled us in on a strangely well-kept secret: soil has the unique ability to sequester carbon from any fossil fuel emissions. In addition to providing nourishing food, increasing food security, creating sustainable jobs, and revitalizing the land, we can reverse climate change through sustainable agriculture. How did we not already know this!?
Through farming methods that re-diversify monocultures, ensure animal welfare, and organically build resilience to pests and disease, we can alter the future of farming forever and save our health, natural resources, and the planet. Big impact for just some old soil, but Elizabeth and the regenerative organic community is up for the task.
The Regenerative Organic Alliance: Fighting Climate Change With Soil
The Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), was formed in 2017 by representatives from the Rodale Institute and two eco friendly companies we mention quite often at Grow Ensemble: Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s. Joined by farmers and policymakers, these leaders in sustainability are fighting to “…heal a broken system, repair a damaged planet, and empower farmers and eaters to create a better future through better farming.”
A core piece of the ROA is the new Regenerative Organic Certification program. This certification builds on the work achieved through the USDA Certified Organic process and uses soil health as a key indicator for pursuing overall planet health and tackling climate change. The ROA promotes farming practices that work with nature instead of against it. By acknowledging that all-natural systems, including humans, are interconnected, we can elevate well-being across the board.
Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of Regenerative Organic Alliance
Fueled by her unique expertise in soil management, Elizabeth is redefining organic agriculture by helping farmers implement regenerative organic practices that incorporate long-term solutions for soil health.
Elizabeth believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought people closer to their food, and that’s one reason organic food sales are climbing. In addition to being at home, focusing on health, and cooking more often, the public saw farmers go to work amidst the pandemic and watched as factory farms became epicenters for the virus.
Collectively, we’re realizing that farmers don’t have stable enough income to call in sick, which is a crucial piece of what the ROA is fighting for.
“How are we going to stop climate change? Agriculture can be the problem, and it can totally be the solution. ”
Digging Deeper into Regenerative Organic Certification
To become Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), three core pillars must be addressed. These are the areas that elevate the goals of USDA Organic Certifications and push for radical climate change action in food cultivation.
- Soil Health: Using cover crops, crop rotations, and conservation tillage helps the soil retain nutrients and stay drought resistant. Integrating compost into farming practices helps fertilize crops while suppressing weeds and using less water.
- Animal Welfare: Happy, healthy animals produce good quality meat and dairy. All ROC animal operations are grass-fed and pasture-raised. The Regenerative Organic Certification uses the “5 Freedoms” to measure animal welfare, which all differ greatly from modern industrial practices.
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from fear & distress
- Freedom from hunger
- Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
- Freedom to express normal behavior
- Social Fairness: Ingrained in the ROC is the notion that farmers should be able to make a living, fair wage and work in an environment with full transparency and accountability.
Closing: The Future of Agriculture, Today
Yes! As a growing population, we need to support agricultural practices that secure not only the future of farming, but the future of the entire planet. Regenerative organic practices have the power to quite literally save the ground we stand on. *kisses the ground*
As we become more and more familiar with the impact of agriculture on our very existence, we learn conscious consumerism doesn’t start at the grocery store. It starts on the farm.
Try to opt for USDA Organic or Regenerative Organic Certified labels when available. Next time you’re browsing the farmers’ market, chat with your farmers. Are they using regenerative organic practices already? How have they seen soil quality changing in the last couple of decades?
Even if you live in an apartment in a big city, composting is a great way to reduce your immediate impact on the planet and support local farms. There are many benefits of composting, and contributing to soil health is just one!
Regenerative organic agriculture is not just another phase in agricultural history. It’s the only direction we can go to ensure the security of our food supply and prevent climate change. We can start reversing climate change together and change the world, today.
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Elizabeth on LinkedIn
- Regenerative Organic Alliance on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn
- Dr. Bronner’s
Sustainable Workplaces Manager & Writer
Jackie is the Sustainable Workplaces Manager at Urban Green Lab, a sustainability education nonprofit in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s passionate about connecting people with actionable ways to make a positive impact on the environment. She graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Jackie worked in the nonprofit world in Washington D.C. for Ashoka and the National Building Museum.
Jackie enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, finding craft breweries, and traveling the globe in search of plant-based eats.