In early August, San Francisco jurors awarded former groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $298 million in a lawsuit alleging that exposure to Roundup, a popular weedkiller manufactured by Monsanto, had caused his terminal cancer. That case, which opened the door to thousands of other lawsuits, has placed a harsh spotlight once again on agricultural sustainability. And if you're an entrepreneur or hope to become one, that topic extends to you.
What's the big deal?
Based on current practices, we might have as few as 60 more harvests left before there's not enough good-quality topsoil left to grow food in, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Subsequently, farmers and other experts in the agricultural industry are scrambling to come up with ways to produce crops that are both safe for people and environmentally friendly.
Regenerative agriculture, which involves techniques such as not tilling the soil and maintaining a diverse range of crops without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, is winning a lot of attention in the discussion. As an example, The Carbon Underground and Green America, Ben & Jerry's (Unilever), DononeWave, and additional companies such as Annie's (General Mills) and MegaFood have formed a partnership to form a new global verification standard for food grown with regenerative methods. The standard aims to help farmers restore soil health, make crops more resilient and improve the nutrient density of the foods coming off the land.
Keith Agoada, Co-founder and Executive Director for Producers Market, says that transitioning from conventional to regenerative agriculture can be a short-term economic challenge, depending on factors like the expertise of the farmer and context of the farm. Steve Tucker, founder of Agriforce Seed, also points out that regenerative farming can pose difficulties as teams learn to stop trying to control every variable and work in conjunction with nature.
But these trials might be more than worth it. Will Harris of White Oak Pastures says his farm has been highly successful coupling regenerative agriculture with high animal welfare and support from the local community. He says that, over the past decade and a half, the business has grown from just 3 employees and a million in sales to 155 employees and $20+ million. So while Harris asserts that regenerative approaches are "the right thing to do", it's also possible for farmers to benefit financially over the long term from it, too.
As additional success stories at the small- to mid-size level, Sara Newmark, VP of Social Impact with MegaFood points to the farms of Gabe Brown, Jean Martin Forter and Rose and Ward Burroughs, as well as Singing Frogs Farm. Agoada identifies Michoacan Organics. Tucker says his own farm is finding regenerative agriculture to be more sustainable and productive, as well.
Newmark also says that there's enormous potential for non-ag professionals--particularly those in technology--to make their mark in regenerative farming. For example, integrating blockchain can provide transparency about agricultural transactions and supply chains.
Dave Chapman, Executive Director for The Real Organic Project, is concerned primarily with the integrity of the USDA organic standards. He acknowledges that there's some friction between organic farmers and regenerative farmers over whether to permit some use of herbicides. In his view, while the Regenerative Organic Certification does have some support from some big brands who genuinely want to make a difference, it might be too aspirational for most farms to qualify for right now. But he maintains that the certification is worth striving for and that regenerative agriculture, at its best, translates to real organic farming and vice versa, since regenerative agriculture and organic farming both have the same hallmarks (e.g., diversity of plant species, integrating cropping with production of livestock, etc.).
But I'm not a farmer, you say
Psychologically, unless you're out there feeling the soil in your fingers or starting to go hungry, it can be pretty easy to feel disconnected from the problem of agricultural sustainability or closely related issues like climate change. We have become, as Tucker asserts, disconnected from where our food comes from. But Newmark offers a painfully clear, non-existential explanation of why every entrepreneur needs to work together to find a solution, be it regenerative agriculture or something else:
"We all touch and rely on agriculture. We can no longer separate those of us who work directly with farmers from those who eat food. For those outside of agriculture, I ask, [can you] honestly plan a sustainable, long-term business in a world where people are fighting over nutrients and water? This work, creating the opportunity for carbon to be drawn down through agriculture, building topsoil so we have food to grow, and growing more nutrient-dense food, is everyone's responsibility. And I do think that those industries outside of agriculture will begin to understand, and seek out the opportunities that are arising in this new paradigm. In-setting, blockchain, new farm technologies and data collection, these are all new industries being formed around these concepts."
"I would also leave all industries with the following message: Take note of this work, at what consumers are asking for. It boils down to wanting their food, supplements, and other products to come from companies who are leading revolutionary work and doing it transparently. That can, and should, be applied to any industry."
Like Newmark, Tucker and Agoada both see the interconnection between industries, and Agoada describes the need for a new system of farming practices as dire.
"The potential reduction in agricultural productivity will impact a range of entrepreneurs and industries along the value chain, not to mention global economics and finance as the commodities market is tied to the derivatives market," explains Agoada. "In addition to food products, other industries, including beauty products, skin care and apparel rely on the agriculture value chain. Businesses that rely on agriculture production to create their added value consumer goods would be considerably disrupted if the raw material supplies aren't able to continue growing. A reduction in outputs would cause a major supply shock, increasing the price of raw materials and the added-value products created from these supply chains."
"Producers are looking for ways to market their products to the consumers," adds Tucker. "This is an exciting time for farmers to connect directly with their end users. Today, there are so many links in between the farm to the table. If we can continue to bridge that gap, it will be better for all of us."
We face it together
We often think of sustainability and innovation in a very siloed way (no farming pun intended)--that is, we think about whether our particular company has a set of plans and operational practices that can keep the company going for years, regardless of whatever else might be happening to anybody else or the world. But as agriculture warns us, true sustainability is bigger than that. It requires acknowledging that no work or effect truly happens in isolation, and that all industries, in various ways, are interdependent on each other. Business is, in a sense, just one enormous ecosystem, and it's foolhardy--and perhaps even dangerous--to lose a sense of interdisciplinary cooperation and fail to see how intricately we are all connected. As we innovate, every single one of us needs to look at our neighbor and check that we're OK.
"A little basic education is important in helping us all work together to better our environment and sustaining a productive, healthy future," says Tucker.
But perhaps Chapman's similar thought on climate concludes best.
"We face it together. There will be no place to hide."