There’s one skill that Big Food and Big Ag corporations have in abundance: taking control of every situation and corrupting it into an opportunity for profit.
For example, as consumer interest in the terms “natural” and “sustainable” increased, industrial agribusiness began to use these unsubstantiated terms to market greenwashed products. These products were, in fact, just the opposite—made with pesticide-laden, factory farmed, and/or genetically engineered ingredients. Even the powerful Organic movement, which actually is based on specific certifiable practices and inputs, has required constant safeguarding against corporate attempts to dilute its meaning.
Now, we will also diligently have to defend the up-and-coming Regeneration movement against attempts by agribusiness corporations to co-opt it and undermine its transformative power.
In the past few years, Big Food and Big Ag corporations such as Bayer/Monsanto, Cargill, Walmart, General Mills, Danone, Unilever, and others have jumped on the bandwagon and publicly presented themselves as leaders in the regenerative agriculture movement. But something smells fishy. For one, these companies are completely leaving out organic practices in their definition of regenerative agriculture. As long as a farm uses certain conservation practices such as reduced tillage or cover crops, these companies seem to think that toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, biotechnology, and corporate control of farms and farmers are all A-okay.
Seriously? Aren’t these all things that helped propel us into our public health and environmental crises in the first place? Their motives make sense, though, when you consider that these companies derive a significant portion of their profits from these destructive industrial agriculture technologies and inputs in the first place. If these companies can keep making profits off of destruction while putting on a good public image of being “regenerative,” this win-win for them must appear appealing indeed.
In contrast, OCA and our allies believe that food, farming, and land use need to be both organic and regenerative if we are to solve these interconnected crises and stay true to the heart of what Regeneration really means. The power of Regeneration to heal our bodies, soil, water, air, and climate is too great to allow it to be co-opted by Big Food and Big Ag into a meaningless buzzword. We must uphold the narrative that toxic pesticides, GMOs, and other damaging tools of industrial agriculture have no place in a truly regenerative agriculture.
The agribusiness multinationals General Mills and Danone have been doing pilot projects on regenerative agriculture in the past few years to encourage farmers to adopt techniques such as no-till, cover crops, and crop rotation. While these are important techniques used in regenerative agriculture, simply using these techniques in no way means that the farm ecosystem is truly regenerative.
Specifically, nowhere do these corporate regenerative agriculture pilot programs mention that no-till and cover crop systems, unless they are also intentionally and actively organic, usually rely on heavy amounts of herbicide use. For example, a 2015 survey of over 1200 farmers in 47 states found that 59% used herbicides as their primary method of termination for cover crops. Herbicides are frequently touted in publications such as Scientific American as the key component allowing no-till farming to take hold on a large scale. While roller crimpers are mentioned as a mechanical means to terminate cover crops, the publication No-Till Farmer also recommends that “2,4-D for broadleaves can be used to control single-species [cover crop] plantings … glyphosate, glufosinate, or paraquat are recommended for control of mixed-species plantings.” Now, that doesn’t sound too regenerative!
In addition to polluting water, these toxic pesticides directly sabotage the very soil health and carbon sequestration benefits that regenerative agriculture is supposed to have. At its core, regenerative agriculture is based on healthy soil, which was well-summarized by Arran Stephens and Dag Falck for Sustainable Food News:
“1. Soil which is nurtured to support a largely unseen microbial network will grow healthier plants. 2. The plants grown in healthy soil provide healthier nutrition for people and animals. 3. The big ‘Aha!’ realization is that this very same healthy soil actually sequesters enough carbon from the atmosphere to heal our catastrophic global climate disruption.”
However, those synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that Big Ag would so happily allow to continue to be used in “regenerative” systems actually destroy the very soil microorganisms that are responsible for many of regenerative agriculture’s benefits. When soil microbial communities are disrupted through the application of agri-chemicals, this greatly diminishes the soil’s ability to cycle nutrients, build organic matter, and sequester carbon.
A False Face of Regeneration
As regenerative agriculture has become more prominent on the world stage, questionable initiatives cloaked in legitimacy through association with organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have expanded. For example, the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA), hosted by the FAO, purports to champion regenerative agriculture and states the following goals:
1. Sustainable and equitable increases in agricultural productivity and incomes;
2. Greater resilience of food systems and farming livelihoods;
3. Reduction and/or removal of greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture (including the relationship between agriculture and ecosystems), where possible
Those all sound pretty good, right? Not so fast. When you take a deeper look into the list of GACSA members, you’ll be worried. Among the members include:
• Syngenta (pesticide and GMO giant)
• Yara International (world’s largest synthetic fertilizer manufacturer)
• Danone (food multinational)
• Kellogg’s (food multinational)
Can these players really be trusted to have the best interest of human communities, health, soil, water, air, animals, wildlife, and climate at heart? It sure doesn’t seem so.
For another example, Cargill has previously been named “Worst Company in the World” by the environmental organization Mighty Earth due to its “unscrupulous business practices, environmental destruction, and repeated insistence on standing in the way of global progress on sustainability.” Does Cargill’s sudden interest in regenerative agriculture demonstrate a change of heart? Or—more likely—are there ulterior motives (and opportunities for profit) at play?
True Regenerative Organic
It is clear that Big Ag and Big Food corporations are all too eager to steer the Regeneration narrative in whatever direction most benefits themselves—but only if we let them. We have the power to come together and push back against these corporate interests who are trying to co-opt the Regeneration movement and reduce it into a set of particular techniques within the business-as-usual paradigm of corporate control and imperialism.
Fortunately, there are many proactive efforts towards true Regeneration such as the Regenerative Organic Certification.
We have the power to uphold the narrative that true Regeneration is organic, holistic, locally-controlled, decentralized, small-scale, and democratic. True Regeneration is based on agroecology, relocalization of food systems, and respect of Indigenous knowledge. It nourishes health, culture, local economy, and community.
We cannot solve the crises in public health, environment, and climate through the same structures that created them. Instead, we need a radical and revolutionary Regenerative approach that gives the power back to small farmers, local communities, and truly respects the soil.
Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA).
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