When the documentary Kiss the Ground was released on Netflix earlier this year, it introduced the concepts of regenerative agriculture and soil health to a mainstream audience. Produced by the nonprofit organization of the same name, the film has won a slew of awards. And the trailer alone has been viewed over 8 million times.
And yet, the film has also frustrated and alienated a number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in the food and agriculture world who say it all but excludes their voices and completely ignores their ancestors’ contributions to the regenerative movement. What’s worse, they say, is that the film fails to step beyond its soil health focus and upbeat message about reversing climate change to address the social inequities and structural racism at the heart of American agriculture, including Black and Indigenous land dispossession, discrimination, and a lack of access to farmland.
“The film offers a very comfortable conversation. This is about carbon, we need to heal the soil, and it’s all hunky-dory,” said Rishi Kumar, the executive director of the Sarvodaya Institute and a Pomona, California-based urban farmer and educator who worked as a consultant for the nonprofit for more than a year. And, he adds, “the organization engaged with white farmers, funders, and leaders. They were not questioning some of the fundamental assumptions and values that have led us to this point.”
Since then, the organization has acknowledged the film’s omissions and pledged to change its approach. But Kumar and other BIPOC farmers say the film is just one high-profile example of regenerative agriculture’s broader problems. They see the movement as yet another attempt to rebrand age-old growing traditions and Indigenous practices that pre-date the “conventional” farming that regenerative agriculture advocates claim they are disrupting—without inviting people of color to the table.
According to Loren Cardeli, executive director of A Growing Culture, a nonprofit that supports smallholder farmers around the world, the regenerative movement fails to address the power imbalance within the food system and dismisses the traditional community-based approach to land management, he said, an omission that will significantly reduce its present-day impact.
“Regenerative agriculture has become a way to save the day without addressing our white privilege,” said Cardeli, who is white.
With Black Lives Matter marches sweeping the nation in 2020, leading to a national reckoning over systemic racism across myriad industry sectors, BIPOC farmers and leaders—including some who describe their work as “regenerative”—have begun publicly criticizing the regenerative movement, saying it’s high time to address racial injustice, power, and equity in the food system.
“With the onset of social media, social movements, and very real demographic changes in this country . . . we can no longer be ignored,” said A-dae Romero Briones, the director of the Native Agriculture and Food Systems program at the First Nations Development Institute. “People are finally hearing the message.”
Reforming the False Narrative of Agriculture
The struggle to make the U.S. food system more racially just and equitable isn’t new. People of color have long sought to bring the conversation to the forefront, but their efforts have largely gone ignored. As such, alternative agriculture’s enduring whiteness, unacknowledged use of ancestral farming practices, and singular focus on the environment while eschewing social justice have long plagued its various movements. They also carried the legacy of early environmentalists who sought to erase Indigenous people’s imprint on the American landscape.
Organic farming advocates—nearly all of whom were white—recognized the need to address social issues and fought to write workers’ rights into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program in the 1990s. But that effort failed and the program’s rules focus solely on the environmental aspects of food production.
In the following decade, a small number of mostly white food movement leaders raised concerns about racial equity, though again largely sidelining people of color from the conversation. Only in recent years have BIPOC farmers, experts, and organizations slowly entered the mainstream to explore the historical roots of racial inequity and exploitation, leading to open conversations about issues ranging from reparations to land ownership.
Regenerative agriculture itself is a relatively new term in the U.S. The Rodale Institute began using the term in the 1980s, but it didn’t gain prominence until this past decade, when the idea of plants sequestering carbon captured the nation’s imagination. Regenerative agriculture, which doesn’t always disallow the use of synthetic chemicals, has also found wide appeal among conventional farmers who have boosted their soil health by cutting out tillage, planting cover crops, and adding holistic practices such as rotational grazing.
Although there is no one agreed-upon definition or approach to regenerative, the movement has seen an avalanche of funding efforts, investment, corporate campaigns, farmer training programs, books, and more in recent years. Universities ranging from Yale to University of Vermont (in partnership with Ben & Jerry’s) and California State University at Chico have all established programs focused on regenerative agriculture. And public figures such as Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio have also championed the movement.
Farmers such as Allan Savory, a rancher and co-founder of the Colorado-based Savory Institute, and Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer and rancher who runs a regenerative agriculture consulting business, are known as some of the movement’s pioneers and have gained large followings. And over the past few years, multiple Big Food companies, including Cargill, Nestlé, and General Mills, have jumped on the bandwagon, pledging to support the transformation of thousands of acres of land.
The present-day regenerative movement is—much like agriculture in general—”inherited, guarded, and perpetuated by white men,” said Romero Briones with the First Nations Development Institute.
Native Americans across the country, who cultivated sophisticated agricultural systems that often relied on regenerative practices, were not considered “farmers,” she said, because their agriculture was less intensive and didn’t include commodity crops grown commercially. Later generations saw Native people as “noble savages” living on untouched, virgin land with little impact on the environment.
Recent research, described in the book 1491 by Charles C. Mann, has shown that Native Americans actively managed and even constructed their natural landscapes—and their agricultural and land management practices sustained communities that were much more populous than had been acknowledged previously.
Examples of Indigenous regenerative land practices abound. Native American communities did not use plows or till the land. They used agroforestry and silviculture to control the growth and quality of the forests, terraced the land to prevent erosion, planted riparian buffers to protect sensitive areas, and grew both wild and domesticated foods.
Intercropping was common, as was maximizing living roots, and many tribes planted the “Three Sisters” (maize, squash, and beans together), a system which descended from the Mesoamerican planting system called milpa. Native farmers also used wood ash and fish waste as fertilizer. Such practices clearly benefited the soil: There are places in Mesoamerica that have been continuously cultivated for four thousand years and are still productive.
Using ruminants to fertilize and aerate soil was also practiced before cattle set foot in the U.S. plains tribes, for example, moved buffalo herds to specific areas to regenerate the land. Native Americans also regularly used patch-burning on the plains and forest understory burning to regrow fresh grass and attract bison, deer, and elk, which they hunted. These small intentional burns increased plant diversity, reduced invasive plants, and increased the numbers of plants and animals. They also reduced the risk of megafires (which release a lot more carbon than low-intensity controlled burns).
Despite such expertise, Indigenous people are rarely included in conversations about organic or regenerative agriculture and have grown disillusioned by the movements, said Romero Briones. “And the more disillusioned our people become, the more unwilling they will be to participate,” she added.
And while it’s still much smaller in scope and less profitable than the $50 billion organic industry, the fact that regenerative is packaging itself as something new and that it stands to make a lot of money, yet hasn’t picked up on the current racial reckoning, makes it hard for many people—BIPOC and otherwise—to stomach.
“All of these practices are part of Indigenous land management. And yet they get presented like somebody just figured them out overnight,” said Chris Newman, a Black and Indigenous farmer in Virginia, who is working to set up a centralized agricultural trust through Sylvanaqua Farms, which he co-runs with his wife.
Newman, a member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians, said his father was forced to attend an Indigenous boarding school where the teachers “beat the Indian out of him,” including his knowledge of seed keeping and traditional foods. Given these brutal efforts at erasing Native food culture, he said, he finds it painful to watch the current regenerative movement rebrand and profit off of Indigenous farming.
I am a Zimbabwean that grow up in rural farming after the devastation of colonialism when Europeans grabbed all our best land. Before the land redress 4500 white farmers or families owned 87% of our land, white people making less than 1% of the population. In South Africa its still the same in Nambia i Believe its 95%of land owned by minority whites.
I was lucky enough to be brought up by my very traditional grandparents who loved and respected the land and I am still practicing our indigenous Knowledge systems, including rainwater havesting.
Our land practices took everything on the land as one and interlinked. In most of Africa especially Southern Africa I believe, our surnames or Totems are something from nature, animals, birds, water pools, open velds. Conservation of the land went alongside our Totems, if your Totem is say Shumba=Lion, Shoko=monkey, Zhou= Elephant, Nyoni=bird, Hungwe=fish eagle, Dziva=water pool/body, to name but a few. I am from the Dziva clan and we are the water protectors and all that live in it, we are also the water providers i guess and i take that very seriously and eirk with rural farmers on rainwater havesting projects and food security.
We are not to disrepect or denigrate the representive of our totem because they are a part of us, we should also not eat our Totem (representantive), Colonisation as bastardized out culture, tradition and Knowledge systems, we must find our way back to the future.. the giture is not ahead where we are headed at breakneck speed destorying everything, we left behind.
We grew food naturally or what they now call organic, our food was always food and medicine.