Wes Moore, the state’s first Black governor, has an opportunity to put his food-systems experience to work in alleviating chronic food insecurity and the economic barriers that keep people hungry.
January 5, 2021
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.”
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.
Recently, Newman said he was on a call with a wealthy landowner who wanted to put his land under regenerative development, including a mix of farming, agro-forestry, and other practices. The landowner was planning on hiring a white-led organization from out of state to oversee the work, Newman said, instead of seeking services from local farmers such as himself.
“I was thinking, ‘Why do you need these people when you have us? What do they bring besides the comfort of whiteness?’ They don’t have our expertise or our connection to this landscape,” Newman said.
The white farmers, experts, and institutions that champion regenerative practices have become “power brokers,” says Newman. He sees them as monopolizing the distribution of grants and assets such as capital investments in infrastructure, effectively taking them away from Black and Indigenous people.
A similar point was made by HEAL Food Alliance, a group of 55 multi-sector organizations focused on health, environment, agriculture, and labor, who published a letter last year challenging the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Walmart Foundation to do more to support BIPOC grassroots leaders in food and agriculture. The letter criticized the foundations for giving money to large, white-led organizations to do service work in BIPOC communities, instead of funding the BIPOC-led groups on the ground. It also said the funding process often isn’t equitable for and accessible to BIPOC-led organizations.
“While many foundations around the country are having conversations and making moves to directly fund BIPOC-led groups to support their communities, it is high time for food systems funders to do the same,” the HEAL letter said.
Another major challenge, according to BIPOC experts, is that the present-day regenerative movement has diluted and weakened the traditional approach to land management. Indigenous agriculture was far more effective because it was based on the concept of community, said Romero Briones, which allowed Native people to regenerate very large swaths of land over many generations.
“For us, the land is a resource the entire community depends on, so it’s the responsibility of the community to take care of it,” added Newman. “There was no market economy, no reason to abuse it, no reason to plant a monocrop or take all the fish out of the river.”
To be a true force of reformation, Newman said, regenerative farming needs to become “a team effort.” This can be achieved within a market economy if farmers work together and policies support food and farming for the common good.
To that end, Newman plans to build an employee-owned cooperative of small farms to provide BIPOC farmers and land use managers with collective access to land, training, information technology, farm inputs, and capital. He sees Indigenous ethics for managing landscapes as key to this approach, as well as a focus on a much wider definition of regeneration: using both public and private lands to practice row crop production as well as agroforestry and silvopasture.
If small farmers can access resources, reduce their spending, and sell into a common market, Newman said, they won’t need to ratchet up food prices, keeping regeneratively produced food accessible to low-income communities.
The regenerative agriculture movement also heavily borrows, without due recognition, from the practices carried out in Black agricultural communities, both in Africa and in the diaspora, says Qiana Mickie, consultant and former executive director of Just Food, NYC.
Across Africa, Black agriculturalists have innovated in soil stewardship for millennia, she said. In Namibia, the Ovambo people built mounds in order to control water flow and increase soil fertility; Nigerian and Ghanaian farmers grew marigolds and similar flowers next to crops to attract insects like ladybugs and benefit from natural pest control. Many of these traditional techniques have recently been documented by Leah Penniman, founder of Soul Fire Farm, in her book Farming While Black.
Black agriculturalists were also pioneers of the movement in the U.S. At the turn of the century, farmer and scientist George Washington Carver used nitrogen-fixing peanuts to improve soil health, and promoted biodiversity on farms, and the use of compost and swamp muck to amend soil. Booker T. Whatley, a horticulturist and Carver’s fellow faculty member at Tuskegee Institute, also promoted the use of soil regeneration techniques, including planting clover to add organic matter and nitrogen to the soil.
“There are many unheralded Black and Indigenous academics, leaders, growers, and scientists who have chartered regenerative work and who could be lifted up and have not been,” said Mickie, who helps organizations make their food justice promises tangible.
The movement typically features the same two or three experts of color, Mickie said, tokenizing Black and Indigenous voices to speak on behalf of countless communities. In reality, she said, regenerative agriculture should not be branded or codified.
“There was not one person or community in Africa or elsewhere who did it a certain way. Regenerative is a set of diverse practices that Indigenous ancestors had to hold, a collective ancestral voice and knowledge,” Mickie said. “We’re falling into the trap of branding it in a way where we’re seeing the same few practices and the same voices. Doing so, we risk losing the eco-diversity of the practices.”
In order to lead to real change, regenerative agriculture must address “the violent roots of farming in the U.S.”, said Sanjay Rawal, director of Gather, a film about the renaissance of Indigenous foodways.
The white settlers who took over Native villages, farms, and landscapes killed or expelled their original inhabitants. Unlike Indigenous people whose agriculture was for subsistence purposes, many of the settlers grew cash crops for sale, including tobacco, wheat, or other grains. Because they often grew a single crop year after year and did not improve the soil in any way, the settlers quickly depleted it. By the 1800s, the soil of the original colonies was so exhausted that it became unproductive and most farmers headed west to steal even more land.
Then came the slave trade and waves of immigrant laborers—from China, Japan, The Philippines, and Mexico—arriving to toil in harsh conditions for little pay on farms across the American West.
“Our relationship with farming in the U.S. has always been based on violence,” Rawal said. “No one alive today is directly responsible for the past, but there was the initial theft of land and that land has been passed from generation to generation.”
Without addressing this history and the inequities that stem from it, regenerative agriculture risks becoming just another form of exploitation, Rawal said.
“People just want to make money off of the regenerative movement. They want to sell courses and kits and scientific techniques,” said Rawal. “But there is no recognition of the people who do have the skills and they are not at the table.”
Ryland Engelhart, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Kiss the Ground and a producer of the documentary, told Civil Eats the criticism he received from BIPOC advocates was “a wake-up call” and acknowledged that the film—which took seven years to produce—missed the mark when it comes to the representation of diverse voices and the recognition of Indigenous agricultural experience. Black and brown experts are visible for just a few minutes in the 84-minute documentary and indigenous people’s contributions are not recognized.
“We could have done better,” Engelhart said. “We should have acknowledged that regenerative agriculture sits on the shoulders of many cultures who lived more in connection with the earth and understood its rhythms, including the people of this country before it was colonized.”
Engelhart said the team at Kiss the Ground had been discussing how to create equity and diversity within its ranks prior to the film’s release, but the criticism led to a transformation within the organization. Over the past few months, the group has diversified its leadership and board, Engelhart said, adding six new BIPOC board members and promoting an Indigenous staff member to a leadership role.
The organization also set up listening session with BIPOC community members who felt the film didn’t represent them. It has hired consultants to address diversity issues and its board will form a human resources committee to examine the organization through an equity lens, he added. In December, the entire organization participated in the Uprooting Racism training at Soul Fire Farm.
In addition, Engelhart said, Kiss the Ground has added voices from various cultures to its soil advocacy training program and now offers scholarships for BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other marginalized farmers and ranchers looking to transition to regenerative models.
The nonprofit also plans to release a 45-minute educational version of the film to 114,000 schools in 2021, which will include a segment on the Indigenous perspective on regenerative agriculture.
Engelhart agrees that the regenerative movement offers an opportunity that goes beyond improving soil health. “We have a responsibility to not only rectify land management practices, but also to recognize the deep well of intelligence and lived knowledge that many Indigenous people practiced for millennia fulfilling a regenerative cycle of life,” he said. “There is an opening for cultural regeneration.”
Black and Indigenous farmers and leaders have mixed feelings about whether regenerative agriculture can reform itself to address issues of inequity and power. Despite their potential, Indigenous practices are seldom discussed or studied, said Romero Briones, and “no one is asking the Indigenous communities for their input.”
“People are trying to figure out which cover crop is the most beneficial, when Indigenous people can tell you which plants they planted and ate to insure biological and environmental health,” she said. “There’s a learning curve that the regenerative movement has to go through that the Indigenous food movement has figured out long ago.”
If for no other reason, the regenerative movement—including the scientists who study soil and ecosystem health—should aim to learn about Native people’s ways of farming and managing land so that more farmers can incorporate Indigenous practices, crops, and varietals, Romero Briones said. Such a change would benefit not just soil, but also forests, national parks, and other natural areas, not to mention the climate, she said.
The regenerative movement also needs to question the outsized role that cattle are supposed to play in regenerative agriculture, Romero Briones said. The arrival of cattle in colonial America—which she dubs “cattle colonialism”—led to entire tribes of Native people being displaced for pasture grazing permits. The cattle ate plants that were important to Native people and to the environment. It’s likely some of those plants also sequestered a lot of carbon, she said.
But she also emphasized the fact that Indigenous land stewardship practices shouldn’t be viewed as cures to environmental problems because “to place the burden of reverse engineering of sorts on Indigenous peoples is disingenuous.”
The Minneapolis-based Regenerative Agriculture Foundation wants to encourage more white people do the hard work of fighting for social justice within the food system—especially in the Midwest, where focus on no-till farming and other regenerative practices is growing, said executive director Mark Muller.
“The soil health movement among Midwest farmers has infiltrated the established organizations, including the Farm Bureau . . . to protect the soil and make more money, that’s resonating. But the transformational vision of regenerative agriculture, that’s not quite there yet,” Muller said.
To bridge the two visions of regenerative agriculture and bring more farmers on board with social transformation, Muller’s group is launching a cohort of white food and farm leaders to address the lack of equity in today’s regenerative agriculture. The goal is to give them more resources and training from BIPOC experts, Muller said, but also to create a network in which they can connect with other local like-minded people who have a social justice focus.
“A lot of rural white people want to be part of the conversation. They want to be good allies, but they find it challenging in the rural Midwest where it’s always been a white-dominant culture,” Muller said. “Our goal is for them to talk to each other, learn from each other, and encourage each other to take action.”
Muller said that while carbon markets and soil health are important to the regenerative movement, conversations about land ownership and who has access to farmland are also imperative to addressing climate change.
Farmers and leaders of color emphasized that there still is time to change focus. “Regenerative agriculture has a moment to recalibrate its initial direction,” said Sanjay Rawal. “If they start including other voices, start listening to the elders, a lot of knowledge will be disseminated quickly and profoundly.”
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