Regenerative agriculture as an avenue for institutional justice

sunflower bed in a field at sunrise

Sunflower bed in bloom in the fall of 2019 at Homefields Incorporated, a 23-acre community-led farm. (Max Sano/Franklin & Marshall College)

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The national food supply chain needs a complete makeover in light of the COVID-19 crisis. The new food supply plan should incorporate several areas of focus: expand funding into current organic and regenerative agriculture, build technological capabilities to efficiently track biodiversity and food insecurity, and empower indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) that suffered from farm logic about production rather than distribution.

In other words, the use of data and technology can minimize financial and logistical barriers for food insecure households to obtain high quality food, which in turn can expand the potential for food sovereignty in local communities, raise nutritional standards nationally and embrace indigenous and First Nations communities.

The Green Revolutions of the 20th century forced the industrial economic model onto the agricultural system, which resulted in the loss of seed variety, traditional farming techniques, cultural identity and a sense of home. (Clapp 2015)

Small-scale farms should have increased access to federal and state funds to incentivize regenerative agriculture, which is marked by an agricultural landscape with biodiversity that includes multiple income streams. Monocultures are senseless because they are destructive to soil health of fertile agricultural land, overuse valuable water resources, and involve the use of toxic and dangerous pesticides and chemicals that harm human health. Today, much taxpayer money goes into subsidies for monoculture infrastructure, such as corn and soybeans, over 90% of which are genetically modified and go towards livestock, not human, consumption. Instead, there should be a transition to regenerative agriculture through a series of guidelines, public funding and tax incentives for organizations that help bridge the divide between conventional and sustainable agriculture. 

A mesh of leaves and branches. (Max Sano/Franklin & Marshall College)

Large-scale monocultures are inherently more vulnerable to supply-chain disruptions. In the event of another epidemic, local farms and community members can keep a steady food supply and establish safeguards to minimize viral spread. Trucks can be routed from local suppliers to retailers by healthy employees, with mandatory and frequent testing rather than unnecessarily spreading the disease across the country. This way, there is not as much of a shock to agribusiness and large food suppliers that may already be struggling amidst this public health crisis. 

Meanwhile, the Trump administration proposed a 15% funding cut to the USDA in 2020, partly through limiting crop insurance subsidies to small-scale farmers. In response, the Organic Farmers Association has also asked for the 2020 Budget Appropriations to provide foundational funding for the following programs: National Organic Program ($18 million),Organic Transitions Program ($8 million) and Organic Data Initiative: ($1 million). 

There is $2-3 billion in conservation spending through EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program), which subsidizes farm conservation practices, such as cover crops and riparian buffers, which limit the human impact on ecosystem health and provide much-needed natural space for wildlife and biodiversity accumulation. At the state level it varies, and in Pennsylvania there is the annual Conservation Innovation Grant which provides eligible farms with up to $225,000 for 1-3 year long projects, and $5,000 to $75,000 for single projects.

Organic provisions in the 2014 Farm Bill expanded the mandatory funding cap on organic agriculture research to $100 million, $57.1 million to the expansion of organic farm certification and $10 million to technological updates. If the federal government were to pass a federal policy that drew a  $3-5 billion in resources to database capacity-building, hire staff and personnel for farm-to-community outreach and a biodiversity management department, this would kickstart an industry that is already valued at $55.1 billion in 2020 at this point in the fiscal year

There are sections, or “Titles”, for conservation (Title II), research (Title VII), horticulture (Title X) and crop insurance (Title XI), which outline where the funding is appropriated for programs and initiatives. In this latest farm bill, there is no formal codified categorization and funding for environmental justice, collective action, restorative justice, artificial intelligence/data analytics and marketing, which could accommodate some of the obstacles posed by the current food supply system by expanding bargaining power and providing communities and government with the tools they need to see effective results and catch up to other departments’ institutional capacities.

organic food
An assortment of organic food. (Richard Smith/Flickr)

Now is the perfect opportunity for public policy and national food companies to invest in local food supply chains to protect the health of their staff and the public, to increase the value of organic food and supply more resources and assets to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms that are in desperate need of assistance or better yet expansion. Even if the government and national corporations do not get involved, the economic trends do not lie: organic food sales are increasing by 20-40% around the world as consumers look for products that provide essential health services and boost immunity. While the organic food industry has increased in value by 12.2% in the past two years alone, some worry that a lack of infrastructure may prevent as many sales as there could have been otherwise. 

The most fundamental distinction to organic farming is that it approaches agriculture as an interconnected ecological system that emphasizes non-chemical solutions to fertility and production obstacles. While not specifically part of organic certification, it also tends to encourage mindfulness of natural resources in regards to biodiversity and energy, not to mention the use of age-old mechanical processes such as cover crops, green manure and sustainable procurement of compost. 

CSA provides a unique opportunity for sustainable agriculture in that members subscribe (i.e. pay) a certain amount for the farm to function, and in turn the farm produces enough for the subscribers. This establishes a strong sense of community while beginning to account for entrenched gaps in wealth and economic security for all members of the supply chain, with a focus on underserved groups.

The history of our food system is based on stolen land from indigenous communities and forced labor, and that legacy persists today: 2% of farmers are Black while 95% are white; and 2% of farm owners identify as Latinx even though they make up 80% of farm workers. Meanwhile, 8% of farms own 40% of American farmland. Workers get harmed, systems prevent the oppressed from wealth, while carbon emissions via agriculture have increased by 9% since 1990.

The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) strives to support a diverse array of agricultural operations, and to incorporate stakeholders. (Photo courtesy NYFC)

There is a rising coalition of organizations, such as the National Young Farmers Coalition, that demand reform and transformational change. NYFC strives to support a diverse array of agricultural operations, and to incorporate stakeholders that have suffered from systemic oppression, forced migration, slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration. The mission for racial justice must address access to land, food production and access and economic mobility. Additionally, groups such as Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust and Familias Unidas por la Justicia are worker-owned, community organizations that aim to decolonize farmland ownership in the United States.

There can still be a variety of options, however in this system people will not starve or go hungry or face medical consequences due to lack of access, especially during a global health pandemic. Now is the time for everyone to take a second look at CSA farms and regenerative agriculture as a catalyst of economic growth and health.

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