The role of food and agriculture in systems change

photo of wheat in sun

The past few years have been difficult. For many, myself included, the Trust in Food symposium is one of the first “back to normal” gatherings we’ve attended since before the pandemic. Of course, life is not really back to normal. The world has changed. When I was asked to speak at the symposium, I found myself reflecting on the importance and purpose of gatherings broadly and specifically of gathering together to discuss being in the midst of four crises and the role food and agriculture has to play in addressing all of them.

Four Crises: Climate, Pandemic, Justice, and Democracy

The Climate Crisis

First, the climate crisis is upon us. We are recently experiencing heat waves, drought, crop loss, and 100-year weather events year-after-year. Climate change is happening faster than predicted, and the timeline to change course is short. Agriculture is a contributor to climate change, but it’s also a victim of climate change. Importantly. it can be a key solution for climate change.

The Pandemic and Public Health

The second crisis is the pandemic, and more broadly public health crises in general. We know that healthy, available food is a key part of reducing the risk of non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes. We also know that beyond diet, agricultural production can contribute to contamination of groundwater, the impairment of air quality, and the decline of pollinators and other species that share our natural world. These all have cascading effects on human health. Critically though, we also know that agricultural production can be a key part of restoring and enhancing ecosystems, filtering water, providing habitat, and producing healthy and nutritionally dense foods.

Racial and Social Justice

The third crisis is that of racial and social justice. I worked on the Emerging Farmers Initiative in Minnesota—a state where over 99% of farmers and 83% of the general population are white. Eighty-five percent of Minnesota farmers are men, compared to about half the population. There are historical reasons for this. It’s interesting to me that Minnesota had 300 Black farmers in 1910. Today the number is about 35. The Emerging Farmers’ Initiative, a program of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, seeks new voices and perspectives to ensure the future of agriculture across the state. I’m encouraged by a similar initiative, the Equity Commission, announced by USDA. We know that land stewardship and the connection to community that comes from agriculture that is meaningful. Making access to land and agricultural career paths more accessible and equitable must be part of our strategy for addressing racial and social justice. We also know that many of the strategies related to being climate smart and building a regenerative agriculture system originate in Indigenous agricultural practices. Acknowledging and elevating the Indigenous roots of regenerative agriculture is important.

Our Democracy

Finally, the fourth crisis: our democracy. We see increasing distrust and disregard for our public institutions. Our democracy has agrarian roots—whether it’s the model of the republic which allowed for farmers’ voices to be heard in the capital city from afar, to the moniker of USDA as the People’s Department. Our agriculture system benefits from our democracy, including farm programs that support the production of food, fuel, and fiber and publicly funded land-grant institutions and extension services that enable research and innovation at the local level. Our democratic institutions are a key reason why American agriculture has been so productive and so successful. I’m passionate about democracy and our need to be engaged in our civic arena, and I believe that we in food and agriculture have a role to play in ensuring these institutions and processes stay strong.
I’d say it’s a dynamic time to be working in food and agriculture.

Environmental Initiative is thinking about these issues, and I’m eager to hear from you about how your organizations are thinking about it as well.

Relationships Change the World

A core value of mine, and of Environmental Initiative, is that conversations and relationships can change the world. Taking time to listen, to sit together, to share a meal is important. And equally important is to make sure that everyone who needs to be included has a seat at the table.

Environmental Initiative adopted a strategic plan in fall 2020 that realigns the organization’s mission, vision, and values to be rooted in relationships. Three pillars—people, purpose, and practice—support the impact we work toward which is to catalyze collaboration to advance justice and a healthy planet.

One of our programs is the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, which Environmental Initiative has administered since 2019. The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, or MRCC, is a partnership of leading supply chain companies and environmental nonprofits, who design, fund, and implement programs and pilots that demonstrate the efficacy and profitability of regenerative agriculture practices.

Systems Thinking and Change

One way that the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative members have catalyzed partnership is through the setting of ambitious goals for 2030. With a target in sight, we can work backwards with a shared vision to reach these goals.

  • Reach 30 million acres in the Midwest with regenerative practices that improve outcomes for soil health, greenhouse gases, water quality and quantity, biodiversity, and farmer livelihoods.
  • Reduce net on-farm greenhouse gas emissions in the Midwest row crop supply chain by seven million metric tons.
  • Support 30,000 Midwest operations in the transition to regenerative agriculture.

Getting to those goals requires a systems-thinking approach, and I would argue that to be climate smart we all need to be thinking in systems. The MRCC theory of change is rooted in understanding the conditions, barriers, and pathways that affect our shared ability to reach these goals.

Together, we identified key three barriers that relate to the WHY and HOW of adopting sustainable farming practices. These include the financial, social, and agronomic risks for farmers, the lack of a supporting network to enable new practices, and the insufficient demand for sustainability produced commodities. From these, we developed five pathways to create a road map for achieving our 2030 goals.

  • Conservation finance and incentive.
  • De-risking practice adoption.
  • Agricultural network engagement.
  • Creating demand for sustainable commodities.
  • Consumer engagement.

Across the five pathways you’ll see reflected this idea that opportunity for change and progress exists across the value chain from field, to farm, to fork.

Holistic Project Design

Another important part of our approach is the focus on holistic project design that fosters trust. For example, in one ongoing project in Eddyville, Iowa, MRCC partners PepsiCo and Unilever provide not only financial support for cover crop implementation, but also technical support and peer support. The most straightforward example of that is that when a new farmer enters the project, another farmer gives them a phone call to check in.

Approaching the project from a systems approach—one that sees farmers and farm communities as engaged partners and sees the benefits beyond solely numerical measures of greenhouse gas reductions—is a reason why collaborative projects between MRCC members have been successful and demonstrate impact on over 300,000 acres across the region. Another key piece of MRCC is the idea that working together is the linchpin for this kind of broad systems change. That’s why partnerships are so critical for working across sector, stakeholder groups, and areas of expertise. Partnerships through MRCC result from observing and assessing how to create systems that enable strong, trusting partnerships. In our report last year “From the Inside Out” we highlight the key themes that have unfolded from the MRCC partnerships. For example, investing time and money in collaborative projects can have more benefit than just the outcome of the work. The right partners can push the project forward with insights and expertise that enable additional capacity.

We saw this in a collaboration between NGO members and corporate members working with agricultural lenders to develop new incentives for sustainable agriculture implementation. The NGOs built relationships with agricultural lenders while the companies provided concrete insights into their existing cover crop programs that could be built into new financial tools. Together, the partnership achieved more than any of the individual members could have accomplished, and as a result these new lender models are being tested and evaluated, ready for iterative adjustment and scaling.

An Equitable Agriculture Future

Beyond finding existing partners, we know we also need to engage from a systems approach to address the urgent diversity and equity challenges in row crop agriculture. This past year, we commissioned a study of Latino row-crop farmers in the Midwest. The report will be published later this spring, but I’ll share some high-level results none of which should be a surprise. For example, access to land is a key barrier for entering farming of any scale, and particularly row crop agriculture. Though the population of Latino farmers is growing, there is limited public recognition of their contributions. There is no farm worker to farm operator pipeline, and key issues including language, immigration policies, and rising racially based attacks hinder the likelihood of these farmers to become established.

Over the next few months, we’ll be working through strategies that MRCC and Environmental Initiative can adopt to meaningfully contribute to breaking these patterns and ensure that a sustainable agriculture future is also an equitable agriculture future.

We are thinking about ways our public institutions can support the sustainable agriculture practices we want to see implemented. We know that the best public policy is developed by working with the people who will be impacted by it. MRCC member projects include hundreds of farmers who have implemented some of the practices that will be on the table for expanding or establishing programs in the farm bill to address climate goals. A lot of people feel alienated by the process of advocating for policy changes. But this is a prime example of where we need to be more engaged, not less, in our democratic processes.

Take a Seat at the Table

In closing, I ask you to consider the dining room table metaphor again. For me, it’s an important place, not just for eating, but so many other the important life event. I’m fortunate to have my great grandparents dining room table in my St. Paul home. The table originates from my family’s farmhouse in Northwest Minnesota. My great grandmother would hold meals in two shifts because she only had so many plates and so many seats around the table to feed all the kids and farmhands and more often than not the school teacher who frequently lived with them. This table has seen a lot: birthdays, Christmas dinners, Passover seders, graduations, weddings, loss, grief. On a frequent basis this table has seen the banality of a weeknight dinner and long discussions about nothing in particular.

Here we are, together, at this big metaphorical dining room table to talk about climate change and agriculture and the human dimensions of change. There’s so much to do and so much opportunity right now. I encourage us all to reach out to new people, invite them to your table, or join theirs. You never know where a new partnership will take you