The big food redesign
Rather than bending nature to produce food, food can be designed for nature to thrive
The circular economy is often wrongly characterised as a tech solution, or a solution for tech, but it’s about much more than that. As we heard in episode 97, there are two cycles: the technical and biological one. In this episode, we’re exploring the latter. The Foundation's Colin Webster talks to farmer and soil advocate Abby Rose, and Gero Leson, Vice President of Special Operations at Dr. Bronner's, to hear about the benefits and practicalities of agriculture in a circular economy.
Welcome to the Circular Economy Show Podcast. In this new series, we're going to explore individual elements of the circular economy, building a more complete view of what the system would actually look like.
In this episode, we explore the circular economy and agriculture. My name is Colin and in the course of this episode, I'll be joined by two farming experts will talk us through the benefits and practicalities of agriculture in the circular economy. The circular economy is often wrongly characterised as a tech solution or a solution for tech. When it's much more than that. We shouldn't forget that there are two materials cycles: one for technical materials, and one for biological materials. The aim of the biological cycle is to regenerate the biosphere. And agriculture can play an enormous role in that, in fact, Project Drawdown ranks farming practices as one of the best ways we can reverse climate change. When it comes to agriculture in a circular economy, there are two key questions we need to ask ourselves: What are we growing? And how are we growing it? In this episode, we'll concern ourselves with that latter question. The matter of what we're growing is fascinating, though. So do check out the links in the show notes if that sounds up your street.
Okay, over to the experts. My first interview is with farmer and soil advocate, Abby Rose. She's a popular podcaster with her show Farmerama on these matters. And she also has her own farm in Chile, which is where she was when I caught up with her.
So you've got nuts on the go. You said lettuces grow sometimes, but not in the stifling heat. You've got vines, olives, and if I was to visit your farm, it sounds, I suppose, somewhat typical. But there's something atypical about your farm, I suspect, what's different about how your farm works?
Well, and that's a great question. I'd say what's relatively atypical, certainly for where we are in Chile, is that we graze or we mob graze sheep between all of our trees. So all the trees are planted in rows, and then we graze, we have about 12 sheep. So not that many, but we move them every single day to a new patch of grass, essentially, between the trees. And that is all about building soil health and water retention. We're in a very dry part of the world, and it's only getting drier. And so by having the sheep grazing the grass and moving regularly, and then leaving that grass to rest for a long period of time, you actually build up the amount of carbon, essentially, that's being drawn into the earth. And therefore, building soil health. It's sometimes referred to as, like, the liquid carbon pathway. And it's a great way of building up our microbial life below ground, and ensuring that our soil is in the best health possible. And healthy soils are the most amazing sponge for water. They hold water like nothing else. So that's why we're really focused on building healthy soils. So we have more water in our soils more of the year. And therefore the whole farm prospers and flourishes from that.
In layman's terms, what is it that the sheep are doing that creates this healthier soil?
So there's a few things. I mean, one is just the pure act of, like, eating and then pooing. And so they are literally providing, you know, manure in some ways to the land and cycling the biology. But there's another thing that's going on, which is that they eat down the grass to a certain, not too far, but far enough that it actually encourages the grass to have a growth spurt. Or whatever plant is there, it grows faster, suddenly. And in that same moment, it will increase its root growth. And so in that whole time, you're like increasing the amount of photosynthesis that's happening. In one handful of soil, there are more microbes, more micro organisms, than there are people on the planet. Okay.
Yeah. And so, just an understanding that makes you realise that this world below our feet is unbelievably alive. And there's all these interactions and communications happening all the time and then you also have like fungal pathways that are extending, you know, miles in either direction and communication happens along those. So what we're doing with the sheep is we are trying to ensure that that whole microbial world below ground is well fed. And keeping that biology as alive as possible, because that is essentially... that biology is our, like, secret Internet of resources.
The Wood Wide Web. I know that's something else, that's in the forest.
Yeah. Yeah. The fungi... Yeah. But they call it the fungal web, essentially, or fungal internet. Sorry, the fungal internet. So yeah, if we can interact with that and have that be super healthy, then what you find is that it's actually all of that life that builds a healthy soil structure. And so therefore, we feed that life as much as possible, so that we can ensure that a healthy soil structure is built at all times.
So this conversation started out with me asking you what was atypical about your farm, and you said, it's the sheep. But of course, that's such a low tech solution. Why aren't we seeing this happening all over the world, if it works the way you've described?
Well, it is gaining ground. So that's a good thing. And more and more farmers are experimenting with it. But I would say... there's something terribly unsexy about a non-digital tech solution. On many levels. One of the unsexy things about it is it will not make someone, or some entity, a lot of money in a quick and scalable manner. And so that makes it very unappealing to investors, for example. And I think that we can't underestimate how much of the business world is fueled by investment, particularly today, and in particular, venture capital or private equity investment. And that, you know, they're looking for quick money and scale. So, I think that is a big context for why it's not more talked about. But funnily enough, often it makes the farmer some money. So yeah, like on our farm, you know, one of the... one of our focus points is minimum input costs. And so if you think about, if we didn't have the sheep there, we would have to be mowing, using diesel essentially, you know, there's huge fire risks so we have to keep the grasses down, and all sorts of other reasons why we would need to be managing in between the trees. So in this way, the sheep are actually a very low cost method of managing that grass and providing all these other benefits. I would also say that, this, you know, the mob grazing is something that has been popularised by the Savory Institute and Allan Savory. And it's a very, like, ground up movement, it's part of a part of what I would call this wider regenerative agriculture movement. And it's very much from, from the farmers and actual people on the ground, that these techniques and ideas have really been put into practice, experimented with, and then developed and shared. And so therefore, it's kind of forming and growing in an organic way, right? It's growing through word of mouth, it's not growing through large scale government interventions, for example, or it hasn't been to date. So yeah, it's mainly, when you look into regenerative agriculture, it is mainly farmers who are pushing it.
So that's how you do things. But to what extent would you say we've been getting farming wrong up to this point?
Certainly, in the last, let's say, 100 years, the direction that farming has gone in has been all about monoculture, essentially. And so how can we optimise, specialise so that we're only producing one thing on each farm, for example? And that has been one of the most detrimental kind of directions to go in that you could possibly imagine, I would say. And I hadn't realised just how detrimental it was until I interacted with people like the late Professor Martin Wolfe. He was a trained plant scientist, worked at Cambridge University for many years. And then he had a realisation... he was producing fungicides for I can't, I can't remember exactly, in what context. But yeah, for each year, they were producing new fungicides for a wheat crop, essentially. And he had the realisation that he was never going to beat this natural world that was evolving and creating, you know, the funghi. Each year, there was a new fungus that was able to resist the old fungicide. And so they had to create a new one. And he realised that they were never going to work faster than the natural world around. And actually, where the strength lies is in diversity. So if you have one field, all of one particular genetic makeup of wheat, it's a very vulnerable situation to be in. Whereas if you have a more diverse wheat crop with maybe like, even just 20 different varieties in it, for example, then you start to build in a certain amount of resilience. Because, okay, it may be vulnerable to this fungal infection, but it's not vulnerable to that, or, you know, some of its vulnerable to the fungal infection. And some of it's not. And so, what you realised is that every year, although you may get a smaller crop, you get a much more consistent crop. And I think that is an amazing insight, because we've been optimising for more and more yields, right? So we say like, oh, well, let's use this wheat variety because it yields 11 tonnes per hectare. The last one only yielded 10, for example. And actually, what Martin made me realise was that if we can have a wheat variety, the average is at six tonnes per hectare, but it does consistently year after year after year after year, then actually, you're producing more food on average than if you have an 11 tonne per hectare year and then a complete wipe out the next year. And then, you know, so this idea that we can optimise things and increase yields in this monoculture environment is an unbelievably fragile situation. And as... and it's really becoming clear now the climate, you know, the climate chaos is descending upon us. And we're having frosts unexpectedly, we're having hail storms out of nowhere. All this kind of stuff is destroying these overly-optimised crops essentially. And so I do think that more and more farmers are realising it, it's just clear to them on the ground it's not going to work. They're having increased pest pressures. And costs are going way up for pesticides, as well as fertilisers. So diversity is suddenly becoming a really appealing direction. And I think that's really, really exciting.
And in many ways, you've described a linear experience for farming in that we optimise to make things quicker, faster and bigger. But lost that system effectiveness. If that's what a linear system is, in a nutshell, what's the circular farming system look like?
So a circular farming system is one where each crop or animal or product, on the farm is feeding another and that, then, in turn is feeding the soil, which is, in turn, cleaning the water, which is, in turn, feeding the trees which cause localised humidity to rise. And you have this interconnected web of events and interactions that are all allowing the biology to flourish.
And the outcome for the farmer might be good crops, and a diversity of them, but there's all these beneficial values, I suppose, that come off the back of that.
Absolutely. One of the key things that I've heard regenerative... or farmers who were previously conventional and then have become more regenerative in their practices say, is that they used to wake up, or they used to think about, you know, what am I going to kill today? What am I going to control today? And now they wake up thinking, oh, you know, what, am I going to help flourish today? And that their mental health is actually one of the biggest changes they've experienced through shifting their mindset around going from this more linear, more, kind of, control-kill-conquer approach, to this more circular co-flourishing approach. It's completely changed their mental health. When you go and you move through the countryside, if you're able to today, you pass or you pass fields of monocultures generally. And hopefully there are some trees or maybe even some hedges between the fields. But that is kind of the status quo of farming today. And I would say often it can feel quite dead or controlled anyway. And it's not a particularly fulfilling experience of being in the natural world. And I think it's really important to recognise that when you go to a circular or regenerative farming system, or maybe a region, maybe just a farm, it feels completely different to that. And you can tell the moment you get there, it's this like richness and the water flows clear, and the air is fresh, and you have loads of insects buzzing around and birds everywhere. And the plants are all different colours, you know, different tinges of greens everywhere, and different layers, and different heights of plants. And I think that's what, you know, when I'm really thinking about what we're aiming for and this regenerative future, it's that essence, that kind of feeling that we're looking for in all of the farming environment. And so I just think, you know, for people who feel disconnected from farming, or that actually agriculture is a such a kind of ugly thing, which it can be, I just really invite you to imagine or know that another way as possible. And that you can connect in with that. And that that is part of what farming is. And there are many farmers out there who that's what they're aspiring to do, or they're already doing.
There you have it, regenerative agriculture can be a low tech, high performing solution, that not only generates additional profits for farmers, but it also helps the soil recuperate and helps mitigate against climate change. Furthermore, it's an idea that works with smallholder farmers as much as it does with the giants. And it's to those smallholder farmers that we know turn. I think it's time we heard from a soap company.
Dr. Bronner's is a top selling brand of natural soaps in North America. They work with more than 10,000 smallholder farmers across five continents, and regenerative agriculture, and more, is at the heart of what they do. Gero Leson, the Vice President of Special Operations at Dr. Bronner's, joined me to talk about the company's relationship with farming.
I want to start by talking about the agricultural practices you support. Could you tell us a little bit about that, please?
For sure, it depends mostly really on what crop we're talking. Mind you, soap is made primarily from oils that grow on trees. And that's predominantly coconut oil for us. There's palm oil for bar soaps, and there's olive oil. And those three account for much more than 75% of Dr. Bronner's agricultural products, currently some 8000 metric tonnes a year. So it's tree crops that we're focusing on, yet we also use essential oils that grow on fields. A good example is the peppermint oil that goes into our best-selling soap flavour, the peppermint. So what constituents regenerative practices depends on the crop massively. So for trees, what you focus on is, if you don't use chemical fertiliser, you have to build up soil fertility otherwise. Much of this has to do, then, with pruning, with mulching, possibly growing cover crops that are leguminous, for instance, that's one way of getting nitrogen into the soil. You just mow them of course, using pesticides is illegal under organic rules anyways, so you can use all these methods in order to grow up biomass, which then overtime is integrated into the soil naturally. You wouldn't be doing deep ploughing, for instance, which is one of the things that's frowned upon. So I'd say, for tree crops, it's really making sure... bringing back soil fertility by growing cover crops, by pruning, by using all of the pruned materials as a raw material for humus. This kind of mixed agro forestry, which we have started practising in Ghana, is more of a challenge. It looks fantastic. It looks like the designed jungle with just a high level of diversity, much more productivity, less risk of insect attacks, for instance, but it's something you need to invest in. So you're up against inertia, and also the fact that people have gotten used to monoculture. So those are the... those are the practices you would use in... for tree crops.
We hear this time and time again about regenerative agriculture, that actually is it can be more productive, it can work better for the long term, yet it sounds... I don't know, it sounds a lot more complicated, a lot more difficult, to implement. Am I wrong when I say that?
No, you're not. There is there's more technique to it. There's more investment required, again, depending on whether you're talking about tree crops, or field crops. In field crops, and there I could just shift over to India, where we produce our mint oil. So those are just, picture this, 3000 farmers right now, small holders with relatively small plots, always below a hectare. And the land is mostly loam and has been void of humus over the last 30/40 years, where farmers just grew extensively. And it's important to note they grow three crops a year, but I've never seen this anywhere else, three crops per year. You can do this in Uttar Pradesh. But of course, that's pretty demanding on the soil. So what they used to do is just throw a lot of urea and nitrogen fertiliser on there. And as a result, there was virtually no humus in the soil, other than a little bit of cow dung, which is used for fertilising on the site. So what does it take to go to organic and to regenerative? In our case, after experience with fraud, what does happen is you cannot just tell farmers to just stop using fertiliser and then expect them to be organic. You need to offer alternatives. It took us a little while to realise this. And then what we started in 2016 is to set up a production of compost. There's just only one way you can replace mineral fertiliser, chemical fertiliser. By supplying compost that both supplies nutrients, but also helps rebuild soil humus. For that, we had to set up a central composting operation that now cranks out 20,000 tonnes of compost a year. You need to support farmers with planting material if you want to grow cover crops. And then we had to purchase tillage equipment, cultivation equipment, that provides conservation tillage to those fields and is suited for the situation. Oftentimes, as I mentioned, tilling is done, also for weed control. And if you don't offer farmers alternatives there, they will just go back to using herbicides. So you do need to invest. It's more work for farmers. The question of the yields, I would say, is that... it's the absolute numbers and it's also the stability of yields. And one of the reasons you do regenerative agriculture on field crops is to increase the resilience of the soil is the buzzword and what does resilience mean? For example, soil, rich in humus, has a higher capacity to absorb moisture. Now that gets you better through dry spells. And even if you have irrigation, the groundwater which you do have in India, even then, having a soil that buffers is just more resilient to short term damage, for instance, caused by very high temperatures which we just experienced in Uttar Pradesh. So it's that resilience that a higher humus content supports or provides, and that in turn may have an impact on the stability of yields. So yields are not just about, not just about the nutrients, and nutrients played a huge role. But it's not the only consideration.
I suppose the follow on question to all of this is: why is Dr. Bronner's, a soap company, involved, so heavily, in agricultural practices around the world?
It's in part our history, and the company's vision founded by an eccentric German soapmaker, who actually thought that medium-sized businesses have a role to play in saving the planet. And he had that idea in the 40s and 50s. And he didn't think much of agriculture, this was way beyond his capacity, but his grandsons Mike and David Bronner, when they took over the company in the early 2000s, and they considered what their charitable activities and what kind of activism they would be pursuing, the question of where do our ingredients come from was on the list early on. And so, initially, the concern was, well, those are mostly ingredients that come from developing countries. So we may have to be concerned about exposure of field workers, farm workers, to pesticides, herbicides, let's go organic was the idea. After a couple of years, they realised that just organic, in particular, if you buy from brokers... a long, lengthy supply chain, you just don't know anything about the social conditions on the ground. That wasn't satisfactory to Mike and David. And thus, the idea came up to shift ingredients, again, mostly tree oils, but also essential oils to shift those to sources that were organic and Fairtrade. And that process, we started in 2005. There were no organic and Fairtrade coconut palm, olive, mint oils available. That's in part a flaw of the dominant certification system for Fairtrade products. And we then went ahead and decided we'd start building our own facilities. And...
You just went and did it yourself?
We did this, we did this ourselves, not knowing what we were getting into.
So you started out, wondering where your organic ingredients would come from, you realised there was no answers to some of those questions. And you ended up well, growing it yourself getting it certified, but then ensuring there was a real social dimension to everything that you do. And I know from the research I've been doing, you do some sensational stuff. Is it in Ghana where you built a new health centre or have I confused that with somewhere else? You've got high employment levels for women as well. I mean, your track record is impressive.
It depends a lot on what the local conditions are. So there is the issue of the farmers. And in the old days, originally, Fairtrade only focused on the plight of farmers who were subject to crashes in commodity prices - coffee, cocoa - it's still important. But that system overlooked the fact that there's farm workers, that there's processing workers, and in our case, that's critical, right, we set up our own little oil mills and factories with 200 to 350 people. Now those you need to pay attention to as well, right? They are part of your supply chain, so to speak, and then there's the community at large. And that's not necessarily just the co-op, it's the community at large. So depending on what the needs are, we have tailored each project accordingly.
It's a... it's a really impressive tale you have. And it's really fascinating that you see the agricultural side and the social side as fully intertwined. Is this a model for the world, do you think, that you have?
We definitely think it is one. And we're not the only one. So I've been been watching the last 10/15 years... Just looking at, you know, the trade magazines or going to trade shows, organic and Fairtrade increasingly have become aligned, because one is so closely related to the other. And there's a community of companies that have pursued that. You do need to look at the social conditions, notably if you work with smallholder farmers. If you buy from big organic farms, it doesn't matter so much. But if you deal with smallholders and rural communities, the concept of Fairtrade, or whatever you may label it as, is just essential. You can't really do one without the other, we think, and I think many people agree.
Gero, it's so nice to hear a positive story about the world. So thank you very much for your time today.
Thank you. Colin. I really enjoyed our conversation.
The difficulties of the industrial farming model, a linear system at its heart, are there for all to see, in terms of declining soil health, under-utilised carbon sinks, chemical runoff, biodiversity decline, and a lack of diversity in crops. When we ignore these signs, we set ourselves up to fail, and failing our food system is not an option. This is why these inspiring stories from Abby and Gero need to be better understood and heard more often. It's rare that a solution to such a huge problem is low-tech, is right in front of our faces, and, let's face it, more delicious than the status quo. It really does feel within our grasp to make all of this possible.
If this has piqued your interest, then do check out Farmerama, the podcast by Abby Rose, as well as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's work on regenerative agriculture. We've produced a series of reports, articles, videos and learning opportunities on this matter. Thank you for listening to the Circular Economy Show Podcast. Please remember to subscribe so you don't miss the next episode.
Rather than bending nature to produce food, food can be designed for nature to thrive
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