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Regenerative food may save our planet

Naturally Chicago event asks industry experts to weigh in on how regenerative agriculture can benefit our food system, and the planet.

Jim Slama

April 27, 2022

5 Min Read
Jim Slama, is managing director of Naturally Chicago and a founding board member of the Naturally Network

Both Naturally Chicago, where I am managing director, and the national Naturally Network, with which Naturally Chicago is affiliated, are deeply committed to building a food system that produces healthier food for people and the planet.

Numerous studies have shown that food is the top source of global greenhouse gas emissions with estimates ranging from 33-37%. I am absolutely horrified about the future if we don’t quickly solve the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, our political leaders have not been responsive, and the problem continues to grow. Luckily, research and practice are leading the way to solutions that offer immediate opportunities to sequester carbon and limit emissions.

According to the book “Drawdown, the most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” edited by Paul Hawken, food is the industry that can have the greatest impact on global warming. Eating lower on the food chain, limiting food waste and stopping the destruction of rainforests to grow food will have a great impact.

Yet, long-term studies by the Rodale Institute maintain that the leading opportunity for positive change is through regenerative organic agriculture, which can sequester carbon and reverse climate change.

According to Rodale, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to the widely available and inexpensive organic management practices that fit their regenerative organic agriculture label. These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil. Sounds like a great goal!

This and other good-for-the-planet benefits were the focus of Naturally Chicago’s webinar, “Regenerative Farming and the CPG Companies Embracing It,” which was part of Naturally Network’s EARTHWEEK 2022 programming. Nearly 200 registrants heard from these five industry experts:

• Katlin Smith, founder/CEO of Simple Mills, one of America’s leading nutrient-dense snack and baking companies.

• Gina Asoudegan, who as vice president of Mission and Regenerative Agriculture has pioneered the efforts of Applegate and its parent company Hormel to embrace regenerative agriculture.

• Corwin Heatwole, "founding farmer” and CEO at Farmer Focus, America’s fastest growing organic chicken company.

• Kellee James, CEO of Mercaris, which has pioneered market data and auctions to grow the organic and non-GMO grain markets and recently founded the Freedmen Heirs Foundation to support black farmers.

• Elizabeth Candelario, a long-time leader in biodynamic farming, who is director of strategic partnerships at Mad Agriculture, which works to transition farmers to regenerative production and develop new markets for them.

Following are major takeaways from each of member of the panel, which I moderated. We also welcome you to access the full recording of the webinar by clicking here.

“It’s Not the Cow, It’s the How”

Gina Asoudegan, Applegate: “What I'm most excited about in terms of regenerative agriculture is reversing the prevailing narrative that meat or animal livestock are bad for the planet. That it's not the cow, it's the how, and that raising animals in a regenerative system can have positive outcomes for the environment for people, for human health, for all things.”

Metrics That Matter

Kellee James, Mercaris: “I did not grow up in a farming family or anything connected to food... You don't have to be born into this. You can you can learn it and then there's many ways to contribute other than getting your hands in the dirt. We tend to look at market information and creating markets, connecting buyers and sellers, as our way of of fostering change.”

James also shared background on Freedman Heirs Foundation, a nonprofit that she co-founded to support black farmers: “In this country, we have ag was built on black farmers, black workers who were brought here as enslaved people. One hundred years ago, Black farmers owned about 14 million acres of land; today, it's less than 2 million. And I think it's also important to recognize that when we talk about regenerative, black farmers, indigenous farmers, some of them are the originators of the techniques that we all recognize today.”

Experience Points to Organic as the Right Thing

Corwin Heatwole, Farmer Focus: “I had the privilege of growing up on a small farm as a sixth-generation farmer. Very close to the animals, love the farming lifestyle, was very intimate with the challenges of conventional farming. And that's what drove me to start Farmer Focus. We are the only 100%  USDA Organic and Certified Humane chicken producer in the country. We have a unique mission to promote and protect generational family farmers. And we really focus on farm financial viability and sustainability.”

Taking Good-for-You a Notch Better

Katlin Smith, Simple Mills: “For me, the passion around regenerative agriculture began probably about four or so years ago, when I started digging into our farming system. I started Simple Mills after seeing what a huge impact food really has on all of our bodies, and I realized how much we had processed the heck out of our food. And it was really undermining people's health ... Regenerative agriculture is really just growing food in a way that leans into nature and builds a healthy ecosystem for all who are involved.”

Why Food Must Be a Big Part of the Climate Solution

Elizabeth Candelario, Mad Agriculture: “First of all, ag has really been the elephant in the environmental living room for a long time. But no longer is agriculture just seen as one of the biggest contributors to climate [change], it's also seen as a powerful solution. All industries no matter what can focus on emissions, but only food, fiber and forestry can really focus on [carbon] sequestration ... There's also increasing interest in brands communicating all the great practices that they're encouraging on the farm into their supply chain to their customers. And consumers definitely want to hear about those commitments. So I think regenerative has become a bit of a catch-all term that references individual farming practices that together create healthier farms and healthier ecosystems.”

Bob Benenson, Naturally Chicago consultant and publisher of Local Food Forum, contributed to this article.

About the Author(s)

Jim Slama

Co-founder, managing director, Naturally Chicago

Jim Slama is managing director of Naturally Chicago and a founding board member of the Naturally Network, the nation’s leading natural products association. He is also the founder of Good Food Catalyst, formerly FamilyFarmed, a nonprofit organization whose vision is Good Food on Every Table.

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