Sandeep [00:00:49] You're listening Food by Design: an IDEO podcast, where we talk to the people who are building the food systems will need in the future. Right now, we go where the questions are looking at the gaps in the current systems and share what we learn, all to find out what's next. We're here to start the conversations that can help make better food systems for every one of us. I'm your host, Sandeep Pahuja.
Sandeep [00:01:18] If you're into food the way I am, you may have heard of a concept called regenerative agriculture, a set of farming practices that have gotten a lot more popular over the past decade. It places a high value on soil health and biodiversity… think soil rotation, cover crops and natural fertilizers. In short, the opposite of how the majority of the farming industry has been doing it for the past 70-plus years. The Poncias, the family we interviewed in our second episode, talked about how they use many of these methods on their ranch.
Sandeep [00:01:50] Because of its effectiveness in drawing down carbon, regenerative ag gets talked about like a silver bullet for the climate mess we're in. And it's a trend I promise you'll be hearing a lot more about, both in restaurants and on grocery store shelves. So remember that word regenerative because it's going to be everywhere.
Sandeep [00:02:09] But seeing it pop up all over the place had me digging a little bit deeper. Why was this all the buzz? Where did it come from? Its history, like so many others has been whitewashed. And what I assumed to be new was, in fact, really, really old.
Larisa [00:02:25] For over 10,000 years, our ancestors sustainably tended the land in a mutually beneficial way as mediators of this relationship between soil and sky.
Sandeep [00:02:38] That's Larisa Jacobson, co-director of Soul Fire Farm, a black and indigenous center community farm in upstate New York. They feed their local community the food they grow, while also training aspiring farmers of color in sustainable agriculture, health, and environmental justice. Their approach is centered in indigenous regenerative food systems that fed this land's inhabitants until the colonizers came. And when these practices disappeared, we all lost the connection to our food that greatly predates the dawn of modern agriculture.
Larisa [00:03:09] When the settler colonialists arrived, the land was called, quote, 'uninhabited and wild' by many people. So when you see paintings of Manifest Destiny or westward expansion and you see depictions of what was essentially the genocide and forced displacement, forced migration of millions of Indigenous and First Nations people, you're also witnessing this displacement of what was then a form of regenerative agriculture.
Sandeep [00:03:44] I'm not surprised that indigenous people knew how to do things in a sustainable way and that our agricultural system disregarded their knowledge. Forgetting and ignorance are hallmarks of our relationship with indigenous cultures and land. For instance, the land that my apartment sits on in Oakland was stolen from the Chochenyo Ohlone. Their descendants are still here, but they were forced off their land and greatly diminished in just 100 years. And I grew up on Long Island, New York, in a town called Bethpage, which was originally the land of the Merricks and Massapequas, which I only learned by sending that text to the phone number I mentioned at the top of the show. And you knew where I was headed, right? This all leads right back to the crisis in today's food systems.
Kyle [00:04:28] It's a huge problem that we don't know where our food comes from.
Sandeep [00:04:31] Dr. Kyle Whyte is a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan and a member of the Potawatomi tribe. His work focuses on climate and environmental justice and indigenous environmental studies on an indigenous timescale. The loss of their food networks happened overnight. He calls it an apocalypse.
Kyle [00:04:50] It caused a disruption that was world ending in its power, in its force for a lot of indigenous people. And if we're thinking about North America, if you just think about the last 200 years, ancestors that we had literally had to watch the entire landscape that they'd been accustomed to just really radically transform.
Sandeep [00:05:16] Indigenous practices focused on land protection first, and food was the byproduct. Settlers took away millions of acres of land with the government's help. It was literally called the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Indigenous access to reliable foods all but disappeared, from wild rice native to the Great Lakes region to salmon fisheries out west, Kyle says.
Kyle [00:05:38] Areas that were full of forests, no longer, right? Now, commercial agriculture. Areas where the water was really clean, the area is too polluted to swim or to feel safe eating something that you harvested from that water.
Sandeep [00:05:53] And the climate destruction from tearing up the grasslands happened just this quickly, threatening food sovereignty, a term used to describe a person's right to nutritious, culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound methods. Here's Larisa again.
Larisa [00:06:08] In that first generation after colonization, through the conversion of grasslands to crop lands and through the early stages of the plough and tillage, the soil organic carbon of the Great Plains declined, they say now, by 50 percent, because of this loss of what was regenerative agriculture at the time, and because so much of soil carbon is held in grassland.
Sandeep [00:06:38] Indigenous people around the world are centuries along in the process of surviving massive upheavals. One that is only starting to cause panic among non-Indigenous people. Functionally, global warming causes the same kinds of disasters Indigenous people have already faced. Loss of arable land, the death of forests, plummeting fish stocks, insects and other species tied to our survival.
Kyle [00:07:00] And so this makes it so, from an indigenous perspective, climate change today can be more of a ‘déjà vu’ experience than it is experiencing something new or unprecedented. And what's challenging with that, is then working with other populations who do think it's new and unprecedented.
Sandeep [00:07:18] This ‘déjà vu’ idea really changed how I've been thinking about the climate crisis and how it connects to our food system. Privileged communities like mine have never lived through these times before. It's true. But it may explain why indigenous farming practices have found new favor in the past few decades. These traditions won't restore stolen indigenous land or reverse global warming by themselves.
Sandeep [00:07:40] But a growing number of practitioners say they offer us a path forward at a time when the other path, the one that we're on, is clearly a dead end.
Sandeep [00:07:52] To understand this alternate route, we spoke to Dr. Liz Carlisle, Assistant Professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara. She wrote a book that turned out to be a sleeper hit. It's called 'Lentil Underground' And it takes place in Montana where Liz is from.
Liz [00:08:06] You know, there's a really rich indigenous history in Montana and lots and lots of indigenous groups remain on their traditional homelands. Buffalo were the center of the food system in Montana before European Americans arrived in the late 19th century, basically.
Sandeep [00:08:24] In Montana today, farmers mostly produce wheat, barley and livestock. They’re farmed separately. But that wasn't always the case. Homesteaders settled there in 1864 and built family farms with both animals and crops. But by the mid- nineteen hundreds, the farms became specialized. One farm was a feedlot for livestock and another farm was for crops. The irony was that you'd have an excess of cow manure on one farm and then on another farm, there were crops with no fertility source, no manure. Without a way to connect the dots, farmers turned to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer made by fossil fuels.
Liz [00:09:01] Coming out of World War Two, there was so much optimism about what was possible through chemistry. It was so deeply embedded, this sense that chemical agriculture was progress. It was the future. And so it was very, very difficult, I think, for people to shift away from that mindset and question whether there might actually be a better way or whether this might be a mistake. Starting in the ‘60s, farmers were encouraged to specialize, 'grow fence row to fence row,' 'get big or get out.' All of these famous colorful phrases from former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz.
Sandeep [00:09:42] Ah. We’re at the Earl Butz, part of the episode. According to Wikipedia, his nickname was Rusty, as in Rusty Butz. Sorry. Anyway. During his tenure, the industry slowly started to switch. It went from diversified, small-scale farms to larger, streamlined monocrops.
Liz [00:09:58] So farmers did get bigger. They bought bigger machinery. They used more fertilizer. They use more herbicide. And the promise of all of this was that they were going to get higher yields.
Sandeep [00:10:09] Even in his day, Rusty Butz was controversial. His policies encouraged overproduction. This drove prices way down. And at the same time, the prices for fertilizer were high. This cycle continued for over 20 years. But then Mother Nature stepped in. In the 1980s, there were three long years of drought, and this was catastrophic for farmers.
Liz [00:10:29] The 1980s farm crisis impacted people all over the U.S., in the Midwest, as well as in Montana. Pretty much all grain producing areas of the country.
Sandeep [00:10:38] In many ways, what happened in the ‘80s was history repeating itself. Liz's family had firsthand knowledge of what happens when agriculture is handled in an unsustainable way. When her grandma was growing up in the 1930s, a series of dust storms swept the southern plains. The Dust Bowl destroyed livelihoods and crops. The farming community fell apart, Liz says, because of a collective failure to take care of their land and their soil.
Liz [00:11:02] This image that my grandma shared with me of dust, of the land blowing away and coming in under the door of the kitchen, putting towels under the door of the kitchen to try to keep all of the soil that used to grow crops from blowing into the house. So just this sense of like the soil is blowing away.
Sandeep [00:11:32] The drought in the 1980s hit farming communities just as hard. Many families’ homes were in foreclosure. Farmers entered bankruptcy, and they were doing anything they could to stay on their land. Desperate times call for, you know, trying new things.
Sandeep [00:11:48] In her book, Liz tells the story of Montana farmer David Oyen and others who took a different path and have capitalized on the benefits of planting legumes. There's something special about plants in the bean and pea family. There's a bacteria that forms in their roots.
Liz [00:12:02] This is what fava beans do. This is what black beans do. This is what chickpeas do.
Sandeep [00:12:08] Bacteria converts the atmospheric nitrogen that the plants draw in from the air into a form that the plant and others around it can use as a fertilizer.
Liz [00:12:17] And it's been absolutely central to food systems all over the world, basically for all of humanity, because until synthetic fertilizer was developed, you had to get your fertility from the biological source. So basically it was either beans or manure from an animal.
Sandeep [00:12:37] The farmers in Liz's book don't use chemicals for fertilizer at all. Instead, they grow lentils and fallow fields to build up moisture and organic matter in the soil so that crops grown in the same field the following year would enjoy healthy soil with lots of moisture and nitrogen. In this way, they've reduced their reliance on synthetic fertilizers.
Liz [00:12:58] And then eventually, after convincing some friends to grow them too, the next step was, where do we sell these things? Because, you know, these weren't direct market farmers. These were people who would generally just take their grain harvest down to the grain elevator next to the train tracks. You know, the elevator would give them a check and that was it. But there were no elevators to take your lentils to.
Sandeep [00:13:21] Oyen and his friends started a company called Timeless Seeds. They eventually built their own processing plant and developed distribution and relationships to sell their lentils. Farmers need supporting infrastructure and logistics to get their products to market. They had to build their own infrastructure because of industry consolidation. They had no other choice.
Liz [00:13:40] And so then their job was to figure out how to get them to people who wanted to eat them and tell the story of why this was important for land stewardship. Then, you know, eventually climate change became a big part of this story.
Sandeep [00:13:54] Planting legumes helps restore soils, biodiversity, and it keeps moisture in the soil to protect it from the drought. This is the important part for climate change. David Oyen and his friends found a way to sell their products. But even when something's a win-win for farmers and the soil, you still have to create demand for it.
Sandeep [00:14:12] And that's the question here. How do we tell consumers that farming this way is the climate friendly choice? And then how do you get the biggest players in the system, the procurement departments and institutional buyers, to prioritize food grown this way? And even if we were able to create that demand and meet it, how would we get it onto America's plates?
Sandeep [00:14:34] Those are the questions restauranteur Karen Leibowitz has thought a lot about. She's the co-founder with her husband, Chef Anthony Myint of Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit that works with the restaurant industry to support farmers who want to convert to regenerative agriculture. We met her in the first episode of this podcast. Karen and Anthony also founded the now-shuttered San Francisco restaurant The Perennial. The Perennial began with the question: what could a restaurant look like if climate change was at the heart of everything it did?
Karen [00:15:05] Starting from the bottom and saying, like, let's make everything as sustainable as we can.
Sandeep [00:15:10] So they built the restaurant from recycled materials and used energy efficient appliances. Everything they did had a story which I loved… But not everyone responded to.
Karen [00:15:20] It was a pretty heavily communicative restaurant, which some people were into. Sandeep. Some people were not.
Sandeep [00:15:29] And of course, that extended to the food itself. They focused on sourcing ingredients that were climate friendly.
Karen [00:15:36] One of the things we did was we made a bread from a grain called Kernza.
Sandeep [00:15:41] Kernza is a perennial grain, meaning it grows year after year without the need to re-seed. It was developed through natural breeding by the Land Institute in Kansas. It's similar to native grasses and has deep roots over 10 feet long with rich soil biologies. Those roots trap carbon and help stored in the soil. Unlike traditional wheat that is tilled and replanted seasonally. And the more carbon in the soil instead of in the air, the better. We learned a lot about carbon's relationship to soil in our second episode. In essence, Kernza is an ideal perennial grain for a warming planet.
Karen [00:16:15] No one had really baked with it before. And so it was this wide open field for creativity. So we made a sourdough bread that became something that I worked on personally.
Sandeep [00:16:29] And customers loved that bread. She made polenta with Kernza and crisps for dessert. Their customers wanted more. They would come up to Karen at the end of their meal and ask, how can I make this in my own home?
Karen [00:16:42] And it was really sad to have to say, you know, Kernza’s not really available on the market yet and there's not really a plan for that. We started to realize that if we were really successful at The Perennial, we would be driving demand, but that the supply was not really keeping up. And so we were thinking, what is it going to take to get more producers into the regenerative agriculture world?
Sandeep [00:17:14] So if there's potential for demand to shift towards more sustainable food, how do we increase supply over generativity farm crops like Kernza? One of the most powerful food companies in the world is trying with mixed results so far.
Shauna [00:17:27] Last year we released a limited edition Kernza cereal.
Sandeep [00:17:33] This is Shauna Sadowski.
Shauna [00:17:34] That is actually was not available in market, in part because we had a 95 percent yield loss on the crop.
Sandeep [00:17:42] She's the head of sustainability for General Mills' Natural and Organic operating unit. Among other things, they produce the very popular Annie’s brand of mac and cheese. Shawna's team of General Mills has been involved in bringing more climate friendly products to the grocery store. They partnered with the Land Institute to try to make Kernza commercially viable. The plan was for General Mills to make an all-Kernza cereal for their organic brand, Cascadian Farm, and to finally debut the grain to the general public. And then the crops failed.
Shauna [00:18:12] One of the things we learned is that, you know, some of the farmers who planted it didn't plant it on their best land. It was on more marginal land. And so it's actually led us to looking at, how do we start partnering with farmers to really figure out, like, where are the best places to plant, after which crops should you plant this one? How should it be rotated in? What are other ways that you might use it?
Sandeep [00:18:33] Shauna says sometimes a crop can grow well in a test environment, and then when it actually gets to a farmer's field, it doesn't thrive. It can take years to develop and breed a new perennial crop.
Shauna [00:18:44] Our goal is to try and make it commercially viable by 2040, 20 years from now. It will take that much time. When you consider how many crops have developed over, you know, thousands of years, Kernza is only 20 years old.
Sandeep [00:18:58] Commercializing innovative new plants like Kernza is just one of the challenges of remaking agriculture. It's not just the new crop. You also have to market the idea of a new method of agriculture… when your consumer might not see the problems of the old ways.
Shauna [00:19:14] What makes it even more challenging is that our research has shown that most people actually don't know those problems exist in the first place.
Sandeep [00:19:22] Soil health and biodiversity are not top of mind for the average eater when they walk down the supermarket aisle. Shauna's team has been trying to figure out how to help consumers understand that these problems exist, while also communicating that the product they might buy could help solve them. To help people understand, they're experimenting by showcasing the farmers that grew these specific crops on the back of the box. This is an industry practice called identity preservation.
Shauna [00:19:49] Which means that anything in that product came from those farms, because we wanted to connect people who are buying this product to the place in which it was coming. And we felt it was fairly important to make sure that whatever whoever we put on that product in terms of the farmer, whatever practices we talked about, could be directly connected to the box, so that identity preservation was key.
Sandeep [00:20:12] In 2018, they used organic golden pea flour and spelt from Montana-based farmers for their first two products: a limited-edition Annie's Mac and Cheese and Annie's Honey Grams. They both came in specially designed boxes.
Shauna [00:20:25] They had like 'soil matters' all over it. You had the package where you could see all the microbial, you know, the beneficials, the above ground, below ground, the microbes in the soil, the worms. The marketing and the creative team did a fantastic job of trying to make it come to life in terms of the soil and the what was above the soil and the crops.
Sandeep [00:20:48] But even though Shauna and her team liked the design, it didn't seem to go over that well with consumers.
Shauna [00:20:53] And what we learned through that process is that the soil and the microbes and maybe the roots was a little much. So we had to take a step back and say, OK, that didn't necessarily resonate.
Sandeep [00:21:04] So they decided to try something different. The next iteration of identity preserved products had a completely redesigned box.
Shauna [00:21:10] This one has a picture of like blue sky and a bowl of mac and cheese. So you actually know what you're eating versus eating soil.
Sandeep [00:21:18] This kind of challenge is not unusual. We all know the power of marketing and driving consumer choice. And it's something that we at IDEO think a lot about as designers, especially when we're taking on a challenge that's communicating a complex story visually. How can we convey the right mix of messages to the consumer? It's not easy, especially when you're trying to achieve several different goals simultaneously. In this case, expose consumers to new products, convey its health benefits, its potential benefits in the environment, and its cheesy, delicious goodness.
Sandeep [00:21:50] Getting consumers to pick that box over the alternative is the kind of shift that can often start a cascade of different choices made throughout the rest of the food chain. It's where that phrase ‘vote with your dollar’ comes from. If enough of us make different choices, the big companies will too. But that alone is not enough. Not even close to fixing our climate challenges. We also need the big institutional buyers to change their purchase requirements, how they partner and invest in farmers and overhaul their processes. General Mills has committed to using regenerative agricultural practices on one million acres of their farmland by 2030, and that is genuinely exciting. But Shauna says they're still working on how to tell the story of regenerative farmers on their products.
Shauna [00:22:36] Most people don't connect their food choices to farming decisions and know what's happening on the farm or the ranch. And yet ninety nine percent of our food comes from the soil. So how do we start to reconcile that? And how do we start to think about getting people to understand that those daily decisions do make a difference and they do add up?
Sandeep [00:23:06] Right now, our food and farming systems are disconnected from one another, resulting in shortsighted decisions that jeopardize our farms, food innovation and human health. Traditional indigenous wisdom and practices that have sustained humans for thousands of years have been ignored for decades, and more recently co-opted and whitewashed into something else. It's critical to at least acknowledge where these practices come from and treat Indigenous farmers like the experts they are.
Sandeep [00:23:32] The best case is that we upend the power dynamics that underpin the food system. If Indigenous methods are just profited on by powerful farmers, that would perpetuate the cycle that we're in. Rethinking this part of the food system means taking reparations and land restoration seriously. Then resources can go back to Indigenous communities so that they can farm their own land. We're going to dive much deeper into power and equity in the food system at the end of our series.
Sandeep [00:24:00] We also need to help consumers realize how closely they're tied to America's farming communities. Lentils, for example, might not be the most popular crop, but they're climbing the ladder and making a positive impact on our soil systems. So whether it's lentils, kernza or mac and cheese, their successes and failures help us learn about the importance of marketing and the power of demand, as well as plan for what's next.
Sandeep [00:24:32] So here is the design opportunity: how might we center regenerative agriculture and Indigenous expertise, and make it the next big movement for the food system to rally around?
Sandeep [00:24:43] If this gets your wheels turning and makes you excited to share ideas, thoughts or maybe even better questions… Visit ideo.com/food and help us keep working to create better food systems for everyone.
Sandeep [00:24:57] Thanks for listening. If you learned something and enjoyed this, please send it to a friend. You can really help by leaving a perfect rating and a review. You know, the algorithms love that.
Sandeep [00:25:08] I'm Sandeep Pahuja. This is Food by Design shows created by Sarah Codraro and me. Today's episode is produced by Evan Roberts and edited by Julia Scott and Tina Antolini. Tina Antolini and Abby Madan recorded some of our interviews. Mark Henry Phillips composed our original music. Chris Hoff is our engineer. Special thanks to Ali Kelley, Sarah Rich, Rebecca Chesney, and Erin McCluskey.