Strengthening the Economy, Health, & Climate Security through Resilient Agriculture and Food Systems
Authors: Caesare Assad, Chris Adamo, Dan Miller, David LeZaks, David Strelneck, Eric Smith, Ian McSweeney, Jeff Moyer, Jo Handelsman, Mandy Ellerton, Ma'raj Sheikh, Mark Muller, Megan DeBates, Nathan Rosenberg, Ray Boyle, Shauna Sadowski, Sophie Egan, Timothy Male
For those who can afford to fill their fridge by clicking a button on their smartphone or walking around to the organic grocery around the corner, it is easy to forget how complex and fragile our food systems can be. However, for millions of Americans who suffer from poor health because of food insecurity, or farmers and ranchers whose yields are decreasing along with the nutrient density of their product, that fragility is felt every day. Sustainable food systems engender intricate connections and feedback loops among climate change, public health, food security, national security, and social equity. When one of these factors is overstressed, disaster can result.
COVID-19 has underscored the vulnerability of our food systems. The pandemic caused restaurants to close overnight, strained supply chains, and led to food rotting on land, in warehouses, and on shelves. Low-income and food-insecure families waited in lines that stretched for miles while producers and distributors struggled to figure out how to get supplies to those who needed them. Concurrently, generations of racial inequity and the coordinated disenfranchisement of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) has crystalized as an issue that needs to be addressed at every level in our country, especially within our food and agricultural systems.
Addressing these issues—now and for the future—requires a coordinated response across sectors. Food security is deeply intertwined with public health and social equity. Un- and underemployment, the racial wealth gap, and increased financial hardships for certain communities result in increased malnutrition, obesity, metabolic diseases, and chronic illness, as well as particular susceptibility to severe impacts from COVID-19 infections during the present pandemic. The climate crisis compounds these issues. Farming practices that degrade soil health, reduce agriculture capacity, and compromise the well-being of small farms and rural communities prevent us as a nation from becoming healthier and more secure. As we look at opportunities to “build back better,” we must embrace paradigmatic shifts—fundamental restructuring of our systems that will support equitable and inclusive futures. Compounding crises require changes in not only what we do, but how we think about what we do.
A fundamental problem is that progress in modern agriculture has been implicitly defined as progress in agricultural technology (AgTech) and biotechnology. Little emphasis is placed on examining whole-systems dependencies and on how connections among soil health, gut bacteria, and antibiotic use in livestock impact human health, economic prosperity, and climate change. With such a narrow view of “innovation,” current practices will solve a handful of isolated problems but create many more.
Fortunately, alternatives are ripe for adoption. Regenerative farming, for instance, is a proven way to combat future warming while increasing the adaptive capacity of our lands, providing equitable access to food, and creating viable rural economies. Regenerative farming can also restore soil health, which in turn improves food quality while enhancing carbon sequestration and providing natural water treatment.
Transitioning away from dominant but harmful practices is not easy. The shift will require an inclusive innovation ecosystem, investors with long time horizons, new infrastructure, tailored education, economic incentives, and community safety nets. This document explores how the agricultural sector can support, and be supported by, policies that advance science, technology, and innovation while revitalizing living systems and equitable futures. We recognize that agricultural policy often overlooks interventions that are appropriately suited to advance these concepts with Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities and on tribal lands. To avoid this mistake, the concepts presented herein start from the ground up. We focus on the benefits of improving soil health and food security through regenerative agricultural activities, and provide examples of policies that could promote such activities in a variety of ways. Letting practice drive policy— instead of having policy dictate practice—will result in more sustainable, inclusive outcomes for all communities.
While agricultural policy can and should be shaped at the local, regional, state, and national level, this document places special emphasis on the role of the federal government. Building better food systems will require multiple government agencies, especially federal agencies, to collaboratively advance more equitable policies and practices. Most national agricultural programs are housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But the interconnectedness of how we produce food and fiber (and the ways in which those practices impact our environment and nourish people) demands priority investment not only from USDA, but also from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Health and Human Services—to name just a few. This document—based on a review of existing policy recommendations and current practice, development and refinement of new ideas, and identification of underleveraged roles and programs within the government— suggests what such investments might look like in practice.
About the Authors
Caesare Assad - Food System 6
Caesare is the CEO of Food System 6 (FS6), a food and agriculture system incubator that prioritizes social and environmental health and focuses on regionalized food production. She has worked in the food industry for over 20 years with operational experience as a chef, entrepreneur, and executive leader. Her work focuses on leveraging entrepreneurship to create healing through food and community.
Chris Adamo - Danone North America
Chris works for the public-affairs team at Danone North America, where he focuses on sustainable food policy and assists the Danone’s agricultural teams with scaling regenerative agriculture strategy. Before Danone, Chris worked with the U.S. Senate and White House Council on Environmental Quality on environmental policies that focused on sustainable agriculture at USDA as well as a variety of wildlife-, water-, and climate-friendly land-management policies across the federal government.
Dan Miller - Steward
Dan is the Founder and CEO of Steward, The World’s First Crowdfarming Platform™. Steward’s mission is to accelerate the positive impact that regenerative agriculture will have on our health and environment. By financing and servicing small and medium-sized farmers who use regenerative practices, Steward hopes to not only help improve our soil, water, and air, but also to increase access to fresh, healthy food for the 23 million Americans currently living in food deserts.
David LeZaks, Ph.D. - Croatan Institute
David is a Senior Fellow at Croatan Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is to harness the power of investment for social good and ecological resilience. He is an environmental scientist and financial activist whose work is centered around developing innovative mechanisms for financing the transition to agroecological farming and food systems.
David Strelneck - Nourishment Cycle Economies
David has spent the last two decades helping create environmental initiatives at the intersection of the agriculture, health, industry, and food sectors in the United States and other countries. He has contributed to efforts such as EPA’s approach to phasing out ozone-depleting CFCs in the automotive industry, PBS’ large online kids-in-nature initiative, and the world’s first wilderness webcam (launched in 2000 to encourage countries to cooperate on tropical-forest-management policy). Since 2010, David has worked intensively with social entrepreneurs (and some scientists, economists, and local communities) on approaches in business and policy at the nutritional linkage between land/ecosystems and people/health: linkages collectively known as Nourishment Cycle Economies.
Eric Smith - Grantham Environmental Trust
Eric is an Investment Officer for the Grantham Environmental Trust. He manages a vehicle called Neglected Climate Opportunities from which the Trust makes investments and grants in businesses and technology that can biologically or mechanically sequester or mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions at scale. Eric has years of investing experience in technologies for soil-carbon sequestration and improved land use with SJF Ventures and BlackRock. Much earlier in life, Eric spent four years in Costa Rica, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then as a consultant with the Costa Rican government and World Bank helping to develop a “payment for ecosystem services” model.
Ian McSweeney - Agrarian Trust
Ian’s career and life’s work has been focused on the human connection to soil and food. Prior to joining Agrarian Trust, Ian served as Executive Director of the Russell Foundation, a private foundation focused on assisting landowners and farmers through customized approaches to farmland ownership, conservation, management, and stewardship. Ian has participated in many farmland and food-systems initiatives and has served as a consultant for a number of local, regional, and national organizations. Ian and his wife Liz protect their own small New Hampshire farm with a conservation easement, manage their forest as a Certified Tree Farm, lease their farmland to a Certified Natural vegetable grower, keep bees, and manage habitats with an ecological focus.
Jeff Moyer - Rodale Institute
Jeff is the Executive Director of the Rodale Institute, and is an internationally recognized pioneer in organic agriculture research. Jeff’s expertise includes organic crop-production systems with a focus on weed management, cover crops, crop rotations, equipment modification and use, and facilities design. Jeff is perhaps most well-known for conceptualizing and popularizing the No-Till Roller Crimper for use in organic agriculture. He is a past chair of the National Organic Standards Board and currently sits on the boards of Regenerative Organic Alliance (as Board Chair) and the Soil Health Institute. Jeff is a founding board member of Pennsylvania Certified Organic and past Founder and Board Chair of The Seed Farm, a new-farmer incubator project.
Jo Handelsman, Ph.D. - Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
Jo is the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, an interdisciplinary institute for scientific research and innovation. She previously served as Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama. Her areas of expertise are microbiology, diversity in STEM, and STEM education.
Mandy Ellerton - Independent Consultant
Mandy recently left a successful career in philanthropy and impact investing to focus on transforming healthcare and agricultural systems to dramatically improve human health and environmental health. Mandy spent the last nine years at the field-leading Bush Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she played an instrumental role in investing nearly $80 million in a wide variety of social-innovation projects. Prior to that, Mandy worked at Grassroots Solutions, a national grassroots organizing strategy firm, where she designed movement-building and advocacy strategies on a variety of topics and for a variety of clients. Mandy is a trained social worker and nutritional therapy practitioner and splits time between Minneapolis and the family farm in central Minnesota.
Ma’raj Sheikh - Chicago Food Policy Action Council
Ma’raj is a daughter of immigrants, descendent of liberation leaders, and a Castanea Fellow. Land, food, and justice are in her blood. Ma’raj has worked across many areas of food system development including soil bioremediation, bioenergy, stakeholder relations, consulting in the edible insect industry, and advancing racial equity in land, food, and water access. As a National Science Foundation Fellow, Ma’raj moved to Iowa from Southern California to study Sustainable Agriculture and Community and Regional Planning at Iowa State University. Prior to starting at CFPAC in January of 2020, Ma’raj served as Director of Equity and Community Engagement at Community GroundWorks, where her work focused on improving stable land tenure for Hmong refugee farmers and leading Gardens Network, a partnership with the City of Madison and UW-Extension, that provides support services to a member base of 65+ community gardens across Dane County, WI.
Mark Muller - Regenerative Agriculture Foundation
Mark Muller recently joined the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation (RAF) as executive director. RAF serves as an intermediary funder that advances agriculture grounded in soil health, ecosystems services, racial equity, and a just food and agriculture economy. Prior to joining RAF, Mark directed the McKnight Foundation’s Mississippi River program. Mark has spent most of his career working to help transform our agricultural and food systems. He lives in Minneapolis and is part-owner of a farm in eastern Iowa.
Megan DeBates - Organic Trade Association
Megan is the Director of Legislative Affairs and Coalitions for the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. In this capacity, she develops and implements policy strategies in the interest of OTA’s mission and its members. She also engages Congress, federal and state agencies, and other stakeholder groups to further those policy goals. Prior to working at OTA, Megan served as Senior Legislative Assistant to U.S. Congressman Peter A. DeFazio (OR-04) where she advised and developed legislative strategy on agriculture, foreign affairs, international trade, natural resources, and other key issues and served as the lead staffer for the House Organic Caucus.
Mike Lavender - Union of Concerned Scientists
Mike is currently the senior manager of government affairs for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment program. The program advocates on a wide variety of policy solutions necessary for a healthy, sustainable, and socially equitable food system, including scaling up the adoption of healthy soil agricultural practices. Mike previously worked as a policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group. Before that, he spent six years in the office of former Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), where he worked on agriculture appropriations, nutrition, dairy policy, and other farm- and food-policy issues.
Nathan Rosenberg, J.D. - Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic
Nathan is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and teaches agricultural law at the University of Iowa College of Law. His research focuses on inequality, climate change, and agriculture.
Ray Boyle - University of California, Berkeley
After more than a decade of working as an independent consultant on the future of cities and equitable urban systems, Ray is pursuing a Master’s of City Planning at UC Berkeley with a dual concentration in environmental planning and urban design. Her current research focuses on translating climate science into actionable policies that shape adaptation pathways for decision-makers. As an innovation specialist with UNDP, she worked with capital cities to unpack and address the complex challenges facing regional economies due to asymmetrical impacts of migration, climate change, and technological advancements. She serves on the Board of Build It Green, helping advance a portfolio of programs aimed toward normalizing regenerative development at the neighborhood scale.
Shauna Sadowski - Independent Consultant
Shauna was Head of Sustainability for the Natural and Organic Operating Unit at General Mills, where she co-developed the company’s regenerative-agriculture framework, approach, and implementation plan, helping to launch the company’s first products on the market to communicate the impact and story of regenerative agriculture. She has led sustainability programs for Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, Epic, Fork in the Road, and Clif Bar. Through her work, Shauna helps food companies create and manage teams, systems, and programs that build brand credibility by integrating sustainability into the product-design and supply chain, with an emphasis on farming and agricultural programs to drive meaningful impact.
Sophie Egan, MPH - Full Table Solutions
Sophie is the author of How to Be a Conscious Eater (Workman, 2020) and the founder of Full Table Solutions, a consulting practice that’s a catalyst for food systems transformation. An internationally recognized leader at the intersection of food, health, and climate, Sophie serves as Director of Strategy for Food for Climate League; Co-Director of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative; and Senior Advisor for Sustainable Food Systems at R&DE Stanford Dining.
Timothy Male - Environmental Policy Innovation Center
Tim founded the Environmental Policy Innovation Center in 2017. Previously, he served as an Associate Director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Vice President for Conservation Policy at Defenders of Wildlife, Director at National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Co-Director of agriculture policy at Environmental Defense Fund. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Science magazine and a diversity of peer-reviewed journals.