From Problem Solving to Recognizing Potential: Shifting Approaches to Agriculture

October 20, 2021
From Problem Solving to Recognizing Potential: Shifting Approaches to Agriculture

In his latest paper, Ethan Soloviev – Chief Innovation Officer at HowGood, industry thought leader, and farmer – shares his reasoning on the paradigms within global agricultural systems. He offers a spectrum of agricultural thinking and outcomes ranging from extractive to regenerative and suggests that the way toward a more regenerative farming future is to shift paradigms not just methods.

Our Head of Regenerative Education and Content, Leah Wolfe, sat down with Ethan this week to dig deeper into the potential of regenerative thinking and the power of transformative truth disruption.

Leah: What are some ways that you practice regenerative methodology in your role and your day-to-day?

Ethan: One of the key things about the regenerative paradigm is that it sees each entity as unique. Me as an individual, you as an individual, HowGood as a company, the Hudson River Valley where I live–is a unique place. There’s no other river valley in the world like it. So in the day-to-day at HowGood I’m working to connect with what is absolutely unique and core to HowGood as a company and working to express that in the way we interact with our partners – from the biggest food companies in the world like Danone and General Mills to our investors and the retailers that we work with.

“We’re never looking at problems and how to fix them, we’re always looking at potential and how to get there.”

The way that I work with Danone is going to be different than the way that I work with Applegate, and that means we’re never by the book, we’re never just doing the same thing over and over again. We’re saying “Who is this company and what do they uniquely offer?” – Then we collaborate to produce something that is true to them and helps them differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Always working with uniqueness would be one aspect of a regenerative paradigm or perspective. Another principle is that we’re never looking at problems and how to fix them, we’re always looking at potential and how to get there. So we’re not looking at palm oil and saying “This is an evil tree. How can we fix all the problems it causes?” Current palm oil production does cause significant impact – from biodiversity loss to labor risk, to high greenhouse gas emissions – but instead of attacking it, our focus is “What is the potential of palm oil? What is the potential of the palm tree?” Instead of demonizing palm oil, we’re asking, “Who can we partner with that would express the potential of the palm tree as a perennial agroforestry crop, integrated with animals and biodiversity in a complex multi-output livelihood-generated eco-social-system?”

HowGood has partnered with Livelihoods Funds (which does incredible work around the world with smallholder farmers) as they develop agroforestry and regenerative agriculture systems with palm oil smallholder farmers in Northern Sumatra. They’re working to diversify farmers’ income, their diets, their resilience, and their productivity all while increasing biodiversity. This is one way we’re thinking in terms of potential instead of in terms of the problems.

L: You’re also a farmer – so how does your farming inform this perspective and vice versa?

E: My family and I operate a small farm: a 30-acre apple orchard, grass-fed sheep & lamb operation, and 1000- log shitake mushroom enterprise. One of the things that we see on the farm is that we can’t break things into pieces. You can’t separate the apple trees from the grass, from the sheep, from the morel mushrooms that pop up in the spring – they’re all part of a whole system.

Much of the approach to sustainability in the business world right now is coming from what I call the Conservative Paradigm. “How do we reduce harm? How do we reduce emissions? How do we get to net-zero?”

“Even the UN definition of sustainability is written as “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” which is not actually regenerative! It doesn’t say “Leave the place way better than you found it, full of creative beauty and hope, teeming with life and a delicious diverse landscape for your kids and generations to come.”

Part of the approach from the conservative paradigm is to segment things out into different pieces and say, “We’re just going to divide up the issue and work on water, and energy, and waste” – as if they’re separate. Because I am faced every day with actual living organisms – when I get home I step into the orchard or check on the sheep or harvest mushrooms or walk the rows of chestnuts – it’s so much easier to see them all as an aspect of a whole organism that is living, growing, and developing. It makes it much harder to break things apart, segmenting and dissecting reality into little disconnected pieces.

So you have to look at any situation as a whole, and that’s part of what HowGood does – we don’t just track carbon, or megajoules of processing energy, or humans facing human rights abuses – we put all different angles of impact together into one big database so you can see them working together at the same time and understand the potential tradeoffs and how you can move forward. Being a farmer helps a LOT to see the world holistically, and to help people make decisions in a way that is whole and complete.

L: Does moving from the extractive end of the spectrum to the regenerative end require reduced production? Is it possible to be fully regenerative and produce food on the scale we’ll need to feed 10 billion people by 2050?

E: The idea that we don’t grow enough food is a complete fallacy. A total green revolution myth.

“If you measure in a holistic way, regenerative agricultural systems will out-produce input-heavy industrial agriculture.”

Enough calories are grown to feed people on a global scale. Access to that food is not equitably distributed, which is the major issue. It will take a different level of awareness, consideration of others, and human-centered multi-entity coordination to get all the food to all the people. But there’s never actually been a problem with producing enough food. So this argument of, “we can’t move towards more agroecological methods of growing food because the yields go down” does not actually make sense.

If you measure in a holistic way, regenerative agricultural systems will out-produce input-heavy industrial agriculture. Not always (though sometimes!) in terms of raw metric tonnage yield per unit area, but definitely in terms of nutrient density or in terms of diversity ecosystem benefits generated along with crops.

When farmers have shifted toward regenerative agriculture, some do show a decrease in yield per unit area… but at the same time experience an increase in profitability. In the US, survey data has indicated that more than 50% of farmers are cash-flow negative. So from my perspective, if you reduce yields a little but if you enhance the profitability of the farmer – then they can keep farming and keep learning and keep moving toward regeneration. And that’s important.

L: I think some readers might be surprised to see that you’ve listed ‘conservative’ agriculture–often promoted as sustainable ag – only one step above ‘extractive’. What would you say to somebody who feels like the goalposts are constantly moving or feel alienated by regenerative ag?

E: I hope they’re surprised! There are no goalposts. There is no field. With this paper, I am not making an imposition. I’m not even making a recommendation that “you should be regenerative”. I don’t think Conservative is better than Extractive, ultimately. There’s not a moral judgment here, and I am certainly not setting goals for anyone – especially farmers.

I am, on the other hand, offering something that may be surprising something that hasn’t been considered, something you may not agree with… but I’m not telling you that you’re wrong. I’m just saying “Look at these levels, what do you see? Where do you think you are currently? Where do you want to be?”

L: Something I think about a lot is how to bring producers into the fold of regenerative.

E: You are already assuming that regenerative is “right” and that you need to bring producers into it. You’ve already made an assumption there – which I do not. I’m not trying to tell farmers to do anything, I’m not trying to bring them into any folds. Farmers especially do not like being told what to do. Farmers are brilliant, independent, innovative people who are really connected to their place and their crops. So I’m not trying to push anything.

My family and I make decisions on the land we farm about what we want to move towards. And I personally want to enhance the agency, sovereignty, and resiliency of my community and I want to help others do the same. But I’m not proposing that if you’re a farmer you “should” do any of the things that I do.

This conversation is touching some of the deepest aspects of the regenerative paradigm: I cannot make decisions or assumptions for anyone else. Going about it this way more often emerges from the net-positive or “do good” paradigm: “I know what good is and I’m going impose it on you”. That’s what missionaries did (and do), that’s what mission-driven businesses keep doing.

While this approach is well-intentioned, I believe it will ultimately fail to create significant and lasting change. Unfortunately, the paradigm that it comes from is the same one that has created the situation we’re in right now, after hundreds of years of missionary do-gooders stealing indigenous lands because they knew “what was better” for that place. So if I were to show up on a farmer’s farm and tell them “You should be regenerative, I know what’s good and right, you should do what I tell you to” then I’m doing the same thing over again.

L: Not everybody has a farmer in their life that they know and care about on a personal level–what would you suggest for a conversation between, say, a decision-maker in the sourcing or sustainability department at a large CPG company and a supplier?

E: If they were thinking from an Extractive Paradigm and they wanted a new agricultural supplier what would they be thinking?

L: What’s the cheapest way we can produce this?

E: Exactly – “How can I get the biggest bang for my buck?” This could mean finding the lowest price, but it could also mean finding a supplier that has a greenwashed marketing claim that could ultimately make me more money. For example, a retailer who everyone is excited about because all their goods are cheap and organic, but it’s often only possible for it to be cheap because farmers and laborers somewhere in the world are significantly underpaid.

L: And from a Conservative Paradigm perspective?

E: If a procurement professional is coming from a Conservative Paradigm they might be asking, “How do I become more efficient? How do I spend less time and energy to find the right ingredient?” A huge amount of procurement professionals tend to come from this resource-conserving, efficiency, optimization mindset because supply systems globally are extremely complex. They might look for something that has a little bit lower cost but also a little bit lower carbon footprint – which is great! If we could get everybody to buy something that would shrink their carbon footprint by 10 percent, that would be a huge win. Again, here I am not saying that supply has to be regenerative – doing less harm can be very valuable in certain contexts and situations. But there are also limitations to what efficiency can produce.

L: Alright, what about Net-Positive?

E: You might be thinking about the farmer as well as yourself, “Am I paying enough for the good work they’re doing? Can I figure out a way to enhance what I do for them?” By generating more health and wellness for consumers, they may be willing to invest more in their food, and that extra value can be passed along to the farmer. A net-positive approach would look for “win-win” scenarios, that in many cases could even lower prices for end-consumers. Procurement teams developing direct relationships with cooperatives can sometimes achieve a certain scale of agricultural supply that allows more high-quality food to be produced, and a larger community of growers to participate, leading to a net-positive impact on a community.

L: This next step is where I have the hardest time, understanding the jump from net-positive to regenerative.

E: It’s very hard! It requires breaking and de-structuring all the ways we’ve been taught to think in an Extractive industrial society. That’s why I wrote the paper – to invite you to start on this journey, not to tell you what “the answer” “is”.  If I come in as the expert to tell everyone how to do it,  then all momentum stops as soon as I leave, which is totally unsustainable. When everyone can learn to think regeneratively on their own, that will produce some amazing things in the world!

L: I think that regenerative would be, instead of going to the supplier and placing an order, going to producers directly and seeing what they want to produce and then creating a market for that.

E: You’re designing from the ecosystem as opposed to extracting from it. Regenerative doesn’t give a directive of what needs to be done, but it starts off a process that actually creates change as opposed to just promoting one answer, one practice, or one certification. So maybe you just want the easy out and you go buy a regeneratively produced ingredient–and you should–but there’s more you can do. If you actually want regeneration, it’s going to take more critical thought and design. It does NOT  have to take more time – significant shifts can be seen very quickly even in complex supply systems when you think regeneratively and aim for potential. So don’t ask the question “What’s the problem how can we fix it?”, instead ask, "What’s the potential, where can we go?"