A Transformed Food System: Unearthing Regenerative Values

Global food systems are broken. Let’s begin there. We produce enough food to feed ten billion, and yet we have at least 120 million people going hungry while another two billion people are overweight. The discordance of these statistics are jarring enough without taking into account that food systems are responsible for nearly one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions and are a driving force behind biodiversity loss due to pesticide and chemical fertilizer runoffs. 

To help address these issues, on November 15 the Center for Earth Ethics partnered with the World Resource Institute, EIT Food, NOW Partners, the Future Economy Forum, World Vision International and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation to organize a panel with:

  • Dr. Susan Chomba, Director of Vital Landscapes for Africa, World Resources Institute
  • Dr. Lucy Wallace, Chief of Staff, EIT Europe
  • Ms. Bibi la Luz Gonzalez, Founder and Director, Eat Better Wa’ik
  • Mr. Walter Link, Founding CEO, NOW Partners
  • Mr. Steve Chiu, Representative to the UN, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation.
  • Andrew Schwartz, Center for Earth Ethics. (moderator)

Despite the obvious failings of our food systems, some continue to insist that we need not disrupt the food systems as they are. Many agro-corps suggest that the system does not need a full-scale overhaul, but instead simply needs to be tweaked and perfected. That’s not good enough for Dr. Susan Chomba.

“The system is broken. We have a model that is not working and we need to rethink that model,” she says. “‘Where are we as a human society?’ needs to inform the food systems transition that we are looking and working towards.”

By all measures, our societies are in trouble. The values of greed and excess that guide and define not only our food systems but our economies have pressed the world to the brink. The lifestyles of the Global North, particularly the US whose per capita emissions are double those of China, the next highest greenhouse gas producing country, have forced us beyond planetary boundaries. 

For food systems, one antidote is phasing out conventional agricultural practices, which are over-reliant on chemical fertilizers and monocropping, in exchange for regenerative models. Simply put, regenerative agriculture restores soil health, biodiversity and resilience through sustainable farming practices. Unfortunately, many regenerative agriculture efforts have been sidetracked by infighting amongst practitioners and advocates, or have fallen victim to greenwashing efforts by agri-corporate actors who confuse and co-opt the language. 

Dr. Lucy Wallace embraces the variety of regenerative practices. “Regenerative looks different for everybody, and that’s okay,” she said. “Regenerative agriculture will look very different depending on where you are in the world, the landscape you’re operating in, what you’re farming, the markets, the off-take contracts that you have to abide by and the value system context that you’re operating in.” 

Due to this inherent variability, both Wallace and Walter Link contend that the solution is less in how we define regenerative agriculture and more in the values that undergird our food systems. Link spoke of an infusion of regenerative values into food systems that put people and planet first while also attending to people’s basic needs. He recommended a pragmatic approach that places the emphasis on scaling solutions by modeling, implementing and demonstrating the positive environmental and economic benefits of regenerative practices. From this we can help shape policy, as Link remarked, so long as the policy adequately addresses the totality of the issue.

“Good policy matters, whether financing is available matters, all of these things are very important,” he said. “Because again, it’s a whole system. And we tend to look at things separately. But it is a whole system.”

The way forward is to showcase actions that are truly motivated by the principle of interdependence.

Policy cannot be missed and neither can the impediments to its implementation. Steve Chiu remarked that “profit is seductive” and can derail the best intentions of farmers and advocates. 

Bibi la Luz Gonzales made a similar point in contending that the values of the food system are largely defined by the powerful players, whose agendas are predominantly nefarious, cynical or profit-driven. The choices of these powerful actors have shaped global diets, driving millions towards food insecurity and the “triple burden of malnutrition,” which includes not getting enough food and stunted growth. Alternatively, billions of others suffer from obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes. She reminded us that all of this is happening in the midst of the climate crisis, which has made growing seasons unpredictable, forcing many smallholder farmers to abandon their fields when it becomes no longer feasible to farm. 

For Chiu, when we look at our food systems and the values and narratives that define them, we must be cautious and mindful in our approach.

“If we just march forward with the notion of transforming and shifting to this new buzzword or this new approach without necessarily looking at the values that underpin these processes, I think we run the risk of just perpetuating the same problems and facing the exact same challenges, but with a new fresh coat of paint on it,” he said. 

This simple awareness can help in a much needed co-creation of new values. Food systems are vast and wildly complex. They touch nearly every sector of industry and economy, and as such they are shaped by a wide variety of stakeholders. Finding a common language is probably not feasible, but the UN Food Systems Summit and other high level negotiations have demonstrated a common understanding that food systems are broken and need to transform. For the participants in this panel, articulating the values upon which our food systems should be built is a necessary component of this transformation. 

Although transformation is happening, it needs to be hastened. By committing to dialogues such as these and the solutions that we know work, there is an opportunity to achieve our goals. Doing so will require a willingness to step away from what is known into something new. Though intimidating, it is desperately needed if we are to overcome the challenges facing us.

Ned Joyner

Ned Joyner

Ned Joyner is communications and education associate at Center for Earth Ethics.