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Regenerative: Fair for Farmers, Organic for You

Dana Geffner, Executive Director of Fair World Project and a Regenerative Organic Alliance Board Member, shares her thoughts about how social fairness forms a foundational pillar of the Regenerative Organic Certification.

I have been working in the fair trade movement for over 20 years. In 2010, I co-founded the non-governmental organization, Fair World Project, to promote the fair trade movement and watchdog the fair trade industry. I have visited many fair trade projects, from India to Ghana to Guatemala, and have found that organized farmers in long-term commercial partnerships with committed buyers not only fare the best, but are more likely to be implementing regenerative organic practices. These are the most exciting projects to visit and they are what gives me hope for the future.

When I visit farming communities, I’m always reminded that small-scale farmers’ margins are tight, capital is limited, and markets are difficult to reach. Regenerative organic practices often require more labor and investment than conventional agricultural systems. In order for farmers to implement truly regenerative organic practices they need fair terms of trade—including fair payments. Compensating farmers fairly is critical to scaling out regenerative practices and ensures that the true cost of production—including paying workers living wages—is the starting point for farmers to deal with the biggest threat to humanity: climate change.

The Regenerative Climate Solution

Regenerative agriculture is often characterized as a holistic approach to agriculture that emphasizes the restoration of soil health. It builds upon the experiences and traditions of organic practices and the movements that preceded it. Those practices include conservation tillage, mulching, compostingcover croppingcrop rotation and restorative livestock integration – techniques drawn from the experiences and traditional knowledge of small-scale farmers.

The benefits of regenerative agricultural practices are multifold, including carbon sequestration, increased resiliency in the face of drought and extreme climate events, and improved production. While approaches and experiences will vary depending on a given agricultural scenario (row crops, agroforestry, livestock, etc.), regenerative practices in general are low-tech, often inexpensive and relatively easy to implement.

Regenerative agriculture prioritizes the utilization of on-farm fertility and resources. The traditional techniques that regenerative farmers utilize greatly reduce the need to purchase off-farm fertilizers, pesticides and fuel. These practices not only reduce costs for farmers, but build up soil and support farm resiliency. One simple way to understand regenerative agriculture at the farm level is to think of the farm and soil as a bank account. Industrial agriculture depletes the account by extracting nutrients, water and human dignity, leaving the farm worse off each year. Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, adds to the account by gradually improving soil, increasing the farm’s capacity to produce safe and healthy food, and generating real value for farmers over the long term. This principle can also be applied to the livelihoods of farmers and farmworkers.

Given all this, why aren’t more farmers practicing regenerative agriculture today? The barriers are the same as those that have plagued farmers, including certified organic farmers, for decades: corporate consolidation of supply chains, including seed supplies, vanishing access to land, and unfair pricing and trade policies.

If farmers and ranchers are to employ regenerative organic agricultural practices, feed their communities, and cool the planet by sequestering carbon, they must be adequately compensated for their work. The fair trade movement provides an important framework to organize for the future. Fair trade principles, like long-term direct trading relationships, payment of fair prices and investment in community development projects, offer a road map for holistic and regenerative production.

A Fair Trade Approach to Regenerative

Fair trade prioritizes close connections between buyers and farmers. By shortening supply chains, removing intermediaries and facilitating more value-added activities, a larger percentage of a product’s value can be captured by the producer community. These phenomena have a multiplier effect, spurring the development of local entrepreneurship and new services for local communities.

In addition to incorporating more farmers into fair trade relationships, it is critically important to create capacity to process fair and regenerative products. Though there are hundreds of millions of farmers and billions of consumers, the processing sector, from coffee roasting to grain milling, is small, consolidated and usually out of reach for many small-scale farmers. More development and investment are needed in local post-harvest processing sectors to make them dynamic enough to accommodate a wide range of products from diverse small-scale farms.

Democratic organizing is another key principle of the fair trade movement. It empowers small-scale farmers to gain access to economies of scale, find capital together and get their regenerative crops to market at fair prices that cover the cost of production and pay workers fairly.  By organizing and being in fair trade relationships with buyers, farmers can build their communities and strengthen the farming techniques that regenerates soil for the future.

Gender equity is also a key principal of fair trade. On a trip to India, I visited farming communities where women—rather than their husbands—had taken over the farming responsibilities on their small plots of land. The result? They were doing it better and more efficiently. This same group of women also talked about taking on the book keeping, while men were now handling the household chores.

In these communities, women’s roles are changing—giving them equal rights and ending violence against them. Likewise, their children’s attitudes are changing, opening up an even greater access to future possibilities.  A regenerative system cannot simply be just sequestering carbon into the soil—it needs to be a holistic approach to changing structures for a more sustainable future.

Not to be forgotten, fair trade is also about educating the public on unjust trading systems so that we can change power imbalances throughout all aspects of society. We must advance public policy, including institutional purchasing policies that prioritize regenerative organic agriculture. In order to support farmer transitions to regenerative practices, public investment is absolutely integral. We need public procurement programs with guaranteed contracts, infrastructure such as processing centers and refrigeration, transportation support, and subsidies and extension programs.

We also can’t overlook public policy to increase the minimum wage to a living wage. This step is critical because the cost of food that is grown regeneratively is going to be more expensive, reflecting true costs, and people need to be able to afford it. The cheap food that we find on the supermarket shelves is depleting our soils, adding carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change, and making our communities sick. Alternatively, regenerative organic agriculture has the potential to transform our food system and tackle climate change. Fair trade is the first step on that journey.

Creating Change Through Public Policy

In 2018, the U.S. organic market was up 6.3% from the previous year to sales of $52.5 billion according to the Organic Trade Association. Today’s big question is, who is benefiting from these billions of dollars in the growing organic and fair trade industry? Is it the marginalized farming communities, growing crops using regenerative organic methods? Or is it the multinational corporations, degrading the environment and eroding human dignity?

Unfortunately, this growth has not always benefited small-scale farmers—and that’s not an accident. I cannot stress strongly enough that we need agricultural and trade policies that prioritize small-scale farmers. Around the world, governments promote policies that put the interests of agribusiness first and bolster the conventional agricultural system with billions of dollars in subsidies. By revolutionizing the way trade and agricultural policies are written, we can build a food system in which small-scale, organic, and regenerative farming can not only compete on a global scale—but become the status quo.

This is why Fair World Project chose to support the development of the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). We wanted to ensure that fair trade standards and practices were part of any regenerative system, especially one that was going to include a market-based label.  And while the organic movement grows, we want small-scale farmers to start benefitting from that growth. We must re-prioritize to support small-scale farmers, empower them to organize and invest in practices that regenerate their soil. Can farmers implement regenerative organic practices if they are not paid fairly? And if not, how will we deal with the greatest catastrophe of our time: climate change?

Reposted with permission from Rodale Institute.

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