Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Department für Agrarökonomie

Reporting from Food Tank Summit, San Diego: the power of regeneration and other key takeaways

Julia Dennis, Humboldt University Berlin

 

Foto:Julia Dennis

 

California has made international headlines in recent months for the record-breaking fires sweeping over the state, making clear that climate change isn’t a 2025 or 2050 problem, but a major threat today. On Nov 14th, Food Tank brought its summit event straight to California- in the coastal hills of San Diego - to inspire innovative food system changes which can help build resilient livelihoods and ecosystems in the face of an unpredictable climate.

Stakeholders from non-profits, businesses, government and education came together under one roof to discuss a broad range of approaches to change, but over the course of the event, one core theme became clear: the power of regeneration. As Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg offered in her keynote, today’s growing food movements cannot simply aim to prevent further damage, but must push for food systems that improve prospects for the future, something that Summit partner Berry Good Food Foundation works towards across the San Diego bioregion. Throughout the day, attendees discussed ways to not only be better farmers, companies, voters or eaters, but actually how to be good ancestors. Three key areas of the regeneration-mindset emerged:

Regenerating the planet

When talking about climate change, and food systems challenges more generally, many Summit speakers urged us to take a look underfoot for a key collaborator: the soil. This was represented by the work of organizations like Kiss the Ground, who advocate carbon-sequestration farming through natural soil management. A study released last month on natural climate solutions in the US supported this call for improved soil health as the centerpiece of a climate mitigation strategy. This and other regenerative farming practices embody the idea that food systems should give back to the earth more than they take out.

Beyond soil, regenerating the planet also entails supporting ecological health along every link of the food chain, for example by bringing ideas of true cost accounting to market shelves, or aligning our food tastes and demands more closely to natural processes. Eating local, seasonal and organic may be the most visible efforts in this direction so far, however they are only gateway criteria to meals which serve the planet’s interests. From now on, we need to “farm in nature’s image,” urged CEO David Bronner of the Dr. Bronner’s brand. This means also pushing towards biodynamic foods, such as Demeter, which adhere to regenerative practices, alongside higher labor and animal welfare standards. “Organic is just not enough,” says Bronner.

Regenerating the people

Apart from a regenerated planet, another major theme throughout the Summit was regeneration of people – particularly those providing food in today’s vibrant farming scene. One highlight throughout the Summit was hearing from military veterans who entered the agricultural industry as a way to continue serving their country and communities through sustainable and healthy food production. According to Westside Urban Gardens farmer Nate Looney, he found that a military background prepared him for a life in agriculture. “Sometimes a mission doesn’t go exactly as planned, and it’s the same with farming,” says Looney. With the average age of US farmers around 58, the need to build an inclusive, young and passionate producer-force can’t be overlooked.

But it’s not just the farming sector that needs regenerating. Today over 41 million Americans struggle with food insecurity and missing meals, particularly among the working poor. In the food services industry, the country’s fastest growing sector, lack of access to social justice can lead to hunger. Do we have a food crisis? “That depends on your gender, race, and zip code for sure,” noted Evelyn Rangel-Medina of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, who points out that people working for tips in states like California are still paid wages of $2.13 per hour in the two-tier system, a wage that hasn’t changed since 1991. Regenerative food systems would need to provide equal and dignified incomes as a conduit for better public health and nutrition. As President of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council Keith Maddox puts it, “the only way to achieve sustainable food is to have a decent living wage and afford it.”

Regenerating the political

In his address to Summit participants, California Governor-elect Gavin Newsom made it clear that a holistic ‘fork to planet’ approach must be prioritized at the heart of the “body politic,” or political sphere. However, this has been historically difficult due to the fact that the US was founded in-part on slavery-based agriculture, says California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher. One group with a role in regenerating political dialog will be the media, especially in bringing sustainable food and farming issues to a wide audience, or blending in the policy with the ‘food porny’ as Fox 5 San Diego’s Heather Lake says. Beyond reporting on the best burger or burrito, communicators need to encompass a message for systematic change, for example, through airing the voices of civic leaders working towards an inclusive Farm Bill or by investigating the influence of Big Food in politics.

Regenerating politically active food citizens also means, as suggested by Michigan State University’s Dr. Michael Hamm, that companies are compelled or regulated to align with social and environmental values. Many of the businesses at the Summit, from Microsoft to Aero Farms, presented their technical solutions for farming and fishery problems. However, as Ryland Engelhart of Kiss the Ground warned, technology can also create new societal challenges. A regenerated political space for food, or food democracy, could be a stepping stone to urging politicians and businesses to ‘get religion’ as Bronner says, on issues that represent public interest.

What’s next? Being good ancestors

If regeneration nation, or globe, gets underway, some questions need to be answered first, namely: how do we stay critical about what we are restoring? It’s important to keep an eye out for changes that replicate the structures of power which catapulted the food system into unsustainability and inequality in the first place. One key step will be continuing platforms like the Food Tank Summit, which amplify stories of individuals and groups working each day to impact positive, long-term changes. But instead of waiting for grassroots influences to trickle up, it will be equally important for major players to demand a tumble down of the status quo that currently enables corporate power and inaction in politics. In this sense, today’s generation can meet challenges of an unpredictable climate head on. Or in the words of Jessika Greendeer of Waxopini Wiiwamasja, we just need to look to the future to be good ancestors today.

(Dec 12, 2018)