Lesley Mitchell, Associate Director, Sustainable Nutrition, introduces the collaborative context, vision and roadmap outlined in Forum for the Future's latest report Growing our Future: Scaling Regenerative Agriculture in the US.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly highlighted the fractures in our agriculture systems
, with supply chains struggling, farms suffering labor shortages and deep financial impacts. But the US agriculture system was already bearing the weight of major challenges, from depletion of soil health, to shrinking farmer incomes. So while the pandemic is making us think again about how we get food onto our plates, we have the chance to build back better, into a more resilient, healthy, food system. 

But will we take this unique chance to re-envision the systems that provide our food, apparel, and other key commodities, delivering multiple wins for producers, retailers, consumers – and the planet on which we depend? Can this lead us to reconfigure these systems to deliver those goals? Or will we retrench to business as usual? 

There is lots of innovative activity across the US - but it is often fragmented. What is stopping us from shifting to a more sustainable, resilient, regenerative future already? What do we need to do to dismantle those barriers and build toward new future-fit opportunities?

This shift is not just about adopting some new farming practices – if we are to truly innovate to deliver a nutritious, healthy, abundant and resilient food system, we will need everyone with a stake in the future of the system to engage. 

So, as we commenced 2020, Forum for the Future and organizations across the agriculture, food and apparel sectors in the United States came together to take on the challenge. We wanted to know:

“What would it take to transform to a healthy, regenerative agriculture system that is building back soils and livelihoods?” 

Growing our Future - a systemic collaborative process, delivered at the height of the pandemic - brought together more than 60 organizations from across the US and internationally, hunkered down together virtually. We identified the deep barriers and revealed the connections and shifts needed across the food system. We focused on food and apparel, but these learnings are relevant across all supply chains that rely on agricultural commodities.

The process had collaboration at its heart, bringing together unlikely allies with diverse perspectives, building a shared view, identifying the deep challenges and multiple actions needed, both large scale and small. Contributing expertise from the worlds of finance, agriculture, food, farming, civil society, philanthropy and beyond, we aimed to see the challenge as one for the whole system, not just individual, competitive action.  

Reimagining the goals of the agriculture system

It is clear that, if we are to build back better, we will need to reimagine what that system is designed to provide. That means refocusing beyond maximum productivity and yield today, to supporting land restoration and enabling our producers to farm in ways that ensure we will have a healthy, nutritious food system for all; rewarding farmers not only for the crops they produce, but for their role as stewards of the natural resources on which we depend. A system that recognizes our renewed focus on the value of workers across the food system, enables liveable wages, investment and supporting innovations that regenerate our farming systems, and that enables rural communities to thrive. 

The barriers identified were immense. From business models that rewarded quantity of food rather than nutrition, financial systems that incentivize farmers to focus on yield maximization; consolidated power in the hands of a few key actors; to supply chains that were shaped for relatively few commodity products at scale, preventing diversification; and pioneering farmers often bearing all the risk of transformative investments. 

Indeed, it showed that the system was not broken - it was performing perfectly well to deliver this maximum output, low margin model. The goals I talked of above, of a thriving food system for all involved, just have not been part of the picture. So, between us, in those challenging and anxious moments at the start of 2020, we created a new vision and roadmap to regeneration. 

A new vision and roadmap to regeneration

Growing our Future identified seven key levers of action which, if pulled together, could unlock the food system and support the scale of change urgently needed: 

  1. Create financial mechanisms and market structures that support regenerative outcomes
  2. Empower farmers to build coalitions at the grassroots level
  3. Shape policy to build a resilient agricultural economy
  4. Build and demonstrate the business case for regenerative practices
  5. Engage with consumers to increase demand for regenerative products
  6. Prioritize nutritional benefits to enable healthy diets
  7. Mobilize landowners to enable regenerative practices to mainstream.

So what happens now? The collaborative will is clearly there – but it needs to turn into action. 

Read the full report

From vision to action: what is your role?

We will need to get our heads around new ways of thinking, as we are for many aspects of life after the immediate crisis. Firstly, that we are much closer to the land that grows our crops than we think – and that our health and wellbeing is linked to the natural resources of soil, water and land that make our lives possible. And, if we want these systems to thrive, we need to build the way they work – from finance, to knowledge, to value chains – to enable that to happen.

We already have so many of the solutions at hand, happening right now on US soil, and in American food supply chains, with some fantastic examples outlined in the report. But if we want these to scale, we can’t just solve this through individual competitive advantage - we will need to take collaborative action across the system.

Some of that deep expertise and innovation will come from new voices, such as those driving carbon markets who can see the value possible from utilizing soils as carbon sinks. Or it might be the pioneer farmer whose lifelong investment in regenerative farming expertise can now transform our skills at scale. 

And we’ve got to get comfortable with some serious reframing: we will have to embrace more complexity. But that doesn’t have to make things complicated. We will also need to adapt to greater diversity of foods, suppliers, production systems, and the way our food gets to market – one size definitely won’t fit all. 

We’ve seen deep disruption in our food system this year, but the challenges we face from shifting weather patterns and loss of soils show we were already facing a crisis. The participants in this process shared their wisdom and expertise, and together we can now chart a path toward a regenerative future. We have heard the wake-up call. Now is the time for action.

Find out more

View a recording from a webinar which took place on 25 June to understand more about your organization’s role in scaling regenerative agriculture in the United States, explore the barriers to scale along with the seven-point-plan to drive transformational change, and hear specific recommendations for how different actors can enable this transition.

Watch the webinar

Read the full report

If you found this article interesting, find out what other projects we're working on to transform Food and Supply Chains.