Listen to the podcast here
Simply planting or farming more will not save our planet, and at worst, it might even speed up its destruction. That’s where regenerative agriculture comes in. Tom Newmark is the Co-Founder of The Carbon Underground, a 501(c)3 organization focused on solutions to drawdown carbon into our soil through regenerative agriculture, and the owner of Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, a wholly organic and regenerative farm in Costa Rica. In this episode, he joins Corinna Bellizzi to explain why regenerative farming is the solution that will save our planet. Keep your ears glued to this insightful discussion and learn more about how farming impacts our future and the role you can play in saving it.
About Tom Newmark
Tom Newmark is the Co-founder and chair of The Carbon Underground, a 501(c)3 Not-for-profit organization focused on solutions to drawdown carbon into our soil through regenerative agriculture. He is the owner of Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, Costa Rica, which is on a fully organic regenerative and fully functioning farm.
He served as the CEO of New Chapter, Inc. for more than 13 years, departing in 2012 after they were acquired by Proctor & Gamble to focus on his work to regenerate earth.
0:00 – Introduction
2:06 – The origins and creation of Finca Luna Nueva
7:31 – Finca Luna Nueva’s transformation from organic to biodynamic
12:02 – Enriching the soil and Mother Nature’s response to biodiversity
23:55 – The irony of agricultural technology
33:15 – Achieving global cooling by drawing carbon underground
44:29 – Soil Carbon Initiative
49:39 – Soil Carbon Index and contention with the Regenerative Organic Certification
55:51 – Transition to a regenerative future
58:05 – Conclusion
Regenerative Agriculture: The Answer To The Climate Crisis With Tom Newmark
Solve The Climate Crisis By Drawing Atmospheric Carbon Underground Through Regenerative Farming
I’m thrilled to be joined by Tom Newmark, who I know from my life working in the natural products industry, and I’m sure many of you know him as well. He was the CEO of New Chapter back in 2012, and left to focus his passion and dig deep in the world of regenerative agriculture, creating truly sustainable solutions.
He owns a regenerative farm and retreat center that we’ll all learn a little bit about, Finca Luna Nueva, where I’m curious to learn more. I have a surprise for him specific to that as well. He’s the Cofounder and Chair of the not-for-profit, The Carbon Underground. If you’ve been following my work on regeneration, I have mentioned that, and I’m thrilled that we get to dig into this together. Tom, thank you for joining me.
I’m looking forward to our conversation.
This is incredible for me because I have heard many great things about Finca Luna Nueva. What does that mean exactly?
It originated because the concept of doing extractions was to set the herbs on the new moon, and to pull the herbs and extract form on the full moon. It relates back to the origins of this farm as a spice farm supplying New Chapter, my old company, with ginger and turmeric for herbal extractions. The original name of the New Chapter was New Moon Botanicals.
I didn’t know that.
This became the farm of the New Moon, Finca Luna Nueva. I never owned New Chapter, but I always owned separately. I’m proud to own this with my buddy, partner and teacher, Steven Farrell, who’s a great organic and regenerative farmer. We’ve had a long connection with New Chapter. We don’t have that connection now. I still have a lot of love and respect from my old company, but we’re no longer supplying anything to it.
There’s nothing right now worth sustaining. We need to either regenerate or leave the planet for the next iteration of evolution.
I didn’t know that either. I just assumed that continued even after the close, but it’s not surprising. Things are bound to change, especially over the years. I was excited about this interview before and you’ve got that, but then something happened. I’m a firm believer that happy coincidences tend to occur when you’re on the right path, whatever that path might be. The day after I connected with you to talk about coming on the show, an industry friend reached out to me and they shared with me that they were getting ready to host an exclusive retreat in Costa Rica.
They started talking about a regenerative farm and the types of things that we’d be doing together if I came on. I mentioned, “I was talking to Tom Newmark about his facilities there and everything,” so I may be coming out to Costa Rica. It’s something I’ve heard so much about over the years from the many people who have gone and enjoyed the facilities either as a part of your work with New Chapter or just on their own to enjoy their treat.
There’s no such thing as coincidences. I guarantee you that we will roll out the green carpet for you. We’ll have a photosynthesizing chorus of plants cheering you on. I hope I can be here.
I’ll let you know when I have more details. I’ll have to convince my husband that I need to be there and without the kids. I’m not completely done yet.
We’re kid-friendly and we’re even friendly to husbands. If you’re interested in regenerative agriculture and rainforest conservation, we have the bed and breakfast place for you. This is a wonderful place for people who love nature but want to explore how farming can produce food regeneratively in the tropics where many people on the planet live.
Tell us about the creation of this resource of Finca Luna. What led to it? How do we get there?
It was inspired by the desire of my old company, New Chapter, to source organic ginger. Way back in the early 1990s, before the National Organic Program, there were few reliable sources of organic ginger. There was a place in Hawaii and there was this little farmer in this obscure mountain hamlet of La Tigra that was doing organic ginger production. New Chapter contracted with the farmer, and it happened to be Steven Farrell. That was the start way back in 1992. Then in 1994, a group of early supporters of New Chapter bought this land, and Steven Farrell became an Owner or Partner and President of Finca Luna Nueva.
It’s never a part of New Chapter, but a bunch of crazy independent visionary, hopeful folks bought this land. Over time, Steven and I have been delighted that we’ve been able to consolidate the ownership. Now, he and I are the owners. It started as a source of organic ginger. That’s an interesting launching pad for a conversation because you talk about sustainability, which is a term that I do not like because there’s nothing worth sustaining right now. We either regenerate or leave the planet for the next iteration of evolution.
Finca Luna Nueva began as an organic ginger estate. It soon reached out to a cousin of ginger, Curcuma longa, turmeric. We were growing turmeric and ginger here at this farm. We morphed from an organic farm certified under the National Organic Program to a Demeter-certified biodynamic farm because we were always looking for, “Is there a better way? Is there a way more in harmony with the Laws of Nature? Is there a way that we can farm that is a win for the planet and a win for the health of the individual?”
We went from organic, which is simply a regulatory regime that regulates inputs, to biodynamic, which is both input-oriented and process-oriented. We experimented for years with biodynamic farming. We taught biodynamic agriculture at Finca Luna Nueva. We made our own preparations for biodynamic farming. We worked with the magicians and shamans around the world of biodynamic agriculture because biodynamics is a little bit agricultural and a little bit magic. We did all that.
I went to Rodale with my daughter, Sarah, and we met with the first CEO of the Rodale Institute, Dr. Tim LaSalle. He took us out to the Rodale farming test site, where they were growing organic and conventional side-by-side. He was explaining how, over time, the yields were roughly comparable. The soil carbon and soil organic matter was vastly better in the areas of organic rather than conventional cultivation.
We went into his office and he said, “Let me tell you what’s happening. There is a way to farm which is beyond organic. There is a way to farm which is, in a way, a biomimetic system, a mimicry of how the grasslands and prairies produce food calories and nutrition, and how a forest produces nutrition. This system is called regenerative agriculture.” I never heard of regenerative agriculture.
Dr. LaSalle, who is my teacher, I give him full credit for all the work that I’ve done. Dr. Tim LaSalle then said to Sarah and to me, “If enough acreage in the world would begin to farm regeneratively, we might be able to draw down and integrate into the living soil of a regenerative farm. Enough of the atmospheric legacy CO2 to reverse climate change.”
In regenerative agriculture, we’re not handcuffed or bound by an orthodoxy of practice. It’s all about mimicking Mother Nature and being creative.
You’ve got to realize, Corinna, I’ve been the board chair of Greenpeace Fund in the United States. I’m an environmental activist. I’ve been worried about the climate crisis for much of my adult life, and I had never heard of the solution of using agriculture as a mechanism for drawing down legacy CO2. I’m going, “Tim, you’re telling me that if we farm regeneratively, it’s better than simply sustaining the soil organic matter levels that we have and we can increase the soil organic matter levels?” He said, “These are what the early data are showing.”
I went to our farm here and we did soil testing. We compared our certified biodynamic organic ginger and turmeric fields to the margins of our farm, which were in the transition back to a secondary rainforest. We compared what we had been doing in our farming, which we thought we were the best, patting ourselves on the back. There’s no way better than what we were doing.
We compared it to a true baseline, which is what the ecosystem on its own was producing with no human intervention at all. What we found is that both our pastures and our farming areas were doing far worse with soil organic matter levels than what the ecosystem would do if we ignored it. In other words, our human manipulation, our method of farming was damaging the ecosystem. This led to a lot of soul searching and soil surfing.
How do you do it? How do you make it as good as it would be in the wild, so to speak?
What we were doing wrong was we were using no synthetic fertility inputs. Everything was organic from the beginning of time. We were doing everything right, we thought.
I’m guessing it was tilling, the plowing?
There were a couple of things that were wrong. We had a five-year crop rotation. We would plant the turmeric and the ginger, and then we would harvest it. We would plant beans the next year and then we would have three years of fallow. Here in the rainforest, we’re near the equator. It’s all go and no slow. This is a permanent 24/7 growing season here. It’s a deep brush. Trees are developing.
It was then time to go back to that field and grow ginger and turmeric, so we sent our pigs in. The pigs are hungry for grubs. They’re amazing in turning the soil. They cleared a lot of brush, but they didn’t clear enough brush, so then we sent our farmers in with the plow being pulled by oxen. We thought we were the greatest show on turf. Not only did we have pigs do the tilling, but then we had oxen-powered plows. We were all singing and dancing and thinking we were great that we were plowing, and then we did another thing wrong.
We planted a crop of a field of ginger in a field of turmeric. That’s the rainforest there. It isn’t a field of one crop. There’s no such thing as monoculture in this ecosystem. Not only were we ripping apart the flesh of Mother Earth with the blade of the plow, exposing the organic matter that we had built up to the decomposing microorganisms that were released by the plow and could gain access to the tilth, but there was oxygen and sunlight. The whole system was primed for rapid decomposition and rapid release of soil organic matter through respiration into the atmosphere.
We are now a pump of CO2 into the atmosphere, but then we had the vanity of planting a crop when this ecosystem is saying, “Don’t plant me in rows. Don’t plant me with bare earth. Don’t plant just one plant.” We’ve had botanists come to my farm and look in the rainforest, which surrounds all of our fields. There are at least 1,400 species of vascular plants in our ecosystem and yet, we who thought we were smarter than nature were planting one plant after having plowed the soil. What we were doing was the same mistake that was made many years ago in the Neolithic Revolution.
We were issuing orders to the ecosystem to behave in ways that no natural ecosystem behaved and we paid the price because of the organic matter that we built up in all those years of fallow. We were releasing all of that and then some in the atmosphere. We were not being regenerative. Even though we were being organic and we were certified Demeter biodynamic, we were being destructive of our ecosystem. Therefore, because I didn’t want to be responsible for destroying the planet, there was no way to go back to that system of agriculture. We had to figure out another way of farming.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature figured out biodiversity. Mother Nature figured out that you don’t have bare earth. Mother Nature figured all of that out, whether it was in grasslands or in forests. What we were then led to do was to copy Mother Nature’s way. Using permaculture design, we now have fields where there are 20 or 30 crops growing tightly together. Not 1,400, but lots of different plants with roots of different sizes, roots that go to different depths, and leaves that are solar panels, that were different heights, shapes and orientations. We became a far more efficient collector of photons of solar energy.
By never disturbing the soil, we were able to have the photosynthetic process capturing the solar energy, drawing in CO2 from the atmosphere, taking up water through the roots, breaking apart H2O and CO2, and re-scrambling creating the carbohydrates. Also, releasing oxygen from the water that had been broken apart, fueling the metabolic needs of the plant through the carbohydrates, and then passing carbohydrates through root exudates into the soil feeding the soil food web. Now, we are regenerative and we are building back the tilth, hummus, and organic matter in the soil. You can see it, feel it, taste it and measure it. That’s now what we’re doing here on our farm.
One species, humans, eats up 40% of the net primary production of the planet.
How far have you improved this soil? How close is it approximate what you find on the jungle floor now?
We did soil tests and we only went down 6 inches. The soil organic matter levels are bouncing back. We’re not all the way back yet, but they are bouncing back. We are seeing dramatic improvements in nutrient levels and in soil organic matter levels. You give me a few more years here and we’re going to win some prizes.
I can’t wait to see that.
You’ll be here. You’ll see it. We will show you what a regenerative farm looks like. The good news about regenerative agriculture is that it takes a farm wherever it starts. Using the principles of regenerative agriculture, we can keep building on that. There is no endpoint. At least theoretically, we’re not yet aware of an endpoint. In other words, the soil can’t get better and you can’t draw more CO2 down from the atmosphere and integrate it into the tissue of Mother Earth. The reason why we don’t know what the limits are is because there have been times on the planet when there have been 4,000 or 5,000 parts of CO2 per million in the atmosphere.
In the Devonian Period and the Ordovician Period, with the development of terrestrial plant life, we’ve been able to draw down thousands of parts of CO2 to levels that at some point got as low as 180 parts per million of CO2. Mother Earth has an extraordinary capacity to create a system which supports the continuity of life on the planet. The Great Plains used to be great. In some parts, they went down many meters.
In Great Britain, there were great soils, where now there are none. Soils that went down 3-plus meters and now they’re in bedrock. We’ve done a lot of unscratching with pencils and computations on the back of envelopes. There seems to be enough room on Earth if we cultivate enough land regeneratively that we can draw down every molecule of legacy toxic CO2 and put that carbon back to work in supporting life. We don’t even know what the endpoint is.
In regenerative agriculture, we’re not handcuffed. We’re not bound by the orthodoxy of practice because it’s not practice-based. It’s all about mimicking Mother Nature and being creative. We want farmers all around the world to be creative and to understand the basic principles, which would minimize disruption of the soil, minimize the introduction of synthetic fertility, and use biological diversity as your tool. Using those basic principles, the soil is unlimited.
I want to talk about how technology has put us in this space. Also, some of the reasons why perhaps we need to be mindful that technology may not provide the solutions that we think it can. One of the trends that we see here in California, there are a lot of different companies that are working to make food solutions that are more technologically based. “We’ll move agriculture indoors. We’ll make microgreens. We’ll go ahead and develop protein out of air. We will use GMO soy to make hamburger patties that are like meats. We’re going to do all of these things to solve our food crises without addressing a regenerative solution.”
In fact, there’s this irony at the center of it all, which brings me back to my early college days. Joseph Campbell’s work would center on the invention of the plow and say that it was the thing that enabled us to move from being tribal hunter-gatherers to having cities to having secure food storage year-round and to developing into what we are today. I like to get your perspective on this irony of technology, the fact that it’s put us where we are today, and how we can learn from Mother Nature in order to solve the problems or do so differently than capitalizing on technology.
Who am I to argue with Joseph Campbell? I’ll quote another titan or great scholar that people have heard of, Jared Diamond, Collapse, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Professor Diamond wrote an article years ago where he said that the greatest mistake in the history of humanity was the invention of the plow. If we’re going to have a war between Joseph Campbell and Jared Diamond, I’m going to go with Jared Diamond on this one.
What he looked at is the vanity of a World War II frightening vernacular, the achtung, order, demand, Mother Nature. You will submit. You will surrender. It was a biblical mindset. In the book of Genesis, going back to the mythological stories that Joseph Campbell might look at, the Earth was created for us. We are the stewards of the planet. That’s baloney.
Somehow, we’re not connected and we aren’t going to experience any repercussions from our actions.
There are terrifying consequences that we’re not reaping because of that mindset, of that paradigm that we are separate from nature, nature was created for our benefit, we can bend nature to our will, and we can take iron and rip apart Mother Earth, tear apart the forests and fields. It’s not just the Judeo-Christian ethic. If my children would be reading this, and I hope that they do, they would remember that I used to read to them growing up, The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is recordation and memorialization of the paradigm of destruction that has led us to where we are now.
The technology that we need already exists, and there are millions of farmers around the world farming regeneratively.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh, who was a demigod, and Enkidu, another demigod, had to kill Humbaba, the god of the forest, to advance the civilization that they were presiding over. The whole metaphor of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest myth before the Bible, is the memorialization of humans destroying the gods of nature and subduing nature. Also, cutting down the Cedars of Lebanon and issuing orders to nature. That’s the founding myth, the foundational mistake of the Western civilization experience.
If you read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and those great books, it didn’t have to be that way. That wasn’t the only mythology that we ever adopted. Unfortunately, it was the mythology that won out, whether it was through The Epic of Gilgamesh or through the Old Testament or through Francis Bacon, the enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and reductionism. That whole mindset of man being able to subjugate and give orders to nature and be irresponsible as a planetary citizen.
Of all the net calories of food created by all plant life on the planet, of all photosynthesizing organisms on the planet, after they’ve satisfied the plant’s metabolic needs, that which remains the net primary production of the planet. There are at least 100 million species on the planet. One species, humans, eats up 40% of the net primary production of the planet. We are selfish. Shame on us. It’s our mythology. It’s our founding story. It’s the paradigm of destruction and it has to change. I’m not against technology. There might be technological solutions that we need to explore. I’m all for clean energy. We have to decarbonize our energy. I am all for that. The lunacy of fossil fuel combustion has got to end.
We can’t simply expect the magical thinking, “There’s going to be some technological fix. There’ll be some carbon capture and storage device created that will allow us to keep going on destroying the planet and ecosystems because there is a technology that will be invented in 10 or 20 years. Some Silicon Valley, some Silicorn Valley that will fix this.” That’s magical thinking. We have a solution right now. We don’t need to invent new technology. The technology that we need is right there. It already exists.
There are millions of farmers around the world farming regeneratively. Most of them in smallholder farm experiences, less than 2 or 3 hectares, most women. There are millions of regenerative farmers. There is a regenerative farming movement in virtually every country. What we need to do is take this idea of regeneration and nourish it, go with it, lean into it. Revere Mother Nature and copy how Mother Nature produces food. That’s what the regenerative agriculture revolution is all about.
I hope we have enough time. Frankly, it’s not up to me whether we have enough time. This doesn’t give me hope. I’m not dealing in the land of hope and dreams. We have a crisis and it’s an existential crisis. We have a solution and it’s called photosynthesis and regenerative agriculture. I wake up every morning and we have work to do it. It diminishes us not to get to work. Will it be fast enough? I don’t know. That’s for others to figure out. We have to get to work right now.
I have a question for you since you’re doing this incredible work with The Carbon Underground, drawing that carbon underground, getting more farmers, using these regenerative processes, and helping to train them to do that. I watched a video that you did on YouTube where you gave a speech about the fact that the air we’re breathing now or the carbon in the atmosphere is the result of what our parents did years ago. That is going to take that much longer for us to know what the effect will be. It got me thinking about what is that runway? Is it possible to get enough carbon underground for it to sequester 25% or more of our atmospheric carbon in my lifetime or in my children’s that they can experience some global cooling? I know that’s a big question, but I wondered what your thoughts are.
It’s such an important question. You’re not surprised to know that I think about it all the time. What you were referring to in that talk I gave is the concept of climate lag. It works like this. I want to boil some water in my kitchen, so I pour water into my pot and I put it on the stove. I turn on the flame under that, and that flame is hot. You don’t want to get near that flame. If I put my hand in the water, it’s still cold, and then a minute later, it’s a little bit warmer. It takes a while for the heat of that flame to transfer that energy into the water in the pot.
Imagine if the pot is the size of the ocean and if the flame is the heat energy that is trapped because of the greenhouse gases that radiate back to Earth and that keep building in the Earth and in the oceans. It takes a long while to heat up the oceans. The oceans are absorbing so much of the CO2 and so much of the heat. What does that mean now? The climate that we have now reflects the CO2 levels, the greenhouse gas levels that existed many years ago.
Different climate scientists will give different numbers on this, but the numbers that make the most sense is that it takes 40 years to experience 60% of the heat energy that is trapped by greenhouse gases. What we’re experiencing now is slightly more than half of the global warming caused by greenhouse gases when I was in college.
That’s certainly frightening.
We have an existential crisis. We have a solution, it’s called photosynthesis, it’s called regenerative agriculture.
It’s also good news. It’s frightening because it means that if we simply keep on with business as usual, if we sustain what we’re doing, then we’re cooked. When I was in college, we were 325 parts per million. Now, we’re at 417 parts per million. Imagine 40 years from now what that will be like. The last time Earth had CO2 levels this high, there were hippopotamuses swimming in the hot swamps of London and there were forests on the South Pole. It was a different world, a world that would be unrecognizable and unlivable for the human experience. We can’t simply sustain what we have.
The idea of being net-zero is laughable. We have a trillion tons of legacy CO2 in the atmosphere that shouldn’t be there those humans put there because of agricultural malpractice and fossil fuel emissions. It has to get put back to work in the soil. We can’t be net-zero. We have to be net negative in terms of atmospheric CO2, or in 40 years. Only the gods know what this ecosystem hell will look like. That’s the good news. Even though, in a way, that hell on Earth is locked in because we already have 417 parts of CO2 in the atmosphere, it’s going to take 40 years for that global nightmare to occur. We have time to draw that down.
The nightmare of climate lag, “It’s locked in. We can’t do anything. The bomb has already gone off.” The bomb has gone off, but it’s going to be 40 years or so before we feel it and we can do something. In the world of climate science, supercomputers, and climate modeling, there are many different models. I don’t want to pretend to know which one in this highly sensitive world was the butterfly effect and the sensitivity of any small change.
I don’t know enough. No one knows enough. We don’t know if there’s enough time to fix this, but yet we know that there are 5 billion hectares of land, 3.5 billion hectares of grasslands, and 1.5 billion hectares of arable land. We know that people around the world are showing drawdown and integration of carbon into the living tissue of land.
I was on a call with Russell Hedrick, who is a real cropper on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. He’s showing nine tons of carbon per hectare per year in a row cropping of regenerative agriculture. David Johnson and his partner in scientific collaborator, Hui-Chun Su, are showing in row cropping in Arizona 9 to 10 tons of carbon, not CO2. It’s a stunning amount. Ten tons of carbon is 36.7 tons of CO2 being put into the soil and being put back to work. There are people all around the world, maybe only one ton of carbon per hectare, in the SEKEM biodynamic test in Egypt.
The great work being done all through Africa with no-till agriculture showing 5 or 6 tons of carbon per hectare per year just using green manure cover cropping, nothing fancy. Just using no-till with the introduction of multiple species of cover cropping. This is great hope. If you’ve got 5 billion hectares and we can sequester one ton of carbon per hectare per year, that’s 5 billion tons being drawn down. What if we could sequester ten tons of carbon per hectare per year? Imagine.
We don’t know where the limits are. We’re in experimentation at this point.
This is the crisis of all time, certainly of our time. This is the opportunity of our time. We have the technology. It is time-tested. It’s called photosynthesis. It’s waiting for us. There are no technological barriers to entry. It can be done by people with limited resources. There is no great capital barrier. We’re introducing cover crops. It’s that simple.
I’m encouraging policymakers, governments, corporations and farmers around the world to open your awareness to the opportunity of regenerative agriculture. You have no choice but to farm regeneratively. If the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is to be believed, if all of the global soil scientists who contributed to the papers of the FAO are to be believed, we are losing 25 billion to 35 billion tons of topsoil per year. It is being eroded, oxidizing, volatilizing right into the atmosphere, and being washed into the rivers and the seas through erosion because of our practices.
The FAO says that in 55 or 60 years, there will be no soil left with which to grow food. Farmers and supply chain managers around the world, what are you going to do when there’s no soil, and there’s no water? Where are you going to grow your cotton for your clothing? Where are you going to grow your food for the 8 billion or 9 billion people? There’s no soil left if we keep farming as usual. When people say to me, “Will we learn as a planet to farm regeneratively?” We’re going to find out.
I’m involved in a working group that seeks to gamify climate solutions with businesses. Of course, you can’t gamify any of these solutions without measuring results. I understand from looking at what you’re doing with The Carbon Underground that your team is working with a verifiable standard called the Soil Carbon Initiative. I’d like to learn a little bit more about that.
The future is unknown, but we should not be morose. This is not the time to focus on the problem but to focus on the solution.
With this frame of reference that I’ve been thinking about, businesses do a lot of landscaping to beautify the properties that they’re on. Is there a way to introduce these same concepts into their landscaping so that we have a broader effect, even with just the meager soil on medians between parking lots and things along those lines? Trying to increase the entire capacity of exposed soil to sequester this carbon.
Dr. Tim LaSalle in the Center for Regenerative Agricultural and Resilient Systems at Chico State, my partner Larry Kopald and I, through The Carbon Underground, have worked with the fine folks at Green America to create the Soil Carbon Initiative. The original design team included wonderful visionary business leaders from Danone, Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s, and General Mills. Working with that design team and working with an earlier definition of regenerative agriculture that Dr. Tim LaSalle and I wrote, and then hundreds of companies signed on to some years ago.
In collaboration with agronomists, farmers and corporations around the world, we developed the Soil Carbon Index, which has four pillars. The pillars are that over time, stepwise, there will be an increase in soil organic matter in an agricultural system and you can measure soil organic matter. The measurements are getting better and less expensive. There will be an increase in below and above-ground biological diversity. There will be improvements in water infiltration and water management. There will be an increase in the structure of the soil. Those are the four pillars of the Soil Carbon Index and they are outcomes that are measurable.
The reason why we did this is we didn’t want to have regenerative agriculture limited by the orthodoxy of belief. We didn’t want regenerative agriculture to be, “You have to do things this way with these practices,” because we don’t know enough. There are thousands of different soil types, systems and growing zones. Permutations and combinations are probably in the tens of thousands. We don’t know enough in every ecosystem with every cell type and with every crop to know exactly the practices that should be used.
The Soil Carbon Index is not practice-based. It’s outcome-based. What we tell farmers around the world is we’re agnostic as to your practice. If you’re achieving those four outcomes, you’re regenerative and good for you and good for the planet. You’re going to be rewarded for doing that. That is the work of The Carbon Underground, Green America, Chico State Center for Regenerative Agricultural, and Soil Carbon Index. It’s to use that index as a benchmark so that scientists developing measuring technologies know the endpoints and the outcomes that are indicative of a regenerative system. They’re being developed every day.
That’s our work and we’re excited. There have even been nations flirting with the idea of putting the Soil Carbon Index into their national agricultural policy. We’ve gotten close. We’re not giving up. The key now is to have technologies develop that using those pillars, those outcome goals of the Soil Carbon Index can accurately and inexpensively measure those outcomes. We can begin to reward those that are doing it and adopt the practices that are working.
How far do you think we are from a recognized certification for foods and products that are grown regeneratively that perhaps reference this Soil Carbon Index?
There will be people who will disagree with me. There will be people who say it’s already been done, and I salute them. The folks with Savory in their measuring tools and their standards are doing brilliant work. I love what Savory is doing. The good folks with the Regenerative Organic Certification would contend that they’re already doing that. In the universe of fixing the planet, I want to salute everyone who’s working in the regenerative direction.
My personal feeling is that we’re probably close from a combination of a standard that works, which is the Soil Carbon Index, and the technology that will effectively, economically, and at scale measure those endpoints. It’s close. I honor those that believe that their standards are doing it already. I’m sure that they’re measuring a lot of great success and I won’t take a thing away from what they’re doing. I personally feel that we’re close to some dramatic opportunities that can scale economically and quickly to farmers everywhere on the planet.
The reason I asked is because consumers need to hear more about it to get engaged and involved. The only way I see that getting to the scale where enough people will get involved is to have the word regenerative or regeneratively grown almost replace or supplant what we’ve seen with the non-GMO project or organic certification. The conversation gets to a new level and their engagement will improve the likelihood that they will advance more quickly, and then we’ll get more done. That’s just my belief anyway.
I’m all for you. You hearken back to my experience at New Chapter. We were early adopters of the non-GMO program and we were early to embrace the National Organic Program for Dietary Supplements. My farm has been free of synthetic fertility inputs from the beginning of time. I am not a fan of GMO technology and the production of food, but it will be great to have consumers demanding truly regenerative textiles and truly regenerative foods. Who else is going to want to do that? I won’t name names, but I’ve talked to CEOs of some big international corporations. They have to manage a carbon balance sheet too.
Corporations are being called to manage their carbon footprints. Right now, corporations are doing a lot of offsetting, but corporations want to inset and have their supply chains as part of the solution and not buy carbon credits not associated with their supply chains. Major corporations like General Mills, Nestlé, Danone and others, you hear them talking about their embrace of the regenerative movement. That’s not necessarily because the consumers are demanding it. It’s not necessarily because it will be on-label, but responsible corporations know that they have to manage their carbon balance sheets.
What a time to be alive on the planet as we are in this phase of transition to our inevitable regenerative future.
I’ve been in conversations with heads of state and they know that if their countries are to continue to be able to produce food for their population, they have to have regenerative agriculture. Not consumer-driven, but driven out of the care and the responsibility of the good leaders of countries around the world. I’ve had conversations with them and they are truly here. There’s another group that will be a powerful force for regenerative agricultural adoption and that is the developing carbon markets of the world. There are trillions of dollars poised to flow into carbon markets.
If you believe Kim Stanley Robinson’s book, The Ministry for the Future, it’s a visionary book by the way, science fiction though it may be, we will be managing the business of the world by managing our carbon budget. There will be the flow of trillions of dollars of capital rewarding those that are putting carbon back to work in the ecosystem. Whether it’s heads of state, heads of government, consumers or the capital markets, all of those are converging to demand objectifiably measurable and scientifically validated regeneration based on outcomes. We are developing the true ministry for the future through our work.
The time is now. We have to get to work, pick up our boots, strap them on and get going. As we prepare to wrap up, is there a question that you wish I had asked you? If you’d like to pose it and then answer it, that would be awesome. If not, is there a thought that you’d like to leave our audience with?
The future is unknown. We should not be morose. I don’t think that this is a time to focus on the problem but to focus on the solution. There is no drop of love that is ever wasted. Either in a family, in a relationship, or in our relationship with Mother Earth. We, humans, are fully capable of reimagining a relationship to the planet of creating a new paradigm that goes beyond the Gilgamesh paradigm of destroying the gods of nature to a new and unknown mythology and paradigm of regeneration.
What a time to be alive on the planet. As we are in this phase transition to our inevitable regenerative future, I’m a little bit white in beard. I may not be alive to see us reach that promised land, but I’m going to work every day of my life with every beat of my heart and every drop of love for the planet to make that happen. We in The Carbon Underground and other organizations aligned with us welcome all people to join us in that mission.
I’m right there with you, Tom. I’ll be marching right alongside you and dedicating myself to the same thing. It was the whole reason I even started this show. I’m so thrilled that you joined me. I’ve enjoyed this conversation and I’ve learned quite a bit too, so thank you for that. I hope we get to meet soon in person again.
I’ll take you on a farm tour. I look forward to that. Thank you.
I wanted to be in Costa Rica my whole life. I love being in tropical weather. Near the equator, I feel like my body sings. One day in the not-too-distant future. Thank you, Tom.
Readers, now it’s time for me to ask you to act. You can do a couple of simple things for me. First, I’d like for you to go and explore the website, The Carb Underground, and learn what they’re doing from their perspective. They take donations directly on the site and you can learn more. You can also go back to CareMoreBeBetter.com and sign up for the newsletter. You’ll get your action guide and have more tools in your tool shed to get involved and ultimately stay informed. Thank you, readers, now and always, for being a part of this show and this community because together, we can do so much more. We can regenerate Earth. Thank you.
- New Chapter
- Finca Luna Nueva
- The Carbon Underground
- Greenpeace Fund
- Guns, Germs, and Steel
- The Epic of Gilgamesh
- YouTube – The Carbon Underground with Tom Newmark
- Soil Carbon Initiative
- Green America
- Regenerative Organic Certification
- The Ministry for the Future