From the Organic Broadcaster (a MOSES publication):
Agriculture needs sustainable ‘belowground ecology’
By Liz Carlisle
As evidenced by the recent presidential election, the economy is on everyone’s mind. Old binaries pitting environment against economy (a battle the environment will always lose) are back in vogue. It’s up to the sustainable agriculture community to spread the good news that there is a hopeful third way: we can create green jobs with “triple bottom line” businesses that prioritize people and the planet as well as profits.
Triple bottom line businesses focused on sustainable agriculture are a hot topic in Silicon Valley, where I moved a year ago to take up a teaching position at Stanford University. For entrepreneurial types, it’s hard not to get excited by the steady growth of the organic sector and seemingly insatiable public hunger for its products. But what is often underappreciated is the underlying framework needed for truly sustainable agriculture. Just as a successful crop relies on the health of what’s underground, a successful business relies on a similar “belowground ecology” of supportive policies, infrastructure, and social movements.
As an example, a Montana business I’ve written about, Timeless Natural Food, strives to build a stable, premium market for ecologically appropriate rotation crops (mostly pulses like lentils and chickpeas), so that farmers can afford to grow them. They’ve been pretty successful, and I think they were critical catalysts in the move toward pulse crop rotation in Montana, which has created dramatic changes on the landscape. There happened to be a USDA Agricultural Census the year that Timeless was founded, 1987, so we know that Montana lentil acreage at that time was 1,979. By the 2012 census it was up to 198,741—a hundred-fold increase! That’s a lot of farmers who have added a nitrogen-fixing crop into a rotation that was likely just wheat/fallow or wheat/barley/fallow a couple decades ago.
But Timeless Natural Foods didn’t do it alone. To imagine that the costs of transitioning to sustainable agriculture across the American Heartland can be borne by individual small businesses is asking too much, and it’s a setup for well-meaning businesses to fail as they try to support environmental and social goods on their own. Farming is a hybrid public/private activity—the public needs to participate in incentivizing agriculture’s potential for public benefits, like healthy rural economies, healthy watersheds, carbon sequestration, and access to healthy food.
That’s why underneath any solid triple bottom line, there must be an underground teeming with activity by social movements like that spurred by Montana’s Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO). This nonprofit citizens’ organization, with funding from foundations like Kellogg, incubated 120 Farm Improvement Clubs that trialed and refined the sustainable farming practices that Timeless Natural Food now recommends to its growers. AERO also lobbied for a bill that would create a formal definition of “organic” in Montana, so they could market their products to consumers looking for this designation—and then lobbied for the state to create a certification program. AERO was among the groups that pushed for crop insurance to stop incentivizing monocultures and start covering “alternative” crops that were key to sustainable rotations. And, they’ve helped organize eaters and parents into a force for change in the Montana food system, which now has a strong farm-to-school movement.
If you’re reading the Organic Broadcaster, you no doubt know about the importance of this kind of patient change work, and you’ve likely been doing it longer than I’ve even been aware of it! Our challenge now is to define this work as the very essence of creating a “good business climate,” especially in the next four years.
I hope to see you next month at the MOSES Conference where we’ll explore ways to grow the belowground ecology of the organic and sustainable
Liz Carlisle is a teacher at Stanford University, and author of Lentil Underground. She will be the keynote speaker Saturday, Feb. 25 at the MOSES Conference.