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John Roulac on The Power and Promise of Regenerative Agriculture

John Roulac on The Power and Promise of Regenerative Agriculture

When environmental activist and entrepreneur John Roulac first heard his mentor Will Allen lecture on the idea that agriculture is one of the leading contributors to climate change, he knew he needed to become a part of the solution. The greenhouse gas emissions from chemical fertilizers and degenerative farming practices are central to global warming and the ever worsening climate crisis.

“Even though I’d been involved in the organic food movement for 30 years I’d never heard that this was the case,” John said when we spoke over Zoom. “So I started researching, when I would go to Expo West, no one in the natural food industry or organic food industry was talking about soil health and climate change.” He felt like he’d lost his mind, seeing the problem so clearly and not hearing discussion centered around it. 

“We’ve got to educate people about this,” he said passionately. This idea led to the film Kiss The Ground coming to Netflix September 22. “We decided to do this film, and I met [directors] Josh and Rebecca Tickell, and that was six years ago. We raised some of the money, Nutiva put in the first $30,000 and here we are six years later.” Kiss The Ground is revolutionary in its solution based approach to a climate change documentary. The film shows the power of regenerative agriculture and the need for thinking about soil in a whole new way, as the solution that is “right under our feet.”

“We’ve been brainwashed so much that we didn’t even know the number one threat to humanity is climate change and the number one solution is biosequestration,” he said. Biosequestration is the process of restoring carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil by using the photosynthesis of plants and organic matter. Biosequestration is the result of regenerative agricultural practices: farming practices that employ the use of cover crops, crop rotation, and no-till farming, to restore and regenerate healthy active soil, improve the water cycle, and increase the nutrients in food. “The farmers that are on the top of the game of regenerative practices will often have 7 to 9 crops that they rotate through various years. Whereas the degenerative, grows corn and soy and corn soy and corn and soy,” John explained. 

The problem with monocropping, planting the same crop over and over again, is that it strips the soil of all of its nutrients and leads to desertification of lush landscapes. This degeneration of the soil is what leads to huge amounts of carbon being released into the atmosphere, directly harming the planet. In order to reach the potential for this carbon sequestration we need to focus on putting life back into the soil. “The fastest way to restore the grasslands is to park all the farm equipment and bring back the cattle and buffalo, and in three years through holistic grazing the natural prairie returns to its true nature. It’s biological memory returns to the land where these grasses can now start growing.”

Environmental movements and organizations, even when well intentioned don’t always get it right. “The environmental movement tends to be urban, in a city, and are disconnected from the farming and ranching movement,” he points out. As someone who has been involved with many of the major environmentalist groups, Roulac has seen the undeniable divisions within these groups that distract from the main goal.

“We have ocean protection groups that focus on protecting the ocean, but they have nothing to do with agriculture. We have environmental groups who are focused on food or agriculture, but they don’t have any connections to the ocean, many environmentalist organizations don’t understand the carbon cycle.” It is crucial to understand the interconnectedness of nature. None of these systems operate in a vacuum. When carbon is released from the soil, it ends up in our oceans, killing phytoplankton, increasing the acidity of the water, killing fish, destroying the ocean’s ecosystem, all deteriorating the health of our planet.

The reality, according to Roulac is, “The modern environmental movement is mostly funded by wealthy white men who’ve made their fortune on Wall St and family inheritance. Funding of the environmental movement has supported this thesis: oil and coal is bad, solar, wind, and Tesla is good. That has been the environmental focus for 30 years as the solution for climate change and every year CO2 rises, every year we’re losing the battle of climate change because we have a failed plan.” Solar and wind is important, and Roulac expresses the need for more of it, however it’s not enough. The bigger evil we need to tackle is the entire industrialized food system, and it’s not going to be easy.

“If you went to the most powerful billionaires in society today and said we need to change the entire way we produce food, which means we’re not going to rely on Monsanto and Bayer and Dow and DuPont and chemical fertilizers, we’re going to create biological systems that are going to change how we feed people and our school systems. Do you think Wall St wants to hear that?” The reaction to this proposal is always a concern for cost. But what about the cost of a planet that gets hotter every year? The cost of California’s fire season? The cost of healthcare from eating food void of nutrition? The cost of poor air quality? All of these cost a lot more than changing our farming practices. 

Another challenge that we’re facing, especially amongst well intentioned consumers, is the “plant-based” movement. John went so far as to consider it “one of the most dangerous movements in the world today.” The problem with plant-based and vegan diets is the ability to be convinced by packaging. “What is not known, is the majority of plant-based is really a scheme by Monsanto and Silicon Valley and the militant wing of the vegan movement to repackage industrial bee-killing, bird-killing, ocean-killing foods, repackaged in a friendly wrapper called “plant-based.” These products are full of corn and soy, which are oftentimes non-organic, GMO, and processed in ways that do serious harm to the planet, and your body.

According to John, “Impossible burger is exhibit A, for that. It’s not a plant-based burger, it’s a chemical-based burger. Impossible burger is accelerating the death of the planet.” In this case, this burger is only marginally better for the environment than confined animal feedlot meat. The case to make here is for 100% pasture meat, from local regenerative farms. Roulac also advocates for other more natural forms of organic, non-GMO plant protein, hemp seeds are a nutritious alternative, lentils, mung beans, chia, coconut, the list goes on. Passionate about superfoods, Roulac founded Nutiva in 1999 which combines the powers of superfood with a responsibility to social justice and sustainability initiatives. 

The idea of changing agriculture at a large scale comes with its own set of challenges, but with these challenges comes a whole new set of solutions to ongoing inequality and the potential for a better system. Many Americans think of eating organic/non-GMO as a luxury afforded to affluent consumers, but this also has to do with the way agriculture is monopolized in the U.S.. John says, “If we change agriculture at a large scale, then those products are going to start flowing to a much larger and more diverse audience.” Rebuilding the agricultural system will allow for access to nutritious and more affordable eating for everyone, not just those who can afford it. 

So how do we get there? At a local level John advises, “We vote three times a day with what we eat. It’s important to encourage people to never buy industrial meat, confined animal feedlot meat. If you are going to eat meat, eat regenerative, 100% pastured meat. More organic, more local.” Thinking ahead John notes it’s our job to help change the system with our actual votes as well, we need to send people who are going to implement this much needed change to congress, those who are not, “beholden to the monied interest.” At the highest level, “we’re going to need to pressure, hopefully the Biden administration, to move to more regenerative practices in agriculture.” These changes can start soon.

John simplifies that the fastest way to implement change is to get every farmer in America to use a cover crop and always keep the soil covered. “If all these large farms could plant a cover crop that would make a huge difference.” This is easier said than done, he adds, “The challenge is that the average age of the farmer is 62 in the U.S. and many of them don’t want to learn a new dance move. The bankers are not incentivizing them to invest in soil health and are actually part of the problem, but there’s work to see how we incentivize farmers and ranchers to farm regeneratively in the new Biden Administration.” 

 In the last few minutes of the conversation, John shifted the message towards health and the need for health to be the main cause that we all get behind. How do we focus on health? By focusing on the health of our soil. “The idea that you can separate your health from the health of the soil and the health of the planet is a naive, irrational, reductionist view.” He continued, “There is a growing interest in regenerative agriculture and it’s bringing together people in the hope that we take care of the soil, which leads to healthy plants, healthy animals, healthy people, healthy oceans, and a healthy climate.”

As someone who fought for the legality of hemp in the 1990s, successfully sued the DEA in 2001, has founded two companies, Nutiva and Re Botanicals that focus on health and healing, and continues to advocate for and support the regenerative agriculture movement, John Roulac has been a monumental part of the change we are beginning to see. 

His final comment in our conversation reflected the optimism he brings to every project. “I’d like to close with the quote from Margaret Mead, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’”