Did you know that cashew nuts come from a fruit called the cashew apple? And that cinnamon is in fact the inner bark of a tree? The reality is that most of us do not know how the food that we eat is produced. We often forget that, before arriving on our plates, many of the products we consume were first seeds and crops that grew in soil and became plants, and then were harvested, sometimes by hand, and then put in sacks, threshed, cleaned and hauled – before being packed and shipped to our harbours, and transported to grocery shops.
Considering the many challenges that we are facing – ranging from supply chain disruptions to the climate crisis - a more holistic approach to food systems is a must if we aim to help our planet heal. Equal attention should be paid to all the different actors in the supply chain, from the soil’s microorganisms that feed our precious crops, to the farmers who harvest them a few months later.
And if like me, you are fascinated about where our food comes from, you will certainly have heard of the work of Rikolto.
For four decades, Rikolto and its partners have been advocating for a system that allows farmers to earn a decent living from their activities.
I had the chance to talk with Fausto Rodriguez, Latin American Director of Cocoa for the Program of Sustainable Cocoa and Coffee, and Chris Claes, executive director of Rikolto International. They described how the organisation came to the realisation that it is imperative that decent incomes are combined with more resilient practices.
Until 2008, food security was at the centre of Rikolto’s work: their aim was to help provide decent livelihoods for farmers with the resources at hand. Over time, their strategy evolved into linking smallholders with other actors in the value chain, to support them in gaining access to markets and increasing their revenues.
Rikolto made these changes in dialogue with the farmers’ organisations they were working with, adapting to the changing contexts. And today, the farmers’ voices are reminding us all to pay more attention to the very instrument that made all of this possible in the first place: our planet and its resources.
It is – more than ever – not only time to produce food efficiently and sustainably, but also to ensure resilience. Resilience with regard to crises, shocks, and disruptions.
Rikolto is supporting its partners to switch to another production model, one that will put the resilience of farmers at its very centre. And, for a farm to be resilient, ensuring a healthy environment for food to grow in is a must. This is why their current global strategy will be based on the principles of regenerative agriculture.
At its very core: healthy soil. Through a specific set of practices, regenerative agriculture aims to restore degraded soil biodiversity and recreate an ecosystem where microorganisms such as fungi, insects, bacteria and microbes can store carbon, turn waste into nutrients and retain water efficiently.
Soil is very often underrated, but it provides us with everything we eat. Healthy soil means healthy seeds and nutritious crops, which means healthy plants and, eventually, healthy food.
"Even for some companies or NGOs, regenerative agriculture remains an abstract concept. But when you ask a farmer: “Do you combine crops?”, they will answer: “Yes, of course, of course!”. The practices are the same – regenerative agriculture is simply another name for them.”
Many methods and techniques contribute to enhancing soil quality. Rikolto has identified some principles that have been used by many farmers, companies and NGOs linked to this, which can serve as guidelines to better understand the different forms that regenerative agriculture can take. To give you an overview, here are some of Rikolto’s guidelines:
To clarify, this is nothing new. Regenerative approaches have been used by farmers for decades.
Curious to know how this looks in reality? I’ve collected some of my favorite examples from Rikolto’s global programmes – sustainable rice, sustainable cocoa and coffee, and Good Food For Cities– so that you can better grasp how regenerative agriculture principles are becoming Rikolto’s new cross-cutting commitment.
With both coffee and cocoa, agroforestry systems are promoted, in that tree plantations are combined with other tree species or food crops. Incorporating other species such as timber, orange trees, cassava, etc. improves the resilience of the cocoa and coffee trees to natural disasters, and also represents an additional source of income for smallholder farmers.
This type of intercropping system also enhances biodiversity and can help mitigate the effects of deforestation.
These different tools focus on knowledge exchange regarding the application of agroforestry systems and aim to increase the competitiveness and sustainability of the cocoa sector in the region.
Knowledge exchange and peer-to-peer learning are inherent in regenerative agriculture. Rikolto is a strong advocate of sustainable practices in rice cultivation and promotes the exchange of best practices among farmers, to enable them to produce rice more ecologically.
Switching to sustainable practices can boost farmers’ net income by 10-20%, reduce water use by up to 20%, and cut methane emissions from flooded rice fields by up to 50%!
And these are only some examples.
Essentially, making use of more regenerative approaches should not come at the expense of the desired productivity. Ensuring that Rikolto’s partner organisations are well connected to the markets and earn a decent income from their production remains the top priority. But Rikolto is simply adding a new dimension: the preservation and restoration of our natural resources and habitats – a dimension we lose sight of all too often.
Advocating for regenerative agriculture as Rikolto’s new guiding thread makes them pioneers. Why?
Because even if the practices very much resemble those of agroecology or sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture differs from these movements in significant ways.
Let me explain. First, it does not focus on the political dimension of food systems as much as agroecology, which endorses a more restrictive vision of what a fair and sustainable food system should be.
Inclusive business is essential to transforming our food systems. This means that all actors in the chain should be collaborating and building strong relationships with a long-term outlook, fulfilling the needs of farmers and buyers alike. Regenerative agriculture encompasses inclusive business and offers a more comprehensive model that is being more widely accepted by actors such as policymakers and corporations.
Secondly, the key difference between regenerative agriculture and sustainable agriculture lies in its aim to renew and regenerate. Sustainable agriculture is about maintaining the same, while regenerative agriculture goes one step further and aims to restore the resources that have been drained.
For too long, extractivist practices have been the norm - but professionals and companies in the field are starting to realise the need to reverse this trend.
Our responsibility is not only to sustain but to restore and improve our soil’s quality, giving it back its value so that it will be able to keep on producing enough healthy food for us all. And for this to happen, we will need to have as many actors on board as possible.
“It is not only for farmers to earn decent incomes, not any more. It is now also the responsibility of all the other actors in the food system to support and invest in regenerative agriculture as a new model to preserve and restore our natural resources and our ecosystems.”
As you know, changing models takes some time. Rikolto is on the verge of an important transformation, but one that will happen over time. Remember: it is a dynamic process that will be evaluated gradually, based on input from the partners.
Sharing knowledge and best practices will be crucial in the coming years, to ensure that the implemented approach is homogeneous.
“We have to be modest about the speed with which we can make the transition to regenerative agriculture. We are starting by implementing some practices, some ingredients. Because it is not Rikolto’s money: it is the money of the farmers’ organisations. So it is crucial to find solutions together. Fausto Rodriguez
Rikolto will work at making regenerative agriculture a legitimate agricultural model and for farmers to be encouraged and rewarded for using these practices.
I hope this new model will inspire many more to move from extraction to regeneration!
Because regenerative agriculture is the solution to keep on feeding the world without devouring the planet.
Lola works as an Investment Associate for Kampani, a social impact fund supporting smallholder farmers. She is passionate about topics related to food production and agricultural supply chains and has written many articles on this subject.