- PatagoniaCEO Rose Marcario is a vocal proponent of regenerative organic agriculture.
- It’s an experimental farming method that prioritises soil health for the sake of absorbing carbon.
- While its long-term effects are unknown, it draws upon enough proven principles that it can safely be called a beneficial practice that’s worth pursuing.
- Patagonia is pushing for more adoption, customer education, and federal subsidies that help farmers make the transition to this method.
- This article is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series on Better Capitalism.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario wants to change the way the world grows crops, and she’s ready to take on any entrenched powers that would stand in the way.
Marcario is one of Business Insider’s “100 People Transforming Business,” and in an interview for the feature, she kept coming back to one of her passions for the last couple years: regenerative organic agriculture. The experimental farming method is a system that her company’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has called nothing less than “the number one thing humans can do to combat global warming.” Patagonia has been experimenting with it for the past two years through its food division, Patagonia Provisions.
As Marcario told us, “Chemical agriculture needs to go the way of the dinosaur, or we’re going to go the way of the dinosaur.”
Beginning in 2017, Patagonia partnered with the Rodale Institute, a well-respected research institution that helped popularise the organic-food movement in the United States. Marcario joined fellow climate-conscious executives from companies like Dr. Bronner’s soaps and Paul Dolan of the Wild Farm Alliance in forming the Regenerative Organic Alliance under the guidance of Rodale. Through a pilot program that included their own brands and others (like Horizon dairy and Nature’s Path foods), graduate students from 34 universities, and oversight from the National Science Foundation, the board developed the Regenerative Organic certification.
“We’re really excited about that because we need a countervailing voice to big chemical agriculture, and holding the low bar of the industrial ways of agriculture that I think really hurt our country,” Marcario told us. And as she put it in a keynote speech she gave last year at the Natural Products Expo West, such behaviour is “reckless and suicidal.” “Topsoil is the wealth of our nation and we are squandering it,” she said.
So what is it?
To break down the basics of regenerative organic agriculture, we drew from Rodale’s materials, work by Andrew McGuire of Washington State University‘s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, and an interview with Nicole Tautges of the Russell Ranch at the University of California Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute.
Here’s how the technique is different from typical large-scale agricultural practices in the US:
It limits tillage.
Tillage is the preparation of soil for crops – think of the tractor pulling a big plow over a field. There is evidence that regular tillage contributes to soil erosion over the long term, and so there has been a growing movement to limit tillage as much as possible, since it is necessary for most vegetable crops.
It has diverse crop rotations.
There’s plenty of evidence that a diversity of crops over an area promotes the soil’s biodiversity, which in turn reduces the need for pesticides and reduces nutrient loss.
It uses cover crops.
Farmers grow cover crops after their cash crops (the ones they’re selling) to protect the soil in the cash crop’s off-season. These can be things like grasses or legumes, and their roots maintain the soil’s integrity under the surface, while protecting the topsoil from wind erosion. There are several regenerative agricultural methods out there, but Rodale’s does not make use of multi-species cover crops, which has been controversial. As Tautges said, there’s simply not enough evidence that using a variety of cover crops is better than using a single variety. A single cover crop is also much cheaper, she said, and the goal should be making best practices more affordable. There is evidence that cover crops are beneficial, but there remains a lot of room for exploring the practice in detail.
It integrates livestock.
There’s a consensus that using manure is beneficial to soil health.
It has no synthetic inputs.
The Rodale Institute fully follows the USDA’s organic guidelines.
It doesn’t make use of GMOs or gene editing.
Tautges said that there is no evidence that genetically modified food harms humans, but there is evidence the widespread GMO use since the 1990s has resulted in herbicide-resistant weeds, since GMOs limit the need for diverse crop rotations.
It doesn’t use soilless systems.
Tautges said that there is plenty of evidence that soilless systems, like hydroponics, are highly efficient and have the benefit of allowing more crops to be grown within cities, which can reduce transportation emissions. That said, those practices also require chemicals, and that’s why the Rodale Institute won’t use them.
What is Patagonia doing?
Marcario is one of the practice’s primary evangelists. Her mission is to bring more companies on board with implementing regenerative organic agriculture, educating consumers about it, and lobbying the federal government to pass policies that will lead to subsidies that make the transition feasible.
“Solar energy scaled much faster than folks believed it could,” she told us. “I do really believe there’s an incredible coalition across this country of CEOs that understand that the climate crisis is real, and that we have to act and act quickly – act collaboratively.”
She sees the biggest opportunity to be in agriculture.
The Rodale Institute claims that if the world moved to regenerative organic agriculture, 100% of carbon in the atmosphere that is contributing to global warming could be reabsorbed into the soil – healthy soil does indeed sequester carbon, and while that hypothetical situation sounds like a cure for climate change, it’s simply a hypothetical.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. And Patagonia is going to be at the forefront of the movement.
“You’ll see a lot more work from us on taking on chemical agriculture, and being a much bigger part of the conversation around regenerating the planet instead of denigrating and degrading the planet,” Marcario said.