Photo by Steven Foster
A Conversation with Tom Newmark
by Ann Armbrecht
I spoke with Tom Newmark by Skype. I asked him if he could describe the Soil Carbon Initiative standard and why it is important. He spoke clearly and passionately and without pausing for ten minutes, then he paused and asked if I needed anything else. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the dire news about climate change, yet hearing Tom inspires me to act. The regenerative agriculture movement is exciting for many reasons, not least of which it offers the opportunity to act. The Soil Carbon Initiative is accepting public comments through May 5.th The public comment form offers not only the chance to review and comment on the standard, it is also possible to read comments and input from others – I encourage you to take a look and, if the standard pertains to you or your company, do take the time to provide input.
Tom Newmark: The Soil Carbon Initiative was created out of a collaboration of The Carbon Underground with Green America, DanoneWave, Ben and Jerry’s Unilever and MegaFood. In turn, we invited scientists, NGOs, environmental and soil activists, farmers, ranchers, agronomists from around the world to join us. Working with NSF, we created a standard that would make operational the definition of regenerative agriculture that was originally promulgated by The Carbon Underground and the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State-Chico. We decided the standard should be welcoming to farmers, ranchers, food producers, and supply chains from around the world, regardless of the regulatory nomenclature — whether they were organic or biodynamic or whatever system — under which those food producers were operating.
Ninety-nine plus percent of agricultural lands worldwide are not certified organic. Our mission was to use agriculture as a method of responding to and modulating the severity of climate change, if not possibly reversing some aspects of it. The only way to achieve that is with a land footprint that welcomes the billions of hectares of grasslands and farmland around the world that are not participating in any specific regulatory regime or using any prescribed practices.
We decided to create a standard that was exclusively focused on outcomes, not on practices.
We want the food producers to commit to the philosophical concept of ecological restoration, biological diversity, soil health, and the minimization of noxious agricultural inputs, but they are not required to adopt any specific practices. Instead, we are asking that people commit to those basic principles and demonstrate that they are actually regenerating their ecosystem. Regeneration is measured by both sequestration and deposition and creation of soil carbon in that soil and in observable or measurable improvements in above and below ground biological diversity (For a full description of the standard see Soil Carbon Initiative).
The key takeaway of our program is that there are roughly 5 billion hectares of food and textile producing land on the planet, 3.5 billion of grasslands, 1.5 billion arable land or land that could be arable. We want a significant percentage of that land as quickly as possible enrolled in our program drawing carbon down, putting the carbon to work in the soil, and enhancing biological diversity.
Ann: Can you explain the differences between the Soil Carbon Initiative and other regenerative agriculture standards that are out there? Is there a conflict?
Tom: There are consumers looking for products that are kosher or Halal. Those are not conflicting. They speak to the desires of different consumers. There are consumers that want NOP [National Organic Program] certified organic, others want Demeter Certified Biodynamic, and others may be seeking Non-GMO Project Verified. Each of those standards or certifications has a purpose or a goal.
It is important to ask what is the goal of the Soil Carbon Initiative? Our goal is to reverse climate change. The next question is what is the theory of change that will lead to the goal? And our theory of change is: whatever it takes! We need to reach out to each and every farmer and rancher in the world.
Frankly, we need every single heart and soul – every producer, every brand, every retailer.
Ann: How have companies responded?
Tom: Companies are embracing the initiative. Many companies have said that they want to talk as soon as we have completed the public comment period. Overnight we will have more than 100 billion dollars of food commerce participating in some way in our project.
We will change the game.
Ann: Was there a key epiphany in your life when you suddenly decided to devote your time and resources to reversing climate change?
Tom: There was. There were two moments. About 10 years ago, I was at the Rodale Institute with my daughter Sara Newmark (VP of Social Impact at Mega-Food) and we saw a presentation given by the then-CEO of the Rodale Institute, Dr. Tim Lasalle, that changed our lives. He talked about the ability of carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture to be a possible answer to the existential threat of climate change. I thought I was pretty smart about environmental matters. But I never even heard of the concept of using photosynthesis and carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture to draw carbon down from the atmosphere and put it back into the sink whence it came. I came home from that presentation and my wife and I concluded that we would devote our lives to regenerative agriculture because that is what gives us hope that we can respond to the threat of climate change.
Scroll forward five years, we were testing the soil at Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica, our biodynamic farm. To my shock and my disappointment, we discovered that in terms of soil organic matter (SOM) levels, the soils with the lowest levels of SOM were the fields that we were giving the most attention to, where we were doing everything we could to make them absolutely shining examples of tilth and organic matter. Those had lower SOM levels than our pastures.
And in turn, the pastures had lower SOM levels than the borders of our fields that were transitioning back into rain forest. We humans were doing the worst job, our dairy cows were doing a better job, and Mother Nature was doing the best job. And that was my second epiphany.
Steven Farrell, my partner at Luna Nueva, and I realized that we needed to respect the natural history of our farm and that we needed to produce food like a forest and use agro-ecological/permaculture principles wherever possible. We are still biodynamic and organic, but we needed to farm more in accordance with the desires of our ecosystem. And for our pastures, we needed to get smarter with Holistic Management, which we’ve set out to do. We firmly believe that cows and pastures managed holistically – and thank you Savory Institute! – can be a powerful regenerative force.
Those epiphanies were both humbling and exhilarating for me.
Ann: It seems that there is so much more awareness around regenerative agriculture. Is it just because I’m suddenly paying attention or is it getting more traction?
Tom: There are a great number of us working on this, people who have heard the clarion call of this opportunity to reverse climate change. I think that that there are a lot of us who are taking our sticks and stirring this pot and enlivening awareness of regenerative agriculture. No one person can do it. This is going to take millions if not billions of participants, and a global regenerative revolution. It is possible to reimagine food production.
It is going to take the collective power of the world’s largest food companies, leaders of industry, NGOs, farming collaboratives, the environmental justice movement, all working together to respond to what the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says is an alarm clock that is ticking and set to go off in twelve years. All of us have to swallow that alarm clock. We have to own the reality of the existential challenge.
We have to recognize that the natural products industry and the herbal industry are part of the larger ecosystem of food production. Soil is disappearing. Water is disappearing. Climate is changing. Industries that rely on the production of foods, spices, herbs, of fragrances will disappear in the apocalypse of climate change. It is happening. It is happening rapidly. I’ve talked to many companies that have told me that their existence and future are imperiled by the collapse of the supply of their spices, herbs and foods.
We are part of this world. We don’t live on some Mount Olympus. And even if we did Mount Olympus is on fire. And plants that used to grow happily on Mount Olympus have nowhere to run. Climate change is an equal opportunity destroyer of every agricultural environment. And companies that are in the herbal space have got to take on leadership. They have to either be leaders and help revolutionize agriculture in the world or they will be out of business in ten or twenty years. It’s that simple.
So we in the Soil Carbon Initiative, we in The Carbon Underground, invite everyone in the herbal community to join the revolution. Right now. And I’m not shitting around. This is for real. I mean, This. Is. It.
Tom paused to wipe tears from his eyes.
This is absolutely it. We are not separate from the world. The world is on fire. We have got to get on board.
Ann: It seems the food movement has caught on, but it seems that the botanical industry is slower. Is that because most companies typically buy through a broker and so they’re not going to the farming communities or collecting communities and seeing things first hand?
Tom: That’s a great point. About 12 years ago when I was still at New Chapter, I was having dinner in New York with a forest activist working in the Amazon. He asked me if we were using slave labor in the sourcing of our turmeric. I said of course not. We were buying certified organic turmeric through a cooperative that was run by highly principled people. And he said, “Yeah, but have you actually been out on the land? Have you actually met with your farmers and vetted this personally?”
And even though we were buying through a principled and deeply respected broker that had values that we embraced, and it was a certified organic collaborative, I really didn’t have eye-witness confirmation of what I was saying. And so that led us to start going out into the field to meet with the farmers.
If you are buying from a distributor, you don’t necessarily know where they’re buying the product. Or if you do know where they’re buying the product, you may not know from whom. And even if you know from whom, you don’t know the agricultural practices or how the people were being treated. And those are important things to know.
I remember once my daughter Sara and I were out in the fields meeting with our turmeric farmers in India. We asked the agronomist, who was helping run the collaborative of smallholder farmers, how he knew if the farmers were doing it right. Did he ask the farmers?
“No,” he replied. “I ask the insects. The insects will tell you. If you go out in the field and you see the insects and the above ground biological diversity, that is a window into the health of the farm and the soil.”
Tom continued, “Of course you want the farmers to affirm what they’re doing. But you really need to ask the ecosystem.
It’s pretty hard to ask the ecosystem if you are buying from a broker. Are we asking too much of companies to ask them to ask the ecosystem? I don’t know. Do you like living on Earth? Is it asking you too much to ask the ecosystem if your company is supporting practices that regenerate or that destroy the ecosystem?
I would say that that is not asking too much.”
Tom Newmark, Chairman of The Carbon Underground, a 501(c)(3) he co-founded with Larry Kopald, has spent fourteen years in the natural vitamin and supplement industry, helping to build New Chapter into one of the premier companies in the industry before it was sold to Procter & Gamble. Tom is immediate past-Chairman of the Greenpeace Fund USA and of the American Botanical Council, a founder of Sacred Seeds (a plant conservation project administered by United Plant Savers), a founding Advisory Member of the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative of California State University/Chico, and co-owner of Finca Luna Nueva, a biodynamic and regenerative farming operation in Costa Rica.