Forging a true Nature’s Path with regenerative agriculture: interview with Arjan Stephens of Nature’s Path

 
regenerative organic agriculture

What is the the difference between Regenerative Agriculture – which still allows the use of RoundUp and pesticides – and Regenerative Organic Ag? Nature’s Path Arjan Stephens explains. 

On the surface, it appears like American industries are finally making some needed shift to mitigate climate change – or at least using the appropriate “green” vernacular and 2030 projections in their branding and communications.

Is it enough?

From an environmental science perspective, the answer is a resounding no. Still, as we incentivize and engage industries to curb their impacts, aren’t baby steps still better than no change at all? Some reluctant industries – where change is synonymous with profit loss – need to be courted and lured into semblance of responsibility: a foot in the door vs. door in the face approach. Or should we demand giant leaps and sweeping reform as the only way out of the climate change spiral?

 With question, let’s consider one of the biggest climate change contributors: agriculture.

I experienced a sweet bubble of hope after watching the documentary on regenerative agriculture film brought to us by Woody Harrelson and Kiss the Ground in LA

Despite a few gratuitous celebrity plugs, the film cracked opened the numerous win-win possibilities that could be achieved an agricultural approach that removes tilling and uses the power of photosynthesis in plants to sequester carbon in the soil while improving soil health, yields, water resilience, and nutrient density. HOORAY, the earth’s soil (when managed right) can actually draw down carbon from the atmosphere, reduce the greenhouse effect, and make for better farming products and profits.

Kiss the Ground is not just a movie, it’s a non-profit that is fostering the shift of commercial farms to the regenerative agriculture approach. Yet, their mission falls short on one critical front: pesticides. Regenerative Agriculture without the word “organic” would still allow the use of RoundUp.   

I wanted to explore this concept with industry leaders, who are taking a harder stance on farming, namely Regenerative Organic Certified partners.

I first encountered Nature’s Path’s cereal about 15 years ago. The brand is led by its founders Ratana Stephens and Arran Stephens and now their son Arjan, general manager. 

“Leave the earth better than you found it,” was what Arjan’s grandfather Rupert told his dad as a child growing up on Vancouver Island in Canada where they ran an organic berry farm, founded in 1949. Rupert also wrote songs which he brought to LA. Back then the “no poisons used” was an early warning call for Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. People in the farming industry knew chemicals were bad, but few, unlike the Stephens, were speaking up. Speaking up or farming differently usually isn’t good for business. 

Today the “leave the earth better than you found it,” mantra is the guiding force behind the business.

Today we speak with Arjan about the business his parents started, Nature’s Path, and how his company is shepherding the the food industry into the path of regenerative agriculture.

Sustainable, organic, non-GMO is what people at health shops look for today. Will sustainable be replaced with regenerative? Explain.

First, I would like to clarify that there is a massive difference between Regenerative and Regenerative Organic Agriculture. We at Nature’s Path are passion advocates for Regenerative Organic Agriculture.

Regenerative alone doesn’t go far enough. Although Regenerative aims to enrich the soil, it lacks any standards prohibiting the use of conventional pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and GMOs.

Regenerative Organic by contrast, is rooted in organic farming, and abides by a high standard of land management to not only enrich the soil, but also sequester carbon in the soil, prioritize the welfare of farm animals and fairness for farmers and workers.

Regenerative, without the word Organic partnered with it, is greenwashing. 

Regenerative Organic Agriculture is the next level in sustainable, organic and non-GMO, it’s a kind of farming that goes beyond sustainable. 

I have a theory that the wildest, boldest, most common-sense ideas about shifting planetary consciousness in the last 30 years has moved from the east to Canada. For instance, the raw water movement seems to be led by Canadians in Nipissing. Can you agree with this, or not? Explain. Or tell us about what you know.

Robert Rodale coined the term “Regenerative Organic” more than thirty years ago to describe a holistic approach to farming that encourages continuous innovation and improvement of environmental, social and economic measures. Rodale was American, so this movement did not start in Canada.

The Rodale Institute introduced a new high-bar standard for agriculture certification in 2018. Regenerative Organic Certification is maintained by the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), a non-profit made up of experts in farming, ranching, soil health, animal welfare and farmer and worker fairness. And our farm, Legend Organic Farm in Saskatchewan is the first farm in Canada to be ROC certified, so maybe that is the Canadian connection! The aim of our farm is to bring us closer to our goal of building a food movement that helps to heal the soil, land, water and air,

Tell us about your support at the University of Victoria. What do you plan to achieve?

The University of Victoria has a unique culture which draws students interested in sustainability and regenerative food systems, and our relationship goes back many years.

In 2015, my sister met a recent graduate of the University who said that she was passionate about organic agriculture but that there were no grants she could apply for that could sustain her interest. In 2016, seeking to address this lack of funding, my family set up a series of grants.  

To date, we have supported 8 graduate students and 2 undergraduates for a total of $90,000. Diverse studies have ranged from quantifying the importance of farmer’s markets, the intertidal gardens of Lekwungen and ‘Namgis First Nations, and important ecological restoration projects.

Our gifts to the University of Victoria help passionate students carry out meaningful research on Organic and Sustainable Food Systems.  Our overall goal is to inspire others to quantify and elaborate a truly sustainable-organic agricultural paradigm. 

Where are the best places to source regenerative raw materials? Are you having an easier time in Europe where farms are already set up that way? How can things change in Canada and the United States? Ideally you will want raw materials to be close to production.

Nature’s Path launched the first Regenerative Organic breakfast product on the market, our Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) Oats, and we source all our ROC oats from our very own farm (Legend Organic Farm) in Saskatchewan. We do not source raw materials from anywhere else.

But we are hopeful more farmers will shift to regenerative organic practices. We hope to help lead the transformation process through our own farm first and share what we learn with others, with the transition of agriculture from the worst practices to the best regenerative practices as the goal. We also hope to introduce other Regenerative Organic products in the future. 

Why is regenerative farming the future?

Regenerative Organic farming is the future because sustaining current forms of agricultural practices is not enough to regenerate soils beyond their current condition. We must focus on regenerative organic practices that heal and enrich the soil that supports us. It is this kind of soil that can capture carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the ground, helping to reverse climate change. More than ever, farmers have a very important role to play in climate change. That in a nutshell is why regenerative organic farming is the future.

Do you see any shift since Covid among young people and how they consume, or in farming? Back to the land?

I see more young people being interested in what nature can provide and less interested in what human interventions can. Post-Covid, I feel more people (young people included) are wanting to be more connected to their food, to understand where it comes from. To avoid more processed foods. To eat more fresh, nutrient rich produce. Eat more plant-based. Non-GMO. Non-refined sugars. Even the Keto and Paleo diets are part of this trend. 

Tell us about consumer demands. Where are their tastes shifting? And as a brand do you find you are following or leading them forward? 

As a brand, we have always prided ourselves on leading. We were organic 35 years ago, before anyone was talking about it, before organics became a multi-billion-dollar global industry. My grandfather pioneered organic farming at his berry farm. My father opened the first vegetarian restaurant in Canada in 1967. He then opened the first natural food store in Canada a few years later. This was before there were Whole Foods across cities, before organic agriculture entered popular culture. We hope to continue to lead for many more years to come.

arran and ratana stephens

Ratana and Arran stephens

Tell us how family-rooted businesses are important for the planet. 

Being a family owned and operated business means we can make decisions without being beholden to external pressures. We have always operated from the triple bottom line: socially responsible, environmentally sustainable, financially viable, and we would never make a business decision at the expense of people or the planet. That is the wonderful thing about being a family business.

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