Practice regenerative agriculture at home. If you have a lawn or garden at home, consider going regenerative. Add as much diversity in plant life as you can and minimize tillage and use of synthetics inputs like herbicides or fertilizers. Add a little pollinator habitat and a birdfeeder and you will find your yard will start to boom with life. Not only will the diversity of insects, birds, and other animals thank you, but a yard full of life is a much more fun place for the kids to explore and develop an appreciation for Nature.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Rosenzweig, Ph.D.. Steve is a Soil Scientist at General Mills where he drives adoption of regenerative agriculture systems and measures the effects on greenhouse gases, soil health, biodiversity and farmer economic resilience.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a quiet suburban town in upstate New York. My interests were all over the place — I played trumpet in jazz band, wrote electronic music, played sports, did musical theater, and was big into video games. In junior high, I stumbled my way into a love of Nature. Every day I would come home from school and watch Big Cat Diary on Animal Planet. The show followed scientists as they studied big cats (cheetahs, leopards, lions, etc.) in Africa. They had names for all the animals, and their lives were as complex and full of emotion as any human I knew. What I liked most about the show was how involved the scientists were. They were so intelligent and passionate about their research, which made me feel like they had the coolest job on the planet. This show captivated me and cultivated my curiosity about Nature.
When it came time to decide what to study in college, I narrowed my options down to either ecology or music production. I envisioned myself either hosting a nature documentary or writing the music for one. I went the ecology route, but I still write instrumental music as a hobby. During my Ph.D., I got a grant to make a short film, so I wrote the story as well as the soundtrack. Who says you can’t have it all?
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
In the summer of 2013, I made my first scientific discovery. It wasn’t particularly groundbreaking to the scientific community, but to me, it was a revelation.
I was studying soil in Kansas, happy to have landed an undergraduate research gig after being rejected from programs in more exotic places like China and Costa Rica. My experiment was to see what happens to the soil when a farm is abandoned and allowed to return to the native ecosystem, which in Kansas is the tallgrass prairie. I took soil samples from several fields that were side-by-side, each having been abandoned and allowed to recover for a different number of years. Just months earlier, I didn’t even know that there were people who studied soil, but as someone who was concerned about humanity’s impact on the environment, the research question interested me: If we leave nature alone for a few decades, what happens?
The transformation was profound. The farm soil, a pale and inert mass of dirt, turned into a black, crumbly, cottage cheese-like substance in the restored prairie. I had numbers to explain the difference. The 35-year old prairie soil was 20% less dense, held over 50% more carbon, and had five times more living microbes than the farm soil, but the difference wasn’t just quantitative. The prairie soil smelled better, and had things crawling around in it that weren’t there in the farm soil. After a hard rain, murky water ran from the farm field into a nearby stream, while the prairie soil absorbed every drop.
What I discovered was a case of regeneration.
Flying across the country at the end of the summer, back to my hometown in upstate New York, I looked out the window of the plane. For the first time, I realized how much of the land is dominated by agriculture. I imagined what it would look like if the entire landscape could undergo the restoration I just witnessed. What would happen to the soil? The water? The birds? The people?
I needed to find out, and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in soil science.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
For me personally, I’m driven by a sense of right and wrong. When I began to learn about climate change, deforestation, topsoil loss, ocean acidification, and all these major issues, I had a real sense that it was an injustice. I don’t know where that came from but, for better or worse, frustration is a powerful source of motivation for me. Experiencing a thriving ecosystem is the antidote to that anger, and my mission to regenerate agricultural land, I think, reflects a journey to find some peace.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
General Mills has committed to advancing regenerative agriculture on one million acres by 2030, an initiative that I am passionate about and helping lead. Regenerative agriculture is a set of five farming principles: Minimize soil disturbance, maximize crop diversity, keep the soil covered, keep a living root in the ground year-round, and integrate livestock. When practiced together, these five principles can restore the life in the soil, pull greenhouse gases out of the air and lock them away in the soil, making the farmer more profitable and resilient, and bringing back biodiversity like insects, birds and other wildlife.
We often say that what we are trying to do is agriculture’s equivalent of putting a man on the moon. We aren’t just trying to change how people farm, we are trying to change how they think. We are trying to change the culture of agriculture in a way that nobody has done before.
Our goal is to help farmers we work with to implement the regenerative principles on their farms. One strategy we are piloting is to pair farmers with a regenerative ag coach from an organization called Understanding Ag, which was founded by legendary regenerative farmer and rancher, Gabe Brown. Transitioning to regenerative ag is a challenging process and is often a rollercoaster of failures and successes. One of the Understanding Ag coaches said, “When transitioning to a regenerative system, farmers don’t need an agronomist [agricultural consultant], they need a therapist.” In this program, we are also fostering relationships between the farmers so they can learn from each other and have a network of support. This deep engagement with farmers is the level of appreciation and care that I think is required to make a meaningful change on the ground.
Another initiative we are working on is collaborating with several food and agriculture companies to stand up a voluntary ecosystem services market. The basic idea is that if we can cost-effectively measure environmental services that farmers and ranchers provide, like greenhouse gas removal and water quality improvement, then we can begin to pay farmers for those services. We can harness the power of economic incentive to drive adoption of regenerative agricultural systems that address environmental issues. I am part of a team working to figure out how we measure those services efficiently enough to ensure that once the measurement is done, we can adequately pay the farmer.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks things that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
1) Vote and get all your friends to vote. The scale and pace at which we need to act in order to address the climate crisis requires bold government action, and that doesn’t happen without leaders who understand the urgency of the problem.
2) Reduce food waste. A third of the food farmers grow ends up in the landfill. Not only is there a carbon footprint tied to producing that food, but if it ends up in the landfill it creates a powerful greenhouse gas called methane. In addition to making sure all the food in my fridge gets eaten, I’ve started to compost all my fruit and veggie peels, coffee grounds, and other scraps that would otherwise go in the trash. I keep the compost in an old coffee container on my kitchen counter (with a small filter in the lid which eliminates any smell) and drop it off at the grocery store down the road which takes it and sells the finished compost.
3) Support regenerative agriculture and practice it yourself at home. I got into regenerative ag because I believe it is one of our most promising solutions to climate change, and it will help ensure a stable food supply even in a more extreme climate. Now working at a food company, I realize consumer feedback is valued and important. Read up on the companies who make your favorite foods. And if you have access to a farmer’s market or CSA, ask your farmers if they use regenerative practices like cover crops or no-till. If you have a lawn at home, consider converting it to low-maintenance perennial pollinator habitat, and if you garden, plant some diverse cover crop mixes and eliminate or reduce tillage as much as you can. Kiss the Ground has some good resources to start learning about regenerative gardening at home.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
1) Vote, and take your kids with you. I remember going to the polls with my mom as a kid and getting to pull the lever to cast the vote. It was a fun introduction to the concept of living in a democratic society and raising a generation of politically engaged youth is so important for ensuring our future leaders take bold action on the environment.
2) Talk about climate change, and be inclusive. I learned from climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe that talking about climate change is one of the most important things you can do. She says that issues you care enough to actually talk about end up being issues that you and others around you are more likely to act on. The taboo around climate change and our inability to talk about it as a society is holding us back from action. Raising kids who have the confidence to talk about climate will enable them to have a more productive dialogue than older generations have been capable of.
3) Explore the natural world. It’s hard to get fired up about sustainability unless you understand what is at stake. Hiking, fishing, and watching nature television series like Planet Earth captured my imagination as a kid, and building an emotional connection to the natural world helped me understand why a thriving planet is so important.
4) Practice regenerative ag at home. If you have a lawn or garden at home, consider going regenerative. Add as much diversity in plant life as you can and minimize tillage and use of synthetics inputs like herbicides or fertilizers. Add a little pollinator habitat and a birdfeeder and you will find your yard will start to boom with life. Not only will the diversity of insects, birds, and other animals thank you, but a yard full of life is a much more fun place for the kids to explore and develop an appreciation for Nature.
5) Foster an appreciation for the services Nature provides. Clean water, breathable air, wildlife, food, clothes, and the list goes on. These are the things we depend on Nature to provide and understanding and appreciating these services is an essential first step towards caring about the environment. Extending that appreciation toward those people in our society who are stewards of the environment — the farmers and ranchers — is just as important. I have the great fortune of working closely with farmers, most of whom are extremely connected to Nature and appreciative of everything it provides. That feeling is contagious. Taking a field trip with the kids to a local farm is a great way to start learning all the ways we depend on Nature and those who work on the land.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
This is the central idea behind regenerative agriculture — that farmers can become more profitable by improving the land. Regenerative ag is a movement that was started by farmers who were struggling financially. A famous example is the farmer Gabe Brown from North Dakota, who was broke after four years of crop failure and decided that he needed to make some changes. He realized that when he started growing a greater diversity of plants, stopped tilling his soil, and put cattle out onto his cropland, not only did he start seeing earthworms, a sign that he was restoring soil health, but he also started to become more profitable. His crops required less fertilizer, which saved him money, and his cattle were healthier which reduced his veterinary bills. After a while, he was growing higher yielding crops than all his neighbors without any fertilizer or pesticides at all. His farm naturally provides the services like pest control and fertilization that he previously spent a fortune on every year. Not only is Gabe more profitable than ever, but his farm is bringing back more wildlife than he’s ever seen, slowing climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil, and cleaning up the rivers and lakes by eliminating erosion. Gabe found that through regenerative agriculture, working with Nature instead of against it can be good for business and the planet.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been fortunate to learn from many great teachers in my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the incredible mentorship I received from professors John Blair at Kansas State University and Meagan Schipanski at Colorado State University. But so much of what I know today is from the farmers I have met along the way. I didn’t grow up on a farm, so I had a steep learning curve when I started studying agriculture. My Ph.D. research involved interviewing farmers throughout Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, and I would sit around their kitchen tables to pick their brains on everything from soil to philosophy to how to drive a tractor. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their wisdom and experience.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Without a doubt it would be regenerative agriculture. Restoring our ecosystems through the way we grow food, I believe, is the fastest way we can begin to heal the planet while also preparing for the tough times ahead. The climate is already changing and food production is one of the first ways we see its impacts on society. We need agricultural systems that are resilient to a changing climate in order to have a secure and stable food supply. Also, when practiced according to the five regenerative principles, agriculture actually slows the advance of climate change by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it away in the soil. The potential for regenerative ag to bring back biodiversity, provide clean water, and mitigate climate change all while ensuring a stable food supply for society makes it an essential movement to focus on.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
Jacob Collier, who is a musician I really like, said, “I’d rather write words that invite people to understand, rather than projecting my understanding to other people.” I take this to mean that if you really want people to think about things the way you do, you can’t force it, you just have to be inviting. So much work in sustainability is focused on changing how people behave, whether it’s trying to change how people eat or recycle, or it’s what I do which is trying to change how farmers farm. No one ever changes their behavior because someone told them they should, and a lot of times, too strong of an approach can just make people more entrenched in their current behavior. A more effective approach is to make your “camp” so inviting that people can’t help but to join. This idea has helped me focus my work on regenerative agriculture by trying to paint a vision of the future of agriculture that is inclusive; one that farmers can see themselves in.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
@SteveRosenz on Twitter
Thank you for all of these great insights!