Our editors at The Earth & I sat down for a virtual interview with John Kempf, regenerative agriculture advocate, educator, and entrepreneur. John shared with us his vision for soil health and its potential impact on human health and the environment.
The Earth & I: John, what is regenerative agriculture all about?
John Kempf: From my perspective, there is no officially agreed-upon definition today of what regenerative agriculture is, other than from a very high-level, principles-perspective, which is to say that we're regenerating the ecology and so forth.
E&I: It’s a term you hear a lot today.
JK: I think the regenerative farming sector of agriculture is having its moment in the sun as a next-step-up in consciousness from sustainable agriculture which was trending ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. At that time, I asked the question, “Why would we choose to sustain where we are today, using a form of agriculture that is degrading the environment? It's degrading ecosystems; we have declining yields; we have declining nutritional quality, and we have systemic disease and insect susceptibility and growing weed problems. Why would we want to sustain that?”
E&I: I think I see what you’re saying. Regeneration comes before sustainability?
JK: In order to have a truly sustainable ecosystem, an agrarian ecosystem, we first need to regenerate soil health. We need to regenerate plant health, so that plants are completely resistant to diseases and insects. We need to regenerate livestock health and, ultimately, the health of the human population, as well. When we have reached a much higher plateau of performance, where we no longer need outside inputs, constant fertilizer applications and constant pesticide applications; it’s only then that we can have a true conversation about sustainability.
When we have reached a much higher plateau of performance, where we no longer need outside inputs, constant fertilizer applications and constant pesticide applications; it’s only then that we can have a true conversation about sustainability.
When we consider regeneration, there is a need to regenerate rural communities and the human aspect of regenerating agriculture, but, fundamentally, the first purpose of agriculture is to produce food, and to a lesser degree, fiber. When food production is the first purpose of agriculture, that means that the first purpose of regenerative agriculture should be to regenerate the quality of our food supply.
It is possible to grow plants that have such robust immune systems that they can be completely resistant to all diseases and all insects. When plants have robust immune systems, they also have the capacity to transfer that immunity to the people who consume these plants as food and, when that is achieved, for the first time, we can have a legitimate conversation about growing food as medicine. This is what regenerative agriculture should be all about.
E&I: I appreciate you bringing in the human-health aspect, John.
JK: Today in the developed Western civilizations around the world, where there's been the adoption of a westernized diet, we have an epidemic of degenerative illnesses—dementia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and so forth—affecting the majority of our adult and youth populations. From my perspective, these degenerative illnesses are not a medical system problem; they are fundamentally an agricultural problem. If we believe it to be true that we are what we eat, then perhaps we should take a closer look at what defines the quality of the food that we are eating.
It is possible to grow plants that have such robust immune systems that they can be completely resistant to all diseases and all insects. When plants have robust immune systems, they have the capacity to transfer that immunity to the people who consume them as food.
Look at what is happening with autoimmune diseases and degenerative illnesses. I looked at data not long ago and saw where autoimmune disease is on the rise in children. We live in a world today where, in round numbers, 50% of the adults who are living today are expected to have cancer in their lifetimes. How did we come to a place where we consider that to be normal or acceptable?
I think this is not just an agricultural problem because there are other environmental considerations, such as electromagnetic pollution, and pollution from industrial pollutants in our atmosphere, and pollutants in the water that we drink. Our health is about more than just the food that we eat. It's not just that we are what we eat. We are also what we drink. We are what we breathe. We are what we think and what we believe and the emotions that we feel. All of those are contributing elements to our collective disease as a society, as a civilization. However, agriculture and the nutritional integrity of our food supply is still a foundational cornerstone that influences all the rest of these pieces affecting our bodies.
E&I: Can you tell us, John, about how you became a regenerative farmer?
JK: I started down the pathway of being a regenerative farmer by first being a degenerative farmer. I grew up on a farm where we used pesticides very intensely. I was a licensed pesticide applicator when I was sixteen. We were the first people in our region to try all the latest and greatest cocktails and make recommendations to our customers and tell people how well these products were working for us.
We had some interesting experiences in the early 2000s. In 2002, 2003, and 2004, we had three consecutive years in which we lost greater than 70% of our crops to a variety of diseases and insects that we were not successful in managing or controlling with pesticides.
In 2004, we began renting a field from a neighboring farm that had not had historical pesticide exposure. We planted a crop of cantaloupe directly across the field border on both our soil—that had a prior decade of pesticide application—and the new, rented soil which had no such history. At harvest time, the soil with the history of continuous pesticide applications grew plants that had 80% of their leaves infected with powdery mildew. On the rented soil there were no plants with powdery mildew.
That caught my attention! Here was the same crop from two different fields, the same variety, planted the same day, managed the same way, but with two completely different outcomes. I wanted to know what allows one plant to be resistant to mildew when the next plant, a meter away, is susceptible.
Here was the same crop from two different fields, the same variety, planted the same day, managed the same way, but with two completely different outcomes. I wanted to know what allows one plant to be resistant to mildew when the next plant, a meter away, is susceptible.
E&I: I suppose it was your natural curiosity and I suppose it was an economic concern, as well?
JK: It was an economic survival issue for the farm. Pesticides were being completely ineffective and we had to develop different solutions. And what we learned is that plants have an immune system much the same way that we do. And in order for that immune system to function, it needs to be supported with the right nutrition and at the right microbiome, just as our bodies need to be supported with the right nutrition and with the right microbiome.
E&I: What is your vision for regenerative agriculture?
JK: My personal mission is to have regenerative agriculture become the status quo, the standard, globally, against which everything else is measured, by 2040, and that means 80% of all the agricultural acres around the world will be using regenerative agriculture product-modeling systems in 20 years. I believe this is a very realistic and achievable goal. In fact, I think we're well on the pathway to achieving this goal.
E&I: From an international perspective, are people in touch with you about your experience, the science behind your work, your products?
JK: We are getting many inquiries from around the world from agronomists and from farmers and commercial growers. We're doing some international work, but the majority of our work at this point is in North America—the US, Canada, and Mexico. We're starting to do a lot more work in parts of South America, and we hope to do a lot more international work in the near future, but at this point we're not there yet. When I say “we're not there yet,” I’m speaking of our commercial enterprise, Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA), doing consulting and supplying inputs.
In terms of our educational efforts and outreach, everything that we learn about plant nutrition and how to manage different diseases and insects and so forth, we share very freely on my blog and on our YouTube channel and the podcast. That information is universally accessible. I think we have listeners to the podcast from every country on the globe at this point.
E&I: I can certainly attest to how freely you share your information. I think that is what “best practices” should be about.
JK: What I have been intrigued to discover on my journey, as I've learned about growing really healthy plants and about regenerative agriculture ecosystems, is that “we,” humanity as a whole, already have the knowledge that we need to implement regenerative agriculture systems on scale. There are many farmers and agronomists and scientists who have had incredible experiences and who have very important and interesting pieces to contribute to the puzzle, and if we simply bring all this knowledge and information together, we already know everything we need to know. We don't need any new information, or any new science. Now, certainly there are additional things that would be interesting to know and that we can dig further into, the nuances and the details, but, from a very big systems-perspective, we already know everything we need to know to successfully deploy a regenerative agriculture system on a global scale. There is nothing holding us back except the collective and individual will to act.