July 15, 2019
When agricultural researcher and entrepreneur Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin visited the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), we were able to chat with him about what he’s up to these days. What began as an interview with this thought leader about the externalized costs of the food system and the true cost of food, topics at the heart of CLF’s research, became a conversation about regenerative agriculture, lawsuits, price tags and reform.
Working with the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance in Minnesota, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is the architect and engineer behind the regenerative poultry system, one of many farm operations at the the 100-acre farm in Northfield, through the Main Street Project. His approach to regenerative agriculture involves a biodiverse system of symbiotically connected livestock and perennials, building soil, cleaning water and delivering economic benefits with no chemical inputs. Goals of the model include the regeneration of farmland, the rebuilding of local food systems and the building of opportunities for young and immigrant farmers. A native Guatemalan and lifetime Ashoka Fellow, he was a founding member of the Fair Trade Federation in 1994.
Q: Why is the term “externalities” a misnomer?
When it comes down to just the pure science of it, all we’re doing is taking inedible energy in the form of chemicals and gases in the air, capitalizing on photons coming out of the sun, and [transforming that through the soil and photosynthesis] into different forms of edible energy. Sometimes this energy is edible to microbes. Sometimes it’s edible to wild animals, sometimes to cows. At the end of that spectrum of process transformation, you end up with products that we eat, such as carrots, and maybe beef, maybe chickens, maybe eggs. To do that naturally and to do that regeneratively, and to do it according to natural design, we don’t need inputs, except for the photons, and then everything that is already in existence. So that’s how the ecosphere operates. That’s how the planet operates. At the end of the day, it’s about energy. And when we actually get this idea in our heads that something is external to that, we are not only fooling ourselves, we’re going to spend the resources and we’re going to throw everything out of balance. Everything is part of one single, global ecosphere, a single system. Nothing is external to it.
Q: Why do you use the term “extractions” instead of “externalities?”
Well, it really is exploitation. That can be put into a larger framework of the cost of food. For example, a big farm in Guatemala, say a coffee farm, that is exploiting the indigenous communities of the highlands. This group exploits that group. We also exploit the soil. We also exploit consumers in the form of the US Farm Bill, taxing them and transferring the public wealth (money) to corporate coffers. We also exploit, right here in the United States, up to 30 million people, poor families, mostly, that work in the conventional production of foods, and restaurants, and go home poor and hungry after doing that. We also take fossil fuels out of the ground, extract them, and then put them through a very unsustainable, very inefficient process to support a toxic-based agriculture. And we exploit all of that space and all of that energy. The only reason we do that is because we can, and because there is money to be made. You take it out of one place, [and] shuffle it to another space that you actually own and control. It’s not coincidence that large corporations don’t run their own farms. Cargill doesn’t own their own farms, and Monsanto doesn’t own their own farms. They actually exploit their farmers, the American farmer community, as a way to get their energy, so to speak, through those processes at a cost. And then they leave all the risk to the rural communities, the farmers and the taxpayers, because they can exploit that sector because our policy systems allows for that kind of maneuvering and corruption. So that’s why I call it exploitation, because I don’t find any other proper word for that.
Q: Is it possible to put price tags on problems created by the system?
We have already put price tags on corporate culture welfare. We have, what is it now, a $486 billion Farm Bill. I mean, that’s a price tag right there. Who’s paying for it? Not the corporations. That’s actually what comes out of our taxpayers’ pockets, and then goes into mostly corporate controlled, commodity-based “food,” corn and soybeans and CAFO animal production, and so on. So that’s one price tag.
Last time I checked, I think we had surpassed the $600 billion dollar food-related or diet-related health bill in this country. Now, that’s just this country. And that’s grossly, grossly underreported and grossly underestimated. But that’s already a price. And who’s paying for it? The same people who think, somewhere in the back of their heads, they believe that they are getting cheap food at the counter at the grocery store. But that’s an illusion, because we are paying way more than what we are paying at the store for that same food. Those are real price tags.
And there’s Des Moines, cleaning up the nitrates out of the water. [Editor’s note: Des Moines Water Works sued upstream Iowa counties for nitrate-pollution of the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for half a million Iowans. The nitrates come from hog farm run-off.] I mean, we could go on and on. Northfield, Minnesota, where I live, very tiny town, now we’re … reckoning with the fact that very soon, in a few years, the, agro-chemical pollution from the surrounding farmland is going to reach our water table, where the drinkable water comes from. We just pump it, [but] very soon, we’ll have to be removing all of the nitrates and then all of the metabolites from all of that toxic pollution that is going into the ground. Well, that’s a real price tag that comes directly back to the food system, and the food system should be paying for that. Not taxpayers, not the city residents in Northfield, and Des Moines and all of that. That is a real bill. And if we start adding that up, if we just took care of the stuff that we already know, we wouldn’t have to be trying to come up with accounting, complicated models…. We could start with what we already have … The bill is already in the mail, I say.
Q: Does the industry ever bear the cost, instead of the taxpayer?
In some cases, like in the couple out of California that sued Monsanto because of cancer associated with glyphosate use, was it $2 billion? [Editor’s note: In California in May 2019, a jury found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, likely caused cancer in a husband and wife and ordered the manufacturer, Monsanto, to pay more than $2 billion in damages.] That’s a bill. … In that all of those cases, there is a very direct, not too far-up appeal or up-river or down-river relationship between the cost of what happened and the ability to bill back into the source of the cause. The farmer is an easy target. And so we tend to go for the scapegoats, the farmer … for the most part, farmers are just trying to survive, especially with the current policies that are devastating the countryside. If you are [a farmer] in those conditions, you’re going to try to find shortcuts, and what is given up first, the environment is the one that first gets put aside. That’s why we like to call them externalities, because it creates a really easy excuse for us to say, well, we can’t cover that, because that’s a public cost. Well, no, it is part of our operations.
Q: Suing large companies is probably not the best way to fix the food system. How should we proceed?
This country’s used to [suing], because we have a culture of suing instead of taking responsibility. I come from a background where we take responsibility for everything we do. And I think that is the future. And it means taking responsibility for engineering new agricultural systems. At the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, we are building models that are actually not dependent on this destructive and extractive and exploitative approach—I call it the colonized mind approach—of how we bring non-edible energy into edible energy and then put it onto the plates of people. So that process, redesigning the process is fundamental for the future. Suing companies is something that people should do if they feel like they have the right. If they have the case, because they do have the right. It’s their health, it’s their lives, their kids, their homes. And that’s one way. But the real way to hold ourselves accountable is to evolve, and to launch a new generation of farmers and businesses that operate from a different departing point. And by that I mean from this fundamental, departing point where we can transform energy at a mass scale, and we’re already doing some of it. … I do agricultural engineering myself, and I have … engineered a whole new way to deploy poultry under its natural environment, and do it at scale. … We have to do the same thing on a separate framework that pursues this other mission that actually cleans up the environment, … that generates clean water as a result of producing more food. And all of those things, it’s not rocket science. It’s actually very easy to engineer systems like that. We actually know more about how those things work, than how the conventional system will destroy everything. We know so little about the consequences of doing what we’re doing. But we know way more about how this other system doesn’t cause any of those problems.
Q: Should we stop trying to quantify externalized costs, and instead build new frameworks?
No, we can’t do that. The problem that we have is that our infrastructure has been so fully corrupted, that it has to be held accountable. You can’t have the fox guarding the henhouse. I’m not native to the United States, although I’m a citizen, and I love this country. The bottom line is that when I step back, to my outsider’s view of the country, what I see is … we thought we were creating a capitalistic society. And we were moving away from totalitarianism. And what we ended up was opposing government authoritarianism, and created a corporate totalitarian system. We have to keep doing these things we’re doing, these lawsuits, and all of those things, and quantifying how the system actually doesn’t work.
On the other hand, we have to also do the same over here, we got to quantify how this works. For example, the price of a dozen eggs, under our system, shows the real cost. [With a dozen eggs that cost 90 cents], the cost has been put in so many other places that we no longer know what the real cost is. We have to quantify that cost and account for it. At the same time, we have to demonstrate why a dozen eggs actually costs $2 to raise efficiently, where there are no externalities. So we have to do both.
Q: Let’s talk about your permaculture poultry model.
At the Main Street Project I engineered a different way of raising poultry, built a research production unit that incorporates all of the natural attributes that are part of the genetic makeup, not only of the poultry, but also the plants in the space where the poultry does well in its natural environment. We came up with a methodology where we can measure the reincorporation of these factors that allows us to create a balanced process of energy. If you put feed into the chicken, they’re going to eat some of it, grow feathers and grow giblets and tripes, and meat and eggs, too. And we’re going to harvest some of that energy, in the form of edible food like meat and the eggs. As farmers we have to be very careful about getting something back as an investment. In regenerative, indigenous thinking, that is where the real source of benefits are. For example, by putting the poultry back in its natural environment, poultry does better, is healthier, is more nutrient dense, is better for the consumer, and raised with no antibiotics in open space. But it’s done in modular units so we can actually scale very rapidly, in fact, and build regions of producers. It brings back the economic benefits of scale. The working environment for the farmers is completely transformed. We no longer have workers walking into a building, saturated with chickens, where you’re breathing ammonia and intoxicating yourself in the process. … As we put together these units of production, the farms, and the regions, we restore the natural environment of the chicken, which means a forest, jungle-like habitat. We’ve deliberately started to pick highly productive crops we can use for habitat. And so we are bringing back native species … such as hazelnuts and elderberries. How many people know that hazelnuts and elderberries are native to two thirds of the continental US? By bringing that back, because the poultry and the hazelnut are symbiotically connected, we can now deploy new industries on the back of the poultry, and so on.
Q: What would make the industry embrace regenerative agriculture?
By now we have literally obliterated 60 percent of all the species. That’s the ones that we actually tracked, that we know of. At that speed of degeneration we’re not going to have a choice. Either we just collapse and go away as a species for a little bit … until nature regenerates itself and then gives us life again, with the ones that survive. Or we change our ways. I don’t think there’s much of a choice. At this moment we still have this illusion. Just like the illusion that there is cheap food, there’s the illusion that there’s a cheap planet.
I believe that health consequences of the way we grow food [are the] hammer that is starting to hit people in their heads. I believe that it is now hitting the individual so closely, that we’re going to start responding. Part of the reason the regenerative movement is growing really fast, is because of that. I’m hopeful now we will make regenerative agriculture the way we start growing food going forward. We know for every dollar that we put into our poultry system, we can turn around and generate about $12. Now whether Cargill or other companies will get engaged with this and why they don’t do that…. maybe I just haven’t had time to talk to them. Or maybe my theory is correct in that the DNA of the corporate corruptive system and the extractive, colonized mindset is so strong that they are going to keep believing that climate change is not real, that exploiting people actually is the way to make money, that wrecking the ecology is the way to survive as businesses. Maybe they will keep denying all that. And eventually will build a new generation of companies. Or maybe we come to a space where they realize that the world isn’t going to just keep putting up with this because we can’t for much longer. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to change. Or they won’t have consumers to sell their products to, or no ecology left to wreck and to exploit.
Q: From whom should we be learning?
The key lies in indigenous peoples across the world. These folks, those communities, did keep ancestral ways of actually working with nature in a way that is efficient. It’s not mechanically efficient, and it’s not owned and controlled for the sole purpose of profits. But it’s more efficient, nonetheless. We have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that the mistake we made was to allow ourselves to be colonized to such extent that we don’t see the damage to ourselves. [The solution is] going to come from new entrepreneurs [who] will actually understand that. And, you know, everybody dies eventually. So, hopefully, new blood comes into industry. And eventually they become champions of what actually works. I really hope that we can do that. The only challenge of it is this way we have allowed ourselves to be colonized requires catastrophic situations for us to wake up and to realize that we are on the wrong path. I just hope we’re smarter than that.
Q: Should Big Ag be at the table to discuss this future?
Yes. Everybody should be at the table, the heads of all of these companies should be sitting with each of us and learning from all the ancestral knowledge holders, and keepers, like the seed guardians. All of us. But it has to be in a very different kind of relationship. We are not asking them to come and tell us what to do as indigenous thinkers. That’s not it. If they want to come to the table, we all need to be at the table, [but not with them over the table].
More interviews on the True Cost of Food
Q&A with Bill Niman: Critical Control Points
Q&A with Ferd Hoefner: The Soil Health Revolution (coming soon)