Regenerative agriculture is a major trend in the organic food world these days, but for many people, it is a confusing and uncertain term.
Wanting people to understand just what ‘regenerative’ means and how the company is embracing this agricultural practice around the world, Dr. Bronner’s has just released an inspirational and compelling new documentary called Journey to Pavitramenthe.
This short film tells the story of fair trade, small-scale farmers in Bareilly, India – located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, 170 miles east of Delhi — who produce regenerative organic mint oil for Dr. Bronner’s products.
“Industrial chemical agriculture on a global scale is a massive cause of greenhouse gas emissions and hence the accelerating rate of climate change. Alongside the move to renewable energy sources, a crucial way to mitigate climate change is through widespread adoption of regenerative organic agriculture practices that sequester atmospheric carbon as stable soil organic matter,” said David Bronner, Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) of Dr. Bronner’s. “This short documentary sheds light on how companies can construct supply chains from the ground up that build healthy soil and healthy communities.”
Given the tremendous impact that this initiative has had, not only on the lives of these farmers but also on their local communities, I wanted to understand more about this very important project. So, I spoke with Gero Leson, Vice President of Special Operations at the company.
All of the ingredients used in Dr. Bronner’s products have a story. What is peppermint’s story at the company?
Peppermint is the “original” flavor used by company founder Emanuel Bronner in its first castile soap product. The flavor was unique in the marketplace and added to the versatility of the product.
Dr. Bronner’s has been sourcing peppermint from India for many years. However, the company’s initiative to grow it via a regenerative organic process is relatively new.
How did this come about and how did you enroll farmers in this process?
We’ve been sourcing “just organic” mint oils from the same area in India since around 2005. However, because of various problems and corruption, we helped start a new project in the region and got ourselves much more involved in the agricultural work.
Being from the village themselves and having had first-hand experience with the production of compost, our new partners made the shift to regenerative practices a high priority. The 1,500 small-holder farmers supplying the project are all members of our organic “internal control system (ICS)”, i.e. they receive regular training and visits by field staff.
Also, the project’s leader Nihal Singh – featured in the video – is a charismatic and convincing hands-on practitioner who is also sensitive to farmers’ needs. That’s likely the best way to get farmers to change their methods.
What kind of training did the farmers need to receive and what were the regenerative techniques that they are deploying? How do these farmers and their communities benefit financially from being involved in this program?
Following initial “basic organic” training, we applied for a grant from the German GIZ aid agency to support the expansion of regenerative practices. This includes the implementation and demonstration of “regenerative practices” and extensive “capacity building” i.e. training of head farmers and farmers at large in soil health, regenerative practices, business skills and more.
The practices include the use of compost, growing cover crops, conservation tillage and encouraging farmers to diversify crops, which enriches the soil with nitrogen sequestered from the atmosphere.
How successful has the program been, in terms of impact on the community and regeneration of the soil?
We are achieving a very high level of participation, notably through the smart selection of committed head farmers who “get the word out” and identify bottlenecks.
The 40+ small villages that are part of the project feel that there is an external interest in their work, which creates motivation and enhances participation. The implementation of a wide range of fair trade projects — supplying clean water, improving sanitation, meeting medical needs and creating work for women — adds to that perception.
Changes to soil quality do not happen that fast. We expect to increase the organic matter of the soil content in 2020, from the current range of 0.6-1% by 0.3 percentage points, and then further.
Given the success of Pavitramenthe, have farmers in other parts of India reached out to have this program replicated with other crops?
Dissemination of results is part of the project. GIZ helps with their network, and the project team maintains contacts and has done demonstrations.
Given that target farmers are all small-holders (i.e., they can’t travel long distances easily) and our team is super busy (their main business is producing mint oils, after all), this will go slow. Yet, we expect visibility to become significant in the next 2-3 years.
What is the big takeaway from this program in India?
If you want farmers to change the way they farm, one needs to provide support on all fronts — financing, training, equipment, inputs (compost), etc. This must be done with credible local partners, preferably farmers. Businessmen who have no connection to the soil are not very effective.
Quite honestly, it is very challenging for Western brands to go up the supply chain to have an impact, and Dr. Bronner’s is unique in that it sets up its own projects.
But at the very least, engaging with your suppliers and motivating them to work with their farmers is a good start. Buying organic materials is also very important since that at least imposes the establishment of an ICS, i.e. there is already engagement with farmers. One just needs to make sure the system isn’t corrupt – easier said than done.
For Dr. Bronner’s, how and where the company sources every one of its ingredients is of tremendous importance. And in this excellent documentary, we can now witness what a powerful impact that Dr. Bronner’s is having on farmers around the world and why regenerative organic agriculture is such a powerful tool to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Journey to Pavitramenthe was directed by Ryan Fletcher, produced by Dr. Bronner’s, Movement Media, Gero Leson, Rob Hardy and Steve Jeter, filmed and edited by Steve Jeter, and the score was composed by Wayne Kramer.