SXSW Panels Explore What’s Next for Sustainable Food

How to transition from “eco-depressed” to “making regenerative living sexy”

l-r: Jason Buechel, Caitlin Leibert, Doug Fine (Photos courtesy of SXSW)

Several SXSW sessions are exploring climate-friendly food and regenerative agriculture by asking questions like: Could tech play a role, and what will farmers think? What’s the deal with ecosystems? How green is alternative protein? Will Mother Nature forgive our sins? The conversation is turned to 11, but good news exists, and these industry experts believe everyone can help.

Quick Facts

• Less than 3% of the U.S. population farms in 2024.

• 37% of the planet is dedicated to agriculture.

• Human land use is hugely influential on our biosphere’s health.

• The number of fossil fuel energy calories required to produce every calorie of food energy has increased since the 1940s.

• Agriculture accounts for roughly 1/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The Power of the Fork

“Ecosystems are the lungs, liver, and kidneys of our planet,” says co-CEO of 5th World Rob Avis.

“Our dietary choices can either eat the planet to death (what we are currently doing) or regenerate Earth's ecosystems back to their former glory,” he adds. “Encouraging sustainable and regenerative food production and consumption has the potential to regenerate planet Earth and solve many of the environmental issues we are currently facing. This makes eating a hopeful act.”

"We believe food can and should be a force for change,” says Whole Foods Market CEO Jason Buechel. “We hear from our suppliers about the effects changing weather patterns can bring to labor, production, and food quality, which is why investing in climate-smart agriculture, including organic and regenerative, is critical to ensuring the sustainability of our food system for generations to come.”

Can AI Support Mother Nature?

Agricultural technology power to date has largely been of the brute-force variety, and modern “smart” systems are in demand today. “After all, industrial monoculture was once the next big thing,” quips Doug Fine (author/filmmaker, American Hemp Farmer).

“Regenerative farming modes are a win-win for farmers, soil, customers, and planet. But to transition from 30 years of monoculture won’t be easy. It’d be like telling every dentist to completely change how they treat teeth,” says Fine.

“It’s in our best interest to run our agricultural systems patterned around nature.” – Rob Avis

To amplify sustainable food system change at scale, an objective measurement of ecosystem health would be a game-changer, explains Avis. “I believe that humans will optimize their behaviors if they have the feedback to understand the implications of their actions. Technology will help us get there.

“With AI, we can design our agricultural systems around intact ecosystems, which will forever change the patterns and operation of farms,” he adds. These regen-friendly spaces allow for more nutrient-dense proteins and habitat-building food systems, but the whole scenario also requires a total reimagination of what “healthy food” means to the average consumer.

Alternative proteins, for example, are often touted as more sustainable than, say, beef. And by many measurements that’s true, but because fake meat usually contains legumes (beans, lentils, etc.), and “these industrially grown crops are cultivated using monoculture techniques that are chemical- and energy-intensive,” it’s not as clear-cut. On the other hand, regenerative farms and ranches – even a “properly managed beef cattle system,” for example – “can be energy positive, carbon negative, and don’t require massive inputs of chemicals.”

“Regenerative farms are about working with, as opposed to working against, nature. They are designed using biomimetic principles,” adds Avis. “It’s in our best interest to run our agricultural systems patterned around nature.”

Peace, Love, and Public Awareness?

“Our society suffers from nature deficit disorder,” declares Avis. “Most people are unaware of what a degraded vs. regenerated ecosystem looks like. People drive by a field of canola and jump out to take a photo because they think it is beautiful ... and yet, this ecosystem is actually completely degraded and unhealthy.”

Still, sustainability is nuanced, and "public sentiment is already driving corporate action,” explains Fierce Whiskers Distillery co-founder Tri Vo. He notes that the early movers and shakers are exposed to intense scrutiny, which can be an additional deterrent. “We must rethink how we do things, and in a world where everything is interconnected, everyone must be empowered to overcome the obstacle that is in front of them.

“There is no technology that can generate clean water, clean air, and nutrient dense food like nature does, and she is powered by the sun,” Vo says. “She does all of this for 'free’ – we just need to treat her well.”

Avis adds, “[People are] eco-depressed with quite a dose of cynicism.” While experts agree the public is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers, not as many understand how simple solutions can be.

Good News and How-Tos, Please?

“Any of us, even in our busy digital-age lives, can plant a small soil-building garden,” notes Fine.

And by supporting regen farmers, food co-ops, CSAs, and farmers’ markets, you are positively impacting the planet. Fine explains, “According to some studies, each cubic inch of topsoil we restore to the world’s farmland through regenerative cultivation techniques sequesters up to 3 billion tons of carbon annually.” His SXSW talk will reveal some simple regenerative options for building your own superfood security garden.

Whole Foods Market's VP of sustainability, Caitlin Leibert, agrees: “Agriculture sits squarely at the intersection of people and the environment, meaning that through agriculture we can uplift human rights while at the same time sequestering carbon and enhancing essential ecosystem services such as biodiversity and soil health. I cannot think of better news as it relates to our ability to actively move the needle in the right direction."

And although harnessing the positives of artificial intelligence is certainly a worthy exploration, we already have the necessary data to regenerate our planet’s ecosystems. “We don't need to wait for governments, big companies, and corporate farms to make changes. The individual can ... do their part in making regenerative living sexy. Our lives literally depend upon it.”

Art via Getty Images

Sustainability at SXSW

Seeds of Change: Impactful and Climate-Friendly Food

Friday 8, 4pm

JW Marriott, Room 203-204

Grow Soil or Die: How All Earth’s Farming Can Go Regenerative

Saturday 9, 10am

JW Marriott, Room 203-204

The Soul & Science of Regenerative Agriculture

Tuesday 12, 10am

Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon B

Sustainable Supply Chains: Addressing Hidden Emissions

Thursday 14, 2:30pm

Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon A

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SXSW 2024, sustainability, Doug Fine, Jason Buechel, Caitlin Leibert, Tri Vo, Rob Avis

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