Over the past few years, the flaws in our current food system have been brought into sharp relief. From supply network fluctuations and challenges brought on by the pandemic, to the growing concerns around the environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture – and associated human and animal welfare concerns, it has become clear that change is essential if we want to continue to feed our growing global population in a way that doesn’t further endanger the viability of our planet. 

Identifying and assessing solutions that promote a regenerative plant-based food system is a key focus for the Plant Based Foods Institute (PBFI), sister non-profit organization to PBFA. A core initiative from PBFI, the Domestic Sourcing Initiative (DSI) , was created to build more resilient and transparent supply networks for plant-based food companies. DSI connects plant-based food companies with domestic supply network partners, such as farmers, processors, ingredient suppliers, and manufacturers, creating collaborative opportunities for American farmers and rural communities, advancing policies that support domestic production of plant-based ingredients. Ultimately, DSI can empower plant-based food companies to reduce their carbon footprint by sourcing ingredients domestically (instead of internationally) and provide new markets for U.S. farmers that can advance regenerative agricultural practices.

The importance of domestic sourcing efforts were front and center at a recent panel at Plant Based World Expo. The panel “Securing a Resilient Plant-Based Future: Building Domestic Supply Networks” featured Bill Green, executive director of The Common Market Southeast; Alex Heilman, director of supply and trading at Mad Agriculture; Jessica Hulse Dillon, director of the Soil & Climate Alliance at the Center for Sustainability Solutions, Green America; Landon Plagge, owner of Plagge Farms Inc. and Green Acres Seed Co.; Isabelle Steichen, co-founder of Lupii and DSI Company participant; and the discussion was moderated by PBFI’s Policy Associate Renee Smith Nickelson. 

Bringing together leaders from across the plant-based foods industry – from farm to store shelves – the focus of the discussion highlighted current supply network challenges and opportunities to source U.S.-grown ingredients.

Navigating fluctuations in the supply network

Renee kicked off the panel by highlighting that while fluctuation in food supply chains is inevitable, there has been much more disruption over the last years, with the impacts of the pandemics and the war in Ukraine. With the changing dynamics of the past few years, panelists shared strategies they turned to in order to ensure a reliable supply for their businesses and a number of themes came to the surface. 

For Bill and The Common Market Southeast, a nonprofit regional food distributor with a mission to connect communities with local produce and goods from sustainable family farms, the rising importance of building relationships between companies and buyers that support equitable solutions for farmers and local communities stood out. 

From a regional standpoint, Bill illustrated examples of how tracking consumer values can be used as a motivator to see positive shifts in the entire supply chain. “[We were starting to see clients that would come in and say] these are my values and this is what I want to buy, so we were able to partner them with multiple women-owned farms that met their criteria. The reality is they weren’t investing in a product, like potatoes, onions, or radishes, they were investing in that farm. And that is the value we are moving towards that we need to continue to move toward – and I think what that customer was saying is ‘I want to help that farm succeed because as they succeed, my community succeeds’.” 

For Isabelle of PBFA member company Lupii, shortening the supply network for lupini beans (currently imported from Europe) is a key strategy. “From day one, we were focused on finding local growing partners here in the States because we know there is chickpea and lentil growing here in the United States, especially in the mid-west and there is a real need for regenerative crops that are nitrogen fixing for U.S. soils,” said Isabelle. “We’ve been really lucky to partner with Timeless Foods out in Montana … we have been working on testing the growing have been pretty successful so far and now we’re hearing there are farmers who want to start growing the ingredient on a larger scale.”

Consumers and businesses can play a powerful role in being the lever for sustainable growing practices within regional/domestic food systems, leading the focus of the discussion to how to create open dialogue and opportunities for farmers.

Creating partnerships with farmers 

Starting the discussion on the topic of agriculture, Renee turned to Landon to share his perspective as a farmer and the potential disconnect between grower and end-consumer within our current food system structure. Landon is a supplier for PBFA member Oatly, a DSI participant, and grows around 10% of their U.S. supply. Oatly is one of the few end products that Landon gets to see made from the crops he grows on his farm. In a typical year, Landon will grow 1,500 semi-loads of food, “most of that is either processed into ethanol which is then processed into cattle feed or hog feed.” 

As Landon explained, there can be a lack of supply chain traceability between grower and end product due to the focus on growing a high volume of crops for the highest payout. When he and other farmers sell their crops to big producers, like Cargill or Louis Dreyfus, for example, the farmer has no view into what their crop is turned into and the company has no view into the farms where the crops came from. Landon shared that this lack of traceability also connects to a lack of accountability––meaning there is little incentive for farmers to use better farming practices like no-till or organic, regenerative standards.

“Most farmers will grow whatever makes them the most money,” shared Landon, “farmers are interested in their livelihood and the sustainability of their farm for the future. They may not recognize some of the soil health steps that need to be taken but once that is communicated, I think that will be a good thing for everybody.” Plagge Farms grows around 90% of the cover crop and food grade crops in his county in Iowa, illustrating they are in the minority of farmers utilizing regenerative practices that could ensure long-term sustainability for their farms.

Supporting farmers for benefit of all

Helping farmers to understand the importance of building soil health and incentivizing them to do so is a primary focus for Jessica and Green America’s Soil and Climate Alliance (SCA). “The Soil and Climate Alliance are supply chain banks, as we are building solutions we need to understand exactly what Landon was saying – what the farmers in Iowa need, what the farmers in Montana, what the farmers in Georgia need because it is all different. There is no one-size solution,” shared Jessica. 

The Soil Carbon Initiative program led by SCA creates pathways to help farmers identify their individual needs and baselines to establish soil health, and pays farmers for every acre they enroll. “We know that farmers need to protect their bottom line and by providing that financial support we are able to help them put the practices they develop into action.” 

Helping support farmers in transitioning to regenerative agriculture is also a core focus for Alex and Mad Agriculture. Their organization is specifically designed to help 200 to 20,000 broad-acre farms successfully transition into regenerative organic agriculture. While traditionally, farmers looking for support from banks get loans to finance new crop production or equipment- often bearing the high risks of lending, Mad Agriculture has a Capital arm that makes it easier to get the right type of low-cost and flexible operating, land, and equipment financing that helps them transition to regenerative, organic practices.

Ensuring access to capital to build equity into the food system is also an important point Bill raised:  “The resiliency of our food system requires full participation and diverse participation not only in terms of product but in terms of producer, and bringing parity and equity to our food system is not going to happen without partnership. So many of these farmers who have lacked access traditionally need four things: access to land, access to capital, markets, and some level of training and development.” 

“One of the considerations as we talk about partnership,” explained Bill, “[is] we need to recognize the role that history plays and when we talk about BIMPOC [Black, Indigenous, Multiracial, People(s) of Color] growers, in particular Black growers who at one point in our country’s history owned 14 percent of all the farmland, 16 million acres, and through reasons that we don’t have time to go into today, that number has been reduced to about 4 million.” *See resource below. 

Like Mad Ag and SCA, Common Market is leveraging partnerships to expand the footprint of farmers who are looking to reinvigorate regional and local food systems to ensure access to the communities they serve. 

“We all eat food, we need farmers to grow the food and we need, at this moment in history and moving forward, we need these farms to be building their own soil health otherwise they will not be farming in 10 years,” shared Jessica. “What is exciting about that is building soil health, builds climate health, builds nutrient density, builds human health, this is all connected so if we start working on one piece of this, it all wraps around and all these pieces come together.”

Connecting with values to deliver high-quality products

Creating sustainable, regenerative agricultural supply leads to better quality ingredients for companies and ultimately, better products for consumers. Tying all of the threads of domestic sourcing together, Isabelle shared her insights into what it means to create a brand rooted in these values: “As a business owner, [it’s important to think through] what are the different steps and pieces of my supply chain, and who are the humans going behind that? …We will continue creating demand and education and parallel to that as a brand, we want to build back end and work with local farmers to source from U.S. soils so we don’t have to rely on importing the ingredient for the long-term.”

She gave the example of going out and meeting with the farmers who are interested in growing lupini beans for their products and getting to know their agenda to ensure a mutually beneficial partnership. As Landon mentioned at the start of the panel, the more farmers are educated about the long-term benefits of utilizing regenerative growing practices and understand there is thriving consumer demand for them, they are better equipped to align with brands or find business partners that foster a reliable supply network and more nutritious foods for consumers. 

“At PBFI we encourage and advocate for holistic actions that can sustain equitable food supply relationships at all levels,” Renee said, closing the panel. “We don’t doubt that it is hard work and the challenges are real, but we are heartened by the engagement from a variety of food system participants, including the folks on this panel and we appreciate you all for committing to these goals that will advance a regenerative, plant-based food system.”

To learn more about PBFI’s Domestic Sourcing Initiative check out our website here and watch videos documenting DSI partnerships between plant-based food companies and farmers here

*A note from the moderator: As we strive to build a resilient plant-based food system, we must address the impact of racism and discrimination on access to fair opportunities in food and land. To learn more about the loss of land ownership and rights by Black families and farmers residing or farming in the United States, we refer to resources from the World Food Policy Center within Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, found here.