Food and Agriculture: Finding Sustainable Solutions, Old and New

Published in GreenMoney’s June 2022 issue.

At Domini, we not only recognize this day, but know the actions that each of us take in a community are part of building the culture of justice and equality, and highlI recently had the opportunity to sit on a panel on the importance of preserving our forests, alongside the founders of the Lenape Center and other experts. The Lenape are an Indigenous people with historical territory in what is now known as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. As a New Yorker based at an investment firm in NY, I found their reflections especially affecting.

One of the Lenape Center leaders reframed our discourse on the United Nations climate goals and global deforestation risks, putting it in historical context. As land was forcibly taken from Indigenous tribes and our economy grew with roots in extraction and exploitation—of people and our natural resources—society developed systems that are fundamentally unsustainable. Just as the cause of these problems is rooted in 400 years of history, so too are some of the most powerful solutions.

An unsustainable system

One example of this extractive model is industrial agriculture. Our global food systems have been under increasing pressure, with 2.37 billion people around the world without food or unable to eat a healthy balanced diet, a crisis exacerbated by the pandemic and again by the tragic war in Ukraine.

The predominant agricultural models are generally run by a few major players, whose monoculture crops, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and long supply chains have climate impacts and often contribute to economic hardship for farmers. An estimated 23 percent of global carbon emissions are from agriculture and land use change. Climate change, water scarcity, and the degradation of biodiversity may result in the loss of seeds and arable land.

Frameworks for change

All this amounts to a global environmental crisis. A recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report reinforced this urgency, noting that improved land stewardship and afforestation are among our greatest available tools to mitigate climate change. In October 2021, the UN recognized the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right. This encompasses a right to sustainably produced food free of toxins—and, further, calls for meaningful protections for environmental human rights defenders who have fought to protect their land from exploitation.

There is a powerful alternative model from the Lenape people that can be applied to many of these challenges. Over centuries, the Lenape have protected and stewarded their seeds, and they are now attempting to return seeds to their homeland, Lenapehoking. This is a demonstration of the acknowledgement of their land and cultural seed sovereignty. It is also a poignant embodiment of what regenerative and sustainable agriculture mean in practice.

Drawing connections at Domini

Regenerative agriculture involves practices that equitably use land to address climate change, biodiversity, soil health, and the well-being of workers and local economies. In 2019, Domini launched its Forest Project, focusing on the systemic importance of forests to environmental systems, businesses, and investments. We recently drew more explicit connections between our forest work and our sustainable agriculture work, recognizing the relevance of our expectations across all. Deforestation and large-scale agriculture plantations result in similar conversion of land, from old growth forests or wild mixed-use purposes, to a single monoculture crop. From a climate perspective, this reduces climate resilience and carbon sequestration benefits. It also erodes soil health and contributes to biodiversity loss. The importance of equity around land rights, food sovereignty, and the rights to self-determination are similarly fundamental.

How we analyze companies

At Domini, as an investor in public equities and fixed income portfolios, we look to be additive in addressing key sustainability challenges through our investments and engagements. Specifically for forests, we identify our direct and indirect impacts, encourage a forest positive system, and collaborate with partners and investors to elevate this work. This manifests through the refinement of our industry specific key performance indicators (KPIs) that our research analysts use to evaluate companies for investment. It also informs our expectations of companies that we advance through engagement and leads us to advocate for strong public policy.

The inter-relationship between forests, climate, and investors.

At Domini, we are encouraged as more companies recognize the importance of their agricultural inputs and land use in meeting global “net-zero” climate commitments. Many are setting science-based emissions reduction targets, which include their supply chain, often adopting regenerative agriculture commitments.

At this stage, expectations are still emerging, so we are meeting with companies we invest in to better understand the scope of their commitments. For example, we ask about the percentage of their supply chain covered, which regenerative practices are deployed, and how equity and justice are incorporated. Meeting these commitments generally requires actions from suppliers. To understand the depth and quality of companies’ supplier engagement, we ask about how Indigenous and local communities are consulted in designing new models, and the technical assistance and incentives to help farmers adopt regenerative practices. And as this continues to evolve, we’ll encourage companies to be transparent about their methodology and impact measurement. All of these changes should be reflected in companies’ long-term business planning and capital expenditures, including investments in innovation.

Learning from the past and looking ahead

The scope of Domini’s engagement and investment goes beyond traditional food and beverage companies. We look favorably on innovative new models of agriculture, often investing in companies that advance state-of-the-art technology and use practices that will benefit ecosystem and business outcomes in the long term. For example, we invest in a U.S. farming company that uses non-GMO seeds, integrated pest management, and chemical-free agricultural practices that result in significant reductions in energy and water use. We appreciate the similarity of this new innovative solution with what Indigenous communities have long known and incorporated in their stewardship practices.

Our future calls on us to collectively identify and scale such solutions, while respecting the rights of Indigenous communities, honoring their cultural traditions, and following their lead. The Lenape diaspora and other Indigenous leaders have practices of cultural and ecosystem regeneration unique to their communities and land. We encourage companies to make their business models more resilient and equitable—by building relationships with Indigenous and local communities and learning the unique lessons that they offer.