Championing regenerative with Arohi Sharma of NRDC

If you want to be a champion for regenerative agriculture, but are unsure of how to make change or even articulate the changes that need to be made — this interview is for you. Arohi Sharma is a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and she is leading the charge for a better farming future in the U.S.

We spoke to Arohi about defining regenerative agriculture as a philosophy, the NRDC’s revolutionary 2022 report: Farm Policy for the 21st Century (open it up in a new tab now, trust me you’ll want to reference it later!), and how individuals can take action to support this vital work.

I’m excited to be talking to you today! Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Arohi Sharma, I work for an environmental nonprofit called the NRDC. We work on climate change policy, and on policies that help protect and preserve our natural resources and promote healthy people and communities. I'm part of a program that we internally call ‘The Nature Program,’ and I specifically work on regenerative agriculture.

What does regenerative agriculture mean in the context of your work?

It can mean a lot of different things depending on the stakeholders involved, but for me it means looking at how we can transition agriculture from being a net contributor to climate change to becoming a part of the climate solution.

What does that work look like day to day?

My work tends to look different every day because I work on both federal policy and California state policy. At the federal level, my regenerative agriculture advocacy means looking at how we can change the farm bill that's coming up for reauthorization next year so that the federal government is promoting more regenerative agriculture stewardship.

I grew up getting my hands dirty and learning about our parcel of land.

Day to day I could be in meetings with legislators or staff about particular bills, talking with farmers and ranchers, working in coalitions to advance different joint policies, or I could be in conversations to educate different constituencies on regenerative agriculture.

Can you tell me a bit more about your background and what brought you to where you are today?

I come from a family of farmers. Whenever I visited my grandparents in India, my dad would make sure to take me to visit our family farm, which is in a rural village east of New Delhi. So I grew up getting my hands dirty and learning about our parcel of land. I didn't realize how much of an impact that experience had on me until I was in college studying political science, and started thinking about agriculture in the context of politics and public policy. From then on I've taken advantage of every research opportunity to learn more about agriculture, trade, environmental stewardship, and water use.

After undergrad, I worked on Capitol Hill for a few years just trying to wrap my brain around what it meant to work on policy. Then I went to graduate school where I did more international agriculture research and writing. I was unemployed for six months after graduating, but I'm glad that I held out as long as I did because if I could write my ideal job description, it would have been the one for this job at NRDC.

That’s amazing! So can you tell me about where we’re at right now in policy as it relates to regenerative agriculture on the federal level?

The farm bill comes up for reauthorization every five years, and 2023 is when it's up again next. The Farm Bill is a behemoth, and I think we really need to take advantage of this must-pass piece of legislation. By that I mean, we are required as a nation to pass this bill, it's not just something that senators or congress people introduced, and there's a lot of attention paid to it because of that.

We want the formula to reward farmers for adopting and using practices that build their soil health so that their crops are less at risk in a changing climate.

Many of the provisions in the Farm Bill were drafted after the Dust Bowl, especially those related to crop insurance and soil health practices. The nation was going through a really traumatic event at that time, so policy was written in that crisis context. Unfortunately, because of different USDA administrators we’ve had since then, the trajectory of that policy has, in my eyes, not been environmentally responsible.

So what we have now is several policy regimes that actually reward degenerative agricultural practices. We have a long way to go to reverse that trajectory so we’re removing carbon from the atmosphere, protecting natural resources, protecting public health and farm worker populations, and growing more nutritious food.

We published a regenerative agriculture report a few months ago setting the stage for a national conversation, and we are currently meeting with professional staff in the Senate and House committees to give them our policy platform for the changes that we know are necessary for this next Farm Bill.

Can you share what some of those changes might look like?

One priority is to change how crop insurance currently works. Right now, we have a system that rewards monocropping and fallowing (keeping soil bare). Insurance is meant to mitigate risk, right? So we want crop insurance to be rewarding farmers for adopting practices that reduce their risk of exposure to climate change, natural disasters, and extreme weather events. The current crop insurance formula doesn't take that into account. We want the formula to reward farmers for adopting and using practices that build their soil health so that their crops are less at risk in a changing climate.

What are you excited to be working on right now?

I’m excited to see how this report is framing our political conversations and helping set the stage for policy advocacy at the state and federal level. Regenerative agriculture can be so easily greenwashed. We’re already seeing big corporations claiming that they practice regenerative agriculture when it’s really just a shiny new label to place on what they were already doing (even when what they’re doing is the opposite of regenerative). So now with this report, when we talk with senators, congress people, and folks in state legislators, we're able to say, ‘That is not regenerative agriculture, here's what regenerative agriculture is.’

"Regenerative agriculture is a land management philosophy, where they grow in harmony with nature and their communities, and it looks different depending on where you're growing in the country — it’s context specific."

The other thing I’m excited about is that the report is based on the lived experiences of 113 growers who we interviewed across the country. So when I go to a decision maker I can say ‘It's not just NRDC who's advocating for this, there are growers in almost every single state who want to see these changes made.’ That, to me, is invigorating.

That is so cool! So the report outlines what truly regenerative agriculture looks like and what farmers and ranchers say they need to get there?

Yeah, the growers that we interviewed made it really clear that regenerative agriculture is a land management philosophy, where they grow in harmony with nature and their communities, and it looks different depending on where you're growing in the country — it’s context specific. So because of that, there is no standard definition. Rather, regenerative agriculture is a set of principles with a suite of practices to pull from to meet and deliver on those principles. It’s like a plug-and-play decision making framework, which I think is part of the beauty of it. I know that upsets people who want a really clear definition, but as soon as you slap a definition on something, you enter into this absolutism where it's either yes or no. And that runs counter to the kind of diversity that we need in agriculture across the country.

What are some of the challenges you've been faced with recently?

Politically, I think it’s easy to stick with the status quo. It's easy for politicians to say, ‘This is how we've done it, ergo we should continue doing it.’ So overcoming that initial obstacle is always tough. Thankfully, we have the lived experiences of 113 people fueling our fire to help engage decision makers in a way that maybe they haven't been engaged before and to help propel the kind of policy change that we need.

Going back to the point about greenwashing, I also worry that people are going to try to use this term to their advantage in a way that is not how growers want us to be talking about it, and not how this nation needs to be talking about it.

It is kind of amazing to see how quickly ‘regenerative agriculture’ has become a marketing term.

Yes. I think it’s really weird how in the last two years, the conversation of about regenerative agriculture has kind of blossomed in the culture. But Indigenous communities have been practicing regeneratively for millennia. Our team makes it a point to emphasize that whenever we're meeting with decision makers. This isn't some white farmers from South Dakota saying this is the new thing. That's not the foundation of this movement. The foundation of this movement has been going on for 2000 years.

And another thing I’ll add to that is the obsession with focusing on specific practices; instead of talking about principles, land management philosophy, and the context-specific work of regenerative stewards. The regenerative agriculture conversation tends to be whittled down to what are and aren’t the ‘right’ practices.

Is there anything you wish that more of the general population was aware of?

One thing that our growers said repeatedly was that consumers have a lot of power, and it looks different in different contexts. You have the power to pick up the phone and call your senator or congress person and ask them to be a champion for regenerative agriculture. Consumers also have power when they go to their local supermarket. They can ask the manager whether they are sourcing from any regenerative growers. They also have the power to vote with their dollars in a multitude of other ways like purchasing directly from regenerative farmers and ranchers. So I encourage people to think about the different avenues of power that they do wield.

Our growers also emphasized that it's not always about the new technology, the new piece of machinery, the new app, etc. Sometimes it's about going old school and ‘de-techifying.’ There are different elements to how we can help farmers and ranchers scale to become regenerative stewards. And I think it's critical for us to listen to the growers doing the work — to ask them what they need instead of coming from the outside thinking that we have the best solution available.

Thank you so much, Arohi. The work you are doing is truly invaluable to the regenerative agriculture community and our nation as a whole.