This is an excerpt from "Leadership for Sustainability" by R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson and Michael Mortimer. Copyright 2020 by the authors. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Innovating carbon farming
All pathways to a future that limits global warming to safe levels require removing significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Soil stores about 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon stock, so agricultural practices that keep and increase carbon in soil are critical.
Change is difficult, however, because the agricultural system is both local and global (multiscalar), dispersed, complex, and tradition-bound. Stakeholders include farmers, food manufacturers, distributors, investors, grocers, scientists, state regulators, consumers, fertilizer and seed companies, and more. Massive uncertainty exists about how to mobilize enough stakeholders to sequester enough carbon to mitigate enough climate change. The only thing that seems certain is that the status quo must change.
Collaborative innovation offers a way forward. It is a strategy for promoting system-wide change in the face of confounding uncertainty where continuous learning, iterative testing, and refining the solutions are part of the process. This chapter describes the early stages of what might be a game changer: carbon farming. Although the innovation effort is in its early stages, it illustrates attributes of successful innovation projects: a backbone organization, a collaborative stakeholder network, bold yet specific goals, system mapping, identifying critical shifts, pivoting, and designing innovations. More details about this process and additional examples can be found at CoCreative, a consultancy with a proven process that advised on the case reported here.
Massive uncertainty exists about how to mobilize enough stakeholders to sequester enough carbon to mitigate enough climate change. The only thing that seems certain is that the status quo must change.
Alisa Gravitz is the CEO of Green America, a nonprofit organization that facilitates collaborations promoting socially just and environmentally sustainable societies. She is a recognized leader in solar industries, including a stint with President Carter’s administration when she worked on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Alisa also has extensive experience with strategies that engage consumers, investors, and businesses in developing a more environmentally sustainable economy.
Green America’s Center for Sustainability Solutions provides the administrative capacity, or "backbone," that collaborative efforts require (i.e., to organize, staff, and fund such efforts). The Center previously facilitated projects in the energy and climate, food and agriculture, financial, and labor sectors. Russ Gaskin, a principle of CoCreative and senior fellow at Green America, notes that Alisa was uniquely positioned to see the opportunity to sequester carbon through agricultural practices because of her network and her cross-sector experience with energy, climate, and agriculture.
Carbon farming will do more than mitigate climate change. Carbon farming practices improve soil health by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring microbial diversity, which lead to increased crop productivity and restore a functional carbon cycle and topsoil creation. Healthy soils also absorb and retain more water, thus providing drought and flood resilience. In addition, healthy soils grow strong plants with deep root systems and thus reduce the need for conventional fertilizers and pesticides, helping to reduce cost to farmers as well as eliminating soil erosion and mitigating water quality problems from nutrient runoff. Thus, regenerating soil health at scale may address the problem of excess atmospheric carbon while also improving global food security, farm economics, water quality, and rural livelihoods.
Alisa’s team reached out to a handful of key stakeholders to test their interest in the emerging carbon farming concept, and they found strong interest. Leveraging this early enthusiasm, Green America set out to recruit more stakeholders to participate in a collaborative innovation network. To communicate purpose and inspire commitment, Alisa, Russ, and colleagues drafted a clear, bold goal: "To rapidly increase the use of farming practices to sequester carbon as a major solution to the climate crisis." With this goal statement in hand, the team began interviewing stakeholders from across the agricultural value chain to identify well-connected, knowledgeable, and deeply committed stakeholders who would be inspired by the goal and willing to collaborate with others to achieve it. It is critical to recruit the right stakeholders because the innovation process requires collaborators who are representative of the larger system that the team is trying to change. Alisa explains that the "magic" of collaborative innovation happens and systemic change becomes possible with a diverse and committed group of key stakeholders.
When you build those deep bonds of trust where people have a passion and love for the work that you’re doing, as well as trust one another, it enables the network to work faster AND more deeply.
Alisa sought network members who not only were influential in their own organizations but also had a deep personal interest in solving the bigger challenge; that is, people who could represent as well as transcend their organizations. Obviously, effective system change requires representatives from all parts of the system, including from business, NGOs, governments, academia, and community sectors. Less obviously, successful innovation efforts also need people who can simultaneously be both experts and learners. The most productive members are experts in their aspect of the system who hold a beginner’s mind regarding other aspects, and are thus able to accept one another as peers who learn from and collaborate with each other. The agricultural system is so vast and complex that no one can be an expert in all aspects, so respecting and relying on others is key to success.
Good questions and careful listening are required for successful collaborative innovation. During the initial interviews, Alisa and her colleagues carefully phrased their questions to invite creativity about realistic solutions. For example, they asked, "What might it take to achieve a goal like this?" rather than, "Do you think this is possible?" The latter question asks only for evaluation, when innovation is needed. They also built engagement by asking stakeholders how their own work, priorities, and values related to the goal statement. Trust was built by active listening. From years of experience, Alisa reflects, "When you build those deep bonds of trust where people have a passion and love for the work that you’re doing, as well as trust one another, it enables the network to work faster AND more deeply."