Together with Amsterdam Impact, we decided to explore systemic change rooted in practice. And we chose the lens of new entrepreneur-investor models in the agri-food sector, particularly in the field of regenerative agriculture.
The event featured panelists Liesbeth Soer, director of catalytic investments at Triodos Regenerative Money Centre; Danielle de Nie, soil scientist and founder of Wij.land; and Brad Vanstone, founder of plant-based cheesemakers Willicroft.
Joel Solomon, a founding partner of Renewal Funds, Canada’s largest mission venture capital firm and co-author of The Clean Money Revolution, gave a special keynote followed by a lively conversation with the audience.
“Regenerative is not about doing good or bad, but about fixing something that is broken: the economic system. That’s what we’re trying to do with Aardpeer,” said Liesbeth Soer of Triodos Regenerative Money Centre, which co-initiated Aardpeer with Wij.Land, Stichting BD Grondbeheer and Stichting Herenboeren NL.
Aardpeer is a foundation that safeguards agricultural land and soil vitality for future generations by making land available to nature inclusive farmers. While Aardpeer means Jerusalem artichoke in Dutch, the foundation name alludes to soil (‘aarde’ in Dutch) and ‘peer’, a nod to its collaborative approach, which brings together farmers, citizens, soil and biodiversity.
Aardpeer took its first fundamental step towards a regenerative agricultural system in the Netherlands through the 2021 issue of a bond, which raised €7.2 million mainly from small investors to remove land from the speculative market and to make this land available to farmers willing to transition to sustainable farming practices.
“The risk of doing nothing is larger than the risk of investing in something truly groundbreaking, which will help the next generations,” said Soer of the bond, which was counterintuitive from an economic perspective. “The [financial] regulators went silent when we said it’s an even larger risk if the system stays as it is.”
In addition to fixing a broken system, Liesbeth Soer of Triodos Regenerative Money Centre, ‘regenerative’ also means doing something truly new with your investment. “The return that you get on your money –I call it ‘the harvest’. It’s a consequence and not something to strive for or that you know up front,” she explains.
To soil scientist and Wij.land founder Danielle de Nie, ‘regenerative’ is all about bringing dead soils back to life. “It’s about the life harboured in the soil – the microorganisms – and making it work for you again, which is something we have been losing in the Netherlands since the introduction of industrial techniques,” she said.
But many of the farmers willing to make the switch to sustainable farming need to find a balance between economic and ecological incentives and gain access to more land. “We often hear from farmers: ‘There is no bank that’s going to buy me more land. I’m already up to here in debt!’”, said de Nie.
“What is wrong with this system is that the price of land in the Netherlands is not related to the productive capacity when you produce sustainably, without chemical input,” she added.
To Brad Vanstone, founder of plant-based cheesemakers Willicroft, “regeneration is an evolving process of improvement with the first goal being net positivity.” Willicroft started using cashews as a base ingredient but realised the carbon emissions were too high, so it switched to beans and pulses, which can also be grown in the Netherlands.
“We’re looking for farmers to give 50 acres of white beans as a pilot project. We want it to be regenerative and act as a transition piece,” Vanstone explains while calling for closer collaboration between the dairy- and plant-based cheese industries.
“When it comes to plant-based products and the dairy industry, there’s a kind of impasse, but there should be a lot of shared knowledge. There’s no progress when we’re pointing fingers to one another,” he said.
How can we bring together stakeholders to stimulate the transition to a regenerative food system and a new economy that works for all?
“My favourite SDG is 17 – Partnership for the Goals. And Aardpeer’s slogan is ‘Together for land’. You need a crowd to make something happen”, said Liesbeth Soer, director of catalytic investment at Triodos Regenerative Money Centre.
“For Aardpeer, we have initiatives bringing the money, land, farmers, and crowd perspectives. So the knowledge is already there. You have to combine the forces. Sometimes it feels as simple as that: a coalition is the best thing to move forward,” she explained.
Embracing already successful approaches is also key to bringing together stakeholders for a shared purpose.
“Unless we have a bottomless pool of money or an endless amount of time, it’s unrealistic to try to do everything ourselves or reinvent it all. Instead, be humble about someone doing something well and be ready to learn and listen,” said Willicroft’s Brad Vanstone.
Wij. land’s Danielle de Nie shared Vanstone’s sentiment. “Sometimes it helps to take a step back and the time to look at the problem you’re trying to solve. Don’t dive into solutions too fast,” she explained.
De Nie initially envisioned creating an investment fund before meeting the Aardpeer’s co-founders. “If I would’ve proceeded in that direction, it would have been an imperfect model.”
How do our panellists stay motivated to drive the transition? “We’re trying to build a critical mass and momentum for farmers to follow examples of peers who adopted sustainable practices. We always tell them: ‘Don’t wait for new rules and regulations. Take action now and prepare for the future,” said de Nie.
And one approach farmers can use to become future proof is through experimentation and knowledge exchange: “We encourage them to experiment with different types of soil management and rotational grazing, for instance. And we bring them to a network of like-minded farmers so they can learn in a peer-to-peer way,” she explained.
In this process, keeping the larger goal in mind and pushing egos aside is essential. “Focus on things that are going well and take small steps to get to an endpoint,” said Willicroft’s Brad Vanstone.
“The planet is screaming for us to do something. Some things are more important than us, like fixing food systems or everything that we buy and sell,” he added.
And the more entrepreneurial solutions such as Willicroft’s we can generate, the better. “Land, like brilliant ideas, is scarce. So we need entrepreneurs to stand up and make things happen,” said Liesbeth Soer of Triodos Regenerative Money Centre.
Vanstone believes that tools such as more subsidies for sustainable agriculture, carbon taxation, and true cost accounting can also support the transition: “Everyone should be on a level playing field. So, for example, a meat farmer could be net-positive and not be taxed. And a plant-based meat alternative producer could have a highly emitting product and be taxed accordingly.”
“Regenerative investing is the new impact investing,” Soer declared as she advised for a more risk-friendly approach. “We are sitting in a position where we think we can guarantee a return. If you think about life, you have to take risks, and life will give you something in return. Why is that so different in the financial sphere?” she pondered.
On a similar note, “impact investing is investing in what really matters,” said Wij. land’s Danielle de Nie. And to Willicroft’s Brad Vanstone, what really matters goes beyond economic gain: “I think it’s about factoring in things other than returns – land usage, emissions, biodiversity, water – not as ‘nice to haves’ but giving them the same level of importance as revenue,” he said.
Joel Solomon, a founding partner of Renewal Funds, Canada’s largest mission venture capital firm, and co-author of The Clean Money Revolution, gave a special keynote that contextualised impact investing as part of a shift in the collective consciousness.
Born with genetic kidney disease, Solomon was inspired by a kidney’s function: to clean blood. “Why does clean blood matter? Because otherwise, I wouldn’t exist. Blood is the money moving through our ecosystems. And we also need clean money,” he said.
Solomon’s investing philosophy owes much to growing up in Tennessee in the civil rights movement era, which instilled in him a sense of intergenerational justice.
“We need to do the best we can for people, ecosystems, society, and future generations. Trillions are moving around and will pass hands. There is more than enough, just not well distributed,” he said.
Moving away from a mindset of scarcity, Solomon argued that there is sufficient capital to tackle our most urgent challenges and that governments should facilitate this process: “There is a huge role for the government as a sector to regulate the commons,” he said.
Solomon believes that, as privileged citizens of western societies, we have a moral imperative to reevaluate our priorities: “The privileges of cumulative wealth have created a platform where we have space to think about how companies and consumers behave. Think about how much is enough and ask yourself, ‘then what?’”
Solomon concluded by stressing the importance of taking individual and consistent action for the benefit of future generations. “Every act makes a difference. We can all be billionaires of good deeds. Our descendants will be studying how we used this time.”