The three-year-old maker of snacks, coffee and other ethically sourced foods is aiming to show that brands can source from regenerative ag systems; but it will require a real commitment to working with rural communities who, for too long, have been left behind by the modern food system.
Regenerative agriculture has become a buzzword in recent years. An agricultural system that improves soil health, sequesters carbon, and improves ecosystems of course sounds promising; but so far, it has yet to be implemented as a broad-scale solution across supply chains, particularly those of large food companies.
GoodSam Foods — a three-year-old company producing snacks, coffee, and other ethically sourced products — is aiming to show that there is a way for brands to source from regenerative agriculture systems; but it will require a real commitment to relationship building and working with rural communities who, for too long, have been left behind by the modern food system.
“There is a real opportunity to support smallholder, indigenous farmers who have been doing this work for generations,” GoodSam founder Heather Terry told Sustainable Brands™.
Terry and her team initially started by working with indigenous communities in Colombia, finding that many communities were already using regenerative practices — because, as is often the case, traditional farming is, by nature, regenerative. What GoodSam offered was access to new markets — but that alone was not enough.
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“Showing up the first time is always suspicious, especially a place like Colombia,” Terry says. That’s because other companies and nonprofits have been there in the past, and made promises that they did not fulfill. “It has taken us years to build the relationships we have now, through continuity showing up and delivering what we say we are going to deliver. That type of commitment is what it takes.”
GoodSam now sources for several communities in Colombia and Kenya — all of which, Terry hopes, will be partners for years to come and allow them to scale up their impact.
Why does GoodSam’s model matter? Because our food system, controlled by a few large global corporations, is not sustainable. We can now see that clearly due to the global food crisis, driven by the war in Eastern Europe. Our dependence on a few specific crops for so much of our processed food — such as wheat, sunflower oil and palm oil — is perilous. Lose one or two sources — such as Ukraine and Russia — and the whole world feels the pain. Those crops are, too often, grown in monoculture, large-scale plantations — which come with their own host of problems for the environment.
“Over the years, millions of hectares of fertile forests, savannahs, peasant farmlands and pastures have been cleared to make way for sterile plantations growing only a few chemically dependent varieties of commodity crops. The result is a catastrophic loss of soil organic matter,” said a 2021 report from the non-profit, GRAIN.
There’s another issue that GoodSam hopes to address that isn’t getting enough attention — rural livelihoods. Many smallholder farmers around the world are suffering from the current system, in which just a tiny fraction of what consumers in places such as the United States and Europe pay for tropical products actually goes to those who grow it. For example, of what we pay for a cappuccino at a cafe, a paltry three cents goes to coffee farmers — many of them are in poverty.
It is something that I saw myself while visiting coconut smallholders in the Philippines and Indonesia — so little of what we pay for premium products such as virgin coconut oil makes its way to producers. Because of the inability to earn a living wage, many farmers weren’t even bothering to re-plant coconut trees — preferring to abandon production in hopes of a better life in the city.
“About 70 percent of the world’s food comes from smallholder farming systems,” Terry says. “What we’re seeing is that the kids who would take over those farms are leaving. If we don’t do something about that, we’re going to be in big trouble in the next 20-30 years.”
Here’s the problem: If too many farmers — many of whom come from multi-generational farming families — don’t pass on their knowledge, skills and land to their children, there will be less coconut, coffee, and other common commodities grown in the future. This will only increase the power of industrial farming, reduce biodiversity, and put our food system at even more risk of future failure.
Terry believes the solution is to make farming, via regenerative practices, a viable future that future generations want to participate in. Otherwise, we’ll be even more reliant on an industrial system that is failing our planet.
One issue that has been a consistent challenge when it comes to ensuring sustainable practices in complex, local systems is quantitatively measuring impact. GoodSam knows that it’s having an impact through the changes that the team can observe firsthand, in the villages and communities in which they operate. But getting more data will help further show the benefit of a regenerative model.
“We want to do more measuring soil, dealing with air quality, water conservation; and start to really look at the picture more holistically,” Terry says. “I’m really looking forward to proving out this point — that this is the future of the food system.”
GoodSam is aiming to release impact reports twice a year going forward, and Terry hopes big brands are willing to learn from the experience of GoodSam, but also other small and medium companies such as Dr. Bronner’s. In the past year, we’ve seen companies including PepsiCo, General Mills, and Unilever make bold commitments to regenerative ag. But for those efforts to succeed, they also need to commit to building long-term and mutually beneficial relationships.
“Do we want to keep farms? Do we want to invest in the health of the planet? Or do we want to keep stripping the system, just to pay a cheaper price?” Terry asks. "It'll necessitate a major corporate mindshift, away from business as usual.”