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Native Gardening, Regenerative Agriculture & the Fallacy of One Right Way
File under "Not Actually Invented By White People."
Native plant gardening is still a niche hobby in the US, but as the West dries up and native pollinator populations disappear, more people seem to be open to the idea that planting swathes of thirsty grass and shrubs that cannot feed the local fauna might not be the best move. I have two young kids who love watching wildlife at work, so that's one reason why I often choose native plants. The other main reason is that I am a lazy gardener living in a drought-stricken state, and I like not having to do much supplemental watering or work to create a flourishing garden.
Native plants, which can also be called indigenous plants, are those that have evolved to live in a particular region, and exist there without human introduction. The benefit of planting native species is that pollinators, birds, and other local creatures evolved alongside them, so the plants are better able to meet their needs for food and shelter. Plants that are adapted to local weather, soil, and pest conditions are also typically able to thrive without needing as many inputs of water, fertilizer, or pesticides. It's all very lovely. But.
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The problem is the native plant scene, which more often than not, demonstrates the same "affluent, liberal habitus of whiteness" that characterizes the worst side of the local food movement. It's also what disturbs me about some aspects of the regenerative agriculture movement which — like native gardening — is becoming more culturally and politically prominent, and picking up moral heft along its journey.
More on that:
Like native gardening, regenerative agriculture seeks to correct the environmental harms wrought by colonialism. There is a focus on restoring the health of the soil, on increasing biodiversity, and on building balanced farm systems that regenerate rather than deplete the Earth's resources. Although some organizations include considerations for social justice in their definitions of regenerative agriculture, the term is rooted in the US-based organic counterculture movement of the 1960s, and its foundation of white supremacy and patriarchal values sometimes peeks through.
Agroecology, on the other hand, is a holistic food system approach that centers the knowledge and culture of indigenous peoples worldwide, and incorporates the connectedness and well-being of communities into its framework. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) released a report last year that analyzed the framings and narratives behind the terms regenerative agriculture, agroecology, and nature-based solutions, driven by a concern that as those with the power to sustainably transform food systems push forward, the social and political aspects of agroecology are being left behind. As the authors point out:
[Agroecology] represents much more than an approach to correct unsustainable food production practices. It embodies an alliance of science with practice and a social movement, calling for a profound rethinking of food systems centred on a merging of distributive justice with environmental soundness.
The appeal of regenerative agriculture is likely due to the emphasis it places on the regeneration of natural resources – a strong but simple concept likely to speak to a large number of food system actors. However, another issue with regenerative agriculture is that it fails to give credit to indigenous systems that prefigured its practices, and is being largely promoted by white males from the Global North.
It may seem a small thing, the difference between these two terms, but by making the social justice elements an optional add-on to regenerative ag, they become subject to the whims of those leading the movement — often "white males from the Global North."
When the acknowledgement of indigenous knowledge is missing, when no one is saying, Actually many of the approaches we are 'discovering' were and are practiced by indigenous cultures for millenia, and what we really need to do is upend the power structures of colonialism, the knowledge of white "experts" invariably flows in to fill the void. Often it is a white man, whose expertise and approval are sought with almost religious fervor.
In my local native plant Facebook group — I know, I know, Facebook groups! but it's the best way to find out when the next plant sale is, okay?? — there is so much anxiety around planting the "right" ratio of native to non-native plant species. People in the group often invoke the gospel of David Salman, a horticulturalist who was renowned for his work with xeriscaping and propagating plants native to the American West, who recommended 80 percent native plants to 20 percent non-native plants. It is treated by many not as an optional recommendation, but as a rigid rule.
Rigid rules, of course, evoke that characteristic of white supremacy culture, "one right way":
One right way shows up as:
the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it
when a person or group does not adapt or change to "fit" the one right way, then those defining or upholding the one right way assume something is wrong with the other, those not changing, not with us
similar to a missionary who sees only value in their beliefs about what is good rather than acknowledging value in the culture of the communities they are determined to "convert" to the right way of thinking and/or the right way of living
One right way does not leave space for the beliefs and barriers that may stand between those not changing and The Way. I am thinking about Black farmers and ranchers and why they might not have the time, energy, and money needed to shift to regenerative practices. I am thinking about Angie and June Provost, who I worked with in New Orleans, and who are some of the last Black sugarcane farmers in Louisiana. Their story is one of survival in the face of racism both personal and institutional — vandalization of their farm equipment, fraud, bank loans designed to fail their farm, and more. I am thinking of the Mallerys, a Black ranching couple in rural Colorado, who have been the targets of racism and harassment from local residents and law enforcement.
Listen to the Provosts’ story:
When you believe in One Right Way, choosing that way takes on a moral dimension. When you are fighting a relentless tide of racism for the very survival of your farm or ranch, you have some very good reasons for not undertaking the project of converting to regenerative practices. Having the capacity to make that shift is, in fact, a privilege. And so it feels disturbing to see a regenerative ag conference titled What Good Shall I Do, featuring an array of white people in fashionable hats.
If regenerative agriculture is synonymous with "doing good," where does that leave those who do not have the capacity to convert their farmland? Where does that leave those whose ancestors were the originators of agroecology, but who have been disconnected from those practices by colonialism and other systems of oppression? Are their lives and work not good? Where is the acknowledgement of the barriers that have been erected by the same system that now lauds those who are able to afford the costs of reversing colonial land practices?
This isn't to say that moving toward regenerative agriculture is the wrong direction. I am heartened by the efforts of people like my friend Sophia Piña McMahon, a writer and photographer who is expanding the coverage of regenerative agriculture to include the regeneration of communities and local food ecosystems. I see the beauty and rewards in growing Colorado native plants in my own garden. I want to live in a world where the principles of agroecology are flourishing, and habitats are restored.
But I don't buy into the single minded veneration of those with the privilege to adopt regenerative principles, or purchase only native plants. And I definitely cast a skeptical eye on the regenerative pledges of companies like Walmart, whose promise to have "a lasting, net-positive impact on people and the planet" seems at odds with their practices.
Nature is wild, after all, not a place of rigid rules. Letting go of the belief in One Right Way brings us one step closer to a relationship based on coexistence rather than domination. Let's try it.
For another spicy take on native plant gardening, I love this essay from, which connects its more disturbing aspects to diet culture:
This is the set of norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors of wealthier, politically liberal, white people, a.k.a. so many people at your local farmers market and/or local native plant sale.