André Leu – Regeneration International – Ep 12

André Leu, International Director at Regeneration International

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by André Leu from Regeneration International, who we will be talking to about how their non-profit aims to promote, facilitate, and accelerate the global transition to regenerative food, and land management.


[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hi there and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people have interests across the food supply chain within the fresh produce sector.

Today on our show, I’m joined by André Leu from Regeneration International, who I’ll be talking to about how their non-profit aims to promote, facilitate, and accelerate the global transition to regenerative food, and land management.

So with no further delays let’s get started.

Hi Andre. Thanks for joining me on the podcast today. How are you?

[00:00:28] André Leu: I’m good. And what about you?

[00:00:30] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, I’m doing really well, thank you. Before we get into it, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do, and while you’re at it, please tell us a fun little fact about yourself that most people don’t know.

[00:00:43] André Leu: Okay. I’m a farmer I’ve been farming organically for 50 years now. Um, since 1971. And I, I specialise in tropical organic fruits, I’m based in Daintree, in the far north of Queensland, and on top of that, I’m also currently the international director of Regeneration International, and we are the global umbrella body for the regeneration movement.

And we’re an organisation of organisations we have at the moment over 317 partner organisations in 70 countries. On every, well I’ll say arable continent because Antarctica isn’t quite arable yet. 

[00:01:34] Mitchell Denton: Yes.

[00:01:34] André Leu: If you want a fun thing about me, I suppose, I played, you know, my other part of my life, I am a professional musician and played in bands and playing in bands actually longer than I’ve been a farmer, started in high school.

And at one point, in a band actually in Sydney, we used to get a lot of air play on Triple J and had a record out in the days when records were made of vinyl. Pulled a lot of crowds in gigs at Sydney enjoyed that and in many ways would love to get back to gigging again, except it’s not that easy now with Covid. 

[00:02:10] Mitchell Denton: What instrument did you play? If you don’t mind me asking.

[00:02:13] André Leu: I played both guitar and keyboards, and I sing as well. At the moment I’m really getting back into guitar. But, most of my professional career, I was actually on keyboards, particularly in the eighties and synthesizers. When, every band needed a keyboard player, I could get away with being an average keyboard player, whereas an average ah guitar player you know, a dime a dozen. 

[00:02:40] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. How long have you been organic farming for?

[00:02:46] André Leu: I started, 50 years ago, 1971. I first came up here. I grew up in Sydney and I first came up here when I was seventeen, and I left home. And I was in Kuranda. Kuranda was, another fun fact, it was called the old commune. 

I was one of the original hippies up here, and I always remember one day walking barefoot through this pathway through the rainforest and coming to this sort of clearing in the sun, just alive with all these tropical fruits I’d never seen before you know, bananas, papayas, jackfruit, and all these tropical vegetables, wonderful tropical flowers, and it was as if I walked into the garden of Eden, I’ve never seen anything like it. And at that point I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. 

[00:03:34] Mitchell Denton: Oh, that’s such a great story, I really like that. Well on that note, let’s talk farm to fork. So continuing on from you telling us what you do, it would seem you have quite an impressive background in lecturing and advising groups, governments, and even the UN on all matters, regenerative and organic agriculture.

Would you mind telling us how you managed to find yourself in such a position within the industry and what the goal is behind your work? 

[00:04:00] André Leu: Okay, look. I’m a farmer and then, as far as like a lot of farmers, I became active in my local groups and very quickly I realised the importance of politics. If we want to get things done for farming and from local, I suppose I became active statewide in my own commodities, for instance,I ended up being vice president of Australian Lychee growers.

But, one point I became the president or chairman of the Organic Federation of Australia, which is the peak body for the organic sector or was at the time. And also became very active internationally, when I was in the lychee growers as vice president. I was actually vice president in charge of exports, so that got me out and then also organically, I started to meet people, eventually I became the international president of IFOAM Organics International.

That was the peak or is, still is the peak industry body or peak umbrella body for the international organic movement. We had 850 member organisations in over 135 countries representing an industry worth over a hundred billion US dollars. Through there, I was involved in going to the United Nations, being involved in you could say the farming platforms within different United Nations groups, getting up policy within the United Nations. Advising governments, particularly towards the end. 

A lot of my time was spent, you know, governments would actually invite me to meet with them about how to get out their organic policies and start that process.

And there’s a huge change where governments really wanted to actually have active organic sectors, unlike Australia. And they invested in it and because they wanted to deal with IFOAM Organics International because we had the expertise and would actually help governments get in the processes that they need to help develop their sectors.

And IFOAM is still doing that. And then I suppose from there, a group of us, wanted to widen things out to change agriculture for the better, and we formed the International Regenerative movement and we formed that in 2015 in Costa Rica. We invited people from all over the world. 

Bringing people from all the developing countries, to pay for the airfares and their accommodation and everything, so that we were truly representative, but we also brought in progressive industries, journalists, scientists, researchers, government, we brought in the whole spectrum of stakeholders at that meeting. And out of that formed Regeneration International. And I just want to say that from our point of view, it’s actually been really spectacular because I bet you, it would be hardly anyone listening to this podcast that heard of the word regenerative agriculture before 2015. 

And now it’s in the news nearly every day. 

[00:07:22] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. I mean, it really is, but for all the listeners at home that don’t know a great deal about regenerative agriculture, would you mind giving us a bit of an industry problem overview as well as why regenerative agriculture is the solution?

[00:07:36] André Leu: Okay Okay look we’re to a point for, for us where it’s, it’s come from a few different areas. But one really important one is when I was president of IFOAM Organics International, we decided to move organic to the next level we call it organic 3.0 and that had six elements. But one very important element was for us to start working with like-minded agricultural sectors to change agriculture for the better, we didn’t want organic to be seen as this irrelevant little niche.

And there’s a lot of really good, like minded agricultural sectors, like agroecology, permaculture, holistic management, agroforestry. And we can go on and on with these groups so, what we want to do is we should all be working together, we shouldn’t be out there all fighting each other as to who is better. We’ve got a lot, we can learn from each other.

And a lot of ways that we can work together to make all our systems better and make agriculture better. So that that’s the basic idea to actually be inclusive, not exclusive. 

And look at the problems, we have a multitude of problems and the other word. Well, the other reason why we chose the word regeneration is that we need to move beyond sustainable.

Sustainable agriculture had been so overused it’s meaningless, we’d also argue given the types of problems we have with agriculture and with the planet in general, being sustainable is not enough. Sustainable means basically keeping the current status quo without further running it down. We don’t want to keep it, we want to fix it, we want to regenerate it. 

The third element I suppose, and very important one for us is the use of climate change in agriculture, but actually the whole planet. If you want to talk about one issue, that’s actually, and I’d say its still far more important and COVID, COVID will go away. But the thing that will destroy farming and is destroying it more than anything else, the weather related extremes of climate change. 

So how do we deal with that? And one of the key areas, there are, there are a whole range of things to do, but one of the most significant is the issue of soil carbon, that we have data that we can change.

Agriculture from being a major contributor to climate change, and depending on how we set the boundaries could be up to 50% of greenhouse gases to being a major solution because the types of agriculture that we are promoting, take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the main gas, and put it into the soil as soil organic matter.

So we can mitigate, we can reverse it, if we change enough agriculture, the other really important thing by building up soil organic matter, it is so much better at capturing rainfall and storing it to drought-proof to actually mitigate flooding because it works like a sponge. 

And we have so much data showing that the relationship between increasing soil organic matter, and the resilience of farming systems, and the increase in yields. And what we have been very big on is showing by changing these systems, we can make farming more resilient to the weather extremes. We can increase yields, and I think this is a really important thing to get across now, it’s not an either or. 

[00:11:16] Mitchell Denton: Yeah.

[00:11:16] André Leu: We’re talking win-win here and we can help change agriculture from being a major part of a problem to a major solution, to the problem of climate change. 

[00:11:28] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, absolutely. It really is a win-win scenario. So, what would you say is one of the biggest hurdles currently in the way of regenerative farming being widely adopted?

[00:11:37] André Leu: The biggest hurdle is getting the information out, you know, the, we are getting it out, and it’s actually interesting to see the take up that that has actually surprised us how quickly it is, but farmers are necessarily very conservative people because you can’t afford to fail. Failure is not an option when most farmers are living on debt. 

You know, cause they’ve borrowed, you know, they’ve got mortgages on the land, they’ve borrowed to get their tractors, the sheds, they’ve borrowed to buy their fertilisers, and pesticides, and all the inputs they need.

And if they don’t get a good crop and a good price for that crop, they’re in debt. 

So, they can’t afford to take a risk and have a crop failure and they get in debt and then they’re owned by the bank. And so for most farmers, what worked last year is what is going to work this year. 

So, being able to take the risk out of it, is the key issue. And I think that’s one of the things that we’re very good at is putting out ways of how to take the risk out of it. 

Millions of people are leaving farming every year, but in our cohort of farmers we’re going the other way, we’re growing farmers that says everything about our economic resilience, as well as our production. 

[00:12:55] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, it really seems like the industry is really in need of that, that risk reduction in order to really see progress happen. So to take a bit of a step backwards and just look at the industry at large, what do you think is the biggest challenge within the food supply chain right now? And how do you think we can overcome it? 

[00:13:13] André Leu: Okay, look, that’s challenges, plural. I’d have to say, you know, as a farmer. I would actually say the easiest thing that we do is growing. And the truth is most of us are pretty good at it, but what we’re very, very poor at is getting a good or fair price for what we produce.

And there’s a range of issues there. One is, the marketing system, its all based on cheap food, driving the cost down. But even then, when we look at who gets the highest percentage of the consumer price, it’s the, what I call the people in the middle, this little bottleneck. And the percentage that the farmer gets is being squeezed, and squeezed, and squeezed.

So a hundred years ago, farmers would get up to 80% of the retail price. Now 5% is a good price. 

[00:14:09] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. 5%. That’s ridiculous.

[00:14:12] André Leu: 95% is to all the other actors along the chain. And so, that is manifestly unfair. The other thing that happens is every time there’s a change, those costs go on to the farmer. So, there’s a few issues here. One, we have to stop looking at opening up multiple markets and in some ways too, we actually have to look at democratising these markets. I think this is a very important thing, because farmers generally have no say in the markets.

So I think this is a really important issue now and getting farmers to start refocusing and empowering themselves and taking control over how they do it. If you’re waiting for the market to do the right thing by you, you’re in big trouble eventually. Whereas if you take control of the market you’ll win. 

So I think that to me is a really important issue. And then when you can actually start taking control of it, I suppose, that’s where you look at who are your customer is and making sure that what your customer gets is what they’re paying for. 

If they’re getting quality, you get the premium price.

[00:15:22] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, I think that’s really key for farmers to really start to refocus and take control of the market once again. So the COVID pandemic has in one way or another effected us all, but I was just wondering for better or worse, how has it affected Regeneration International’s day-to-day operations?

[00:15:41] André Leu: Ok, for us it’s been a disaster. You know, to put it bluntly because a serious amount of our funding came from friendly corporates, organisations with huge corporate social responsibility and part of that they would fund us, you know, they’re hurting.

They don’t have that money now. So, you know, we’re collateral damage, best way to put it. That’s the reality of, of this event. And that’s not going to change until, you know, the whole global economy improves again. 

[00:16:17] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, I can only imagine organisations like Regeneration International would really be feeling the burn of, of what’s happening around the world right now. So what’s one thing you wish you had known when you first became the international director of Regeneration International? 

[00:16:33] André Leu: Oh boy um, its hard to think about one thing. One is, um, you could say being caught by surprise with how quickly this has taken off given the years and years that I’ve spent in other organisations and how slowly things progress, how quickly this is taking off. 

I suppose the one thing I wish I had known, or one thing I wish I did know is how to get the money we need to fund the projects. What we know now, what we could do if we had the funding, I suppose that, that is the big issue for me.

Now, given the amount of really good projects that should be funded and the difference that they could make on every continent, and that includes Australia.

[00:17:30] Mitchell Denton: Hmm. Yeah. So, unfortunately, as we come to a close, I just want to ask you, what is the number one takeaway you really want the listeners to absorb from this episode?

[00:17:41] André Leu: Number one takeaway is the fact it’s not too late. Everybody’s talking about Bush fires and floods, and the disasters. And I think it’s very important that we do talk about these, so people understand what the consequences are of business as usual, and that’s an unlivable planet.

But what I want to say is the information that we have is that if we could just change around 10% of agriculture to these best practice regenerative models, we can reverse this. This is a story of hope. And really important here, what I want to say is that we don’t need to invent any new technology.

What I’m talking about. It’s already happening on every continent, it’s being done now. These systems exist, they’re shovel-ready. All we need to do is get the funds to scale them up. And it’s not a big ask, and to talk about just changing 10% of agriculture. That is achievable, and that’s what I want to get across is we have technologies, it’s already started, and it’s achievable.

We can turn this around and turn it around relatively quickly. So I want to end on that, there’s more than hope, we will do it because we owe it to our children, our grandchildren, and the rest of the species on this planet of ours. 

[00:19:13] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s a very hopeful message and a very attainable one to. Changing around 10% of agriculture seems quite achievable, so that’s a, a great place to leave it.

Well, that’s all for today’s episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. Thanks for listening, and thank you, André for joining me today.

[00:19:29] André Leu: A pleasure. Look forward to another time. Ciao. 

[00:19:33] Mitchell Denton: For any listeners who would like to know more about André and Regeneration International, check out the link in the description of this episode. 

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Until next time you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, a PostHarvest podcast.

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