Ryland Englehart is a co-founder of Kiss the Ground, an education and advocacy nonprofit that focuses on awakening a new narrative about our planet. He believes that when you heal the soil, you heal the planet. This, he believes, will result in healthy food that heals the body, heals the land the produces the food, and in turn, helps heal our oceans and even reverses climate change.
In the interview, Ryland references Drawdown, a book edited by Paul Hawken. Investigating the Drawdown Project is worth your time. You can also read a related post written by Lee Schneider about the language of the climate emergency called Not Game Over – Game On. Look for additional links and resources at the end of this episode transcript.
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Ivy: I’m Ivy Joeva and this is” Future of Food.” We’re living in a climate emergency. Is there anything we can do to stop the oncoming disaster? How can we restore the planet and heal ourselves? We may not have all the answers on “Future of Food,” but we plan on asking the right questions that may open a path to solutions. Let’s start with this question. Can we address and even reverse the effects of climate change without technology but by simply using what is already here, the soil itself?
Ryland: Why I’m so lit up about regeneration is that it really just paints a picture, and a possibility, and a horizon or a pathway for which young people can have hope envisioning the way that we develop, and architect, and design our civilization such that we participate in a beneficial biological relationship with earth.
Ivy: Ryland Engelhart is the Mission Fulfillment Officer and co-owner of the restaurants Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre. He is co-founder of Kiss The Ground, a nonprofit that educates and advocates about the connection between soil, human, and planetary health, and a co-creator of the award-winning documentary, “May I Be Frank.” Now, my conversation with Ryland Engelhart.
So, I know at your family’s restaurants, oftentimes the tradition is to begin shifts with the question of the day and then acknowledgments.
Ivy: And so I thought I would just start by asking you the question of the day, which is what are you letting go?
Ryland: Wow. It’s funny, I was just at Cafe Gratitude and Guadalupe asked me the question of the day and she said what she was letting go of was self-doubt. The first thing that came to my mind was self-judgment. It’s an insidious voice of the ego trying to keep us small and separate. And yeah, I just am enjoying, I’m letting it go as a voice in my mind as I’ve said before, like a leaf in a stream as I stand on the bridge over the top watching it go by. But not identified, just a thought going by letting go of, yeah, self-doubt, self-judgment. How about you, Ivy? What are you letting go today?
Ivy: What am I letting go? Oh, boy, can I just like jump on that train? I wanna let go of self-doubt and self-judgment. I’m just gonna use your answer.
Ryland: Yeah, I mean, please, yeah. May we all let that thought go because it’s not serving us making a difference in serving the calling of our hearts.
Ivy: It’s so true. And I think for those of us that are really holding ourselves to be the ones that are making a difference in the world, it’s we have this commitment to look at ourselves and really always be constantly looking for blind spots and improving ourselves. And sometimes there’s a fine line between that self-reflection and being willing to call ourselves up to a higher standard and that self-judgment. So it’s kinda walking that golden mean.
Ryland: That is a very, very good point. Yeah, because we can become crippled by our analysis of every action, every thought, everything that’s happening that can paralyze us from actually stepping up and stepping out into the world to make a difference.
Ivy: And that really brings me to this idea of overwhelm that I think so many people are experiencing around the issue of climate change. And so much of the media that we see is doom and gloom, and really terrifying, and downright depressing. And I think that it’s causing, on the one hand, like, an incredible amount of anxiety and on the other hand, almost like a paralysis of like what do we do? And I remember coming into the Venice restaurant, must have been almost a couple of years ago now because your wife Sarah was newly pregnant with your son at the time.
And one of the things I really appreciate about you is that no matter what’s going on at the restaurant, juggling all the responsibilities that you hold there, you always have a moment to drop in and just be totally present. And you listened to me that day and I was having this recognition in my career as a birth doula that I was starting to have some real cognitive dissonance around bringing this new generation of children into the world.
And what planet are we giving them? And you started sharing about what you had been learning through your nonprofit, Kiss The Ground. And at the time I remember just kind of dismiss…like halfway kind of thinking like, “Oh, well that sounds really nice, but that kind of sounds like hippy talk.” But at the same time, who you were, you were really embodying this wisdom. And so it kind of percolated over the years. And I’m curious how you initially came to this wisdom. I know you were at a conference in New Zealand, I don’t remember what year that was.
Ryland: Yeah, so it was 2012, I went to a Healthy Living Conference in New Zealand for the first time ever in New Zealand. And I got invited there to go show a film that me and my family had created called “May I Be Frank,” which is a transformational documentary about the healing of a gentleman who came into Cafe Gratitude to me, get him on healthy food, and a healthy attitude, and a spiritual outlook of life.
And so we showed that film in New Zealand and I also gave a little lecture talk on sacred commerce, which is our business philosophy at Cafe Gratitude, which is really how do we use the opportunity of bringing people into a work environment and that we all have to work as adults, but how do we use that environment to go beyond just giving people paychecks but giving people life skills in the areas of love, compassion, responsibility, understanding that, you know, we are responsible for our experience of life. That whether we’re joyful or irritated, you know, yes, there’s lots of factors, but ultimately we are responsible for that experience.
And so, anyways, I’m there in New Zealand, I give this lecture, we show the film. I go a little bit with my California bravado and kind of self-importance of like, “Yeah, we’re doing something really cool at Cafe Gratitude, sustainable, spiritual, blah, blah, blah.” And I really had one of the most humbling and miraculous transformational moments of my life, where I was sitting in an audience panel discussion called “Can human beings sustain themselves on planet earth?” And five out of the six experts said, no, that we’re actually doomed, that it’s dire and that we are destroying the resources much faster than we can regenerate them. And that, you know, the oceans, the rain forest, the melting of the poles, you know, just it’s really dire.
And the last guy who spoke was a guy by the name of Graham Sate and he basically said “What they’re saying is true, but there is a blind spot in the climate change conversation and that’s really understanding the technology or the wisdom of the earth itself. And really understanding that because we manage the majority of the skin of the earth, the land with agriculture, we could actually redesign agriculture and have that land management system be a way to sequester and draw enough carbon down out of the atmosphere so that we could actually balance the climate and that we could actually take a problem of carbon in the atmosphere and make it a solution in the soil. And by doing so, we could actually create more abundance, more fertility, more farmer prosperity, and we could have a solution, a real horizon for how we can reverse global warming.”
And I was like, “La, la, la, la.” I was like, “Holy…” I mean, I had been peddling organic food for five, seven years at this point and thought I pretty much knew the rap, I probably knew the story of why organic food was better. But really, if I would really be honest about what I saw, the potentiality for human beings’ behavior and activity on the planet was like do less harm was the best option. There wasn’t really a paradigm of humans beyond doing less harm.
I saw something that I’d never seen or even considered before. And so when I saw that possibility and I kind of tried to dig into the science of it, and I just kept on getting more confirmation that this kind of road and path that we were falling down was true.
// Ryland Engelhart
Ivy: [NARRATION] As he started thinking more deeply about regenerative agriculture, Ryland realized that we humans can play a healing role in nature. And that role, thinking of ourselves as stewards of nature, is not a new concept. Indigenous cultures have always cared for the earth and see themselves as part of a larger system of humans and nature working together.
Ryland: I didn’t really get how humans could actually be a keystone species that could actually cascade what I call atrophic cascade of benefit all through the ecosystem based on how we were managing and overseeing the way we did agriculture and the way we manage land. What I saw in that moment was, “Oh my God, we can actually redeem the damage that we’ve done through our ability to regenerate soil and sequester carbon out of the atmosphere and by, you know, putting about averse cover of plants, and trees, and grasses back on the lands that we’ve been monocropping and spraying chemicals and synthetically fertilizing, that we actually can regenerate and heal the planet,” which is like…you know, it’s just like the biggest awakening of, like, possibility and my heart was like, “Wow.” I mean, I was weeping. I was like, “Oh.”
I saw something that I’d never seen or even considered before. And so when I saw that possibility and I kind of tried to dig into the science of it, and I just kept on getting more confirmation that this kind of road and path that we were falling down was true. I remember my first call with Paul Hawken, he’s an amazing environmentalist author and I definitely had a lot of intimidation…
Ivy: [NARRATION] Hawken wrote a book called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. In Drawdown, he gathers nearly 100 experts to present their solutions for reversing the climate crisis.
Ryland: The whole premise and the top, I mean, the headline of the book is essentially referring to this concept of understanding how carbon has always flowed for 500 million years. Essentially, there used to be tons of greenhouse gases and, you know, it was an unlivable planet. There was only life in the oceans. And then plants started to crawl out onto the land. And as they started to photosynthesize and root, as they built themselves out of carbon, what we mostly don’t understand is that trees, plants, grasses capture carbon. We know they turn that carbon into oxygen and they let us breathe, but what we don’t know is that they take somewhere between 30% and 60% of the carbon they capture and then they pump it into the ground, into the soil and feed microorganisms. And in exchange for minerals, the microorganisms give the minerals back to the plant. So the plant actually can have its magnesium or copper or boron…
Ivy: You get a more nutrient-rich food with the plant…
Ryland: That’s right. So you could say in a very, very simplified way when you have really, really flavorful-rich food is actually speaking to the phytonutrients and the aliveness of the soil such that you could have this really big exchange happening in the soil so that the minerals and micronutrients could actually get into the plant and then you can… Obviously, the opposite is that is when you have like a tomato that tastes like a cardboard box and it’s like mealy and there’s no flavor. Clearly, that was just, you know, likely forced dead with some synthetic solution that has, you know, minerals in it. But there was no real biological exchange such that you could get all those phytonutrients, which actually is the flavor. Those are on the tongue.
Ivy: [NARRATION] Remember a few moments ago when Ryland was talking about the Healthy Living Conference he attended in New Zealand?
Ryland: I went to a Healthy Living Conference in New Zealand for the first time ever to New Zealand.
Ivy: [NARRATION] That was back in 2012. He says that conference changed his life. He’d had an awakening about how to activate people about food. He wanted to tell them about the power of soil.
Ryland: I came back to LA, you know, I work in the restaurant business. You know, I’ve oftentimes said it’s my tableside ministry, Café Gratitude. You know, I’m either ushering in gratitude, grateful conversations, moments of love and presence as you said. You know, being present with people, and surprising, and delighting them with love, and food, and joy, and questions, and poetry, and questions, and affirmations. And so then, my newest ministry, once I came back, was just all about soil. Everywhere I would just tell people about the power of the miraculous power of soil. It’s our most common ground and it’s the thing we all stand on and that it actually…and in turn, kiss the ground. Why would one kiss the ground? That seems so, I don’t wanna get clack close to the ground. The ground is dirty.
No, when we get that our existence, everything that sustains our life is actually birthed and grows from the ground, we may have enough reverence and respect for the earth to actually get on our knees and kiss the ground and give thanks for the beautiful life that we’ve been given and that we’ve been nourished by this amazing Mother Earth. So, that became the name of the nonprofit that me and my dear friend Finian Makepeace, and also dear friend Lauren Tucker sat in my living room and we held kind of town hall meetings in Venice for a year. Every Monday we just would invite different people with different expertise, different skill sets, and said, “All right, we’ve got this unbelievable idea that soil and regenerative agriculture can be this solution that we’re all looking for, but it’s completely underrated and unseen in the mainstream narrative around solutions. How do we turn this into the mainstream narrative?” And that was our goal that we set out to do.
We created the first piece of media called the “Soil Story,” which I was the bad actor, you know, shucking and jiving behind the mic, you know, talking about the power of soil and regenerative agriculture. You know, there was some success, we tied it to change.org campaign that was supporting signatures for the healthy soils initiative in California that Governor Brown was putting into existence.
Ivy: What is that doing?
Ryland: It’s basically creating a relatively small pot of funds that farmers can apply for. They basically can look at what their farm is growing and how they’re growing it, how they’re growing their crops. And if they want to get some of these funds, they basically go through an assessment that shows the potential of how much carbon they can capture on their farms…
Ivy: And is that just based on acreage?
Ryland: Acreage, practice, compost applications, cover crop, no-tilling, putting trees in certain places. And then based on the likelihood of how much carbon you can capture over so many years, you can get an X amount of dollars that then you can implement some of those practices.
Ivy: I feel like kind of maybe the pink elephant in the room because it almost sounds too good to be true in some ways. And I can almost hear people going like, “Yeah, okay, but we’re in a climate emergency and is this really gonna be enough to change our farming practices to reverse this problem that’s been accelerating or do we need additional technologies?” Like, I know one of the things that’s been publicized is, like, aircraft that’s gonna, like, fly around and suck carbon out of the atmosphere. What do you think the prognosis is in terms of regenerative agriculture really being able to make a big enough impact?
Ryland: If we really got this at a deep, deep core level and really we’re like, “All right, we can’t have the earth uncovered. We need living roots, plants, grasses on every ounce of the land or a large majority of it.” The ability to sequester enough carbon out of the atmosphere is very promising. Without a doubt, we need all the initiatives that are working towards this goal, you know. But mostly what I feel like the initiatives are is just reducing our carbon through green renewable energies. We’ve already lost, I think, you know, 25% to 30% of all the phytoplankton in the ocean based on ocean acidification.
And ocean acidification is just when carbon basically falls and basically comes in contact with the ocean, which the majority of the cover of the earth is ocean facing the sky. And so the carbon ultimately drifts down and comes in contact with ocean water, then it turns into carbonic acid. And then basically anything that’s made out of calcium, which most seashells and exoskeletons of all the microorganisms of the ocean are all made out of calcium, and ultimately, then the calcium can’t form its body. So, literally, we lose phytoplankton, which is basically the basis of the oceans. And, you know, I mean, it’s super game over.
Really, is that the world in our hearts that we want to leave for our children? I mean, it’s just, like, absurd that we’re spending more money trying to go to Mars and get out of here versus healing and regenerating this precious one in a trillion. I mean, it’s just like if we got present to what a unique opportunity this experience of human beings, this planet, the biodiversity, the beauty, it’s just like so amazing. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve been brought to our knees and surrender our pridefulness, our arrogance. We needed to have something taken away, our mightiness needed to be taken away so that we could get our smallness, we could get our humility so that we could act in a righteous and mindful respectful way.
And maybe, just maybe I’ve heard other people say this, but maybe that we actually needed a global bringing us to our knees to recognize that there is another way to interact with the natural world. Our actions or inactions are cultivating a destruction of life for everyone and may that awareness and that humility of that mistake awaken us to start making new choices and having a new outlook on how we live and relate to the natural world. And, you know, maybe it took climate change for us to have a collective enough problem to take things and make things different.
Why I’m so lit up about regeneration is that it really just paints a picture, and a possibility, and a horizon or a pathway for which young people can have hope and can start envisioning entrepreneurship, envisioning the way that we develop, and architect, and design our civilization such that we participate in a beneficial biological relationship with earth.
Ivy: So, it seems like there’s kind of two levels to this. There’s the level of just personal action and does anything we can actually personally do make a difference if we’re not a farmer just in terms of like the kinds of things we buy and growing our own food at home? Like if I were to, you know, put a window box in my apartment, does that really make a difference?
Ryland: I would say paradox, yes and no. Because is it sequestering enough carbon, but is it creating a relationship with life, and a caring for life, and an understanding of what it takes to nurture and steward life? We obviously have this with kids, but seven years ago when I learned this, I started… I always knew I should compost. It was always like something I should do as a green… I’m a conscious person. Oh, yeah, I know about composting. Do you do it? No, no. So it’s one of those things we always know we should do, but it’s inconvenient, it takes more time, it doesn’t seem important enough on the level of, you know, everything that we have to do to survive.
And so we don’t do it unless we have a shift in our mentality and go, “Oh, wow, I really get what that’s about.” That really is about really stewarding anything that came from nature. It’s my role and responsibility to make sure that nature gets back to itself so that we can close that loop of life.
Ivy: So what difference does compost actually make? Because are all plants created equal in terms of this ability to draw carbon down out of the atmosphere? Like, for example, the kind of tasteless tomato you talked about, is that plant food also doing the same thing as, say, an organically-grown, or a sustainably-grown, or a regeneratively-grown tomato?
Ryland: If you’re growing tomatoes in hoop houses or you’re growing them with hydroponics, you’re definitely not. There’s no carbon sequestration because it’s not pumping anything into the soil that, you know, ultimately, plants that are pumping carbon sugars into the soil, if there is not a biologically healthy soil, then there’s not gonna be the exchange of those carbon sugars to be stored in the soil such that the sequestration can take place. Compost is really just a probiotic for the soil. It’s really bringing the biology and the carbon back to the soil that’s oftentimes being stripped during…in our monoculture, in most of our agricultural systems.
So essentially, when we can take that green waste, decompose it on-site, and then put it back into our fertility, you know, right where we live, you know, we’re ultimately creating a cycle where we’re actually increasing the richness, the carbon content, the health, the biodiversity of the land that is right around us versus just throwing it in the garbage and then it goes into the landfill and turns into putrefied methane gas. So I think in the “Drawdown” book, I think number three or four is food waste is, you know, ubiquitous and one of the biggest challenges that we need to address. So, yes, composting, essentially, you’re taking responsibility for that nutrient and making sure that that nutrient gets back into the earth.
Ivy: And you’re saying having that carbon-rich soil actually increases the ability of a plant grown on that carbon-rich land to draw more carbon down out of the atmosphere?
Ryland: So, when you are putting compost in soil, yes, you’re creating more healthy plant growth, which in theory is more growth, which is more carbon being captured and more carbon being exuded through the roots, which ultimately, yes, you’re expediting and supporting the development of that drawdown effect.
Ivy: And what suggestion would you have for someone who wants to compost but they’re like, “I don’t even know what to do. Do I just put my banana peel [crosstalk 00:26:08] bucket or…?”
Ryland: I got the solution. There’s something called MakeSoil. I just got a email from Josh Whiton yesterday. He started something called MakeSoil and you can become a soil maker or a soil supporter. And if you don’t feel like you have the capacity to learn how to make compost, you just find your soil maker in your neighborhood and you bring your compost to a soil maker and he or she makes compost out of your compost. It’s kind of a digital platform. You see all the little dots in the map and you can become a soil supporter or a soil maker. And I’m a soil maker hub, so people come and drop…
Ivy: I can bring you my compost?
Ryland: That’s right. And in Venice actually there’s even a better system, which is the…what used to be the Kiss The Ground garden is now the Spy Community Garden in front of the old…beyond Poetry Art Center on Venice Avenue, 871 Venice Avenue. There is a LA compost drop-off site where we’ve processed thousands and thousands of pounds of compost from Venice residents come and drop it off there, and we take it through the process of compost and then reapply that compost to the garden or different places locally.
Ivy: This regenerative agriculture movement is not only available to help heal climate change, but also feed a growing population?
Ryland: That’s right. I mean, this earth nature is so abundant, so resilient, so extraordinary, and there’s been so many civilizations that have eroded their soil, which, ultimately, eroded their existence. And there’s 24, 25 known civilizations that have completely vanished based on their mismanagement of soil.
Ivy: So we’re not the first?
Ryland: No, this is one of those things. If we repeat the same thing expecting a different result, it’s insanity. So, yeah, we’re acting out a global insanity of civilizational patterns that have been done time and time before us.
Ivy: So, 56 billion animals are slaughtered every year in the United States alone, 95% on these concentrated animal feeding operations. Let’s just say we snapped our fingers and tomorrow everybody was practicing regenerative agriculture, would that be enough to sustain our demand for meat at its current level?
Ryland: I’m mostly a vegetarian and I choose to eat mostly a plant-based diet just because that’s what works well for me. I don’t wanna participate in unnecessary harm. And I also know the hard reality of that animals grazing land is the healthiest thing for land. If we’re spending time, energy, managing animals grazing land, then there has to be some exchange or profit for that or some nourishment coming from that. And, you know, that becomes, you know, that question of do we need to kill them?
But again, animals mostly don’t live in nature living to old age, especially animals that grow fast, and proliferate quickly, and multiply quickly. So, my personal high-level message and billboard is that we should be eating less meat. It’s for our health and for the fact that 95% of the meat that’s available to us right now is grown and concentrated animal feedlots. And, you know, there is, you know, an ungodly numbers of antibiotics being pumped into them. They’re eating unhealthy food, grain, corn covered in glyphosate. So, to say no to that is…
Ryland: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. No to that is a very powerful, strong, admirable…you know, that’s beautiful.
Ivy: So, if you’re gonna eat animal foods, make sure that it’s grown from a regenerative farm?
Ryland: Yeah, find out where…you know, like Belcampo is an amazing example. And again, it gets into, you know, the whole conversation of, you know, what I’m talking about is such a privileged conversation to even have these choices. So, you know…
Ivy: Like who can afford to be eating grass-fed, grass-finished.
Ryland: Totally. Exactly.
Ivy: But bottom line, everybody needs to decrease the level of meat.
Ryland: Yes. Some people would say that that’s not true. Some could say there’s so much degraded land that we actually need more grass-eating animals on that land, cycling nutrients and bringing fertility back to that land, which then, in turn, shows that, you know, there’s a lot of potential animal food, or meat, or protein that could be consumed as human food.
Ivy: So if you’re gonna eat animal foods, make sure it’s grown in a regenerative way and that can be part of the solution to…
Ryland: Absolutely. My thought is, you know, don’t eat any CAFO meat. If you’re gonna eat some meat, find a great source where you have a farmer who’s doing rotationally, or adaptive grazing, or managed grazing, doing some kinda regenerative principles of land management. We have a purchasing guide on kisstheground.com which is a purchasing guide of how to purchase in a way that supports building a regenerative food system. And again, we’re at the beginning phases of a transformation, a future of understanding the regenerative potential of how we can grow and manage land. But that being said, when we first started Kiss The Ground, there wasn’t even a term in the general lexicon of understanding called regenerative agriculture…
Ivy: Would organic be a good start?
Ryland: Organic, yes, of course, it’s a step in the right direction. Organic has been quite diluted because of the corporate opportunity of organic food selling organic food. So, it’s really just become a watered-down label. And again, it’s righteous in a degree, but is it really considering the health of the soil? Is it really considering long-term food security? Is it really considering, you know, not wanting anything toxic or not good that ends up in the groundwater in our food? You know, it’s not as pristine as we’d like it to be.
Ivy: So organic meat and dairy would not necessarily be regenerative?
Ryland: Not necessarily, but there is some organic meat and dairy that farmers, just because their ethics are inside the understanding of regenerative and/or even the original intention of organic really was regenerative, but I think it’s just been diluted and become corporatized as more people wanting to get in the game, it got less focused on soil health practices and just became a list of what you can’t do versus a list of what you could do or should do so that you actually have healthy soil leading to healthy food and leading to healthy people.
I feel that this could be the great awakening that, you know, connects humanity back with nature, with understanding interconnection and inter-being. Ultimately, it’s compelled from love because, you know, when we love something, we protect it, we take care of it. You know, so that really the whole premise and idea of regeneration and healing could come through this application of agriculture and climate change mitigation, but ultimately incorporates all this beauty of really understanding a more interconnected life between human beings and our living planet.
Ivy: How can people find out more about Kiss The Ground?
Ryland: Instagram, Kiss the Ground is a great way, kisstheground.com, an amazing…we have an amazing resource on the website called “Find Your Path.” So whether you’re interested in activism, fashion, you’re an educator, you’re a foodie, kind of…and we’re not just trying to capture people to be just with the Kiss The Ground. If your interest is outside of our scope of work, we send you other places to get resources and next steps.
But yeah, do our speaker training. I have a course called Livida. It’s on the Live It Up platform. It’s the first-ever wisdom, teachers, text message, service where you basically take on a 21-day challenge and you get a text message daily. It gives you a little bit of information, insight, education, and then encourages you to take an action from that education. And so my challenge is called the 21-day regeneration challenge. And so you can go find and participate in that, it should be really fun and educational. And then you can also find me @lovebeingryland because I’m a love being and my calling in life is that people are serving the love that’s in their heart.
Ivy: So powerful. Well, thank you so much for serving the love in your heart…
Ryland: In my heart, yes.
Ivy: …on “Future of Food” today. It’s been really wonderful to have you.
Ryland: Awesome. Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Ivy: Thanks for listening, everyone. Visit us online at futurefood.fm. Subscribe on Apple podcast or listen to us wherever you get your podcasts and put the power to save the planet on your plate and on your playlist. I’m Ivy Joeva. “Future of Food” is produced by Lee Schneider, music by Epidemic Sound. We’re part of the FutureX podcast network.
On the Kiss the Ground website you’ll find a resource called Find Your Path. It will help you see a path forward to activism. Try it!