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Bringing science to regenerative food systems.

Create a network of research hubs that can transform agricultural science to support a revolution in regenerative food production.

Photo of Jonathan Lundgren
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Ecdysis Foundation and the Blue Dasher Farm Initiative. Ecdysis Foundation is our 501c3, and Blue Dasher Farm is an LLC operating farm.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

We have partners in many states and countries that are supporting this transformation of our food system

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Estelline, South Dakota

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Northern Prairie State of South Dakota. The area is approximately 200,000 km2. Ultimately our vision is national in scope.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America.

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

My connection to the prairie and its people exists on an emotional, spiritual and professional levels. If you have ever sat in an unbroken prairie and just let the life surrounding you fill your soul, you would understand why this land has been so special for so many. And why we need to fight for its survival.

The Prairie is my home. I grew up and received my education here, and spent the past 15 years raising my family in South Dakota. It was here with the USDA that I was named one of the top young scientists in the country, receiving a presidential prize from President Obama in the White House. With time, it became increasingly clear that large monocultures of corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa were hurting farmers. I used my science to validate farmers and ranchers that were developing successful regenerative systems in this region. Simultaneously, the beekeepers told me that pesticides were killing their bees (the Upper Plains are home to the majority of the nation’s bees), and my research supported these observations. With data in hand, I tried to change food production from within the federal system, and it resulted in a string of scientific suppression and retaliation that culminated in me filing a whistleblower suit and leaving the USDA in 2016. To change agriculture, science needs to be separated from the current infrastructure.

Through all of this, the beekeepers and farmers of the prairie supported me. A crowdfunding campaign funded the creation of Blue Dasher Farm, the first in our national network of research hubs in regenerative agriculture. To become a better scientist and gain first-hand experience in these systems, I became a farmer and a beekeeper. Quite simply, without the beekeepers and farmers of this area, I could not have generated the experiences that led to my vision of a cultural and agricultural revolution in food production and applied science. The community that has grown around Blue Dasher Farm and this movement is truly inspiring.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Much of the northern prairie is characterized by gently rolling hills and flat areas. The sky here is remarkable, and every sunset and sunrise is a work of art. Long straight roads create a grid over the land. The fertility of the soil exceeds that of most places on earth, and crops have grown well here. As you head west through the Dakotas, the rainfall becomes more scarce, and the Missouri River acts as a dividing line between crop production and more arid rangelands. The winters here are severe, and strengthen the people while giving them a rest for contemplation and planning. This climatological transition zone makes the northern prairie ground zero for exploring regenerative rangelands and croplands, as well as how these practices affect honey bees.

The people of the northern prairie are fiercely independent, hardy, proud, and generous. Conservative traditions with strong emphases on family and faith abound in the small communities that pepper the landscape. No matter the size, nearly every town has at least one steak house and church. Agriculture is the dominant trade in the Dakotas; beef, corn, soybeans, and small grains are the foods produced. If something breaks on the farm, they “farmer it back together” using their ingenuity and pieces and parts on hand to get things done. As a result of their upbringing, farm kids from this region are renowned around the country as excellent and honest workers. Ethnically, the population is largely white, with a growing Latino population. Some of the largest Native American populations in the country are found here, and native language, imagery, and ideas pervade the culture of the Dakotas.

The severity of the landscape has forced innovations in food production that are seldom seen the further east you travel in the prairie. As new technologies for food production have evolved, the Dakotas are often the first adopters as they try to optimize the productivity of their lands. No-till farming, genetically modified crops, cover crops, etc. were quickly adopted in this region of the U.S. Also, some of the most innovative of regenerative farmers reside here, testing their food systems in ways that science says won’t work, and I believe that this area of the country will be where large-scale regenerative farms become widespread first.

One dream of the people in the northern prairie is that their rural way of life continues. Kids are not returning to the farm- industrialized agriculture of commodities has led to a disconnect between humans and the land, and the next generation is fleeing to the cities. Big farms swell even larger with lower profit margins and larger bank notes; the economic bubble is palpable and ready to burst. Add to this the rising health problems associated with this style of agriculture. Change is desperately needed in this region, and regenerative agriculture offers a promising solution.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Somewhere along the road, we decided that to be a good farmer, you needed to farm bigger and simpler. The resulting food system is underpinned by large monocultures that are maintained by an ever increasing array of costly inputs and technologies. As farms became less diversified, the technology and practices used to foster an industrialized food system accompanied complacency in farmers, consumers, and scientists. But the consequences of this culture in food production are evident: increases in pollution, changing climates, human health problems, and diminishing rural communities. Additionally, the simplified food systems are contributing to the widespread loss of biodiversity on a scale that has never been experienced on planet earth before. While food production has contributed to or caused many of these planetary scale problems, our food systems are also the answer to these problems.

Agricultural science is in a self-perpetuating rut that is stifling the innovation of our food system. Metrics that scientists use to measure their own success are unimportant to farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers, and drive scientists to become more distant from the communities that they are trying to help. Scientists are focused on addressing symptoms that are produced by poor-functioning food systems instead of solving underlying problems that produce the symptoms. This results in incremental advances that support a brittle food system, rather than reinventing the food system on a fundamental level. An associated problem is that young scientists only obtain jobs in their fields if they adhere to the current system. As such, systemic change from within the current infrastructure of agricultural science is unlikely; visionary changes like that which are required must come from outside the current matrix of agricultural science. Nevertheless, science is crucial to make decisions as we move toward food systems that support the land and people who live on it.

There are short- and long-term challenges associated with ushering in a paradigm shift in food production and agricultural science toward one of regenerative principles. Proximately for the vision I propose, the culture of agricultural scientists must adapt from one of advising and leading to one of learning and service. We must forge relationships and trust with the end users of science (the farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers), and use science to help them move forward. Once the food system is changed over the next 10-20 years, new challenges will emerge for 2050. At that point, food systems must be incrementally optimized in ways that adhere to the values and principles of a regenerative and diversified society. This will require new cultural shifts that maintain functioning food systems rather than developing a new one. The details of how this approach will affect the six themes of the program will be addressed below.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The solution to these challenges is to reform agriculture along regenerative principles. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health and increases biodiversity in ways that produce nutritious food profitably. The principles of regenerative food systems are 1) minimize soil disturbance, 2) never leave bare soil/always have a living root on the ground, 3) diversify plant communities on farms, and 4) integrate livestock and cropping systems. Practices used to attain these goals vary substantially among regions and farming operations, but these central principles are always inherent in regenerative farms. Another key component of successful regenerative operations is taking more than one revenue stream off of every piece of ground on a farm. This revolution in farming has been led by the farmers themselves, and often these farmers are developing their successful operations in spite of agricultural science.

My vision is to develop a new model of agricultural science that supports this revolution in thought and practice. Specifically, I propose creating a national network of hubs for scientific excellence in regenerative agriculture. The initial community is based in the Northern Plains but will expand rapidly throughout the continent. At these hubs, scientific staff must become practicing farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers; this makes scientific questions that are explored more relevant, as well as improving the credibility of the research that is conducted and the researchers themselves. A national network of centers is necessary to accommodate the local and regional needs of the producers. What is more is that the science then becomes a part of local and regional communities of change.

Scientists within this network will be beholden to a new and dynamic set of metrics of success will be applied that can better judge the impact of these members of the agricultural community. Face-to-face contacts with producers, social impact of scientific work, acres changed within our communities, and media interactions are all on a new list of scientific benchmarks. These hubs are also training sites for apprentice scientists that will learn how to conduct science from a farmer’s perspective, as well as in systems-level thinking. The resulting model of agricultural science provides a new foundation of how applied science can be conducted to help inspire change in an agricultural community.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Diversity is a key outcome of regenerative agriculture that would be supported by this revolution in science, and this diversity will be evident in many ways in the people and place. On the landscape, large monocultures of specific crops will be rare. There will be no bare soil. Checkered landscapes with diverse crop mixes and season long cover crops feeding carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil. Livestock herds containing numerous animal species will pervade the rolling hills. Birds and insects and wildlife that used to be common will return, and the prairie and plant communities will thrive once again.

From this natural resource base, rural communities will revitalize. Money will stay on the farm rather than feeding large agroindustry. Food and finances will be fed into vibrant rural communities. Neighbors will rely on each other for knowledge and help, and diverse enterprises will support multi-generational family farms as they used to. Nutrient dense food produced will drive down the systemic learning disabilities, food intolerances, auto-immune diseases, and obesity that currently plague the regions’ people. And most importantly, the people will be reconnected with the land.   

Scientists will become part of these communities and landscapes again. Trust and respect of science will return as relationships among the scientists and the people they are trying to help are reforged. And knowledge and experiences will be exchanged to help fuel future innovations.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

A paradigm shift in regenerative agriculture will require changes in many aspects of the food system of our region. Our hubs combine scientific research, education and demonstration, three legs of a stool necessary to institute change to agriculture, to foster changes toward a regenerative food system. While it is useful to think about the different elements of a successful system, my vision proposes simultaneously considers the complex interplay of systems-level science that links different disciplines, including production agriculture, economics, human health, policy, and engineering.  Although we are focused locally first, I envision these hubs around the country that can take advantage of the momentum generated in South Dakota to change agriculture and agricultural science on a national scale.

The role of people in my vision. At every step, the farmers have led a revolution in regenerative farming, and they are currently doing it in the absence of science. Our vision is that these centers (like Blue Dasher Farm) will plant a physical flag that communities can rally around to encourage change in cultures, practices, and the environment. In my former life, I focused on addressing scientific questions in my office and laboratory, with few interruptions. Since implementing this vision, a big (and positive) challenge is that we have a daily barrage of local farmers and beekeepers and community members that stop in to share with us. Furthermore, innovative farmers that were formerly ostracized by the local agriculture community (the coffee shop) have found a support network that they never have had. Our scientific staff created a “soil builder’s coffee club” that provides opportunities for these maverick farmers to interact and swap experiences, as well as coordinate the farmers’ interests into grant proposals to fund equipment and ideas that they never would have been able to do on their own. These farms have become the field sites for our research programs, and these farmers are the force behind the questions that we ask. And it is not uncommon for our staff to be rewarded for our efforts with desserts, a few bales of hay, some meat, or whatever these farmers can afford. The importance of this community cannot be overstated. We would not be here without these producers; they are our reason for everything that we do, as science should be.  

Environment. A main premise of regenerative food systems is that we can produce food and conserve natural resources in the same place at the same time; indeed we have no choice. There are two central ways that regenerative agriculture has positive effects on the environment. First, regenerative systems seek to mimic the natural world in how food production works with the land. Replacing agrichemical use with biology reduces pollution. Managing cropland as polycultures approaches natural plant communities more closely than the current monoculture philosophy. Merging perenniality with annual crop production mimics the structure of native plant communities. Using adaptive multipaddock grazing systems to move multi-species herds of livestock in ways that reflect how native herds of wildlife moved through grasslands can promote carbon sequestration while producing healthier food.

My vision is to use science to help farmers that are developing these ecologically intensive systems by removing barriers, developing new ideas and applying existing ideas in new ways, to help increase the resilience of their operations. Dispelling false myths and promoting practices that can have substantial downstream effects on many elements of the environment.

Diets. Solving current human health problems is contingent on us healing the soil. Food grown on a degraded soil resource has reduced nutrition. Harmful agrichemicals further reduce the available nutrition of our diet, and compromise our ability to digest what nutrition is left in our food. Thus, our current food production model is hurting our diet in several direct and indirect ways, and causing human health problems (auto-immune diseases, learning disabilities, food intolerances, allergies, etc.) on a scale that we have never experienced. By restoring soil health and life to the soil, and largely eliminating agrichemicals, regenerative food systems have greater nutrition than conventionally produced foods.

Research is desperately needed that can fuse disciplines like production agriculture and human health sciences, and we will establish a scientific fellowship that can train a new generation of health scientists in how food production affects human well being. Not only will our science reveal how regenerative farming practices affect nutrient density of farm products, but also in how these changes in food nutrition affect myriad health challenges.

Economics. There is a lot of money being made off of farming right now, but it isn’t by the farmers. A big piece of evidence of the looming financial crisis that modern agriculture is facing is that local banks have become some of the biggest supporters of Blue Dasher Farm’s efforts to change our community. The banks do not want to be the bad guys, forcing farmers to take off-farm jobs and pulling credit lines for farmers who have burned up the equity in their operations. They see regenerative agriculture as a solution to these problems.

By stacking enterprises, growing for local markets, and growing food instead of commodities, regenerative farmers are revealing the profit potential of this approach to farming. Our science is revealing the consistent trends in the profitability of ecologically intensive farming, as well as how soil health and biodiversity are correlated with the profitability of the operation. Furthermore, our vision fundamentally shifts the experimental endpoints to ones that farmers care about (e.g., profit).

Culture. At its core, this paradigm shift in food production is really a fundamental change in culture of many sectors of this community. Most proximately, we are changing the cultures of the scientific and farming communities. The culture of science must change from a reductionist thinking to one where entire systems are considered. Scientists must humble themselves to learn from the farmers rather than rely on their own expertise. They must generate hypotheses based on observation, rather than the current model of sitting behind their desk chasing the latest technological advance to get a grant funded. They must learn to communicate science to the end users, instead of making their science impenetrable to all but a few experts. Most importantly, students must be trained in these principles. Farmers also must change, and in our vision the scientists will instruments that support that change. Ultimately, we are expecting to change the culture of consumers, food distributors, health professionals, policy makers, and beyond. Change is hard; especially changes in the way that we think about food and its role in our lives. We envision this as the biggest challenge to us realizing our vision long term.

Technology. Regenerative agriculture is knowledge intensive, but fuses new technologies in ways that enhance knowledge-based agriculture rather than replacing it. Regenerative agriculture is not simply going back to pre-industrial farming practices. Although there were benefits of this approach to agriculture, it failed for a number of reasons. It was replaced with industrialized food systems that showed us may new potentials for what food systems can generate. But this technology-intensive progress came at the cost of our natural resource base. Regenerative agriculture fuses what worked with both of these systems to produce an ecologically harmonious, profitable approach to food production that has many knock-on benefits. Technologies associated with regenerative agriculture foster the ecology of the system, rather than replacing the functions that life used to perform on farms.

My vision is to use science to help explore the tools that local regenerative farmers have available to them, relying on their experiential knowledge to help determine and evaluate the best ways that farmers are using these technologies to advance the regenerative principles on their operations. These novel, validated tools then are available for local and regional farmers to use as they transition toward regenerative systems.

Policy. Governments follow, they do not lead. Recognizing this, policy will have a place in fueling this active movement, and my vision is essential to effective policy management. Much as science has been used to stifle rather than promote innovation, so too our policies have hindered the evolution of farming systems. Constraints on farm insurance that disallow regenerative practices, as well as processes that expedite and encourage new agrichemicals/GM plants are two examples of policies that are implemented detrimentally.  Scientific research is essential for generating informed policies that promote farming communities. Currently, policy makers do not understand how and whether regenerative food systems are important, nor do they understand the degree to which reforming our food system along regenerative lines can solve many social planetary challenges that we are facing right now. Currently, policy makers may see reports of successful regenerative operations, and science can be used to illustrate that these are not simply anecdotal reports, but are generalizable trends that are able to benefit society. Seeing these benefits, we can involve policy makers in creating programs that support these changes to our food system, and remove policies that hinder change for farming communities.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Through my support network

Describe how your Vision developed over the course of the Refinement Phase.

The myriad strategies laid out by these excellent submissions underscore how broadly that change must happen throughout our culture in order for food system visions to affect substantive changes. There were two paths that could be chosen from during this refinement period. Visions could try to change the system, or we could focus on one component of the system, and address it completely and provide attainable solutions for that part of the system. By opting for the latter, preparations for the Food System Vision Prize helped to clarify the identity of Ecdysis Foundation within a rapidly growing and diversifying sphere of regenerative agriculture. Science is crucial to a revolution in food systems, and it is very clear why the current approach to science in food production won’t help foster the revolution that is needed.

Please provide the names of all organizations you meaningfully partnered with to develop this latest version of your Vision (they contributed at least 10 hours of time to the Vision development during the Refinement Phase).

Farmers like Bret Adee (Adee Honey Farms, SD), Keith Berns (Green Cover Seeds, NE), Gabe Brown (Brown Ranch, ND), James Cook (Birds and the Bees Honey, MN), Gail Fuller (Fuller Family Farms, KS), Dave Hackenberg (Hackenberg Apiaries, PA), and Kelly Mulville (Paicines Ranch, CA). Scientists like Steve Apfelbaum (Applied Ecological Services, WI), Scott Fausti (California State University, Monterey, CA), Urs Kreuter (Texas A&M University, College Station, TX), Richard Teague (Texas A&M University, Vernon, TX), and Robert Wiedenmann (University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR). Social changers like Sallie Calhoun (Globetrotter Foundation, Paicines, CA), Brian Lindley (No-Till University, Wichita, KS), and Jenny O’Connor (Guidelight Strategies, San Francisco, CA). And other institutions in this space like PEER (Jeff Ruch, Washington DC), Ducks Unlimited (Brad Schmidt, Brookings, SD), American Honey Producers Association (Darren Cox, UT), and federal agencies like USGS, USDA.

Describe the specific steps you took during the Refinement phase to include different stakeholders to develop your Vision, including a description (age, profile, and total number) of the stakeholders engaged, and how you engaged with each.

Numerous partners have contributed to the development of our vision, and this vision is in a constant state of refinement based upon our dynamic interactions with this suite of influential partners. Our partners are broadly categorized as 1) food producers, 2) scientists, 3) institution stakeholders, and 4) social changers. These partners have helped us to hone our identity within the sphere of regenerative agriculture movement. They also have provided guidance on how to scale and transfer what we have produced in South Dakota to national and international stages. And finally, these partners have helped us to refine the scientific questions and study systems that we address with our science. Thinking about where these partners have fit within the ongoing evolution of our vision has been helping us to understand who we are and where we are going. I personally have had more than 21,000 face-to-face contacts with stakeholders in the past 4 years, and these range in demographics and life styles. 

What signals and trends did you draw from to inform your Vision? Please provide data or examples that back up each signal or trend.

The current industrialized food system is failing, and we are generating the science that shows that regenerative agriculture is an answer to this. Farms are getting larger with fewer revenue streams coming from single operations; net income is decreasing. Farming demographics are aging, farmers are the most depressed and suicidal profession in the country, and rural communities are declining as yet another generation migrates to cities. Despite this, some farmers in the Prairie States and around the world are developing farming systems that defy what the mainstream says is possible. They are diversifying plant communities on their farms; they stop disturbing the soil; they stop relying on agrichemicals; they bring animals back into their operations. Ecdysis Foundation published the first study to use the term “regenerative agriculture” in the primary scientific literature, and we validated what these farmers were saying. Insecticide-treated, genetically modified corn had 10 times more insect pests than regenerative corn fields. Regenerative corn fields were twice as profitable, and the profitability of these farms was not correlated with the yields they were generating (it took a lot of inputs to generate high yields). Profit was correlated with the amount of soil organic matter that was produced on these farms.

As one of the top scientists within the USDA, I was hired to help farmers, but wasn’t allowed to do that. In looking at the problem facing farming, it became clear that science-driven, incremental changes to the current approach to farming were contributing to the problem, not solving it. And what was most shocking to me was the retaliation that I received as I shifted my research program to address more systemic problems with our food system: risk assessment of agrichemicals on the environment, and developing ecologically intensive farming systems. Something was wrong with our food system, but something was also wrong with how agricultural science was being structured. Corporations and vested interests were controlling the science by large, bureaucracy-laden research institutions. Many scientists focus their careers on attaining metrics that are not solving problems and that the end-users of their science don’t need or understand. And the only way to get a job in professional science is to adhere to this approach to scientific research. It became clear that to change agriculture, we needed to rethink how and why we do science.

A driving trend behind this vision is a sense of urgency that has been reinforced over the past two months. When you read about the Dust Bowl that preceded the Great Depression, you can change the word ‘wheat’ to ‘corn’, and you will find that we are re-living the past. Introduce a major economic and social crisis like the Covid virus, and it is clear how fragile our society is right now. The answer is regenerative agriculture, and we will need science to make regenerative agriculture a reality.

Describe a “Day in the Life” of a key food system actor within your food system in 2050 (e.g., farmer, chef, supply chain actor, food policy actor, etc.).

In 2050, agricultural scientists’ will be integral parts of diverse agricultural communities. No two days are the same for scientists. Scientific leaders will wake up before staff arrives to do chores on their regenerative farms. Observing the crops and livestock, problem solving, finding new ways to foster life on their farms, and formulating strategies for farm improvements. Scientific staff then arrives as chores wrap up, with graduate students, laboratory staff, maintenance workers, and farm laborers all running in different directions to accomplish their missions.

The scientist is the lynch pin that holds it all together, but his/her days are punctuated with a nearly constant stream of unexpected opportunities. Farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers from the region (and beyond) stop by and provide advice, ask questions and discuss farm plans. Young scientists on staff discuss observations from their experiments and societal trends that will influence the trajectory of agriculture. Journalists inquire on scientific perspectives on current events and new advances on ecologically intensive agriculture. Escaped livestock or “fires” that need to be put out around the farm. Health professionals, tour groups, fellow scientists from around the world, social changers and funding bodies, all pop by to see what we are doing and how they can help. Regular meetings of the community and workshops discuss farm to school programs, or soil builder coffee clubs, or how to organize and combat the re-industrialization of regenerative systems. The scientist is in charge of a sanctuary, an open and tangible place of learning and spirit, that can help sustain a revolution.

At the end of the day, the scientist steps away from it all to do evening chores with the family, relaxing with them and a home-grown supper. Friends and family relax and watch as the dragonflies floating through the air at sunset transform, and it is hard to know where the fireflies stop and the stars begin.

Environment | How will your food system of 2050 adapt to climate change and remain resilient?

Regenerative agriculture is the primary means for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and combating climate change. The planet balances greenhouse gas levels with life; plants and microbes take CO2 from the atmosphere and put it back into the Earth where it belongs. And animals and other biological groups influence the rate and magnitude to which this sequestration occurs. Our food system currently occupies 34% of the terrestrial land surface of the planet, and strongly influences oceanic life as well. This tremendous geographic footprint of our food system provides us with an exciting opportunity to grow healthy food while increasing the agroecosystem’s ability to sequester carbon. Indeed, we cannot balance greenhouse gas emissions WITHOUT our food system.

Ecologically intensive food systems sequester carbon in a number of ways. First, healthy soils increase the diversity and abundance of soil microbes, and cellular respiration of these communities are a major factor in how the land influences greenhouse gas emissions. By promoting living roots on the ground instead of bare soil through crop rotation and cover crops, regenerative food systems pull CO2 out of the air through photosynthesis. Increasing plant biomass in our food system further increases this, and regenerative principles accomplish this in several ways. For example, increasing plant diversity in cover mixes or on the farmscape are known to improve plant biomass through competition and synergisms. And adaptive grazing with animals in rangeland and cropland helps to balance plant communities and spurs growth in plants. We will not be able to fight climate change without properly managed livestock. Finally, by replacing the role of agrichemicals with biodiversity, we can reduce the pollutants that make their way into surface waters and ultimately disrupt biological communities in the oceans, a major source of carbon sequestration.

The diversification of their operations that allow farmers to combat climate change also increases the resilience of their farms in the face of environmental changes associated with climate change. Extremes in weather are the new norm for farmers of South Dakota, and it feels like the extremes that we have been experiencing are a manifestation of the planet taking back the land. Proximately, farmers cannot control the intense flooding, shortened growing seasons, intensifying winters and summers that afflict food production in this region and beyond. Diversification of their operations is the answer, and stacking enterprises is a central tenet of regenerative food systems. This enterprise stacking allows the failure of certain enterprises on the farm without losing the entire operation. Diverse livestock and perennial and annual crop production in operations will keep our food system intact amidst a changing planet.

An important outcome of our vision is that science generated will be used to document and optimize the impact that regenerative food systems have on greenhouse gases. Current reductionist research on agroecosystems seldom focus on the many aspects of the system and how they interplay to affect key response variables. In other words, a study on pest management does not account for how crop management affects biodiversity and pest interplay, as well as how these pest-community interactions affect the carbon sequestration potential of a crop field. This vision proposes systems-level science that documents best management practices generated by regenerative farmers and looks at how they are affecting the different carbon stores in their soils, and specific practices that enhance this positive impact. Projects by our team estimate that if we switch to regenerative, adaptive multipaddock grazing systems on 20% of our rangelands, we can offset current carbon emissions in the U.S. while conserving biodiversity and producing healthier beef. We found that regenerative almond production in California and corn fields in South Dakota- which involves perennial ground covers- substantially increases surface carbon levels of this cropland, the plants are pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. This approach to science will help us to take the solutions that farmers are generating to help solve the climate crisis, and make these solutions transferable to many different scenarios well before 2050.

Diets | How will your food system of 2050 address malnutrition in all its forms (undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, metabolic disease) for the people living there?

Ultimately, the growing health problems that society is experiencing right now are fundamentally a soil problem that only regenerative food systems can solve long term. Nutrient density in our food is directly related to the biological, chemical, and physical components of the soil. Tillage, agrichemicals, and segregation of livestock from cropland have all contributed to a nearly 40% nutrient decline in our food and the nutrition of pollen and nectar from the environment over the past several decades. Tillage does this by destroying the microbial, fungal, plant, and invertebrate life in the soil; the synergisms that plants have with these other life forms increases the nutrition and health of the plant. Agrichemicals make plants sick, directly kill life in the soil, and even reduce the availability of micronutrients present in the soil to crops. Reintegrating biological communities and increasing the biological interactions within our food systems- as proposed in regenerative agriculture- is a way of re-establishing the balance that drives plant health and nutrition within a food system, and removing well-managed animals from cropland prohibits the system from healing itself. The proposed vision is already showing that regenerative agriculture improves food nutrition and diversity, and is even redefining our understanding of how nutrition should be measured.     

Human health is directly related to our food and the proposed vision for our food system will use food as a first and preventative solution to solve our health issues. It is becoming increasingly clear that autoimmune diseases, learning disabilities, cancer, and food intolerances that are rapidly increasing in society are the direct result of a damaged microbiome. In part, this is from the poor nutrition found in processed foods that constitute a large portion of our region’s diet. Additionally, one of the demonstrated adverse effects of the agrichemicals associated with our current food system reduces our microbiome, immune function, and our hormone balances, all of which lead to chronic and acute health problems. Changing our food system to a regenerative one is thus an essential step in solving these health crises. The disconnect between the sciences in food production and health sciences are partially to blame, and our vision helps to address this by helping to train the health sciences in food production practices that underlie nutrition and human health. Both in the form of training the scientists in these professions as well as training health professionals in systemic causes of malnutrition, nutrient deficiency and metabolic diseases.

Undernutrition is currently another serious problem, and our food vision enhances the future’s ability to feed humanity. A frequent question that we receive is whether we can feed the world using regenerative farming. Increased food production is directly related to stacking enterprises within regenerative systems. This involves producing more than one food stream from a piece of ground. Most cropland in the focal region (and nearly 180 million acres in the U.S. at large) is devoted to producing commodities (corn and soybeans), not food. Regenerative production diversifies these farms into producing foods, in addition to producing these commodities using ecological principles. Regenerative farms are often as productive or more so than current farming practices; we have done the science that shows this. Indeed, a central part of our vision is revising the science of our food system, and using science we can help to identify the strengths of the most productive farms so that other farmers can adopt sensible practices. Thus food availability and connection with our food will increase substantially under a regenerative food vision in 2050.

Culture | How will your 2050 food system ensure that the cultural, spiritual and community traditions and/or practices in your Place flourish?

There is a big part of what it means to be human on a regenerative farm. The lifestyle, the responsibility, the spiritual connections; these elements associated with how we produce our food are the foundation of human culture in our region and around the world. The farming community in our region began a process of social isolation in the 1940s. A slow attrition where we allowed technology to replace our connection with the natural world. Whenever we use technology to supplant biology, we lose the roots of who we are, both as a society and as a species. Rural communities were once vibrant, with neighbors helping neighbors, and families working together to be a part of the land. Success was measured in little things. Bringing a new lamb into the world. Teaching a little one how to start the seeds in the garden or collect the chicken eggs. Or helping an elderly neighbor put up his hay (or vice versa). But society didn’t measure progress and success in the currency paid on a farm. Success began to be measured in money, efficiency, and industry. And as the next generation moved to the cities, farming larger, simpler commodities with fewer people became the trajectory that has ruled ever since. Arguably, social isolation within our farming communities has resulted in farmers being one of the most economically and psychologically depressed communities with the highest suicide rates of any profession in the U.S. The parallels with what we are experiencing in the rest of society right now are palpable. The exciting and hopeful message from watching the evolution of farming is that we can see the other side of the tunnel. It was hard to get here, and we have a bit farther to travel, but the future of food production and rural communities looks really good. By re-establishing the family farm through regenerative agriculture, and supporting its success with education and science, this vision ensures the revitalization of the cultural, community, and spiritual traditions that are waning or absent altogether from our region.

Spiritual traditions. At a local field day at a regenerative farm last year, a farmer asked the hundred attendees to all take their shoes and socks off and walk in the grassland. Many in that group hadn’t directly felt the soil and the plants on their soul for a long, long time. As technology rose to prominence in our food system, we lost our spiritual connection to the land. This connection is the basis of most religions, and it is part of who we are as humans. There have been dark times during my own journey along this path to the proposed vision; times so low I couldn’t get out of bed. What saved me was the farm; especially the livestock on the farm. The spiritual connection that the life on a farm brings to someone is a profound part of who we are. And is something that our society has lost and is desperately trying to find again. The solution to our finding spirituality is to connect to the lifestyle present on diversified farms again, and this is a central part of our vision. 

Cultural and community traditions. Fifty years ago, community traditions in our region largely revolved around our food system. Every child learned how to raise and show animals at the county fairs, where hundreds would aggregate to display their skills and trades, see friends and neighbors (the nearest of which sometimes live a mile away), eat exotic foods (usually served deep fried and on a stick), and listen to music and hear preachers and politicians. Every community had a summer parade, where every municipal vehicle and old tractor in the county was decorated and driven down the main street in succession, often amidst horsebacked riders. A few times a year, bold men and women would don their hats, ropes, belt buckles, and boots and show their prowess at a sporting event that has deep roots in the culture of ranching: the rodeo. Livestock auctions would bring communities together to trade and sell animals, the lifeblood of farms of the area. Native communities would feast, dance, and confer at pow wows. Barn dances at local farms would host local country western music, and serve barbecue. As food systems became industrialized, and community centers withered, these cultural events have lost their prominence.

By focusing on communities, encouraging science to become a central part of that community, and by reinvigorating the life on the farm, our vision will prioritize recreating the social and cultural fabric of our region. 

Technology | What technological advances are needed to transform your food system into one that meets your goals and embodies the values of your Vision in 2050?

Technology can only save humanity if we use it to enhance the natural world, not replace it. The technological advances in our food system over the past 90 years that have been made in the interest of efficiency have led to a reduced connection with the land and the species that are in it. The reason for this is that most new technologies have been used to replace the ecosystem functions that life provide to an agroecosystem. Fertilizers replace the plants, microbes, and animals that used to cycle nutrients. Herbicides replace plant competition and herbivores that regulate plant communities. Insecticides control insect pests that normally are regulated by diseases and predators. Planters and harvesters are designed to crop thousands of acres instead of tens or hundreds of acres. All of these technologies have had tremendous unintended costs to our society and our environment, often affecting us in ways that no one could have predicted. The end result is a degraded, simplified landscape that cannot support food production the way that it used to.

Regenerative agriculture is knowledge intensive, not technology intensive. It is not devoid of technology, but rather prioritizes nature-based solutions to problems. Elements of automation certainly add efficiency to a regenerative operation, but these advances do not replace a connection with the land. For example, roller crimpers are used to manage cover crops without the use of herbicides. Interseeders are used to plant cover crop seeds in between row crops to feed life on a farm. Precision agriculture has its potential uses in regenerative food systems, so long as it is used in the correct mindset. All of these technologies, and many others, can help to augment the fundamental knowledge of the natural world that drive a regenerative farm.

This adoption of new technologies also applies to other segments of society within this food vision. New approaches for assessing the nutrient content and pesticide load of different foods can aid consumers in selecting healthy options for their families. Doctors will develop diagnostics that will identify key nutrient deficiencies and proactive approaches to solving ailments before they begin. Especially as they pertain to gut health, immune function, and hormone balances. Another important source of technology development will be linking regenerative producers with their customers far and wide, making regenerative produce readily acceptable in new areas.

Technology allows us to ask new scientific questions, and our understanding of the world around us is only as sensitive as the instruments we have to measure it. Assessing the success of regenerative agriculture necessitates that we know which questions to ask (what elements of society and the environment are we interested in affecting for a regenerative system to be “successful”?), and what new technologies are necessary to measure these metrics of success. Artificial intelligence to help us measure, identify and interpret complex biological networks to understand how complex communities drive farm productivity. New algorithms for processing big data that is accumulating rapidly. New tools for measuring the very small (microbial) and very large (landscapes, watersheds, etc) scales within the environment, and for understanding the mechanisms whereby they affect food production. And new economic tools that will allow us to correctly value ecosystems and the services of biodiversity. Ecdysis Foundation will be integrally involved in developing and applying new technologies in ways that they have never been applied before to help science drive the innovation of our food system.

Policy | What types of policies are needed to enable your future food system?

Policies to support the regeneration of our food system must incentivize good behaviors and discourage poor behavior. Policies in place today help to support the current broken paradigm of food production, and consequently stifle the innovation of our food system. They incentivize producers to grow exactly the same monocultures year after year, and provide price supports and insurance for producing these crops. Changing the current system to include new ideas (e.g., cover crops or livestock integration) requires martyrs that literally have to destroy their lives and farms in order to finally draw attention to these deficiencies (e.g., “Break From the Herd”, a film on this topic). As problems arise that are new or exacerbated symptoms of the current agricultural system (e.g., the pollinator apocalypse), new price supports (e.g., federal ELAP payments) are put in place to compensate these new sectors of society. Despite what may be good intentions, these payments are in practice government hush money used to silence the resistance to the current industrialized approach to food production.

New policies for this food vision must start with campaign finance reform. Until corporate influence is removed from our political system, there will be little incentive for the government to enact change to our food system. Policies and actions that threaten large agribusinesses that profit from industrialized monocultures are quickly squashed under threat of withdrawal of key political campaign contributions. I have experienced this corporate influence first hand in my research that discovered unintended risks of pesticides to beneficial species, and the US Department of Agriculture suppressed this research because it threatened their “industry customers”.

Policies at a state and federal level must have short and long-term intended goals for regenerative agriculture to become a reality. Current agricultural policies are targeted at 1 or 5 year goals, and this limits the achievement of grander changes to our food system that must evolve over time. Seldom do federal policies attain more than keeping the current system afloat, addressing new and alarming symptoms that threaten our food security. A long-term vision for a new food system then allows multiple policy avenues to dynamically attain this goal with more incremental policies.

The actual policies themselves will take many forms in this food vision. However, there are certain key areas that policies will contribute to. Early in attaining this food vision, farmers will require policies that help to reduce the perceived and real risks associated with transitioning their operations over to regenerative systems. Policies that incentivize change, like short-term payment programs for cover cropping, interseeding, crop rotation diversification, livestock integration, mixed species herds, and increasing perenniality on farms would help to cushion the perceived blow that change represents. A strong educational component is inherent on these payment programs to soon make farmers self-sufficient. Tax benefits associated with large food distributors could further help make regenerative produce cost superior, and the cost of these benefits would be offset by lower health costs for the nation. Once change is in place, policies that incentivize consumers for good dietary choices, perhaps with reduced insurance premiums, would help to instill change in the broader food community. Many other policies can be envisioned that would help drive the kind of changes we need in food systems.

 Science will be a major driver of policies under this food vision, and policies will be used to foster a different approach to science. A part of the business plan of the proposed centers for excellence in regenerative farming is federal and state competitive grant dollars, and so policies that support these research grants, and direct grant dollars toward regenerative systems are an inherent part of this vision. Transformative science to reform agriculture will require “Manhattan Project” style infrastructure. Summarily, this form of science requires a clear problem or objective to be defined, and then assigning appropriate staff and support to solve that problem in a designated time frame. The proposed goal of research/farm centers lends itself well to this model of problem-focused agricultural science. While diverse and integrated funding schemes are necessities for this business model, social investment through base funds from federal or state agencies in the form of financial allocations would add resilience to this research hub design. Successful precedents for this style of federal funding include the Land Grant system used to successfully drive university funding for many years, and the soil and water conservation districts that each receive federal allocations to accomplish local or regional conservation objectives.

Describe how these 6 Themes connect with and influence one another in your food system.

In the end, the transformation of agriculture and agricultural science in all of its facets comes down to one simple premise: knowing your farmer. The relationships that we have around food form the basis of economic prosperity, human health and vitality, oneness with the environment, a sound governance, the spine of societal traditions and spirit, and respectful use of technology. These relationships involve other people in the food system, but also the relationship involve restoring our connection to the land. There are constraints within urban centers where direct contacts with farmers are challenging. But food distributors can forge strong relationships with their farmers on behalf of their customers, and indeed this is already happening with some mainstream food companies that are trying to make their supply chains regenerative.

Regenerative agriculture forms these relationships first by increasing the resilience of the farm. Bolstering the spiritual, emotional and physical well being of farm families through soil health and biodiversity conservation improves the quality and economic benefits of this foundational element of society. From them, regional diversification provides economic and cultural opportunities for rural communities. These rural communities are the lifeblood that trickles up to urban centers and other segments of the economy. Furthermore, nutritious farm products improve the health and wellness of society, and technologies that work with nature can further improve the efficiency and economic vitality of rural areas. The success on farms can then be scaled and transferred using policies that increase resilience of our food security.

And through all of this, this vision knits science into the social, economic, and political fabric of regenerative communities as one of the primary tools to help fuel the transformation of our food system. These centers for excellence in regenerative agriculture become a network of physical flags around which communities can rally and rely on. Centers of knowledge and experience and sanctuary where farmers, consumers, doctors, community leaders, educators, media, etc can explore and share new ideas. Meanwhile, the scientist-farmers at these centers can be servants that use their skills to remove barriers to innovation, and allow these communities to thrive.

Describe any trade-offs you may have to make within your system to attain your Vision by 2050.

Changing a paradigm is hard, and evolution can be a painful process to live through. Stability, comfort, and financial security will all be threatened for many as this new approach to agriculture and agricultural science is implemented. Fear of change will cripple many in this food vision. But it doesn’t have to, and this vision is specifically designed to help as many as we can through what otherwise may be a turbulent transition to regenerative agriculture.

Martyrs will be made of early adopters of this food vision. I recently sat down in the speakers’ room at one of the most prominent regenerative agriculture meetings in the U.S.; 1,500 farmers from around the world attend every year. The meeting had brought together many of the public leaders in the regenerative movement from over the past 20 years. As I surveyed the room, nearly all of these early adopters (including myself) had experienced tremendous loss as they tried to push change into their communities. Marriages, families, careers, homes, and farms had been sacrificed by these pioneers. But their sacrifices and perseverance are the reason that the term regenerative agriculture has become mainstream. Social movements of this nature nearly always require this type of sacrifice.

Farmers and other sectors of society that choose not to change their operations will be lost as society moves toward a regenerative future. A prime focus of our food vision will be made to help farmers make the transition to regenerative food systems. But they have to choose it; no one can force them. And many farmers will choose not to change. This is already happening in our region. Farm land prices are overinflated, farmers are overextended on debt, crop and meat prices are in the tank, and input prices continue to rise. As the aging farming demographic retire, few remain to take their places, leading to incorporation of their land and loss of our rural communities and lifestyle. And in 2020, farmers planted more acres to crops doomed to fail. But farmers are increasingly hearing the message of soil health and natural resource conservation on their own land, and are making choices that bring them closer and closer to regenerative models of agriculture. And our food vision will make us a part of their plans for change.

Much the same as farmers, scientists will have to evolve if they are going to help foster change in a new vision of food systems. And those researchers that choose our new model of agricultural science will face tremendous scrutiny of their decision to abandon the traditional metrics of success that governs the perceptions of hierarchy. More than this, it is a humbling and terrifying position for a scientist- one who is regarded as an “expert” in their field- to have to abandon what they think they know in order to learn from those they are trying to serve. Nevertheless, these trade offs are rewarded by a greater sense of impact than can be generated from the current scientific framework.

3 Years | Describe 3 key milestones that you would need to achieve within the next three years for your Vision to be on track?

1) In 3 years, we will have integrated an education center into Blue Dasher Farm in South Dakota, Ecdysis Foundation’s headquarters. In addition to having a research facility and demonstration farm, the SD hub will host workshops and field days, function as a community kitchen, and have living quarters to support drivers of the regenerative agriculture movement. We also will have grown our network of farmers and their influence. And we will have made major in-roads with the local medical community, food-to-school program, faith communities, and local and state governments to help them understand how regenerative agriculture can revitalize rural society.

2) On a national scale, we hope to have new hubs that are strategically placed in California, Colorado, Iowa, and New England. At each new location, we will forge strong relationships with producers, other research entities, funding bodies, and NGO change makers. Centers will be housed on staff-operated farms, or intimately fused with ongoing regenerative farming operations. We will have active and extensive projects on vineyards, orchards, rangelands, cash grain crops, pastured dairy, horticultural crops, honey bees, and urban food systems. These projects will validate regenerative production in these key systems, as well as provide roadmaps for converting farmland to regenerative production.

3) Skilled staff and budgets are critical bottlenecks in the rapid expansion of our vision, and we will lay the groundwork to overcome these hurdles. A fellowship program that trains doctorate-level scientists in regenerative farm systems will be developed and new recruits will be hired. We will also be training the next generation of graduate students in regenerative principles so that they can take on leadership positions within this network. We will have expanded our financial support system to fund our research priorities, and create and endowment that can ensure financial independence of the Blue Dasher Hub in perpetuity.

10 Years | What progress will you need to make—by 2030—that would set your Vision up to become a reality by 2050?

After 10 years, the impacts of our efforts will be evident as changes in our food system. Ecdysis will have at least one hub in every ecoregion of the U.S. Scientific staff will be at a place where new center directors will help to train the next generation of scientists, expand our research program, and hubs will become beacons within their communities. The breadth of our science will extend beyond production agriculture to include fellowships in nutritional medicine, socio-politics, economics, communications, engineering, urban planning, and landscape design. After 10 years, the focus of our science will be on optimization rather than transformation. We will have validated farmer-produced regenerative best management practices in many production scenarios, and have developed roadmaps for successful conversion to regenerative systems. At that point, our science will make regenerative systems even more efficient, predictable, and profitable both economically and environmentally. New equipment and tools will have evolved that help this optimization, and our science will help in the development of these technologies. There will be measurable changes in acres toward adoption of no-till, perennial cover, diversification of plant communities, and livestock integration. These changes will have produced new enterprises within rural communities, and the declines in populations away from rural areas will reach a positive inflection point. Consumer habits will also have changed; and additional awareness and priority of healthy diets will pervade the food industry. Associated with this, there will be some proximate observable changes in the health of our society (e.g., reduced auto-immune disease severity, reduced obesity, etc.), that will continue to magnify as we approach 2050. Policies will be in place to help support the reimagining of our food system, incentivizing regenerative practices, and removing current hurdles to adoption that are present in existing policies.

If awarded the $200,000 prize what would you do with it?

The $200,000 prize money will be used as leverage to attain the larger budgets necessary for accomplishing our vision. Specifically, we will use it to hire critical staff and create infrastructure to help us with development and to scale our vision to the national stage. Staffing-wise, we will require a development/communications expert that 1) has connections with the necessary foundations and larger philanthropic organizations to help fund our multi-million dollar vision, 2) is able to communicate in writing and orally on complex scientific and agricultural issues, and 3) has aptitude in social media to help spread the word about our vision and how our daily activities are working towards this vision. The next expansion of growth will require more than our small visionary staff is capable of orchestrating on its own. Remaining funds will be used to create critical infrastructure to help us to attain our 3- and 10-year goals. Specifically, we will use some of this money to help create a hub in California. Regenerative production in this region will be important because of 1) the potential impact we could directly have on a range of food systems, 2) the economic implications to an enormous agricultural economy, 3) the benefits that successful transition would have to other agricultural regions around the nation and beyond. Our work in California will initially focus on almonds, vineyards, honey bees, and pastured dairy, and will expand to horticultural crops and other orchard crops in the near future. The goal of these two budgetary items are both intended to strategically place ourselves in position to expand our financial base, while accomplishing key elements of our mission to convert to a regenerative food system.

If you are chosen as a Top Visionary, The Rockefeller Foundation would like to share your Vision widely with a global audience. What would you like the world to learn from your Vision for 2050?

As the sun fell, a farmer and I sat near a campfire in New Zealand, and he shared a story with me. A religious man, he had gone to see a world expert in evolutionary biology. The scientist had painted him a picture through time. 4 billion years ago a random assemblage of debris congealed into planet Earth. Conditions were just right, and over millions of years, life evolved on this planet. First as single celled organisms. And then Eukaryotes. Then plants and animals, etc. Each through random chance. Humans evolved and civilizations rose and fell. Finally, a man and a woman somehow met, and produced… you. In this light, each of us is an absolutely remarkable event that took 4 billion years to produce. Then the biologist asked, “Now what will you do with your extraordinary chance?”

Regenerative agriculture is the future of food production, and is the savior of both the planet and humanity. We are living through a macroevolutionary event that challenges the life on planet Earth; it has been wrought in large part by our food system. The paradigm change surrounding regenerative agriculture will touch every element of society. Integrating agricultural science into communities is critical. And through our imagination, perseverance, and devotion to mission, we will successfully return our planet to itself, and reshape ourselves to be one with it. Circumstances have put each of us in this moment and given us a solution. 

What will you do with your extraordinary chance?

Please share a visual that communicates the structure and operation of your food system in 2050. Describe the visual.

Ecdysis Foundation centers are driven by research, demonstration, and education. These elements are meant to help drive innovations in our regenerative food communities. Farmers are a main focus of these regenerative food communities in 2050. Interactions with consumers, conservationists, health professionals, politicians, and faith communities are all part of these regenerative food communities. 

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Attachments (5)

Full Refined Vision_Bringing_Science_to_Regenerative_Food_Systems.pdf

Our full vision statement, that presents our detailed plans for confronting the practical and realistic hurdles to enacting our food system vision.

Blue Dasher Farm Research Facility Schematics.pdf

These are schematics for a prototype research facility at Blue Dasher Farm in South Dakota

Ecdysis-One pager-JGL.pdf

A short synopsis of the current approach to research that Ecdysis Foundation is expanding to attain our 2050 vision.

2018 LaCanne and Lundgren PeerJ.pdf

An example of the science that our vision is using to exact change. In one day, this paper rose to the top 1% of all science ever written in terms of social media impact, and to our knowledge was the first use of the term "regenerative agriculture" in the primary scientific literature.

Almond Study- Ecdysis Foundation.pdf

An example of the results from one our projects in California almonds that shows that regenerative almond production has positive effects on the profitability and natural resource base of the orchard. This type of validation work is needed as a first step in turning a food system toward regenerative principles.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi Jonathan Lundgren congratulations on putting together a Vision Vision that can serve as a complete paradigm shift for your region. For refinement, how might you detail out your Vision to introduce a deeper engagement, especially with a diversified stakeholder community?

Photo of Jonathan Lundgren

This is a really important point, and has been a major focus of this vision refinement. Science is a critical component, but only one component of the full system needed for change. So our interactions and integrating science into the dialogue of change in our food system is a major priority.

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