Tagan Engel

Building a Just Food System: A Q&A with Regenerative Agriculture Lab Advisor Tagan Engel

Tagan Engel, resident fellow at CBEY,  talks with YSE News on the challenges  facing the food system, the lab’s progress, and its goals.

The global agricultural system, when including growing, trucking, packaging and shipping, accounts for more than 30% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Efforts to curtail the climate impacts of food systems have most recently included a focus on regenerative agriculture, a farming practice that takes a holistic approach to the ecosystem and restoring soil health. The term, first coined by the Rodale Institute in the 1980s, has its roots in Indigenous farming practices. Tagan Engel, a resident fellow at the Yale Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY) and advisor to the Regenerative Agricultural Lab (RAL), which supports student-led research on regenerative practices, spoke with YSE News about the challenges facing foods systems, RAL’s progress and goals, and improving agricultural practices.

Q: What do you see as the most significant issues facing regional food systems today?

Here in the Northeast, our growing season is short, so we depend on bringing food from other places, which poses challenges. The industrialization and globalization of our food system have challenging impacts socially, economically, and environmentally. Climate-wise, it’s pretty bad. The majority of our food is produced using “conventional” farming practices that degrade soil, release carbon into the atmosphere, and pollute the environment with chemical pesticides and herbicides. In terms of workers, there’s so much exploitation, poor wages, and dangerous working conditions, both in this country and often even worse abroad. Then, in terms of our local food system, globalization has destroyed our local economies, the ability to have fair pricing for food and labor, as well as the ability for food tracing and safety within our food supply. Our modern food system was founded on the exploitation of the earth and people, and we have to intentionally undo that to not harm people and the earth as we produce and consume our food.

Q: How has your broad-based experience as a chef and in nonprofits and startups shaped your food justice work?

I am a local New Havener, born and raised here. I have been working in regenerative food systems for about 30 years now. I started as a chef, but I’ve also done many types of community-based food justice work such as supporting urban farming, BIPOC food entrepreneurs, participatory policy making, and I’ve worked in sustainability and procurement with New Haven Public Schools, Yale University and others. Through these and many other experiences, including internationally, I have come to understand the food system through the eyes of farmers, food workers, institutions and businesses, as well as food and land sovereignty issues for communities living under food apartheid. This work is rooted in undoing racial and economic injustices in our food system, work I also support as a founding board member of Soul Fire Farm. Through these different experiences, I have learned important on-the-ground lessons throughout our food system. That’s what I’m excited to bring into Yale’s space and to be a resource to students and professors in the university on any of those issues and sectors.

Q: RAL, originally the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, began in 2018. Can you talk briefly about the original thinking behind it?

It began before I got here as student-proposed projects that resulted in a Building Coalitions for Soil Health Policy Guide, the Surf to Turf Report, and the Bridging the Regenerative Agriculture Financing Gap report. When I arrived in 2020, I became the advisor on those, and I started to feel like it might be helpful to give students some projects to step directly into because sometimes students spend a lot of the year fleshing out their ideas and looking for professional contacts. RAL, which started in the fall of 2023, became an independent study program through CBEY, which allows students to gain direct professional experience as they work with businesses or organizations such as the Black Farmer Fund and Yolélé Foods.

The only difference between nature and agriculture is that humans are involved in it, so we can’t study agriculture without including the humans.”

Tagan Engel Resident Fellow, Yale Center for Business and the Environment

Q: What are your goals for RAL?

I see my role as bringing real-world work into the academic space to complement the learning students are doing. The primary goal of RAL is to help students have direct experience with the environmental, social, and economic components of agriculture and food systems. They get to learn what this work looks like in practice through a variety of types of projects so RAL can appeal to people who are interested in the equitable business or supply chain side of things or interested in agroforestry, farming, or models such as worker-owned co-ops. I’m excited that students get to hear from industry experts, too. They get to interview farmers, people who do farmer support, procurement specialists, or people doing reparative investing. The only difference between nature and agriculture is that humans are involved in it, so we can’t study agriculture without including the humans. The farmers, the workers, and communities impacted by this work often get left out of the conversation, so we’re always including that element in our regenerative agriculture projects.

I also lead a year-long discussion group called Shifting Power & Resources, which students can apply to from any graduate school. We bring in monthly guest speakers, many of who work in food systems and environmental justice. In the group we dig into what system change and equity and justice work looks like in practice in different professional environments.

Q: Are there any recent developments you view as a source of hope for creating a more sustainable food system?

The Fair Food Certification is trying to account for workers’ rights issues in food production. It’s not pervasive enough yet, but it’s a good start. The Good Food Purchasing program that the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Heal Food Alliance are working on has some potential to impact regional and state-level purchasing to support regenerative agriculture and workers' rights. The organizations that we’re working with through RAL—the Black Farmer Fund, which is trying to address inequities in investing practices, and the Yolélé company, which is trying to support fonio grain as an Indigenous climate resilient crop while creating economic development in Senegal and Mali — also deeply inspire me. Finally, I think the excitement around regenerative agriculture is a great thing. However, we need to ensure that it’s not about greenwashing and that the work people do in it and the commitments by businesses and organizations happen with integrity.

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