At Innovation Forum’s Future of Food conference in Minneapolis this spring, industry leaders came together to address the challenges and opportunities ahead. There was a strong sense among participants that this is a defining moment for food and agribusiness, with widespread awareness of the issues and differential resourcing driving action like never before.
Catalysing action and conversation was the awareness of escalating crises such as drought, flooding, topsoil loss, and ecosystem decline. Participants also acknowledged that the sustainability of food and agriculture requires a systems-level, outcomes-based approach, involving the collaboration of a broad set of actors, stakeholders, and partners.
Who bears the responsibility?
One of the key discussions in Minneapolis revolved around determining who should bear the responsibility for implementing sustainable food system transformation. While acknowledging that significant advancements have been made in the U.S. through the latter, participants debated the merits of a regulatory approach, like that of the European Union, versus a voluntary value chain-led approach. Questions arose regarding who should set the targets moving forward and how significant a role government and regulation should play.
Additionally, there was a lack of consensus on how upfront sustainability costs should be financed. Resolving these issues requires cohesive market signals and the consideration of alternative approaches, such as increasing the financial compensation for farmers to reflect the value they bring through sustainable practices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Smart Agriculture Commodity grant program is an example of a new approach to both shared responsibility and closing the finance gap. Widely viewed as a hopeful demonstration of public-private partnership to accelerate progress, it also represents a game-changing injection of capital into the sustainable food system space.
Removing the carbon blinders
While climate change is undeniably a critical threat to our food and agricultural systems, it is important not to let it overshadow other essential sustainability impact areas. The conference highlighted the need to take off the carbon blinders and adopt a holistic perspective that considers other dimensions of sustainability. Breaking down silos and taking a multi-impact approach will be crucial – and there may be some un-learning to do. Businesses and other industry actors need to keep working on areas such as water, biodiversity, and ecosystem restoration.
Undoubtedly, a regenerative approach is essential. When it comes to regenerative agriculture, aims must not be solely focused on carbon and climate, but also on key outcomes like improved farmer profitability, soil health, water quality, biodiversity and agricultural community resiliency. Developing frameworks for understanding and measuring these outcomes will be paramount.
The role of data
Also discussed was the pressing need for more user-friendly and open-source tools that promote transparency and accelerate the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices. Efforts must be made by the industry to ensure farmers have access to innovative technologies, plus know-how. Collaborative efforts to collect, anonymise, protect and share farm data will provide valuable insights and enable more informed decision-making.
However, it is crucial to remember that data alone is not the solution; it is simply a necessary means to an end to generate insights, which can drive positive sustainability impacts across supply chains. Cultivating a culture of sustainability across organizations, vertically throughout supply chains and within the industry as a whole of critical importance, as technology alone cannot achieve the necessary regenerative outcomes.
The farmer will always be the hero
While business action and innovation across value chains will be crucial, speakers and participants recognised that the farmer is still the hero in this story. Sustainability efforts must align with what growers care about, and need, the most. And for sustainability to become a reality in food and agriculture, it must be economically viable at the farm gate.
The industry must support farmers by providing the necessary resources and incentives to help them accelerate the adoption of regenerative principles, then practices, on their farms. This means industry investment and collaboration to de-risk the regenerative transition for farmers concerned about change, steep learning curves, and a short-term drop in yields. It also means finding ways to create financial value from sustainable and regenerative farming practices, as a key driver for their adoption.
Action is needed now
While there is still a long way to go, the conference showcased significant advancements on various fronts, including technology, innovation, partnerships, and farmer engagement. Sustainability has become headline news, indicating a growing recognition of its importance. However, there is a shared consensus that a sense of absolute urgency remains necessary. Participants felt that the time has come to move beyond discussions and rhetoric and embark on taking meaningful action to scale.
Although there was much talk about the potential influence of so-called ‘Gen Z values’ when younger employees come into leadership roles in the future, our food systems evidently cannot wait for transformation down the road. The time for action is now, and the industry – across full value chain – must rise to the occasion to shape a sustainable future for food and agriculture.