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The Sustainable Food Lab

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Everyone has an opinion about what needs to be done to change America’s food system: create more farm jobs, label GMOs, encourage sustainable agriculture, buy local, eat local, take up gardening, eat more vegetables and less meat. The list of what we “can” and “should” do is endless. But what we don’t hear enough of is what major food corporations are doing to change their business practices for a more sustainable system.

Despite the criticisms media outlets love to hurl at “Big Ag,” the industry is working to change the way they do business, facilitated by organizations such as the Sustainable Food Lab. Established in 2003, the Food Lab’s main goal is to bring together, and partner with, multinational food companies to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the industry, such as climate change and agricultural practices. I chatted with Daniella Malin, Project Director of the Agricultural Climate Stewardship project, about her work in agriculture and climate change.

Tell me a little bit more about the mission of the Sustainable Food Lab.

In a nutshell, our goal is to collaborate with the food industry to solve problems, using the “U Process” method of problem-solving and effecting change. When we started, our co-director Hal Hamilton travelled around the world for a year to pull together a group of collaborators who are influencers in their fields. Some of our founding partners are big multinational companies who admit that they can’t solve issues of sustainability or climate change on their own.

What we’ve built over the years is a network of industry players. We believe that the market is a vehicle of change, and we’re not trying to fight the status quo. Instead, the Food Lab seeks to distinguish itself from other types of business networks by working to improve the innovations, quality of relationships, and leadership capacities among members. We do this through ongoing projects and a two-day Annual Leadership Summit, where we discuss pertinent industry issues such as sustainable sourcing, labor issues and climate change. These summits are usually preceded by “Learning Journeys,” where summit attendees visit farms and producers on location to learn more about practices in other parts of the world and to generate dialogue.

The Sustainable Food Lab

Tensie Whelan, co-chair of the Food Lab’s Advisory Board, in the Dominican Republic with a cocoa farmer who grows rainforest-certified cocoa.

What do you do at the Sustainable Food Lab?

I help food companies mitigate the climate impacts of their raw materials. Whenever these businesses examine their carbon footprint in detail, we find that most of their emissions come from the production of raw materials. Because they source their ingredients from individual farmers, they have less control over the way their ingredients are grown, compared to the factory processes that they employ to create their products. As a result, companies are starting to realize that they have an opportunity: if they can reduce carbon emissions at the source, they have a bigger chance of reducing their overall impact.

When did the Food Lab start focusing on climate work?

In 2008. Our main focus was on soil carbon sequestration: that is, using the soil to absorb and retain carbon from the atmosphere. When carbon is sequestered in soil, it offers many benefits to the farmer: better productivity, better nutrient retention and better water retention, which translates into a need for fewer pesticides and fewer fertilizers.

The financial system didn’t support this, so we looked at creating the necessary structures that would provide financial incentives for advancing soil carbon sequestration methods. That work is still on-going, but in 2010 we started to focus more on supply-chain oriented carbon management, encouraging multinational food companies to engage with their suppliers around climate change mitigation opportunities and risks. We managed a project called the Cool Farming Options, in which members used the Cool Farm Tool, an analytical tool originally commissioned by Unilever that helps farmers create “What If” scenarios to see how different decisions impact their emissions and carbon sequestration levels. The utility of the tool gained momentum and we eventually launched the Cool Farm Institute this past May.

Can you share some examples of how this tool has been used to generate results?

Pepsi rewards their suppliers based on the reports generated using this tool, and for the past two years, we’ve work with Costco’s organic egg suppliers to help generate annual carbon assessments. These assessments are then reviewed at an annual meeting between Costco and its suppliers in order to take a look at the big picture and identify strengths and opportunities. 

“Climate change” has been part of the world’s discourse for at least the past decade. How have things changed for farmers and agriculture in general — in terms of how they farm, the tools they need and the obstacles they face?

It’s a slow-going process. There’s definitely been a growing awareness of carbon emissions in the food industry, but there’s still a long road ahead in terms of awareness raising. At the farmer-level, they’re really busy people, so climate change isn’t top of mind for them, which is why we’re focused on solutions that incentivize farmers to adopt production methods that minimize or reduce carbon emissions. Ultimately, our goal is for wheat (or corn or soy) produced using methods that sequester carbon or reduce emissions to be more valuable and prized by the market than crops produced using current methods.

The Sustainable Food Lab

Sustainable Food Lab members visit a CONACADO processing plant. The National Confederation of Dominican Cacao Producers is an organization of small-scale cacao producers in the Dominican Republic.

What are your goals for the climate/agriculture work that you do with the Food Lab? What do you hope to see in the field of climate change and agriculture five to ten years from now?

We need to reduce our carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050. That means a complete rethink of how we live our life today, and a fundamental change in our relationship with fossil fuels. But nobody is grappling with the gravity of the issue. Every year that we let slip without doing anything makes it twice as hard to change anything the following year.

I see a lot of opportunities for change in the field of agriculture. It is the only sector that can do more than reduce carbon emissions – it can sequester carbon. We have soil just sitting there as a ready sponge to help address our carbon problems. The trick is to find an active solution to incentivize or reward carbon sequestration efforts and enjoy all the ancillary benefits as well.

Have you heard about soil carbon sequestration? Do you know any farmers who farm with this in mind?

About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.

3 Featured Comments

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  • silviaberrios1

    Silvia Berrios from DesignsbySilvia says: Featured

    Happy to see Etsy is bringing this hot topic to the blog. It is good to know some food companies are trying to reduce their impact on the food chain. I am doing my part by growing fruits & vegetables, and sharing them with neighbors. Because of that my monthly expenditure for food has been reduced, and my health has improved.

    1 year ago

  • CoreandMantle

    Alayna from CoreandMantle says: Featured

    Cool article, I think this topic isn't really controversial at all. If we don't do something about the state of our agricultural system in this country the next generations are really going to suffer. It's really important that we all start learning more about where & how our food is being produced. This summer I got a plot in a community garden. I feel that I've learned so much, and yet I've got so far to go. My ultimate goal in life is to own a small farm, farm organically and do a lot of community outreach stuff...Thanks much for sharing this topic that is close to my ♥

    1 year ago

  • wheatleypaperworks

    M Wheatley from wheatleypaperworks says: Featured

    The system we have today is market-driven. Meaning that if we want it, we get it. Happily, this means that the change we need to see "out there" is the change we need to make at home. The power is truly in the hands of the individual consumer. Thanks for the informative and timely post. All the best.

    1 year ago

  • silviaberrios1

    Silvia Berrios from DesignsbySilvia says: Featured

    Happy to see Etsy is bringing this hot topic to the blog. It is good to know some food companies are trying to reduce their impact on the food chain. I am doing my part by growing fruits & vegetables, and sharing them with neighbors. Because of that my monthly expenditure for food has been reduced, and my health has improved.

    1 year ago

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering says:

    Very interesting read!

    1 year ago

  • dawnandross

    Cody and April Peavy from dawnandross says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this topic. My husband and I are organic 'eaters' and I love articles like this...again, thank you :-)

    1 year ago

  • LAccentNou

    Anastasia from LAccentNou says:

    This is very very interesting! Thank you!!!

    1 year ago

  • TwistedCrystals

    Kacey H from TwistedCrystals says:

    This is a great read, thank you for sharing!

    1 year ago

  • cberez

    CB DESIGN'S from CBDesignsPR says:

    Very interesting blog. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

    1 year ago

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat says:

    Great to see this problem being tackled in a realistic way. It's time people realised that Big Ag & multinational companies need to be involved in any level of meaningful change, & pretending that everything will be fixed by relying on organic market gardeners growing food on their 4 acre plots to sell to their middle class neighbours will simply NOT be enough to feed the expanding population in a sustainable fashion.

    1 year ago

  • thenakedbird

    Brooke Griffin from GideonAndBrisby says:

    how to i "like" this? ;)

    1 year ago

  • DewyMorningVintage

    DewyMorningVintage from DewyMorningVintage says:

    Really great information and a source of hope for the future of farming and carbon footprint impacts. It is also great to hear some the 'big' companies care too.

    1 year ago

  • rosebudshome

    rosebudshome from rosebudshome says:

    Very good information, thanks!

    1 year ago

  • StringBeardCraftery

    Stephanie from StringBeardCraftery says:

    I absolutely love this article. Food is so important! It's great to see that people are starting to care about such a basic human need.

    1 year ago

  • messinabella

    messinabella from BandBEstate says:

    Great post!

    1 year ago

  • ChristineShmistine

    Christine from FineArtWithaTwist says:

    Blah blah, I'll avoid the controversial and just say the first thing that popped into my head when I clicked this---- Remember the movie Biodome?

    1 year ago

  • thelittlemarket

    Debbie from thelittlemarket says:

    another great informative post! Thanks!!

    1 year ago

  • Moerkey

    Michael from Moerkey says:

    Having worked in Agriculture for much of my life I think this approach has great merit and really needs to be encouraged and explored. Great article

    1 year ago

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage says:

    Interesting article. Several companies do that with chocolate growers in South America.

    1 year ago

  • passtheteapot

    J.T. Siems from SweetTeaApothecary says:

    As a teacher of middle school and high school English...the units I do on Food Awareness (reading Fast Food Nation, Omnivore's Dilemma) are always the most popular. Glad to see more people bringing this to attention. Join your local CSA!! You get amazing food delivered to you for not very much money.

    1 year ago

  • CoreandMantle

    Alayna from CoreandMantle says: Featured

    Cool article, I think this topic isn't really controversial at all. If we don't do something about the state of our agricultural system in this country the next generations are really going to suffer. It's really important that we all start learning more about where & how our food is being produced. This summer I got a plot in a community garden. I feel that I've learned so much, and yet I've got so far to go. My ultimate goal in life is to own a small farm, farm organically and do a lot of community outreach stuff...Thanks much for sharing this topic that is close to my ♥

    1 year ago

  • wheatleypaperworks

    M Wheatley from wheatleypaperworks says: Featured

    The system we have today is market-driven. Meaning that if we want it, we get it. Happily, this means that the change we need to see "out there" is the change we need to make at home. The power is truly in the hands of the individual consumer. Thanks for the informative and timely post. All the best.

    1 year ago

  • peshka

    Peshka from Peshka says:

    Lovely post!

    1 year ago

  • mlezcano

    Mary Lezcano from BellaBboutique says:

    Great post, thank you for sharing!

    1 year ago

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie says:

    Very interesting!

    1 year ago

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty says:

    Great article!

    1 year ago

  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags says:

    This is a great read, thank you for sharing and your time !

    1 year ago

  • my2handsstudio

    Donna from my2handsstudio says:

    I'm an organic grower and eater, this was very interesting.

    1 year ago

  • amoraexcyna

    Jennifer Bradshaw from Pampermousse says:

    Lovely read, thank-you!!!

    1 year ago

  • kathyjohnson3

    Kathy Johnson from kathyjohnson3 says:

    I love organic, but up here in the North it is sometimes hard to find, our garden didnt fare well this summer (no rain) too hot, so off to the supermarket I go! Thanks for sharing this great article!

    1 year ago

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry from jammerjewelry says:

    Thanks for sharing the info, enjoyed the article.

    1 year ago

  • ArtDecoDame

    Desiree from ArtDecoDame says:

    Interesting read,thank you etsy!

    1 year ago

  • maclancy

    Marianne Clancy from maclancy says:

    thanks Etsy! I will always read anything that educates or promotes sustainable living. So nice to see you on this and posting the article~much appreciated! had my first true organic garden this summer. Each tomato was heaven!!

    1 year ago

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth says:

    Interesting! ♥ the conversation that is opening up about this.

    1 year ago

  • tamilopez

    Tami Lopez from TamiLopezDesigns says:

    Very interesting. Very positive and encouraging. We are also buying and enjoying more and more local produce. Good food that brings people together. Nice!

    1 year ago

  • aspolarich

    Audrey Spolariches from KnitOneDreamToo says:

    I just returned from Turin, Italy, home of the slow-food movement. It was fantastic to eat in the Piedmont region that surrounds Turin. For example, did you know that Nutella is made in Turin? As part of the slow food movement the Flagship store of Eataly http://www.torino.eataly.it/ Eataly has just opened its first store in the USA, NYC of course, on Fifth Avenue. Audrey Spolarich

    1 year ago

  • thedancingwren

    Annie from thedancingwren says:

    Love this!

    1 year ago

  • TheBeautyofBoredom

    Gracie from TheBeautyofBoredom says:

    Wow, very interesting stuff. Glad to see that people are working together to make sustainable food more of a reality for everyone. I have been trying to bike and walk around more instead of using my car, but I don't know how well that is going to work in a few months when it gets to be 0-30 degrees outside. Every little bit is going to help until we can figure out a few solutions that easily work for many people.

    1 year ago

  • Manufactapaper

    Manufactapaper from Manufactapaper says:

    very interesting post, thank you for sharing

    1 year ago

  • MichaelFrazierDesign

    Michael Frazier from MichaelFrazierDesign says:

    Enjoying your blog and a lot of the comments to a very important topic that needs to be in the limelight as a continued reminder to be aware of the environment and how we can take care of it. Thanks for your insight.

    1 year ago