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.
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.
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?
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.