A Culture of Innovation

       The food and agriculture community is an innovative, diverse, and ever-evolving space. When considering every step of the food supply chain, as Anne Simpson, CaIPERS Managing Investment Director aptly said, “If you look at the food system and what it supports by way of the economy and wider society, I don't think there is a sector untouched by the issues in food and agriculture.” The Global Food Forum, hosted by the Wall Street Journal, reflected the innovative and diverse nature of the food and agriculture industry while confidently addressing those issues, challenges, and opportunities that are currently facing the agricultural sector, which by default, impact nearly every other industry. 

A considerable amount of the forum was dedicated primarily to the conversation of sustainability within agriculture, whether in the actual act of food production or through processing and the eventual recycling of products and packaging. Although acknowledgement of the improvement that has been already made towards a more sustainable planet in recent years was discussed, as with any true innovators, the focus of the speakers and conversations were on the areas in which further improvement can be made in the future, and the methods that are being utilized as we work towards those improvements. 

        Beth Ford, CEO of Land O’ Lakes, and Aldyen Donnelly, Co-Founder and Adviser at Nori, introduced the topic of farmer compensation for adopting more sustainable practices in a boots-on-the-ground manner, allowing farmers to build up carbon credit through practices such as no-till and cover crops. The successes they shared have been part of a program they are running alongside Microsoft that consists of 100 growers.  They were highly encouraged by the over 1200 growers that contacted Land O’ Lakes to fill those spots, indicating the desire of farmers to be a part of sustainable solutions. In commenting on the program, Ford stated: “Farmers are the original entrepreneurs. They are constantly investing appropriately. They have every reason to do so. But think about that. How exciting right away? 1200 against 100 something that were selected. We have a significant uptake for farmers that want to be involved in this.” 

        The adoption of methods utilized within the program has incredible future potential to offset 100% of existing greenhouse gas emissions, and while it can take 7-8 years to see a return on investment, farmers could see their yield go up 3% - 5% in addition to reducing emissions. Going forward, this program and others compensating farmers for pursuing more sustainable farming methods is definitely something to keep an eye on. 

        Viewing the sustainability movement from the end of the supply chain, Mark Schneider, CEO of Nestlé, discussed the value of utilizing recyclable product packaging materials and the accessibility of recycling for all communities, stating: “50% of households in the U.S. have access to convenient curbside recycling options. Among those that have access, only 70% of consumers use those options.” Additionally, while in Europe, the average recycling is about 33%-35%, in the U.S. there is a lot of variation by state and by city, falling anywhere between 10%-30% of actual recycling. With that in mind, there is huge potential for growth and improvement, and an exciting place for new innovation regarding recycling in the United States.  One of the foundational pillars for MBOLD, the local coalition of major food and ag companies in MN, is focused on a circular economy for flexible films.  The establishment of such an economy, including recycling and repurpose, would have a significant impact on the amount of plastic waste entering landfills.

        On the topic of innovation and a place for growth, a large portion of the forum was dedicated to a commodity that has seen a recent exponential upsurge - alternative protein and alternative milk products. Juan Luciano, CEO of Archer-Daniels-Midland, stated “There have never been more requests for plant-based everything, and the world seems to be going plant-based.” In the future, he estimated that 10% to 30% of consumption will turn completely to plant-based alternatives, sharing that “demand is growing very fast and we need to normalize plant-based production.” Later in the program in a discussion with Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, SVP and Chief Sustainability Officer, Managing Director of Further Processed Foods and OSI Europe;  and Shane Grant, Co-CEO and CEO North America of Danone; when asked if they thought plant-based products, specifically milk, could feed the world, Grant stated “I think there will be continued scale of these categories. I think we have had scale in economics for producers and consumers. For us, that is an important dynamic that we are driving forward. Food access and access to healthy food is core to our DNA. However, we certainly do not project a version where dairy and plant-based products do not coexist.” The sessions signified a promising future for alternative and plant-based proteins, but shared a desire to partner with existing animal agriculture producers. Johnson-Hoffman expressed: “Everybody has different needs. They vary from person to person and at different stages of our lives. The foods that worked well for me are not the same food that worked well for my neighbor, and that is OK.”

        The forum concluded with an address from Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, where he further discussed farmer incentives shared by Beth Ford and Alyden Donnelly and gave a comprehensive view of what production agriculture looks like in the United States today, and his continual efforts to provide excess international market access and establish stronger global trade. Moreover, in response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, he encouraged the strengthening of the American food supply chain, and shared his passion for bolstering local and regional food systems, including his recent proposal to have 4 billion dollars set aside to do just that. His address offered a glimpse of what we can expect going forward in the Biden administration, and shared a high-level view of the administration's values regarding food and agriculture, including  a stronger investment in conservation programs already in use, heightened awareness of global climate change, and working towards more sustainable practice in all levels of the supply chain.  He also discussed more effort towards creating trade relations with Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe, and support for farmers currently experiencing severe drought. 

        As a whole, the Global Food Forum brought together a high-caliber community of agriculturalists and professionals within the food sector to celebrate success and ignite a passion  for further future advancement, cultivating a culture of innovation and an air of excitement for what’s to come. At Grow North, it certainly got us excited for  Food and Ag Ideas Week which is quickly approaching. Keep your eyes peeled for more information about the event, and we can’t wait to see you there in just a few months!