Part I: Tackling the Future of Food, Water, and Energy at #NI14

This is part one of the New Global Citizen’s coverage of the 2014 Net Impact Conference, “Breaking Boundaries,” held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The conference convened impact leaders from across sectors to forge unexpected alliances and explore creative solutions to some of the world’s toughest social and environmental problems. Read part two here.

“We have to produce more food in the next 36 years than has been produced in all of mankind’s history,” said Natalie DiNicola, Vice President of Sustainability and Signature Partnerships at Monsanto.

This challenge, and its implications for a planet already facing massive constraints on natural resources, was among the most dynamic topics of conversation at this year’s Net Impact Conference.

Reprising last year’s hot-button debate format, Dr. Jahi Chappell, Director of Agroecology and Agriculture Policy at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), and Dr. Natalie DiNicola of Monsanto took the stage for the conference’s most heated session. IATP and Monsanto represent two opposite but critical sides of the spectrum in the food production conversation. IATP is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that works at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm, and trade systems. Monsanto is a multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation and the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seed. While some critics might not think so, both organizations are deeply committed to tackling the challenge of feeding an expanding population while preserving the planet’s natural resources.

The similarities stop there.

Putting a Balanced Meal on Every Plate

In the public sphere, Monsanto’s name is almost always associated with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), also known as biotech or genetically engineered foods. These are crop plants that have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits, such as resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. The company, however, has a much broader focus. A significant amount of their research goes into traditional plant breeding and more recently, precision agriculture. Precision agriculture refers to the use of sophisticated computer software to track and analyze soil, crop yields, and water and fertilizer needs of each plant, while inputting data into a system that helps farmers to maximize output from each square foot of farm land. Last year, Monsanto spent $1 billion to acquire the weather data-gathering startup Climate Corporation, which integrates weather information into precision agriculture technology.

M. Jahi Chappell, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Natalie DiNicola, Monsanto take the #NI14 stage for the “Debating the Future of Food” session moderated by Marc Gunther, Guardian Sustainable Business. Photo courtesy of Net Impact.

“Agriculture is at the center of so many challenges that face our society and our planet…. As a company solely focused on agriculture, we see ourselves as having a real responsibility and opportunity to be an important part of trying to help solve those kinds of challenges,” said DiNicola. “We have a number of different tools that we have developed and new ones that we are developing, that are helping farmers to produce more food while conserving natural resources.”

These farmers include both those working on industrial farms in the United States and smallholder farmers in emerging markets around the world. Working with governments and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and USAID, Monsanto provides royalty-free technology to African seed companies, so that the new hybrids of drought and insect resistant crops can increase productivity and yield.

In her remarks, DiNicola summed up the essence of Net Impact:

“We have some really significant challenges ahead of us as a society and as a planet. Whether it’s about eliminating hunger, protecting biodiversity, combatting climate change, protecting human rights, or empowering women and girls, there are really big complex challenges that no one company or organization can solve alone. But they are real and they are going to require us to bring the best of both the private and public sector to bear to try and address them.”

But her audience of more than 2,000 was not altogether convinced that Monsanto’s commitment to ‘net impact’ was entirely genuine.

The War of Efficient Production and Biodiversity

Chappell and his colleagues at IATP are unconvinced that higher yields and a lesser environmental impact is sufficient to drive real change, arguing instead that the current approach to industrial farming is dysfunctional and short-sighted: “We’ve locked ourselves into a system of making a lot of one thing on farms. This is very efficient for making processed foods, but it is not efficient for a diverse diet, for promoting biodiversity, for conserving the environment, or for preventing nitrogen from running into the Gulf of Mexico.”

Chappell argues that production is not the only important factor in feeding the world and that industrial agriculture systems like those pioneered by Monsanto, often go hand in hand with squeezing out small farmers. As an agroecologist, Chappell advocates for the application of ecology in the design and management of sustainable agriculture systems. This includes linking ecology, culture, and economics to enable not only agricultural production, but also healthy environments and viable food and farming communities. “There is significant empirical and peer-reviewed research that says that more diverse and smaller farms are not only better for the environment, but also for keeping more money within the local community,” Chappell said.

The tradeoff is that such methods depend more on the knowledge and skill of the farmer and less on the sophistication of their technology. But it is a system that encourages greater education and helps keep more money in the local community because it enables lower cost of production and reduced dependency on external inputs.

But can farms using agroecology practices feed the nine billion people that are projected to populate the planet by 2050? Chappell argues that while the jury is still out on the research, there are studies that point to agroecology methods having close to the same yields as input heavy, conventional agriculture. “And this is when agroecology has gotten, at best, one percent of the kind of research funding that the typical system of intensive inputs and GMOs have gotten… If we can [achieve these results] using a system with one percent of the research budget, then we can improve that a lot,” said Chappell.

According to the United Nations, enough food is currently produced to feed the world—around 2,700 calories per day per human. In fact, there is enough food to feed the projected 2050 population. However, a third of the calories produced goes to animal feed, close to five percent is used for biofuel production, and another third is wasted all along the food chain. Perhaps the issue of feeding the world lies not in increasing and intensifying production, but instead in more strategic, locally-centered, and ecological production.

 “It’s a very exciting time to be in food right now because not only do we have millions of people out there advocating for a new system, but we also have the science to support it… there are a lot of alternative practices to the input-heavy, manufactured fertilizer and pesticide system,” said Chappell.

Ending World Hunger is Not a Zero Sum Game

Chappell and DiNicola’s debate touched on a number of controversial topics, including Monsanto’s history of suing farmers, controversy over GMO labelling, food sovereignty, the rapidly declining honeybee population, and Monsanto’s work on agricultural development projects in emerging markets. For those interested in the full conversation, the entire debate is available to watch online at this link: https://netimpact.org/conference/live

 

Monsanto was not alone in celebrating the contribution big business has made to sustainable food production. Executives from McDonalds, General Mills, Walmart, and others joined Monsanto to share how their corporations are addressing the challenge, and seeing a measurable difference. Many brought along presentations showcasing impressive stats like “record corn production,” and “60 percent less energy use.” Such metrics represent gains in measures of environmental efficiency such as land use, soil erosion, irrigation, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, the conversation about how to effectively feed the world must go beyond what has been done well, and embrace the opportunity to think creatively and collaboratively about what can be done even better. Producing more food on less land, using less water, and less energy, does not necessarily constitute improvement.

Net Impact’s lineup of sessions addressed a wide range of issues, including eliminating food waste, scaling local and organic food, improving equality of access to fresh food, and ‘the carnivore’s dilemma.’ Together, the Net Impact community coalesced around the opportunity to take the food conversation further, moving from controversy to collaborative inquiry and discussion.

Although some corporations took a safer approach to the conference, engaging in discussion that mainly highlighted progress as opposed to challenging differences, it is not surprising that Monsanto chose to take the hot seat. The company has been actively working to more effectively engage with end consumers, a shift likely fueled by the fact that, according to a recent Harris Poll, Monsanto has one of the worst corporate reputations in America. Just last week the company launched an ad campaign aimed at making the brand more approachable to the public. The campaign’s TV spot urges consumers to “pull up a chair” and engage in a bigger conversation about food. The company also recently hired a Director of Millennial Engagement to take on the challenge of speaking to younger consumers, an audience that research shows believe the success of a business should be measured in terms not only of its financial performance, but its contribution to society as well.

Vance Crowe, Monsanto’s new Director of Millennial Engagement, is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a former World Banker. Many millennials in the audience were not convinced by Monsanto’s presentation, peppering DiNicola with accusatory questions during the open question and answer segment. If there is one obvious takeaway from the main stage debate, it is that Crowe has a tough job ahead of him.

At first, Crowe’s mention of his Peace Corps and World Bank experience seemed an attempt to establish his sustainability ‘cred’ with me, but I soon realized that such context adds important, clarifying nuance to the debate. It is easy to characterize Monsanto as a nebulous nexus of corporate greed, when in fact the company is comprised of passionate people with emerging market experience who genuinely believe the company is doing the right thing. DiNicola, too, is a well-spoken, approachable, experienced executive with a clear mandate. She is also a highly-trained scientist with a Ph.D. in environmental toxicology and an environmentalist, with experience working on and studying bird habitats. Empathy and respect for a different point of view provides an essential foundation for a productive dialogue that enables real change, which both DiNicola and Chappell brought to the conversation.

While DiNicola and Chappell’s debate was certainly a highlight of the event, it was only one of more than 100 sessions over the course of the three-day event that spurred a stimulating dialogue among the 2,200 attendees on the power of business to tackle the biggest challenges facing our planet. The challenges of food security and sustainable agriculture were among the more popular themes of the conference, fueling some of the most engaged online interactions.

Consensus on the future of food may not have been reached at this year’s Net Impact Conference, but attendees and panelists alike left with a better understanding of the complexities of the topic. As conference attendee and sustainability professional Laura Clise noted, “Leadership is the willingness to participate in difficult conversations. Dialogue takes courage on both sides.”

Yet, the courage both organizations showed in taking on a known adversary in the court of public opinion is just the beginning. Organizations like Monsanto and IATP—and McDonalds, General Mills, Walmart, and others—need to make room at the table, so more people can “pull up a chair” for these challenging yet productive conversations.

Feature photo: Tau Zero | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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  1. […] This is part two of the New Global Citizen’s coverage of the 2014 Net Impact Conference, “Breaking Boundaries,” held in Minneapolis, Minnesota in November 2014. The conference convened impact leaders from across sectors to forge unexpected alliances and explore creative solutions to some of the world’s toughest social and environmental problems. Read part one here: Can Global Business Feed the Word? […]