Earlier this 12 months, I obtained an uncommon invitation. Sharon Cittone, a longtime meals and ag tech convener with whom I hadn’t crossed paths earlier than, popped up in my inbox. She requested if I needed to return to a meals techniques summit her new occasions and consulting agency Edible Planet Ventures was internet hosting with the central Italian area of Umbria.
I’d spend 4 days assembly 150 meals and agriculture consultants from world wide, envisioning a brand new constitution for working in direction of a extra sustainable and equitable meals system and visiting the area’s sustainable producers.
I’m reasonably skeptical of initiatives targeted on writing new sustainability charters and frameworks. To me, it looks as if we have now ample roadmaps on the market and will spend our time implementing the massive adjustments round regenerative agriculture, meals waste, weight loss program shifts and meals justice a lot of them agree on.
However since a key a part of my function at GreenBiz evolves round understanding traits and challenges within the sector, it appeared like the right studying alternative. So I replied with an enthusiastic “sure!” to Sharon and made my means there final week.
The group included activists, artists, entrepreneurs, buyers, journalists, farmers, politicians and consultants. We work throughout the meals system — from biotech to meals sovereignty, regenerative agriculture to indoor farming, foodservice to coverage making and plant-based proteins to meals waste.
Whereas Cittone spoiled us with magical eating experiences and gorgeous venues, she additionally gave us exhausting work. We dug into what every phase is doing effectively, the place it’s missing and uncovered alternatives for cross-pollination.
It can nonetheless take just a few weeks to compile our discussions into the ultimate constitution, however I’ll remember to share it when prepared. Although we put in a good-faith effort, I don’t anticipate it to be the framework that may lastly repair the meals system. Nonetheless, it was a strong (and at instances painful) course of that left me with three massive takeaways.
1. Let’s cease combating one another
As a meals techniques generalist, I’ve been painfully observing the growing hostility between teams engaged on completely different meals and agriculture points. These tensions had been actual in Umbria as effectively.
I witnessed a critical indoor agriculture vs. soil well being standoff. Some regenerative beef advocates canceled their journeys altogether as a result of they thought the plant-based crowd was overrepresented. Well being consultants challenged cultivated meat buyers to step up their meals security requirements.
Whereas a few of this skepticism is wholesome, and the discussions had legitimate factors, a lot disagreement stems from the meals industries’ siloed and aggressive nature. Individuals are targeted on their very own work and don’t interact sufficient with friends outdoors their speedy networks.
A sense of shortage additionally feeds tensions. The eye of funders, policymakers and customers is scarce. As a substitute of positioning a options catalog — from meals waste discount to carbon farming — as important to creating a greater total meals system, every camp appears to struggle for its personal survival. But, banding collectively on systemic advocacy and training could make everybody higher off.
2. Let’s be trustworthy about our contributions
Extra collaboration would require much less bragging. Neither cows, vertical farms, composters, smallholders nor meals scientists alone will reverse local weather change or save the world. But as we speak, the single-hero narrative prevails within the lots of of press releases flooding my inbox each week, in addition to information websites, social media discussions and trade webinars.
It was refreshing to witness a way more nuanced debate in Italy. On the finish of our two-day workshop, every group gave a brief presentation of its classes realized. A number of kicked off by articulating a extra concrete and collaborative imaginative and prescient of their roles.
For a lot of, regenerative agriculture incorporates too many ifs, mays and coulds to function a critical various to the established order.
The cultivated meat group rejected the narrative of desirous to utterly change animal agriculture, realistically stating that the sector almost definitely received’t get past 20 % market share. The plant-based group introduced extra nuance to the dietary shift they’re working in direction of. They spoke up in opposition to protein overhype in the US and different Western international locations, as an alternative highlighting their merchandise’ cultural and dietary worth.
I’d like to see extra nuance and myth-busting equivalent to this. We have to articulate the potential, uncertainty and limitation of every answer alike. It will make for a friendlier and extra collaborative meals techniques neighborhood at giant and assist outsiders allocate their assist extra successfully.
3. Let’s set up extra complicated measures of success
Yields and income have dominated as we speak’s mainstream agricultural ambitions to the detriment of harder-to-measure metrics important for human and planetary well being. These new metrics embrace biodiversity, resilience, neighborhood wellbeing, employees’ rights, native air pollution and meals sovereignty. Hyper-focusing on yields has silenced the contributions of meals and agriculture practitioners with extra holistic traditions, worldviews and experiences, most notably indigenous peoples and smallholder farmers within the World South.
As a result of the local weather disaster looms giant, embracing various practices feels scary and dangerous. Agroecology exemplifies that problem. In comparison with intensive farming which leads to excessive yields and excessive income, it guarantees a wealth of social, financial and environmental co-benefits which can be more durable to quantify. However it tends to have decrease yields. Frequent carbon logic says that we have to safeguard yields above all else to stop encroachment of farms on native ecosystems as a result of changing them to cropland releases giant quantities of carbon.
A go to to a 2,000-acre natural and more and more regenerative farm on the final day of the summit offered fodder for thought on this query. After experiencing extreme drought-related harvest losses over the previous two years, proprietor Marco Minciaroni works towards resilience and circularity as his major farm administration targets.
Minciaroni acknowledges that agroecological practices equivalent to planting biodiversity strips, hedges and canopy crops, utilizing conventional seed varieties and lowering tillage are inclined to decrease his yield per acre and harvest. However he believes that his investments in soil well being, water retention and pollinator companies will enhance his long-term success underneath extra excessive situations.
He additionally experiments with inter-cropping — which means he grows wheat and lentils in the identical discipline and plans to combine chickens and wild asparagus into his olive groves. As soon as dialed in, these practices might increase his farm’s total productiveness.
For a lot of, the regenerative agriculture experiences of Minciaroni and different farmers include too many ifs, mays and coulds to function a critical various to the established order. What if their hopes don’t materialize and we find yourself with a worldwide famine along with the local weather disaster?
I’ve that concern too. However I additionally take into consideration what occurs if we don’t do it. What are the dangers and prices of not investing in these choices? Alongside many different summit contributors, I don’t suppose we have now accomplished sufficient evaluation on what occurs if we don’t optimize for co-benefits, or at the very least haven’t thought of all of the proof. Agroecological approaches received’t be the precise choice for all farms all over the place, however many will profit from revisiting and restructuring their success measures.