Earlier this yr, I acquired 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 wished to return to a meals methods 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 all over the world, 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 slightly skeptical of initiatives centered on writing new sustainability charters and frameworks. To me, it looks like we’ve plentiful roadmaps on the market and will spend our time implementing the large adjustments round regenerative agriculture, meals waste, weight-reduction plan shifts and meals justice a lot of them agree on.
However since a key a part of my function at GreenBiz evolves round understanding tendencies and challenges within the sector, the summit was an ideal studying alternative. So I replied with an enthusiastic “sure!” to Sharon and made my method there final week.
The group included activists, artists, entrepreneurs, traders, 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 beautiful venues, she additionally gave us exhausting work. We dug into what every section is doing properly, the place it’s missing and uncovered alternatives for cross-pollination.
It should nonetheless take a number of weeks to compile our discussions into the ultimate constitution, however I’ll you’ll want to share it when prepared. Though we put in a good-faith effort, I don’t count on 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 large takeaways.
1. Let’s cease combating one another
As a meals methods generalist, I’ve been painfully observing the rising hostility between teams engaged on completely different meals and agriculture points. These tensions have been actual in Umbria as properly.
I witnessed a severe 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 traders 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 centered on their very own work and don’t have interaction sufficient with friends exterior their rapid networks.
A sense of shortage additionally feeds tensions. The eye of funders, policymakers and shoppers is scarce. As an alternative of positioning a options catalog — from meals waste discount to carbon farming — as essential to creating a greater total meals system, every camp appears to struggle for its personal survival. But, banding collectively on systemic advocacy and training might make everybody higher off.
2. Let’s be sincere 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 immediately, 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 business 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 comprises too many ifs, mays and coulds to function a severe different to the established order.
The cultivated meat group rejected the narrative of desirous to fully substitute animal agriculture, realistically stating that the sector almost certainly gained’t get past 20 p.c 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 america 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 akin to this. We have to articulate the potential, uncertainty and limitation of every resolution alike. It will make for a friendlier and extra collaborative meals methods neighborhood at giant and assist outsiders allocate their assist extra successfully.
3. Let’s set up extra complicated measures of success
Yields and earnings have dominated immediately’s mainstream agricultural ambitions to the detriment of harder-to-measure metrics important for human and planetary well being. These extra holestic metrics embody biodiversity, resilience, neighborhood wellbeing, staff’ 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 International South.
As a result of the local weather disaster looms giant, embracing different practices feels scary and dangerous. Agroecology exemplifies that problem. In comparison with intensive farming which leads to excessive yields and excessive earnings, it guarantees a wealth of social, financial and environmental co-benefits which might be more durable to quantify. Nevertheless it tends to have decrease yields. Widespread 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 supplied 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 main farm administration targets.
Minciaroni acknowledges that agroecological practices akin to planting biodiversity strips, hedges and canopy crops, utilizing conventional seed varieties and lowering tillage are likely to decrease his yield per acre and harvest. However he believes that his investments in soil well being, water retention and pollinator providers will enhance his long-term success underneath extra excessive situations.
He additionally experiments with inter-cropping — that means he grows wheat and lentils in the identical subject and plans to combine chickens and wild asparagus into his olive groves. As soon as dialed in, these practices may enhance his farm’s total productiveness.
For a lot of, the regenerative agriculture experiences of Minciaroni and different farmers comprise too many ifs, mays and coulds to function a severe different to the established order. What if their hopes don’t materialize and we find yourself with a world famine along with the local weather disaster?
I’ve that worry 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’ve completed sufficient evaluation on what occurs if we don’t optimize for co-benefits, or at the least haven’t thought-about all of the proof. Agroecological approaches gained’t be the proper choice for all farms all over the place, however many will profit from revisiting and restructuring their success measures.