Earlier this year, I received an unusual invitation. Sharon Seton, a longtime committed to food and agricultural technology I’ve never met before, popped up in my inbox. I asked if I wanted to come to the Food Systems Summit of its new events, and it was the consulting firm Edible Planet Ventures that it hosts with the Umbria region of central Italy.
I will spend four days interviewing 150 experts in food and agriculture from around the world, envisioning a new charter for action for a more sustainable and equitable food system and visiting sustainable producers in the region.
I am somewhat skeptical of initiatives focused on writing new sustainability charters and frameworks. To me, we seem to have abundant roadmaps, and we should spend our time implementing the big changes around renewable agriculture, food waste, food system transformations and food justice that many of them agree on.
But as a major part of my role at GreenBiz evolves around understanding the trends and challenges in this sector, it seemed like the perfect learning opportunity. So I answered enthusiastically, “Yes!” To Sharon and made my way there last week.
The group included activists, artists, entrepreneurs, investors, journalists, farmers, politicians, and consultants. We work across the food system – from biotechnology to food sovereignty, renewable agriculture to indoor farming, food services to policy making and plant proteins to food waste.
While Cittone spoiled us with magical dining experiences and amazing places, she also gave us hard work. We’ve dug into what each slice does well, lacking cross-pollination detection opportunities.
It will take a few weeks to compile our discussions into the final charter, but I’ll be sure to share it when I’m ready. Although we made a good faith effort, I don’t expect this to be the framework that will finally fix the diet. However, it was a powerful (and sometimes painful) process that left me with three quick meals.
1. Let’s stop fighting each other
As a dietitian, I have been painstakingly noticing the growing animosity between groups working on various food and agricultural issues. Those tensions were real in Umbria, too.
I have witnessed a serious quandary between indoor cultivation versus soil health. Some advocates of renewable beef have canceled their trips entirely because they thought the vegetarian crowds were overrepresented. Health experts have challenged grown-meat investors to raise their standards for food safety.
While some of this skepticism is healthy, and the discussions have valid points, much of the disagreement stems from the insular and competitive nature of the food industry. People focus on their work and do not sufficiently engage with peers outside their immediate networks.
The feeling of scarcity also fuels tensions. Interest from financiers, policy makers, and consumers is scarce. Rather than cataloging solutions – from reducing food waste to farming carbon – as critical to creating a better food system overall, it seems every camp is struggling for its very survival. However, sticking together around systemic advocacy and education may make everyone better off.
2. Let’s be honest about our contributions
More cooperation will require less bragging. Neither cows, vertical farms, compost, smallholders, nor food scientists alone will reverse climate change or save the world. Today, however, the single-hero narrative prevails in the hundreds of press releases that flood my inbox each week, as well as on news sites, social media discussions, and industry webinars.
It was refreshing to watch a more nuanced debate in Italy. At the end of the two-day workshop, each group gave a brief presentation of the lessons learned. Many of them started by crafting a more realistic and collaborative vision for their roles.
For many, regenerative agriculture contains a lot of things that can be a serious alternative to the status quo.
The Grown Meat group rejected the narrative of wanting to completely replace animal farming, realistically stating that the sector would likely get no more than 20 percent of the market share. The vegetarian group brought more nuances to the nutritional transformation they are working towards. They have spoken out against hyperproteinemia in the United States and other Western countries, instead highlighting the cultural and nutritional value of their products.
I’d like to see more nuances and legend busters like this. We need to clarify both the potential, the uncertainty, and the limitations of each solution. This will create a generally more friendly and collaborative Diets community and help strangers allocate their support more effectively.
3. Let’s devise more complex measures of success
Yields and profits have dominated today’s dominant agricultural ambitions at the expense of hard-to-measure measures essential to human and planetary health. These new metrics include biodiversity, resilience, community well-being, labor rights, local pollution, and food sovereignty. An overemphasis on yields has silenced the contributions of food and agricultural practitioners with inclusive traditions, global perspectives and experiences, most notably indigenous peoples and smallholder farmers in the global south.
With the climate crisis looming large, adopting alternative practices is both frightening and risky. Agroecology is an example of this challenge. Compared to intensive farming that leads to high yields and high profits, it promises a wealth of social, economic and environmental co-benefits that are difficult to quantify. But they tend to have lower returns. Common carbon logic says that we need to protect yields above all to prevent farms from encroaching on indigenous ecosystems because converting them to farmland releases large amounts of carbon.
A visit to a 2,000-acre organic and increasingly renewable farm on the last day of the summit provided fodder for thought on the matter. After suffering massive harvest losses linked to drought over the past two years, owner Marco Minciarone works on resilience and turnover as his primary goals of running the farm.
Minciaroni acknowledges that ecological agricultural practices such as planting biodiversity strips, hedges and cover crops, use of traditional seed varieties, and reduced tillage tend to reduce yield per acre and harvest. But he believes his investments in soil health, water retention and pollinator services will improve his long-term success under more severe conditions.
It is also testing intercropping – meaning it grows wheat and lentils in the same field and plans to incorporate chicken and wild asparagus in its olive groves. Once contacted, these practices can enhance the overall productivity of his farm.
For many, the regenerative farming experiences of Minciaroni and other farmers contain too many ifs, mays, and cans to be a serious alternative to the status quo. What if their hopes don’t come true and we end up with a global famine in addition to the climate crisis?
I have this fear too. But I’m also thinking about what happens if we don’t. What are the risks and costs of not investing in these options? Along with many other participants at the summit, I don’t think we’ve done enough analysis of what would happen if we didn’t improve the co-benefits, or at least didn’t take into account all the evidence. Agroecology will not be the right choice for all farms everywhere, but many would benefit from reconsidering and restructuring their success measures.