After three years it was a pleasure to be back at World Agri-Tech in San Francisco alongside other investors as well as growers, business leaders and entrepreneurs who are leading the charge to improve the sustainability, profitability and equity of our agricultural systems. Between all the speakers and panels, and reconnecting with old friends as well as meeting new ones, it was a jam packed two days.
One of the main events at the conference was a panel on the food system transition beyond COP, which was moderated by S2G’s CIO Sanjeev Krishnan, and featured esteemed panelists Geeta Sethi, Advisor and Global Lead for Food Systems at the World Bank, Ertharin Cousin, President and Co-Founder of Food Systems for the Future and former Executive Director of the United Nations Food Programme (2012-2017), and Mike Heinz, Chairman and CEO North America for BASF.
The conversation kicked off with a discussion about the importance of a food system transition, especially given the trends and events of the past five years from evolving consumer preferences to climate change, the pandemic and now a war in Europe. Panelists spoke about how these events have highlighted the fact that how we grow and consume food is crucial for individual, community, and planetary resilience in many forms. Additionally, with so many more people at risk of food insecurity given these events, the food system transition has become both an issue of global stability and a moral imperative.
The panelists stressed the urgency of addressing these challenges. In 2008 we saw the rumblings of civil unrest that was sparked by food price spikes. According to Ertharin Cousin, “What we’re seeing now is a perfect storm of all those indicators…we are beginning to see those factors that push importing countries into conflict, riot and unrest. As a result many of us are raising the alarm of the potential for a perfect storm from a high food price induced hunger crisis.” International support to bring resources and innovation to smallholder farmers and countries struggling with rising threats of hunger will be key to averting the worst outcomes.
"Many of us are raising the alarm of the potential for a perfect storm from a high food price induced hunger crisis."
- Ertharin Cousin, President and Co-Founder of Food Systems for the Future and former Executive Director of the United Nations Food Programme (2012-2017)
The panelists also noted the tension we are seeing today between short term solutions and long term goals. Today, many governments are being forced to make decisions that address their most urgent needs that may be contradictory to commitments they have made to develop more climate friendly food systems. According to Mike Heinz, “We have to dissect the issue into two parts. First we clearly have a humanitarian crisis…but we also have to look at solutions in the long run. We have to grow the crops where they get the highest output and at the same time we have to support the 500 million smallholder farmers around the world in order for them to make a decent living and produce crops for their communities. I think this can be achieved and innovation will continue to play a major role.”
The panelists agreed that we need solutions that will encourage more climate friendly forms of agriculture while scaling up production in order to feed people in the short term. According to Sethi, “We have been dealt blows that have pushed us back in terms of just managing the short term humanitarian crisis but we cannot afford to take our eyes off of the medium term financing models needed because the transition cannot happen if we keep moving into short term crisis management mode…In the sovereigns the ministers of finance are becoming more sensitive to the fact that the marginal dollar can be used differently to meet their other global goals including SDGs and climate but we need a different energy behind it.”
There was also discussion around the need for more financing and blended financing to bring about the food transition. According to Geeta Sethi, “The change agent is going to be the private sector, new technology and the ability to use data differently.” But she also emphasized that, “The food sector is very unique. It can be a sector with high risks and low returns which means there is a very different kind of derisking needed where philanthropy and government finance needs to come in. There needs to be a very different scale of financing to bring about the food system transformation so it can deliver in this perfect storm.”
"The change agent is going to be the private sector, new technology and the ability to use data differently."
- Geeta Sethi, Advisor and Global Lead for Food Systems at the World Bank
Lastly, the panelists spoke about the challenge of not having a clear narrative for a food system transition that is as compelling as the narrative around energy to attract the necessary finance. When it comes to food, there is not necessarily a single innovation to rally around such as electric cars, rather it will take a combination of numerous and diverse solutions. But as Ertharin Cousins emphasized, that is exactly why conferences like this are so important, ”To help build a narrative that will support the level of financing required to transition a food system while feeding people.”
In addition to this panel, our team spoke at a number of other sessions. Kate Danaher was on a panel about attracting more financial and human capital to animal agtech which explored the areas of animal agtech that are most exciting to VC and strategic investors and how we can attract a greater diversity of investors from outside the industry and better communicate the value proposition and ROI of animal tech. Cristina Rohr was on a panel about raising capital, which focused on how entrepreneurs should think about finding the right investors and general advice for startups looking for financing.
It was great to be back in such an inspiring and energizing ecosystem. We look forward to more opportunities to exchange ideas and build partnerships in the agriculture sector especially at a time when there is so much critical work to be done to build more resilient food systems. For those of you staying for Future Food-Tech, we hope to see you there!