Today’s program is actually part of our Transformers series, and if you haven’t heard of it, it’s actually a live journalism series where we explore how technological advances and business trends are upending industries and changing everyday life. We started this about a year ago, and it’s really incredible the conversations that we’ve been able to put together that sort of change your thinking about everyday things like food, and we have our marquee Transformers event coming up this September, as well as others like this one, around things like artificial intelligence, health, and other topics, so stay tuned for more on that.
I’d like to thank our presenting sponsor, Bayer, and as well as our contributing sponsor Samsung and the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and we’ll actually hear more from Bayer later.
I’d now like to get the program started, not keep you guys waiting any more, and introduce Libby Casey. She’s the Washington Post journalist who’s going to lead our first discussion. Thank you so much.
Casey: Thank you. Well, good afternoon. I’m Libby Casey with The Washington Post, and it’s really a privilege to be on stage with these two Transformers and leaders in food and sustainability. We’re talking about market forces, and as we look at consumption, production, sustainability, they all play a role. So I’m very pleased to introduce Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability at George Washington University. She also served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2013. We’re also joined by Dr. Mary Bohman, administrator of the Economic Research Service, USDA’s Intramural Social Science Research and Statistical Agency. A lot of words to say that you two have been spending decades working on these issues at a time when it wasn’t in the public eye as much as it certainly is now. So to get our conversation started, let’s just talk about what is transformative right now in food and as we look to the future.
Merrigan: You’re asking me?
Casey: I am. [LAUGHTER] The eyes weren’t enough.
Merrigan: So there are all kinds of things shaking up the system right now. Lots of mergers and acquisitions. There’s a sense that it’s very hard to be an old, stable, big brand. People are very interested in new products, new companies. There’s a flood of venture capital coming into the food space. A lot of the venture capitalists are coming from the tech world; they’re actually not all that informed about food, and they’re looking to become experts and invest in ways that disrupt the current enterprise. Lot of interest in transparency. A lot of interest in alternative proteins. Concern about meat consumption and projections that the world as it develops increases meat consumption in really big ways—that’s going to have profound impacts on our planetary health, so what kinds of alternative plant-based proteins might be a substitute. I don’t know, clean labels. People are very concerned when they see all the scientific language that they—those big words on labels that they don’t understand, and so there’s a sense that they want fresh, they want as close as possible that connect to the farmer, to the table. There’s a lot more interest in flavor, a lot more interest in ethnic food as our country demographics change. Go ahead, Mary. There’s a few I could add.
Bohman: Well, I think you bring up a lot of things that, while they’re a current interest, they draw on long-term trends in food and agriculture, and things that we’ve been monitoring at the Economic Research Service. One is that in 1970, about a quarter of the food Americans bought—a quarter of our food dollar went to food away from home. It’s now almost 50%. That’s a big transformation. Half of what we buy in the grocery store is food that’s almost ready to eat or ready to eat. So we’re really driven a lot by changing income, changing family structure, smaller families, that the way we eat is very different, and some of these trend—these newer things really play to this desire to have more novel foods, more ready-to-eat, things that make food more something that’s part of our experience.
But we’re really a diverse country, and we monitor at ERS the food security of the nation, and about 13% of Americans are food insecure, and their purchasing is so different from people who are in the top 20% of income. They spend about three thousand a year on food; it’s 30% of their total income. People like me who are in the top 20%, we spend almost twelve thousand a year on food and it’s, what, about 10 or 11% of our income that we have. So it’s a really interesting picture that’s supporting these kind of trends.
Casey: I’d like to follow up on that in just a moment, but I’d like to remind our audience that you can join this conversation if you’d like to weigh in; you can join us on Twitter. Use the hashtag #postlive, or you can post comments in our Facebook Live feed; put them in the comments section, and we’ll be able to hopefully run a couple by our guests.
You know, as we look at that disparity, it’s so fascinating. Many Americans are trying to get more in touch with where their food comes from—we think of the farm to table movement—but it does seem that we are getting more and more removed from our food sources when you just don’t have the time and the money to almost have the luxury to trace that back. I’d be curious to hear what you have to think about that disparity that we’re seeing at the income levels.
Merrigan: Well, one thing I’ll say, and this is based on Economic Research Service data: there is a difference in terms of what people eat from high income, but lower income and middle income people, especially in terms of fruits and vegetables—which we’re all pushing, right? The rule is half a plate of fruits and vegetables, that’s our new dietary guidance? There’s not a huge difference between low income and middle income people. So I think that’s an important thing to know, because in the political climate, with a lot of people focused on potential cuts or reforms to the SNAP program, I think that there is this idea that low income people eat very differently than the rest of Americans, and the data just doesn’t support that.
I think people are really looking for authenticity in their food, to go to your point about that real distance between where food is produced and where it’s consumed, and that’s why they’re really looking for food with a story. And when you see a lot of these new companies, they’re really very focused on their storyline, their niche. Being big is not necessarily good anymore, and I think that’s been something that has been challenging to the organic industry, which I have a lot of my soul in over the years. As the organic industry has grown to huge, huge proportions, the good news is you can buy organic in almost every place across the country in all kinds of stores, from Target to Walmart to the specialty mom-and-pop organic co-op; it means that it’s accessible to many more people, but it has also in some ways confused the storyline of organic being little, kind of fighting against the Man, if you will, you know, it’s a resistance movement—it is now mainstream. And so what does that mean? So I think people are looking for that connect, that story, that direct marketing connection if at all possible.
Casey: Is it a real connection to our food, or are we looking for something to make us feel like we’re connected to our food? Are we more connected now than we were 20 years ago?
Bohman: 20 years ago? I’m not sure there’s such a huge difference, but one thing that is difference is the change in who are farmers. At the post-World War II, people in rural areas were a much higher percentage of our total population, there are a lot more farmers. You know, I started out teaching agriculture. In 1990, if you asked students in the class who grew up on a farm, you’d see half the hands. Even a decade later, it would be ones or twos. So my farmer grew up on a farm, but I’m probably atypical, and you have fewer people who have that direct background and that connection. But nonetheless, most of America’s farms are family farms. We have over two million farms in the U.S.; 99% are families. That means they’re owned by people who are related to each other. One percent is non-family farm, and these family farms produce most of what we eat. It can be—90% of what we eat comes from family farms that’s produced in the U.S., so I think that’s a story people don’t really know fully. They may be large businesses—cousins, aunts, uncles, fathers, sons—but they’re still family organizations, and they are in the scheme of big businesses not that huge. As Kathleen mentioned, there are big businesses more on the food company side, but our farms are largely family-owned businesses, and that’s been true—20 years ago, it looked very similar.
Casey: And Dr. Bohman, what is the influencing factor, what are the factors on those family farms? Is it technology, is it trying to form collectives, is it the opportunity to sell organic or the challenges of getting certified and labeling? What’s affecting their businesses right now?
Bohman: Farming’s always been a hard business. You have to deal with weather, they tend to have a lot of capital—
Casey: I left out the obvious one, weather, right?
Bohman: —land, equipment—so you know, then, have to follow the markets and what to produce, technology advances. So I think that really—people find their niche, and some of it depends on where you live, some of it depends on the interest. We see big farms, maybe they want one of their children to come, they might form a small part that’s organic. You can’t tell one story about farming in the U.S.; it’s just a very diverse sector.
Merrigan: So right now we’re facing a lot of challenges at the farm. You’ve got climate change—now, not everybody likes that language; we can soften, we can change out the words, but the reality is, weather has always been a challenge for farmers, but it’s becoming much more volatile and challenging. Immigration: there’s no—especially if you put it under the whole banner of “food sector,” there’s not an industry more dependent on undocumented workers, and right now we’re in free fall because people can’t get the labor. And I’ve talked to a lot of company leaders who are saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to leave the U.S. I can’t get the people I need to harvest the crops.” And then you have this huge transition of our working lands, where the average age of farmers is about 60 years of age; we’ve got a lot of farmers over the age of 80. Some of them still milking, if you can believe it. And part of that is because they’re searching for that next generation to come and take over those farms. And when that doesn’t happen, sometimes that land’s developed or it goes into foreclosure, but we need to get that next generation trained. And as Mary said, many of them are not coming from farm backgrounds, so the capital cost that they confront is just unbearable, and then on top of it, they need the training, they haven’t grown up with the hands-on helping mom and dad all their lives training, and then they’re thrust out of college into these rural areas where they may not have broadband access. Who leaves college and goes somewhere where they can’t use their iPhone? I mean, come on.
Merrigan: So for us to transition our working lands, we also have to think about it under the broader banner of rural development.
Casey: How are we comparing globally when it comes to looking forward to the future, to the next generation of where our food comes from?
Bohman: Well, the U.S. is a wealthy country in agriculture. We have rich land, we have overall good rainfall, good climate, and we are competitive in most export markets. So I think so far I think we’ve been able to attract the capital to have research developed in the U.S. that’s fueled technology and had people to do farming. So I think right now we are a very competitive sector. Other countries are investing: you see Brazil expanding, China’s spending more on research, so it’s a dynamic environment. But through past investments and the good business sense of people, U.S. farming is quite competitive.
Merrigan: And of course you saw rural America with a significant amount of anxiety when the new administration came on, saying maybe we need to rethink NAFTA, maybe we don’t want TPP, maybe we have to rethink all of our trade agreements. And American agriculture, a lot of the profit is really coming from global trade, so you have this—some people have described it as the disappearing middle, those sort of mid-size family farms and ERS—if you’ve never gone to ERS’s website—I’m going to do your advertisement for you—there’s such an incredible wealth of information, and one of my favorite things I do is called charts of note. You can sign up, and you get a chart every day in your email that gives you a nice little snapshot of American agriculture. Good advertisement?
Bohman: Yeah, I’ll pay you afterwards, yeah.
Merrigan: So there’s just this kind of—the small size, diversified, often-times young people interested in sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, alternative ways of production, and the very large and getting larger size operation, but that middle is shrinking. And so those larger guys are really in many cases very much in the export market.
Casey: Were we underplaying during the political season the importance of agriculture exports? There’s so much focus on trying to shore up the borders and think about where we’re bringing in imports and goods from, but were we ignoring where we’re sending things like agricultural products to?
Bohman: Not in the ag community. Agriculture has, for as long as I’ve been working in the sector, since the late seventies, about 20% of what we produce is exported. It varies from year to year, but that number overall doesn’t change very much—
Casey: Did you feel like that was part of the political discussion?
Merrigan: Was agriculture part of the political discussion? So, I’m a co-chair of aGree, which is an organization trying to build consensus around food and agriculture policy reform. Former—it’s two Democrats, two Republicans who lead aGree, and we put out a paper during the campaign saying, “Hello, world, agriculture, food and agriculture,” as we say in Massachusetts, “wicked important, hello.” There was really—and I was a big support of Hillary Clinton, I think people know that—but I think all of the candidates were rather mute on food and agriculture, given its importance in our country’s livelihood.
Casey: We have a question coming in from Twitter. David is asking, “How can we reconcile the policy of ‘America First’ from the White House and the increased dependency on produce imports from Latin America?” And we can certainly also extend that out to the question of undocumented workers.
Bohman: So we are importing more produce. I think consumers want year-round fresh things like berries, which has been one of the biggest increases, but we’ve always imported a lot from Latin America off-season, and things we can’t grow, like coffee and bananas. So I don’t know. In the scheme of things it’s not hugely new, but there are some products where the growth is quite dramatic, and berries are the one that stick out in the data.
Merrigan: Yeah, you see over the last several years the trend line for imports and produce, and it’s just like this, and it’s not anything new with this administration; it’s been going on for some time. I think it screams out opportunity for young American farmers, because when you’re doing produce, doing fresh product, you can do it on smaller parcels of land, it’s a higher value crop, but you need a business plan, you need a market, you need a foot in the door. That’s why in the Obama administration, one of the things that we really put a lot of effort on was this initiative we called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” and trying to look across the many agencies at USDA and the hundreds of programs and figure out how can we help make America great again—shall I say it?—by helping these smaller farmers get into, among other things, the produce business. And some of those programs are proposed by the President’s budget to be zeroed out. I think they have a lot of support in Congress, and we’ll see if we really have to worry at the end of the day, but yeah. I think that there is a lot of opportunity to rebuild the farm sector here, and maybe this will resonate with our new President.
Casey: Agriculture has seemed to transcend political parties in many ways, you know, you’re from a state that thinks about agriculture issues and you vote accordingly or you don’t. Is that still the case? Are we seeing different divisions play out in politics and policy right now?
Bohman: From where we sit, the Economic Research Service, we think about what are the big issues coming up, and there’s a large set that doesn’t change from party to party. Interest in technology, interest in risk management for farmers, you see some consensus. But there are issues where things differ, and we see that in some of the discussions that are beginning around the next farm legislation that’ll take place in 2018 around USDA’s largest program, which is SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
Casey: Let me ask you about the politics before we move on. Do you see the political landscape changing and shifting? Are we still in that model where red state, blue state, if you’re an agriculture state you tend to vote together, you tend to think about things as a block—is that shifting?
Merrigan: It’s only been recently that it’s shifted. I worked for a lot of years on the Hill, and you really hung out with the people who are in your region, because you were, you know, representing similar crops, similar issues on the farms and ranches. So the Southerners—there were definitely caucuses, and it wasn’t D versus R. But what’s happening now I think is just more taste of the day, the politics where we have leaders on the floor of the Senate name-calling each other. I mean, I worked there back then when women weren’t allowed to wear anything but a dress and there was decorum, and so I think it’s just—part of it is just sort of the, you know, dissolution of civil discourse. And so maybe those parties loom larger in all aspects. But it has—the bipartisan nature of agriculture has been lost a little bit. And I’m not just talking since the last election, but over the last few years.
Casey: Helena’s [ph] asking on Twitter, “What can the U.S. do to combat food deserts?” Dr. Bohman, do you want to start with that one?
Bohman: Well, at ERS, we measure where food deserts are located, and it was—in terms of a food desert, you have to think about what’s important. So it’s location to a store, but it’s also do people have cars or access to a vehicle to be able to shop. We did a survey a couple of years ago, and we found that most Americans shop at not the store closest to them, but second or third closest. And so this—a food desert may mean that you don’t have anything nearby, but it also depends on your access to shop, and we don’t see huge differences in the type of stores that low income and high income Americans shop at.
Casey: Rural versus urban food deserts, basic differences there?
Bohman: Well, you have to think about, you know, in a rural setting, people are used to driving longer distances, so we measure a food desert at like a mile in an urban setting, ten miles in a rural setting, and I think the issues are very different in terms of access in those two areas.
Casey: Dr. Merrigan?
Merrigan: In fact, if I could refer to one of the charts of note recently [AUDIO DROP] school adoption in rural versus urban communities, and you might think, “Well, having local food in the school system, in the school lunch program, would be more prominent in the rural areas where food is grown more than in the urban areas. Well, in fact, the charts of note tells you quite the opposite story. And part of that is, I believe, because if you live in certain parts of this country, you can go for miles and miles and just see corn and beans, or areas where it’s not very diverse, where in a more peri-urban area you might get a lot of mixed fruit and vegetable operations and they might be doing a little bit of wheat, who knows—but the food desert issue is a tough one, and it’s a work in progress.
Bohman: And I just had one final thing that we found in our research, is that health—getting people to eat healthier diets is a challenge. All Americans, regardless of income, eat too much meat protein and too many grains and fats and not enough dairy or fruits and vegetables. So that’s everybody. So it’s not easy to get people to eat better; there’s no one solution, such as food access. There’s education information, it’s an important but hard problem.
Casey: You brought up meat. Is the rest of the world still thinking about the American diet and the heavy meat consumption here in America as something to strive for, and what is that meaning in terms of agriculture and of course sustainability?
Merrigan: There was a great article—okay, I’ll be the nerdy professor now—it was in Nature in 2014 by Tomilyn Clark—but what they did was they did the projections of what the world will look like, and they looked at it in different dietary ways, like the current diet, a pescetarian diet, a vegetarian diet, that sort of thing. And what they—they did life cycle analysis, but what they did is they really showed a shockingly scary picture of what—of where we’re headed, because I think as most people agree, as countries’ economies improve, meat consumption goes up quite a bit. And so while we are pushing in our country to lower meat consumption to make it not always the center of the plate, as our wonderful chef Dan Barber would say, make it more of a side line to the main meal, the rest of the world’s going a different way if they can. So it’s concerning.
Casey: Dr. Bohman, what does that picture look like in terms of sustainability and agriculture? Everything from providing the crops to raise animals that eventually become meat to the environmental impact and cost.
Bohman: Well, one thing we know is that the world’s population is growing, and that’s estimated to be around nine billion people by 2050, so what is that, growing by about a third. So we’ll have to on roughly the same amount of land and the same resources produce food to feed that hired population. And it won’t be in—one country’s going to produce all the food, there’ll be some trade, increase in production in different places, and it’ll take investments in research for new technology. There’s a word out there that some people like, some don’t, but I think captures this idea of sustainable intensification. We’ll have to be able to use better the resources we have and make them sustainable or able to continue producing over time to meet this food security goal.
Merrigan: And can I jump on there? I want to really underscore Mary’s point about the need for research investments, and I know we’re going to go through some rough and tumble times on the budget, but when I look at the challenges in agriculture, they’re really profound when you go beyond a couple-year timeline. There’s real excitement about the potential of capture of carbon in soil; we need more research on that. We want to figure all of that out. We have new genome editing tools; some people refer to one aspect of it as CRISPR. There’s a whole regulatory side of that we could talk about that I think we need to do. But really exciting opportunities. You’ve even got people making test tube meat. So we don’t want to assume that the status quo is always going to be the case, but we do know that as a country, we have underinvested in food and agriculture research, particularly when you look at some of our competitor countries: China, India, where have you. And I think that there’s a growing consensus among agricultural leaders that we need to do something about it, and hopefully that will happen here in the next funding bill or two.
Casey: I guess hard to say, though. I mean you say that with an optimistic, “Hopefully it may happen,” but certainly we’re not—I guess there would be a real question as to what the administration wants to invest in, what a Republican-led Congress wants to invest in, and then whether they can come to a meeting of the minds on budgets generally, much less for something like this. Do you get the sense that the Trump administration is willing to invest in agriculture and in new technologies, new developments along those lines?
Merrigan: I certainly thought it was interesting that our new Secretary, Sonny Purdue, disowned his own budget proposal, having the budget director say it was compiled, composed before he was confirmed—which is true. So he’s already signally a discomfort with what was proposed, so I know that the Secretary is a doctor of veterinary science, he is a governor, and he must have had lots of interaction with some great schools down in Georgia, some great researchers, so I am optimistic. I think it’s that important that I’m not going to be anything else.
Casey: Do we have a sense of where the United States will be in terms of global leadership in agriculture, development sustainability over the next ten years? We’re certainly seeing the Trump administration pull back on some leadership roles in the international sphere in other realms. What’s the future for our relationship with the developing world and also big agriculture countries that are pushing forward with technology? Dr. Bohman, do you have a sense of that?
Bohman: Well, I won’t speak about the politics, but we do see that it’s a global world for food and agriculture. Technologies developed in one country are quickly spread to another, and people observe how things are working and not working. Now, there’s still a great disparity in the yields, like how much corn you get per acre in Africa versus the U.S., so there’s a lot of room for technical assistance, including colleagues that I have in the ag research service are working with countries around the world to improve their technology and learn things that’ll help us better manage pests and diseases in the U.S. So right now, we’re part of a global ag system, and I do think the nature of food and agriculture and the crops we grow around the world are a big driver of keeping an international focus.
Casey: Dr. Merrigan?
Merrigan: I will say, one of the heartbreaking things for me in the President’s budget proposal was zeroing out the McGovern-Dole Program. That to me was a perfect moment of bipartisanship, of great men who had visions, and it’s a really important program around the world, particularly for girls—
Casey: What does the program do?
Merrigan: Sorry. It helps—it’s a school lunch program for other countries that we invest in. And so I think that as we move forward in a new administration, I was in an international meeting the day the Paris decision was announced—I was one of three or four Americans in a room full of 50 people from around the world—we do need to be thinking about our stature as a global leader and what’s really at jeopardy when we make some of these one-off decisions.
Casey: I can’t let you go without addressing some news of the day. Our colleague Caitlin Dewey who you’ll see on stage in just a few minutes reported earlier today that the FDA has announced it’s delaying indefinitely the launch of these nutrition fact labels, which are showing calorie count in big bold letters, giving information about added sugars. What happens next with this?
Merrigan: It’s just kicking the can down the road, as I understand it, in terms of the implementation date. There’s no news from FDA as to when it will have to finally go into effect, the new nutrition fact label, but the reality is there are big companies and grocery manufacturers association that are ready to meet the 2018 deadline that was originally expected, and they may go forward and do it. Right now is a time when we’re seeing industry step up in a way that we’ve never seen before. They’re hearing from their consumers, their customers, that they want different products in the marketplace, different levels of transparency and identity preservation, and the companies want to deliver for them.
Casey: Dr. Bohman?
Bohman: I think Kathleen talked about a lot of the issues. We see information that consumers want, and what should be on a label and what role should the government play I think is an emerging issue. We saw that last year with the legislation to have some disclosure on genetically engineered seeds. So I see that as a really interesting research issue that we’ll be working on for several years.
Casey: Dr. Merrigan, do you think that GMO could be rolled into this in some way? Do you think that this gives big companies more time to fight labeling? What is this window—who does this window give an opportunity to?
Merrigan: I don’t think it’s a good thing, I don’t think—yes, there is some thought that maybe part of the logic to this is providing enough window to USDA to figure out how they’re going to implement the GMO labeling rule. I know Secretary Vilsack and his top staff were working really as much as they could on that in the last administration, but they didn’t get across the finish line, so maybe part of this is they sync up and maybe it all comes together in 2021 or something like that. But we’re all just betting people right now, speculating until we hear more from FDA.
Casey: Dr. Merrigan, Dr. Bohman, thank you so much; that’s all we have time for.
Merrigan: Thank you.
Bohman: Thank you.
Casey: And we’ll have my colleague Caitlin Dewey up next. Thank you.
Dewey: All right, are we ready?
M: If we’re here, we’re ready.
Dewey: Hello everyone, my name is Caitlin Dewey; I’m the food policy reporter here at The Washington Post, and with me on stage today we have some really wonderful guests. We have Ken Cook, who is the President and Co-founder, Environmental Working Group; Dr. Marty Matlock, who’s in the middle there: he is the executive director of the University of Arkansas’ Office for Sustainability; he is also a professor of ecological engineering in the University’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department; and on the end we have Veronica Nigh; she’s an economist at the American Farm Bureau Foundation—Federation—what is it?
Nigh: Federation, but we do have a Foundation, so it’s fair.
Dewey: Federation, thank you. I work with you guys all the time, so it’s shameful that I don’t know what your acronym stands for. A reminder to everyone that you can tweet your questions and comments to us using the hashtag #postlive; I have this handy iPad here, so I’ll be checking that, and we’ll be sure to ask the panelists any of the questions you guys may have.
So here we are, we’re talking about food security and sustainability over the next 30, 50, 100 years. A figure that we tend to see all the time in our field, right, is that by 2050 we’ll need to feed nine billion people; how in the world are we going to do that with all of these enormous challenges that we face? And you guys represent some different perspectives and disciplines looking at that question. So I wanted to ask each of you to kick off what you would sort of consider to be a top policy priority for addressing those challenges, you know, how are we going to sustainably feed so many new people. Veronica, you want to start? Ladies first.
Nigh: Sure. [LAUGHS] Well, I think from the farmers’ perspective, we represent about six million members; we’re a general farm organization that has membership in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. I think from the overarching wish or our members is for there to be enough policy room for multiple food systems to be able to work together. You can’t solve all food issues with one particular policy perspective; it’s going to take a lot of different systems working together, I think, in order to solve some of the issues that we have in the United States, which are different than issues we have in other countries. And then there’s issues that sort of run the gauntlet across all countries. So making sure that we aren’t so proscribed in how we do things that we lose the ability to be flexible and serve different consumers.
Dewey: A very Farm Bureau view, I like it.
M: Very Farm Bureau.
Dewey: We’ll go to the good doctor next.
Matlock: Certainly. When we talk about food security, we’re really talking about access—persistent access, reliable access to nutritious, quality food in a way that is valuable to the community, to the family, to the people who are consuming it. So we have to separate—I think we need to separate affluent food consumption from what I will call subsistent food consumption, the food that’s necessary to sustain the body. And we have to recognize that we still have 890 million of our brothers and sisters who are chronically malnourished in the world today. And the prospect that that’s going to get lower as a number in the next 30 years is pretty dim. We’re now experiencing one of the worst famines in Sudan and Somalia and other parts of Africa that we’ve seen since World War II, yet we are mostly blissfully ignorant of it, unlike [ph] previous famines. Famine is amongst us now, and it is expanding, as a function of policy, political action dysfunction as well as climate change; the fact is, climate change is driving food scarcity around the planet and will continue to disrupt food supplies around the planet.
So let’s separate prosperity food consumption, because those of us who have money can always buy from those who are on the edge, on the margins. So when we talk about food security, we really need to focus there, because that’s where children die. That’s where people suffer. Our challenge, I think, is to understand that those of us who live in the prosperous economies of the world don’t understand the difficulties of what it means to go to bed hungry, to wake up with your children hungry and not know where their food’s going to come from. Aldo Leopold, in the introduction to San County Almanac said, “We could little about conservationism, we could little worry about these things natural until we didn’t have to worry about where our breakfast came from.” So if we care about the natural world, if we care about biodiversity, we have to care about making sure that those least among us are fed, and that’s the challenge of food security in the 21st century.
Cook: I agree with my colleagues on the panel, and just to weave it together maybe a little bit, you do need a diverse approach into thinking about policy, in part because of the two—at least two very different perspectives on sustainability, and you know, if you had to put your finger on one issue that would probably be central to attacking the general problem of hunger now in the world, it’s income inequality; it’s not the fact that we don’t have the food, we have excessive amounts of certain grains and other commodities now, we have petitioners before Congress asking for income transfers from taxpayers to farmers because we’ve grown too much of certain things, produced too much of certain things in this country, and there are examples of that elsewhere in the developed world. But in those countries where poverty makes it impossible for people to have the power to purchase food, that requires something more than just technology or even food policy per se; it really requires economic policy and an understanding that we have an integrated economy around the world, to a degree, but we have these vast populations in developing countries, and they really are not going to be able to take advantage of the type of food supply that is being built even now if they don’t have the income to do it. I mean, famines—you know, Nobel Prize was awarded for this—famines are caused by not the unavailability of food but by hoarding and other practices that come about because of income inequality, and famines—at least in India and elsewhere—tend to happen in rural areas where there’s food.
Dewey: Interesting. Yeah, I think Mark Bittman put it best: he said, “The question isn’t how to feed the nine billion, it’s how to end poverty.” Right? It sounds like what you guys are saying, yeah.
M: That’s exactly right.
Matlock: Could I just clarify that I agree absolutely with what my colleague said, but we have to recognize in every county in the United States, we have food insecurity. And in our southern states, other than Arkansas, in our southern states, we have some counties where we have 30% of the households who are food insecure, based on the definition I gave, which we would apply generally to a developing country. That’s in the United States.
Cook: Quite so.
Dewey: That’s incredible. You know, I know you guys mentioned climate change in passing. We have a question from the Good Food Institute on Twitter. They said, “How do you guys think technology can be used to address the environmental problems of animal agriculture,” is what they said, since that’s their interest issue, but I’m going to say, how about agriculture, industrial agriculture more generally? I mean, what sort of solutions does technology offer for things like greenhouse gas emissions, runoff, all those things?
Nigh: I’ll start again, if you guys let me. It’s always dangerous to give someone a microphone in D.C. But I think what we’ve been seeing the last several—well, actually since the beginning of agriculture, is that we’re always striving to improve technology, to use our resources better. And that continues today. Think about irrigation is an excellent example. A few decades ago, we did a lot of overhead spray irrigation, and today you see increased adoption of drip irrigation line to utilized those scarce resources better and to grow more with the resources that we have. And what I’d mention in that space, though, is that a lot of the technologies that have come out over the past some-odd years are quite expensive. And it takes a certain—it takes a certain level of income and revenues from a farm to be able to support the purchase of those type of technologies. It was mentioned in the last panel that we need to continue to increase agricultural research, and I think you see that as a need both in the small holder space in the United States and around the world. The different technologies don’t fit every farm the same. So, continuing to address additional research in all of those spaces is helpful.
Precision technology is something that our members have been very excited about over the years, things like GPS tracking, which is more precise on our tractors than it is on our phone—and it got me to the Post today really easy, so imagine how good that tractor is—that it allows us to make sure that we’re applying the right amount of product to the correct soil, to understand really all the agronomic needs of an individual plant, individual rows, rather than doing sort of this broad stroke application of resources. So that’s something that we’re going to try to continue to do. We need public research, we need private research in order to meet the needs all across the space.
Matlock: If you want to see how technology has dramatically changed agriculture since 1984—I’m quite a bit older than that, so well into my lifetime and my professional career—go to FieldtoMarket.com, the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. Field to Market’s a multi-stakeholder collection of conservation organizations and agricultural producers and allied industries. We’ve been analyzing these processes using life cycle assessment for the last several years. Look at their national report, and you’ll see that in many cropping systems, we’ve reduced erosion by 30 to 40%, in some case 60%, over the 40 years, 35, 40 years. We’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions per unit of area and per unit crop produced. We’ve gotten a lot better, largely because the things that we’re trying to make better, we have to pay for. They have value, they have economic value. What’s happening now is that our agriculture community is engaging with her conservation organizations and other civil society organizations to identify what other things that are non-monetized we need to make better.
I work with the metrics group for the U.S. roundtable for sustainable beef production, and we’re looking at how beef producers can manage water quality on the lands, can manage biodiversity on the lands, can reduce soil erosion on the land, and increase efficiency in production. So that’s happening today, and it’s not a federal agency leading this, it’s not a federal government initiative; this is all farmer-led, producer-led, supply chain-led initiatives. But to give a foreshadow, a shout out to the coming panel, the one that comes up after us in the next 20 minutes, it doesn’t matter how efficient you are at the production in getting products to the consumers table, if they throw 40% of it away once they get it. 40%. So I don’t care how technologically advanced we become, if we throw almost half of it away at the end. It’s all a waste.
Cook: No, again, I think that’s right. You know, it is difficult to talk about climate change in some agricultural settings; just the politics have bled into it and it’s become a topic that unfortunately is not seen at this stage in some circles as a scientific or environmental discussion, as a political one. So I hope we can continue to make progress there, and I think probably the best way to make progress might be to talk about the other benefits of the technologies we’re talking about, whether it’s improving yields, reducing the area that we need; whether it’s food waste, which, some of it’s a technological fix; some of it’s a behavioral changes that we need to get used to, and if we have a tightening of the economy, that’s the fastest way for people to learn how to not waste food. But I think from the technology standpoint, the place where I feel like we’re investing poorly is in the technologies that will help some of these developing countries make a difference where they are in providing food production. We’re just not on the same path we were some decades ago.
There have been criticisms of the green revolution, and I agree with some of them, but there was a much stronger presence in international agricultural research for small holder and large operations alike a couple of decades ago, and that has withered for lack of support, beyond the point where I think we have the ability we need to have to develop not necessarily, you know, very highly sophisticated and expensive technology, but some basic things like plant breeding for localized conditions and education of farmers in proper soil nutrition and so forth. So we’ve really short-changed ourselves there; that’s going to hamper us.
Dewey: This is sort of fascinating, and maybe it’s a product of how I framed the question, but I have three agricultural people up here, and none of you mentioned biotechnology. I mean, is it going to be possible to address some of these environmental challenges while increasing yields without the help of genetically engineered and genetically edited crops. You’re already shaking your head; jump in for me.
Matlock: We’ve been biotechnologically modifying crops by selective breeding for 10,000 years. We are using—we used pretty crude tools in the nineties; we now have very explicit tools now. And there’s risks with every change we make, whether it’s cross-breeding a plant, whether it’s hybridizing a plant—hybrid corn was a disruption in agricultural production in the 1920s and ‘30s. The notion that you couldn’t save your seed corn from hybrid corn and grow them the next year because they wouldn’t; they’re of two hybrids, they won’t produce. So that was an absolute abomination until the benefits of hybrid corn emerged for the producers. So we are facing an opportunity and a challenge with understanding and communicating the benefits and the risks and managing the benefits and risks—and Dr. Merrigan addressed this in the previous panel—of this new technology, CRISPR technology among others, of gene editing. We’re not going to be able to create crop that can grow food without water. That’s just silly. Or without nutrients. That’s just silly. But we can do is we can increase disease resistance, we can increase drought resistance so their yield penalties are less. We can do things in the margin that take the edge off the risk for the producers.
But let’s go back to this issue also of the small-scale producer in eastern Africa. If we can take her farm—it’s almost always “her”—if we can take her two hectares of corn and we can double her yield—double her yield—we have made her now transition from a subsistence producer to an economic marketplace producer, which means she has extra. Extra so that her children can go to school. Extra so that she can buy equipment, irrigation equipment perhaps, or better heating, a different stove for cooking in the house. That’s the way you move people from—using land-based prosperity from poverty to prosperity—from the land. You don’t do it by vilifying the technology in the toolbox. The toolbox is just a toolbox. A hammer is an incredibly good tool or a weapon, depending on how it’s used.
Cook: Well, I mean I think that’s right. Just as the tools that were fashioned in the first generation of agricultural biotechnology were pretty coarse, pretty crude, so is the policy framework that we erected around it, and it still is. CRISPR’s come along, but it’s operating fundamentally in that same dilapidated, outmoded, to me underregulated policy environment. That, I think, has led to some unnecessary debates, problems, questions about technologies that could be resolved—maybe not to everybody’s satisfaction—if we had, I think, the regulatory framework we need for agricultural biotechnology. You know, the debate of recent years has been over a very narrow question, fundamentally, of whether you should label, but to me the deeper question is, are we really being as responsible as we need to be, knowing that these technologies are coming online, and from what we look like at Environmental Working Group, we’ve concluded that the regulatory system really comes up short. But there’s not much support right now for upgrading it in a significant way.
M: But it’s a new world, isn’t it.
M: It’s a very new world.
Nigh: To that point, obviously we have a lot of members who are producing biotechnology—crops from biotechnology. We have a lot of members who aren’t producing crops from biotechnology. But—and there’s been a lot of environmental benefits that have come as a result of biotech; we’re applying different, softer chemicals than we used to; we’re applying lower levels of lots of them. And as science continually is pretty conclusive that biotechnology is—crops produced with biotechnology are just as safe as those that are not produced with biotechnology, but I think we spend a lot of time in that space, and for good reason: safety’s important, and I’m glad we reiterate that message, but something that’s really important that gets lost in that is all the opportunity to solve issues that are still out there that we haven’t been able to fix with other technologies or with other practices.
I’ll give the example of papayas in Hawaii, that were almost wiped out before biotechnology allowed that to continue to grow to fight off the natural bug and pressures it was under. Or think about oranges in Florida that are currently under significant pressure because of citrus greening. We’ve tried the tools that we already have. Certainly farmers are very aware of the tools that they have at their disposal, and they’ve been trying them on their own, they’ve been funding research at their universities, we’ve certainly been trying. So why not look at this new technology as a mean to solve some of these longstanding issues that we have.
Dewey: Let me pivot away from the policy for a minute and ask you guys something that I think is on the minds of a lot of consumers who are concerned about these issues, and that is, “How do I need to change my diet to benefit the environment? If I want to support a sort of sustainable food system, agricultural model, should I be subsisting entirely on cricket flour right now, I mean, what are the sort of prospects that—”
M: Well, there are other bugs, so—[LAUGHTER]
Dewey: What else do we got?
Cook: No, no. [LAUGHTER] Well, I mean I think the advice that benefits the environment is in many ways the same advice that benefits your health. Eating less, eating lower on the food chain, basically—more of your diet coming from plants—seems to me to be eminently sensible and better for the environment. Doesn’t guarantee we’ll solve environmental problems; it doesn’t guarantee it will solve health problems for an individual, but most of the evidence lines up pretty well that if you do that, you’re going to be a healthier person. I think most people, if they have the biometric profile of the average American and they have a doctor who says you’re eating just the right amount of meat, they need a new doctor. We really do need to understand that and embrace that. There’s a lot of cultural history and behavioral momentum to continue the diets we have, and that’s continuing to cause problems, but I think if we step back—I know growing up I had two uncles who were cattlemen, we always had a freezer full of beef, I loved it. I still do. Yes, I eat meat. But I eat a lot less of it—a lot less of it than I used to, and I think that kind of moderation is exactly the direction that probably we need to be headed as a society.
Matlock: Grow your own food. I don’t care if you live in an apartment; put a window box in with some herbs. Grow your own food. You’ll find out a couple of things: how hard it is; how frustrating it is, especially when the squirrels take those green tomatoes that you’ve been watching just before they’re ready to harvest; you find out just how hard those producers who give you that bounty in your grocery store that you take for granted work to put it there and recognize that the stuff in the grocery store is about 40% of what came off the field—that’s how much waste we have before it gets to your grocery store, especially in fresh produce. And so you realize just how hard it is, how valuable it is, how much time and effort it takes, and you’ll be a little more forgiving of that blemish on the squash, because you’ve grown it yourself, and you know that blemish doesn’t mean a thing; it’s still incredibly good food. So grow your own food. If you’re not growing your own food, shut up.
Nigh: I don’t grow my own food, but can I go?
Nigh: Because I can’t grow anything. I’ve tried.
M: She’s an economist.
Nigh: One—something that I would mention in this space is that there’s no unicorns and there’s no unicorn food. There’s nothing—there’s no food system out there that’s going to do everything for you that you want. I would make a list of the things that are important to you. I would make a list of—I want this, I want it to this, I want it to that. Some of it might be in the environmental space, some of it might be on the animal welfare side, some of it might be more along who’s growing my food. And make a list there, and then try to sort of source your food that meets those goals, because I think oftentimes what we have a tendency to do is to conflate issues, that because something is—eggs are cage-free they’re somehow healthier, or because it’s organic it’s somehow this or that, and I think Dr. Merrigan last panel said there’s this sort of push and pull of organic has to mean small. It doesn’t, but making a list of all of those things, I think will actually help you—help consumers figure out what they actually want their food to achieve. And then realize that—I am an economist—there are tradeoffs in all things, and that that unicorn food probably doesn’t exist, so figuring out that you yourself have to give and take would go a long way to us all figuring out how our food systems can all interact.
M: But if you find a unicorn, I think cricket flour would be the way to go.
M: It’s pretty tasty too.
Dewey: I think Starbucks has invented a Unicorn Frappuccino, if I’m not mistaken. [LAUGHTER] So the last thing I wanted to ask you guys about, you know, we’re obviously at a very, let’s say interesting political moment right now, policy moment. And I’m sort of curious, and you can diverge from the topic of food security sustainability, what have you—what, from your perspective, is going to be the biggest food and agricultural storyline of the next four years? What’s an issue that you’re watching really closely.
Nigh: I’m going to let someone else start; I’m going cleanup on this one.
M: I’ll start. All right. The biggest storyline is that governments aren’t driving the changes and innovations we’re seeing in agriculture. That civil society organizations working with producers are, the supply chains are, that retailers are, that the entire agricultural supply chain has an awareness that it’s all connected and it’s all changing, and that the risks are all interconnected. And so supply chains, branded consumer product companies recognize that that box that they sell you with their brand on it may have sourcing from 72 different countries, and they may not know what’s all going into that box, but their reputation is tied to it, and so they’re learning, because they’ve got to manage their reputation. And so what that means is there’s an opportunity to have a supply chain wide full scale sustainability discussion about our food and its implications on people’s health when they produce it, when they process it, when they consume it. And on ecosystem services, ecosystem processes as well as on economic, the profitability of our farmers. That’s all driven by an awareness of risk at the consumer packaged goods company and throughout the supply chain, not by governments. So the good news is, the government doesn’t matter in this space. It will continue in spite of what happens in the government.
Dewey: That is good news; thank you.
M: Do you want to go second?
Nigh: I’ll go third. Thanks.
M: Fair enough. Now there’s no question—and our previous panelists spoke to it too, I thought very well—there’s no question that the rules of the game are changing. I mean, policy’s not made it used to be made. There’s also no question, I think, that the private sector, for the companies that are consumer-facing, which many farmers, I think, this is one of the issues we have to work on together to fix—many farmers are not consumer-facing and haven’t been for generations now. That didn’t used to be the case, but it became the case with commodity agriculture. That’s a missed opportunity, I think, for—and a great source of misunderstanding—that’s hard to fix as long as farmers don’t have that interaction. Consumers don’t either; I think it goes both ways. I do think policy’s more important in some areas, though. I think it’s—I’m looking at the upcoming Farm Bill debate that’s already underway; I’m very worried about the overall dimensions of our budget situation, some of the proposals that are out there. I mean, some that came from the Administration were declared dead by the Administration within 48 hours. So I’m not sure why we went through that exercise, but if you look at some of the ideas embedded in it, they’re worrisome. I think big cuts to the SNAP program is a big deal. I think the fact that we’re a couple billion dollars short in the money that we would need to continue some very important farm bills forward, a lot of which—Kathleen alluded to it, a lot of which deal with sustainable agriculture—these are big issues, and we’re going to have to work together to try and resolve them. And there have been times when we’ve worked together well, if you will, the agriculture community and folks in civil society, non-profits, and there have been times when we haven’t worked together so well. I’m hoping this is going to be a time where for a variety of reasons we come together and recognize that we’ve got a lot more to lose than if we work together we can turn that loss into some gain.
Nigh: Thanks. And I’d point out that we are the middle panel of this whole dialogue, and what we heard in the first panel was very much policy-driven, and I think what we’re going to hear in the third panel is very much from the business perspective, and we very much operate in the space of being—my members are those who are operating businesses that are impacted both by consumer driven policy and by government policy. At the same time, over the last three years, net farm income has fallen by almost half. So there’s a lot of constraints going on in our industry as far as the ability to respond to trends and to consumer demands, government demands, and then also having the end that farm agriculture can’t be sustainable if farmers aren’t sustainable, and part of farmers being sustainable is staying in business. And I think we—that’s always been the problem, that’s always been the agricultural problem. We have ups and downs in our prices. That doesn’t go away, unfortunately, but moving into the next decade and beyond, it’s how do we do a better job of getting closer to a solution where we’re moving towards the social and the consumer changes but also making sure that farmers are also there at the table and helping to solve the problem and staying in business in the short, medium, and long term.
Dewey: Well, Veronica, you got the last word there, and it was a good one. That’s all the time we have for today, but thank you so much to all three of you for being part of this conversation.
Bayer Sponsored Segment:
Wyant: Well, good afternoon. I’m Sara Wyant; I’m the editor and president of Agri-Pulse Communications, and I’d like to thank The Washington Post and Bayer for sponsoring this portion of the event. I know we’ve had a lot of discussions so far about food systems and transformations, and I thought it would be really, really wonderful for you all to hear from somebody who is at the heart of any food system, and that is a farmer. So we have an eighth generation farmer here with us, Kyle Tom [ph] from Indiana, and he’s here to share with you some of the different transformations that have occurred in his farming operation. But before we do that, and I know the lights might make this a little difficult, so you have to raise your hand high, but I want to build on something that Marty even mentioned, because whenever we start talking about food systems and food and farm policy, I find it quite unique to discover how many people have actually tried to grow a crop that you can eat or grow a crop that can be fed to chickens or hogs or cattle so that we can all have high-quality protein. So if any of you in the room have done that, would you raise your hand? Good mix. Excellent.
Well, so you all already have a head start on this, but one of the things that I found interesting as Kyle and I were having our discussions is how much transformation has already taken place in agriculture, especially between our generations. I’d like to be his generation, but let’s face it, I’ve got a couple of generations on him or so, and when I grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa, we had a lot different experience. My dad didn’t have even a cab on his tractor or his combine, so there was a lot of sweat, there was a lot of dust. I have less than fond memories of some summers with my brother and two sisters with a hoe and a corn knife trying to hack weeds out of a soybean field. And our livestock certainly weren’t in climate-controlled sorts of facilities. And so heaven forbid there’s a day like today when it’s so incredibly hot outside or a blizzard that might show up.
And I travel around the country a lot, and so I’m blessed to see the different advances that have been made in farming and how technology—this is a friend of mine in Iowa, Mark Jackson, who’s planting his soybeans into a rye [ph] cover crop. We’re seeing a lot of different changes, and so what I’d like to do is show you about the time that Kyle was starting farming, he just has an incredible photo that his folks found not too long ago—just a cute little blonde there—he had hair and his dad, to my folks’ envy had a cab on his tractor, so you were starting out then and Kyle, just tell our group about how technology has changed in your career.
Tom: Well, if you look at where we came from and where we’re going to in the future, yeah, like Sara said, cabs weren’t exactly prominent in the era of the forties and fifties—finally got into the sixties. And now we have tractors that actually drive themselves; we have planters that can actually detect the soil and will put the correct seed into the soil approximately an inch and a half to two inches, just to find that right water mark and the right density of the soil. So when we’re doing—building all of our algorithms to determine the best placement of the seed and of the fertilizers, we’re looking at all these different advancements, we’re doing soil testing and whatnot, so we’re looking at thirteen different levels and we’re building our algorithms accordingly so we can inject those into the tractor software, and the tractor automatically—by itself, no touching of anybody—will automatically put it into the ground. And where we used to have to go four and a half miles an hour, we now have high-speed planters we can run ten miles an hour, and that is unheard of, and it puts in the seed exactly where it needs to be. It needs to be about six to eight inches from each other; that way the roots get the soil and they’re not competing against each other. So it is spot-on, and when everybody talks about, we’re doing this per acre, well, what we look at, at Tom Farms is per inch. So we’re very technology proficient in what we’re doing.
Wyant: That’s just an amazing change that we’ve seen in the last couple of decades. There’s a photo that you can see of the operation, and then this is Kyle driving in his tractor part of the time, because it’s so automated, but the technology is so advanced now, it’s almost like you’re a space-age food pilot out there. Tell us, how many acres can you plant of corn and soybeans in a day?
Tom: Well, on average, it takes 21 days for our farming operation to plant an entire crop. This year, with the rain that we had, it took 37. But on average, we can plant anywhere from 13- to 1400 acres of corn a day, and roughly about six to seven hundred acres of soybeans. So we try to get things done very quick, very efficiently, so we have minimal downtime. But like you said, according to the weather, it doesn’t always work out.
Wyant: Right. And certainly this was a year for the record books in terms of strange weather, a lot of moisture that you faced there. Do you think people understand that farming is really a business now and just a lifestyle?
Tom: Well, I wish I could say it’s a lifestyle, but it’s not. It’s a business right now, and what we’re looking at, I’m looking at my three boys that are wanting to come back to the farm, the next generation, that ninth generation to come back. We have to look at, we are no different than, say, The Washington Post. It changes constantly. The technology in advertising changes constantly, so why shouldn’t farming and the technology in farming change as well?
Wyant: Absolutely. So tell us a little bit about your application not only of seeds, nutrients, and crop protection chemicals, how that has changed. As you mentioned, it’s not really an acre, it’s such a minute amount, so I think people maybe overestimate what’s happening.
Tom: Okay, so we do put chemicals on the ground, on the plants. Bare crop science, they have a chemical called Stratego YLD, it’s a fungicide. It takes two ounces per acre. Can you imagine that? Think of your 16-ounce drink. Imagine spreading that over an acre, how minimal that is. So we as farmers are not dousing chemicals—dousing these plants in chemicals. We are—we do farm GMOs at Tom Farms, but there are so many different farmers out there that are non-GMO that are all organic; we need them as well to help grow and feed this growing world.
Wyant: And you also shared with us some photos of different varieties of corn that you have raised, both those that are non-GMO versus GMO; tell us a little bit about why you see advantages in genetic modification, that, as Marty pointed out, has been going on for years with less technology.
Tom: Right. So if you look back into the fifties and sixties, if you said you had 70-bushel yield, that was almost unheard-of. Now we’re pushing the envelope, due to GMOs, we’re pushing three- to three hundred and fifty bushels per acre for the yield, and that’s what we get paid on, is per yield. And so we want the biggest ear of corn, and on 40,000 population plants per acre, so because that’s what we get paid on, we are looking for the biggest ear. And so if you farm a non-GMO product or an organic product, most likely the ear’s not going to be near as large, and so there is a market out there for it, but where we’re at in Indiana, there’s no market.
Wyant: Well, certainly there’s tradeoffs. I think some of the previous speakers mentioned that, between price and yield and what you can get from unique crops versus others, but it does come down to be economically sustainable in order to be sustainable in a lot of other ways. Tell us a little bit about how federal regulations have impacted your ability to not only access these new technologies, but to move ahead with advancements on your operation.
Tom: [SIGHS] Okay. So if you look at Bayer, they invest a little bit, a little bit less than two billion dollars per year on R&D. Monsanto does right at two billion dollars. If you take all of the R&D in the agriculture business in the agriculture sector, that’s still less than Samsung does globally. And so it takes ten years from thought to conception to birth—ten years for that product to come out, if it gets approved worldwide. There’s 500 different regulatory agencies that have to approve of a single gene to be signed off, and for us as farmers to use it so we can then feed, clothe, and fuel the world.
Wyant: And that’s an immense [ph]—because it’s not just the United States you need regulatory approval, right? All these other countries around the globe, and as we’ve found, they don’t always do it at the same time.
Wyant: So I think it’s been interesting to see just the changes that you’ve made and for everybody to appreciate that we should be thanking not only those of you who are growing your own food but thanking farmers like Kyle every day and appreciating the fact that there have been great transformations in U.S. and global agriculture, so thank you Kyle for your time, and it’s our time now to turn it back over to The Washington Post for the next panel discussion. Thank you.
Carman: So welcome. Wow, that’s loud. I am Tim Carman. I’m a food writer with The Washington Post, and I’m honored to moderate this panel. We have a very distinguished panel. On my far left it’s Spike Mendelsohn. He’s a chef, restaurateur, author. He is also chair of the D.C. Food Policy Council, an organization that works with regulatory and private organizations involved in the local food economy. Next to Spike is Evan Lutz, the CEO and cofounder of Hungry Harvest and also the other one to wear a jacket today. [LAUGHTER] Hungry Harvest is a fresh produce delivery service committed to tackling food waste and hunger. And to my immediate left is Seth Goldman. He is the cofounder and current—let me, if I get this correct—TEO [ph] emeritus of Honest Tea. Groan. [LAUGHTER] He also serves as the executive chairman of Beyond Meat—we’ll talk about that later—a company committed to replacing animal protein with plant protein.
So our subject, as you know, is the future of food, and, Seth, let’s turn straight to you. You are dealing with it with your new company, Beyond Meat, which we’ve written about. And I’ve tasted Beyond Meat. It’s amazing. I mean, it is a plant-based product that mimics a hamburger, and it has juices, and it tastes beefy. It has a texture, like if—most vegetarian burgers, they don’t have the texture. And you managed to create this. Tell us a little bit about the product.
Goldman: Sure. Sure. So, yeah, I’ve been a vegetarian for 13 years. And I’ve always felt like the veggie burger was the consolation prize, kind of the—in fact, if you had wanted to come up with a strategy to discourage people from being vegetarian, the veggie burger would be a great strategy, because it’s consistently dissatisfying. [LAUGHTER] And so at Beyond Meat we started, we did an MRI of a hamburger and said, “Let’s understand the structure at a deeper level,” rather than just put a bunch of plants together. And, “How are the fats connected to the proteins? And how are they interlaced in a way that preserves the moisture of it?” So it’s really very science-driven. But then we use all the components that are from the plant kingdom.
So, you know, meat is basically an assembly of fats, proteins, water, and some minerals. All of those exist in the plant kingdom. And through lots of trial and error and science, we managed to put them together in a way that still meets Whole Foods [ph] standards around natural ingredients. And it’s the first product that is able to be merchandized in the meat section at Whole Foods. And that’s really the change. Right? So if you want to sell to vegetarians, the 5% of the population that are the committed folks, you sell in the freezer. If you want to reach everybody else, you sell in the meat section. And if the product warrants that then it’s a great opportunity to change the diet, to expose more people to plant protein, and to be part of the spectrum of choice when people are thinking about a cookout.
Carman: Well, and let me remind—I know we’ve got a short amount of time, but if you do have questions, please send them to the hashtag #PostLive and we’ll try to get to them. I wanted to follow up, because I think it’s interesting and I think the whole conference this afternoon has given you people plenty of reasons not to eat red meat given the damage to the environment and to health to a certain degree. But does it take a processed vegetable product to get people to eat our vegetables?
Goldman: Yeah. Well, it was funny. So when I told my cofounder from Honest Tea, Barry Nalebuff, I told him I was going to get more involved with Honest Tea, he said, “Well, wouldn’t it be better if people just ate lentil salads and sort of made their own food?” And I said, “Well, Barry, yes. And of course it would be ideal if everyone could brew their own tea at home and bring it around in thermoses, but we’ve made a pretty viable business around brewing tea, organic tea, for them.” And so you have to—when we’re talking about changing the diet, you’ve got to meet people where they are. And so people right now are—the burger is the single biggest protein occasion there is for people, American consumers. So let’s meet that occasion, and let’s perfectly replicate it so that there isn’t a—
The more you ask people to change their behavior, the harder you are going to have being able to access them. So let’s make it as accessible as we can. And, yes, there is a process to it. But, frankly, hamburger meat goes through a process as well. Right? The cow has two different acid tanks. It’s got a lot of other compounds and chemicals that go into it. So it’s a question of which process you are willing to go with.
Carman: You know, I guess I would wonder what’s the energy amount necessary to make like a pound of Beyond Meat versus—
Goldman: So we are in the process of looking at that in a really systematic way. But just think about it this way. What it takes to feed—to create a pound of beef is 14 months’ worth of grains and water to feed a cow. And of the cow, maybe 40% of it is usable and convertible into that final product, so there’s a lot of waste. With our plants, we’re using probably less than what a cow eats in a week or maybe even in a day and converting that into protein, so a dramatically different environmental footprint.
Carman: Well, speaking of waste, that leads into actually both Evan and Spike are dealing with food waste. But, Evan, let’s start with you. You’ve started a company dedicated to it. And I understand this grew out of sort of a college experience for you.
Lutz: It did. Yeah, so I went to the University of Maryland. Both of my parents went to Maryland, my aunts, my uncles; even my grandma went to Maryland, so it runs really deep in my family. And when I was there I started working for this organization called Food Recovery Network. And basically they take leftover dining hall food that would normally get thrown away at the end of the day, use student volunteers to drive down to a partner agency such as a food bank or another nonprofit.
We got approached by a supplier of surplus fruits and vegetables, which I had no idea that they were really going to waste at the time. I was a senior in college. This was October 2013. They had the supply of excess products from farms, and they wanted us to sell them to college students. I said, “Sure. Why not?” I did it for an internship for Food Recovery Network. I also used it as a class project. It was this little farm stand I set up in the basement of my dorm and sold five pounds of product for five bucks. All of it otherwise would have gone to waste.
The first week I started, we had 10 students come up and buy from us. And the next week it was 20. The next week it was 30, and then it was 40. The weather got nice; we moved outside to stamp [ph]. Then it was 50, 100, 300, 500, so it was really becoming a viable business. This was May 2014. My entire life all I’ve ever wanted to do was start a social business and a business that not only made money but also gave back to the community in some way. So May 2014 I turned that model of that little farm stand that we started just basically in my dorm into Hungry Harvest. And today we deliver all over the Mid-Atlantic surplus or ugly or recovered produce that would otherwise be thrown away because of its odd size or shape or because of logistical inefficiencies.
I can go on and on about why produce goes to waste. The reasons are absolutely ludicrous. So, for example, blueberries that a grocery store orders in six-ounce cases actually arrive in 4.4-ounce cases, and they’ll kick [ph] the entire load. And then all of a sudden whoever contracted the freight has to get rid of that produce somewhere. Right? Oftentimes it’ll either wind up in the landfill or be sold as animal feed. It’s just not a proper use of produce when it was just a 1.6-ounce difference in the case. I don’t think that’s a really proper reason for food to go to waste.
Other reasons are kale stems. We have a farmer down in Florida who the first crop of kale that he grows every single year actually the stems are way too soft to sell. And so normally he would just leave them in the field or actually, even worse, just leave them on the side of a road somewhere. Right? But we were able to procure them and actually rescue them from going to waste.
So there are ridiculous reasons why produce goes to waste, and it’s not because it’s bad or moldy or rotten. It gets that way because nobody eats it. Right? And so we’re working towards the way-back end of the value chain right where it’s grown and right in the wholesalers where we can cover [ph] it, sell it to our customers, and also subsidize and donate produce for those in need.
Carman: So your model is to take this produce, or “seconds” [ph] as it’s often called in the business, and try to sell them at a discounted price to consumers who typically don’t buy this because it’s not pretty enough. How do you convince them? Because I’m that way too. It’s like, you know, if I see an apple that has a clear hole in it that looked like maybe there was some sort of animal living in it, I’m not going to buy it. How do you convince people to think, “Okay, I’m going to give you my money for something that I wouldn’t go buy at the local store”?
Lutz: Sure. So a couple of things. One, if you compare our box of produce to something you’d randomly pick out at a farmers market or a grocery store, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I mean, we sold apples a couple of weeks ago that had very, very small brown dots. I forgot what the term was, but small brown dots. And to the naked eye, to the untrained eye, you wouldn’t even know they would go to waste. Right?
The second thing is if you walk down a grocery store aisle, you see everything that’s the same size, the same shape, the same color. And you might wonder how did they get everything to grow the same exact way. Well, the fact is it doesn’t. There is weather; there’s different natural forces that make things grow different ways. And so if you’ve ever been to a farm, you realize that things are all different shapes and sizes. And I don’t think we should discriminate produce based on how it looks. I think that we should discriminate on how it tastes.
M: Not just produce.
Lutz: Right. And not just produce. Yeah, exactly.
M: So bite into the worm.
Carman: And how is that argument working? Do people buy it?
Lutz: People love it. You know, my true mission in life is to democratize healthy food. That means, democratize, is make accessible to everybody. So I want to make sure that everybody can have access, everybody—you know, eating healthy should be a right in this country, not a privilege. And in a county where we’re wasting six billion pounds of produce every single year, you’ve got to be kidding me that you might walk—you know, where in The Washington Post building today. If you walk three miles that way into Anacostia, you’ll see kids that have never even tasted a strawberry. And that’s a travesty to me. I think that’s a travesty. And I’ve devoted my life to making sure that we can try and solve this problem through supply and demand, through entrepreneurship. And I want to see other companies that are starting—and we are seeing other companies that are starting to jump on this ugly-produce trend and starting to sell in their grocery stores and starting to sell to consumers, which I think is a great thing that people are finally waking up and realizing that produce, it shouldn’t go to waste for these reasons I just listed. And I can go on and on about other reasons why it would go to waste.
Carman: Well, I know, Spike, you’re also involved with an app, I believe, that is dealing with food waste.
Mendelsohn: Yeah, so recently, last year I got involved with Food Rescue, which I’d like to describe them as the Uber of food waste. There’s a lot of ownership to take as small business owners, whether in your restaurants where a lot of food may go to waste if there is some leftover food or the night is over and you don’t know what to do with it. There’s a place for that food. And I think a lot of small business owners were scared of the liabilities of donating food to people that need it. Right? But I think the interesting part is in, I think, 1995 we passed the Bill Emerson Act, which actually kind of states you’re not liable if you’re gracious enough to donate your food to somebody else. So I think that’s a piece of legislation we need to revive a little bit and make a little bit more, maybe even adjust, amend, you know, to make it a little bit better.
But Food Recue app works really easy. Basically it’s volunteer based, which I really enjoy. Anybody in this room today can actually sign up, get on the app, and go do a food rescue. And they make it very easy. You know, if you have 20 minutes to spare or an hour to spare, you log onto this app, you look where there’s a food rescue available. It’s usually at a small business. We, the Pizza partake. So all of our leftover pizza we donate at the end of the day. Some volunteer comes and picks it up and takes it directly to somewhere where it’s in need where people eat it.
I participate as well. My restaurants participate in the Food Rescue app, but I as well do runs myself. You know, I find myself many times in the city where it’s five o’clock and I don’t want to drive back home because of all the traffic. I’ve got maybe 20 or half an hour to spare. I’ll just log onto the app and look for food rescue. And it’s amazing, the people on the receiving end, their smiles when you’re walking into the door with warm food that’s packaged well. And these guys are getting a really, really good meal, and it’s getting donated where otherwise it would have probably went to waste in some shape or another.
Carman: So, I’m just curious. How does food rescue subsidize its services? Where does it get its money from?
Mendelsohn: Well, that is probably not a question for me to answer, because I’m solely an advisor of the Food Rescue and a participator. So, you know, I would probably ask them.
Carman: To find out?
Carman: No, that’s my job. So I have a question from Twitter. It says, “Can waste if unfit for human consumption be a valuable asset for feeding livestock?” This may be also above our pay grade.
M: Yeah, actually a little bit of a—
M: I don’t know about yours–.
Lutz: Well, no, I mean, we don’t deal with really livestock feed. What I’m going to say is our mission shouldn’t be on—we shouldn’t be focused on reducing food waste and feeding it to livestock. We shouldn’t [ph] look further up the value chain and say, “How can we reduce it from going to waste in the first place?” Right? So it doesn’t become livestock feed. That’s where our focus should be. In the unfortunate situation that it does have to go into compost or livestock feed, I think that’s a perfectly appropriate thing for it to do if it is moldy or bad or unfit for human consumption. But our focus shouldn’t be on what to do when it gets moldy, it should be on how to prevent it from getting moldy. Right?
Mendelsohn: Yeah. I mean, I always say the cure to food waste is going to be the sum of a lot of small, gracious acts and small ideas that end up really being big and making a big impact. So for instance, like, I always challenge to people to go in their refrigerator at the end of the week and just challenge yourself to come out with—instead of ordering on an app or UberEATS or getting something delivered or going out, just challenge yourself to as a competition with family or friends, what you can create out of the fridge to make those ingredients go a long way. Because we all know, like, you pull out the drawers, you’ll get some kale that’s looking a little wilted, or you’ll get some carrots that are starting to sour or something like that. But we’ve got to prevent that, so making more use and being creative out of your refrigerator, I think, is a really great place that every single one of you can start.
Lutz: Yep. I like to call it the produce coffin, you know, that drawer you open up and after a couple of weeks everything is moldy inside. Not everything is supposed to be stored in there. Right?
Mendelsohn: Right, yeah.
Lutz: There’s lettuce, for example, everybody puts in the fridge, but actually if you put it in a vase like flowers it will actually stay a lot fresher for a couple of weeks even. And don’t even refrigerator it.
Mendelsohn: And I think that’s another part, like, the education process of what good food is and spoilage, and really having a little bit more of an idea of what all that is, is important as well.
Carman: Well, and Spike let me ask you, because we were talking yesterday about another initiative that you have been dealing with. It was like trying to get younger people involved with farming. And I was looking at some numbers today, and it’s really astounding. The age, the average age of an American farmer, it’s like—the average age is 58 years old.
Mendelsohn: It’s a dying breed right now, and that’s something that we have to fix. We have this bigger agro-farming happening. And what happened is it uninspired a lot of young farmers that came from farming families. And, you know, you grew up learning how to farm, and you look at your future and there’s no farming to do. Right? So what do you do? You move to a little bit more urban areas, you take a job that maybe wasn’t really on your path or what you wanted to do, but there’s a lot of talented people in these urban areas.
So what I was saying with you is, I feel since we’re growing more urban farms, and there’s greenhouses and there’s more plots of land to use, and we’re really trying to take advantage of all these spaces in the city, I think we need to revive young farmers. Right? There is so much great technology coming out on how to grow produce at a rate 1,000 times faster, more nutritional, and I think we really need to get some grants going and inspire some young farmers, because I think that’s, at the end of the day, is going to be our future. The world has a funny way of just going in circles, and I think we’re really going to go back to farming. And whether it’s in rural areas or urban areas, I think it’s going to be something that’s very important.
Lutz: If I can just make a comment here. Farmers are often seen as narrow-minded and just simple people. They’re actually business owners, they’re scientists, they’re meteorologists. They have to pay attention to the weather; they pay attention to the landscape and figure out how to sell it. You know, it’s not a simple profession. It’s very, very complicated. And once young people realize that, there’s a huge opportunity actually in farming that how interesting it is, there’s science, there’s math, there’s business principles that are involved with farming, instead of just this like, “Oh, we’re going to grow some crops.” I think once people realize that then a lot more young people will start to go into farming.
Mendelsohn: I love that you brought that up. I mean, some of the most educated people that I’ have ever dealt with or had the liberty of having conversations with have been farmers that are like covered in shit and wearing boot [LAUGHTER] and like doing all of this stuff. And you go out there and you meet them and you talk to them, and you’re like, “Oh, my God. Like, we’ve got to tell these stories. We’ve got to let people know what’s going on.” People don’t see this, and they need to. So I love that you brought that up.
Carman: Well, I mean, I’m wondering. So 6% of farmers today are under 35 years old. That does not seem like we’ve got a future generation of farmers lined up. How do you even get them interested in it? And does there have to be a public investment in this to convert old structures into vertical farms? Or, I mean, what is it going to take to get people to get back into farming?
Mendelsohn: Well, I mean, one of the things that I’m enjoying right now with the Food Policy Council here in D.C., which is awesome—and for those who don’t know, it’s a piece of legislation that it’s for the bettering of food policy on a local [ph]. And what we do is we find little pieces of legislations or amendments that we need to make, to make better food policy. And one of these things are finding plots of land and making them available to grow stuff or passing a legislation that allows farms on rooftops or chicken coups here in D.C., which we’re still not allowed to have. Right? We want eggs; we want fresh eggs in our backyard. So I think that’s an interesting part where we can start, is with small pieces of legislations with food policy councils and pushing those forward.
Goldman: I would say also you want to create demand for value-added crops. I mean, probably what you described is an industrialization of agriculture that’s not very attractive. But, you know, at Beyond Meat one of our main feedstocks is the Canadian yellow pea. It’s a value-added crop, and we can help create—you know, if we can get consumers to demand that, then we’ll be able to have farmers take an interest in it. And, you know, I don’t think any farmer—nobody wants to be just a cog in a machine. So if you can gain a premium for a crop, that becomes more interesting.
Carman: Do you want to give a quick description of what a value-added product is?
Goldman: So a value-added as opposed to a commodity. A commodity means there is no price competitive [ph], or basically you’re buying whatever is at market. A value-added crop means that you can—for example, at Honest Tea we buy organic and fair trade so that the farmers we buy from don’t have—you know, aren’t basically selling at the very low, kind of lowest price in the market. And when you can buy that, when you can create a product that warrants a value-added crop, you allow your suppliers then to be able to rise above subsistence farming. And even in the United States we can think about industrial agriculture as closer to subsistence farming just because it’s harder to make a real living out of it.
Lutz: I also think it comes down to storytelling. So back in the late ’90s and early 2000s [ph], I mean, nobody was really starting businesses. You know, entrepreneurship has really taken hold in the past 10 years, where everybody wants to start a new business. Right? And I think the reason for that is people heard about Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and realized, “Oh, my God. I could start a business just online in my dorm and make a billion dollars.” But I think there are farming examples where people can make a really good living and people can really start an amazing farm and find a lot of fulfillment. So if we tell those stories, then we can make farming cool again. Yeah.
M: Farming cool again. Make farming cool again.
Lutz: If there’s one line to take away from today’s session, make farming cool again. [LAUGHS]
Carman: So we have a question from Twitter. It’s for Seth, and it says, “Honest Tea was a big leader and one of the first mainstream organic brands. Tell us a bit about changing and overcoming consumer behavior. And what lessons do you think the other two panelists could benefit from?”
Mendelsohn: Damn. Woo. Well, I’m in the burger business. So I don’t know if Seth is going to have anything really great for me.
Goldman: I’m going to sell you some burgers.
M: Yeah. Right.
Goldman: Well, you know, Honest Tea started in the smallest possible means by which it started, you know, at my house with five thermoses and an empty Snapple bottle that we pasted a label on. So we managed to sell it into Whole Foods, but, you know, those—and that was 19 years ago, back when nobody was thinking about drinks with one or two teaspoons of sugar per bottle. And so it was tough. It was a little—we did well in Whole Foods. We’re still thankful to Whole Foods for giving us that opportunity. But to be able to get into more mainstream channels it was just a lot of lean years, a lot of tough, tough moments of trying to basically beg distributors to carry the product. My cofounder, Barry, did get down on knees. [LAUGHTER] And then, you know, just sort of finding the right way. And obviously consumers evolved as well. And I’d like to think that we also developed a package and a brand and a way of doing business that made people open to trying it. And so I always think making what you’re selling as accessible—and obviously these two don’t need lectures on marketing, but making your product accessible and transparent are principles that I think we’ve all embraced.
Of course, Honest Tea now has grown, and we got acquired by Coca-Cola in 2011. And we share that goal of trying to democratize organic and healthy products. And for me it’s been really exciting to see a product like Honest Kids, which is our kids drink, now carried in places like Subway and Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A. And, you know, those aren’t channels where people go to buy organic food, and so to be often an introductory product. And so we talk about this context of how to change people’s diets. I think it starts with a small effort in a niche, and then it sort of expands as you are able to get some traction in one particular channel. And then you just keep doubling down [ph].
M: Do you feel like brands like—and I’m sorry I’m taking one of you guys’ questions here. Do you feel like brands like Subway, when you finally get an organic product in that store, do you feel like you have somewhat of an impact in their future?
Goldman: Yeah, because not just Subway but so many restaurants and retailers and big companies are—yeah, things are changing. Right? You know, I think the head of Campbell’s talked about it as like the row [ph], you know, that there’s an earthquake going on. And so when they’re not growing, they’ve got to find other ways, other opportunities. And so to find something like an organic drink or a low-calorie drink or a fair-trade drink that attracts new customers and helps create a halo effect for the rest of what they’re offering absolutely does help.
Carman: So I’m wondering. You know, getting back to the food waste question. Like, I think I’d read, Evan, that your first year you had rescued about 300,000 pounds of food.
Carman: Which seems like a lot, until you see the total number, which you mentioned earlier. It’s what, six billion a year?
Lutz: Six billion. To visualize that, that’s enough to fill up an NFL-size stadium to the brim, so from the field to the brim, four times. That’s a lot of produce going to waste every year.
Carman: So are we even making a dent in this yet?
Lutz: I think the momentum is getting there. I think if we keep on this path of showing that there is a business opportunity for large companies and entrepreneurs alike to get into the movement of fighting food waste through business, then teaching consumers to stop wasting food in their home, I think we will make a dent. I don’t think the numbers have really changed much from 2010 to 2015, but I think by 2030, say, the numbers are going to be a lot less then. You know, we just surpassed—in total we’ve reduced, this week actually, three million pounds of produce from going to waste, which is great, but that compares—that’s a tiny, tiny little portion of the six billion.
An interesting statistic is we waste $165 billion. We spend $165 billion on food we throw away every single year. So that means that every single American man, woman, and child spends $1.50 per day on food that we’re throwing away. And once we get that in our heads about how much food that’s affecting our wallets, then we can really start to see, like, “Man, we should really take something home from the restaurant,” or we should really start cooking with all the food scraps, or we should make a broth out of all of our vegetable scraps. Right? Once we get consumers to start thinking that and really start to help business and show businesses that there is an economic opportunity here, I think the momentum is there.
Goldman: But what’s key is there’s no big way this is going to change. I mean, it’s every small interaction. And so what’s so amazing about food is all of us, everyone in this room, has at least three opportunities a day to make a change. And when you accumulate that, when you have entrepreneurs who can commercialize it, then it leads to real change. So I think the flaw with the question is to ask is there something bigger that’s now going to happen [ph]. Whatever we’re waiting for, it’s not going to happen. It’s only going to be when everybody makes those individual choices.
Carman: Well, it’s such a big number. I wonder how the math works out. Like, if 40% of our food that we produce goes to waste, is there enough consumers like us to buy this, or do we have to kind of go to your version of it where you’re giving it to people who don’t have food? Does there have to be more of that model?
Mendelsohn: Well, I mean, what we have all kind of said, I think there is going to be hundreds of models to kind of cure food waste. And I feel like we’re just scratching the surface of it. And I feel the more we invest in science like technology and apply that to food waste, I bet you 10 years from now people are going to be paying you for your food waste. They’ll actually be giving you money to collect your food waste for you because it’s so profitable in some shape or form, with how waste has happened in many different forms right now. Even like the oils now. Like or oil, frying oil, gets picked up. You know, people pay us for our oil. So I think you’ll see many different—I mean, I’m no scientist, but I bet that those are going to come out.
Lutz: And I think that’s the beauty of—capitalism is a beautiful thing and it’s a terrible thing. Right? But the beautiful thing is that if you prove there is an economic opportunity for almost anything, including solving a societal issue such as food waste, then I think the problem will be solved eventually by both consumers who will demand it and businesses who will see that opportunity.
Carman: Mm-hmm. Well, we have a question for Twitter, wondering how do we get people who are food insecure involved in some of these conversations about food waste or protein alternatives. You know, I think there is a whole audience out there that maybe could benefit from the food waste, could be educated. Like, how do you get them involved in these conversations?
Mendelsohn: Well, for my peers, which are the foodies of the world and the chefs, and, you know, food policy action that was started from Ken Cook and Tom Colicchio, for instance, they onboarded hundreds of chefs and made them advocates. And whether it was sustainable seafood or food waste or what have you, I think that was really important. And the other part of it, I think, is really keeping our legislators honest and transparent. Right? You know, votes in Congress actually really, really do count. And the more lobbying we can do on lobby days for good food policy I think goes a long way. So onboarding people like that.
Carman: Well, it’s been interesting because I know D.C. has tried to deal with food insecurity and tried to attract business. And, as Evan said, it’s a business and it’s capitalism, and people have to make money. And I think we saw a major defeat in Southeast where Walmart said they were going to come in, and they didn’t. And there was some decision there that they made that it wasn’t going to be economically beneficial to them. How do you begin to change that, the economics, so that people can make a profit?
Mendelsohn: Well, I think creating some more incentives for those big businesses. Mayor Gray [ph] just put in three pieces of legislation, some that ties into the hospital and the funding for the hospital, equal funding for better food in Southwest [ph]. So, you know, I think small pieces of legislation can fix that as well.
Lutz: And I think—and if you’re getting a trend here, that I believe that there is a business opportunity in almost everything. I’m not a greedy capitalist, but I think it’s conscious capitalism. Right? So if we stop looking at hunger as a charity problem and we start looking at it as a business problem. How can we solve this through supply and demand? How can we introduce a product into food deserts that people will actually want, people will demand, people will have access to, so people can access healthy produce, purchase it, and get educated by it? And that’s one of the things we’re doing with produce in the SNAP [ph].
We just started this program about seven months ago where we’re actually partnering with schools, public schools in Baltimore City that are located in food deserts and setting up the same farm stands that I started at the University of Maryland and selling our produce instead of for $15 it’s selling for seven and also accepting food stamps at point of sale. Which is a whole different topic that we can get into, accepting food stamps online, but I don’t think we have time today. But, like I said, I think if businesses see the opportunity as not like—people see the opportunity not as a charity problem but that it’s a business problem and we need to solve this through supply and demand, I think the answer is pretty straightforward.
Carman: And you are correct; we are out of time. I see the flashing red light. Well, thank you all for your conversation here.
M: Thank you very much.
Carman: That’s all the time we have. And I’d like to thank you for joining us as well as those in the audience and watching online, wherever that camera is at. And if you want to see a video of today’s conversation or more upcoming programs, visit WashingtonPostLive.com. And thank you again for your participation.