With a new year comes new inspiration and the opportunity to embed more resilience, equity and climate-smart practices into food systems around the world. But these changes won’t magically occur. They will happen because of the diligent and strategic work of the people who believe in a better future and are making it happen.
More often than not, those people are women. Yet they continue to be underrepresented in startup funding rounds, corporate leadership teams and conference panels. To continue highlighting women's groundbreaking work in this space, here’s our second annual list of women cultivating sustainable food systems.
Of course, far more than 12 women merit being on this list. So please take this read merely as a first opportunity to expand your horizon and reflect on how you can work to uplift more diverse talent in 2023.
Senior Director Ventures, Transformation & Sustainability, Dole Sunshine Company
Following five years at Unilever Foundry, Unilever’s global startup collaboration platform, Barbara Guerpillon jumped ship in 2020 for a similar endeavor at the Dole Sunshine Company. As its venture director, she has been leading a $2 million annual new fund at Dole that aims to support global strategic partnerships and innovation for sustainability, food access and waste. Through this approach, Guerpillon ensures that the fund’s investments and partnerships accelerate the company’s overall sustainability and nutrition goals.
Two years into the job, the fund can increase the number of projects it supports, such as a 740-acre pilot farm in the Philippines. Regenerative agriculture practices that improve soil health and reduce reliance on fertilizers over the long term are Guerpillon’s top priority, alongside scalable bio-based solutions for pest and disease control.
The year 2023 will also be about finding relevant monitoring technology partners to set baselines and develop measurement tools for carbon sequestration on Dole’s main plantation in the Philippines.
Co-Founder, Ayo West African Foods
In just over 2.5 years, Perteet Spencer has shown that there's a home in U.S. mainstream grocery for the flavors of West Africa. Her Liberian roots inspired Ayo West African Foods. The company brings authentic, convenient and sustainable West African cuisine to America’s tables, answering an unmet need. Since 2020, when Spencer teamed up with her husband to start the brand, it has grown from 50 Whole Foods stores in the South to over 5,000 retail locations across the country.
Spencer isn’t only bringing new flavors to the table but also generating social, economic and environmental benefits along Ayo’s supply chains. It taps into underused crops from the West African diaspora to create scalable demand for a much broader base of resilient and nutrient-dense inputs such as egusi seeds and red millet leaves. It also celebrates plant-based and upcycled ingredients as the heroes of the plate.
In partnership with the non-profit Girl Power Africa, Ayo sources ingredients from farms in Monrovia, Liberia, that provide new income streams for women who were victims of the country’s civil war. As Spencer and her husband work to grow the brand in 2023, so will this collaboration. In addition, the Chicago-based brand is planning to open an innovation center in the city’s historic Auburn Gresham neighborhood that will serve as a community engagement hub.
President, Food Tank
As co-founder and president of Food Tank, Danielle Nierenberg has long been at the forefront of food systems change. But even the work of established changemakers shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially when they take on bridge-building and educational activities that are often hard to measure. And Nierenberg and her team are becoming ever-more strategic about how they can help transform food systems the most effectively.
In 2023, Food Tank is particularly excited about two projects. In partnership with the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, it will organize an event series for policymakers in Washington, D.C., to address hunger on college campuses. Conversations will focus on food insecurity among college students and solutions, leveraging the expertise of Food Tank’s academic working group.
Nierenberg also plans to build further momentum around food systems at COP28 in Dubai. She will ensure that the climate change conference’s programming highlights food solutions and publish content about the negotiations on Food Tank’s website and in her newsletter.
Deputy Director; Regenerative Agriculture, Nature Program, Natural Resources Defense Council
The Farm Bill negotiations will be a big deal this year. Arohi Sharma plans to work diligently to achieve policy changes across the food and agriculture system that center soil health as a climate solution. Her policy priorities stem from interviews with 113 farmers and ranchers to ensure that the Natural Resources Defence Council’s (NRDC) regenerative agriculture policy platform draws heavily on the lived experiences of a large constituency of growers from across the country.
From the pool of ideas gathered through this process, Sharma and her team prioritized the ones centered around equity and Indigenous leadership in addition to their climate benefits. They first appeared in the "Regenerative Agriculture: Farm Policy for the 21st Century" report published last year.
One of Sharma’s key recommendations targets the Federal Crop Insurance Program. Instead of subsidizing farming practices that degrade soil health, she wants the program to reward farmers for using methods that build soil health, thereby reducing their farms’ climate risk. Overall, Sharma hopes to see more acres under regenerative management while advancing equity and honoring Indigenous leaders for their land stewardship.
Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder, Klim
In early 2020, Nina Mannheimer had been thinking about ways farming systems can transition from climate culprits to climate solutions when she met Robert Gerlach and Adiv Maimon in Berlin. Together, they interviewed over 100 farmers in Germany to identify the potential for transitioning to regenerative agriculture and the barriers standing in the way.
This discovery process led them to found the startup Klim, which addresses the three critical roadblocks identified in the process: lack of knowledge; bridge financing; and appreciation by the public. Klim offers farmers a platform to adopt regenerative agriculture practices by providing access to knowledge, a community and funding.
Mannheimer collaborates with food companies that aim to make their supply chains more climate-friendly and resilient or strive to offset emissions while supporting the transformation of German agriculture to fund farmer efforts. Consumers can contribute to the mission by buying products with the Klim label. For 2023, Klim is envisioning its European expansion.
Laura Lee Cascada
Campaigns Director, Better Food Foundation
How many campaigns do you recall that changed eating habits for the better, at scale and without nasty backlash? Probably not that many. Laura Lee Cascada is leading one campaign at the Better Food Foundation that might just be the exception: serving plant-based foods, by default.
Its premise is simple yet effective. Public institutions like New York City’s hospitals, Amsterdam's city council, and Denver's sustainability council are making plant-based meals the default for diners and nudging them towards this healthier and more sustainable choice. At the same time, people can opt out and order a meal with meat or dairy instead. Reframing the diet shift as inclusive and protective of individual choice, rather than restrictive, has proven highly impactful: over 50 percent of New York's eligible hospital patients are eating plant-based meals through its Greener by Default initiative, despite only 1 percent identifying as vegetarian or vegan. This simple shift will affect up to 800,000 meals in New York City annually.
Building on this momentum, Laura Lee Cascada is expanding this work into a global campaign to encourage other cities to follow in New York City’s footsteps. Her strategy includes grassroots organizing, coalition-building and creating a network of activists. Better Food Foundation estimates that cities could cut their food-related emissions by 40 percent and their water footprint by 24 percent when using plant-based defaults as a flexible climate policy.
Sustainability Manager, Bob’s Red Mill
If things go according to Julia Person’s plans, 2023 will be the year of food waste reductions at Bob’s Red Mill, an Oregon-based natural foods company best known for its flour variety. Preventing food waste is an essential strategy for mitigating global warming and hunger. To act on this opportunity, the company was the first manufacturer that signed onto the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment (PCFWC), a public-private partnership fostering collaboration among food businesses and governments to cut food waste in half by 2030 along the West Coast.
Person and her colleagues have set themselves up for success by engaging Bob’s Red Mill employees in an internal campaign that birthed 176 food waste prevention ideas. One idea was to reduce grain spillover from a conveyor belt by maintaining a metal screening tool that controls grain flow more regularly. The new procedure is already operational and has cut over 70 percent of food waste from the production line.
Person noticed that implementing many other ideas will "require education and shifts in our day-to-day mindset." So for her, cross-functional collaboration that embeds food waste prevention as the default way of operating will be on the docket this year. Through participation in PCFWC and other partnerships, she will continue to share her learnings widely with other food companies.
Director, Food Based Programmes Division, World Food Programme
When COVID-19 started ravaging the world, much of Carmen Burbano’s 16-year service at the United Nations’ World Food Programme had focused on step-by-step improvements for school meals. And then, all of a sudden, almost all countries closed their schools in April 2020, leaving 370 million children without access to meals. A catastrophe — and a political moment that Burbano would not let go to waste.
In their absence, governments and families realized how vital school meals were. Burbano and her team took the opportunity to respond to the crisis. They organized a group of 74 countries led by Finland and France to launch the School Meals Coalition during the United Nations Food Systems Summit in 2021. The coalition supports governments and their partners to improve or restore national, sustainable school meal programs and is harvesting the fruit of its labor after just one year.
For example, Rwanda went from covering 660,000 children in early 2020 to 3.8 million students in 2022, with a budget increase from $33 million to $80 million, reports Burbano. She also looks at Benin, which expanded its school meal program coverage to 75 percent of the children. Going into 2023, Burbano and her team will ensure low-income countries can afford these programs and support the connection between school meals, food systems and climate change.
CEO and Co-Founder, WNWN Food Labs
Ahrum Pak has good news and bad news for you. Let’s start with the bad ones: "Chocolate has a truly dark side: it emits more CO2, pound-for-pound, than cheese, lamb or chicken," she told GreenBiz. But fortunately, it doesn’t mean you need to put this life-giving substance on your food blacklist. Pak is working on a softer alternative for the planet and the people producing it.
In 2022, her food tech company WNWN Food Labs (pronounced win-win) was the first to sell cocoa-free chocolate. Being of Korean heritage, Pak’s fridge was always stocked with homemade kimchi, kkakdugi, fish sauce, gochujang and doenjang. This upbringing gave her the idea of using fermentation techniques for new products such as chocolate, a category that hasn’t seen much innovation in a long time. Fermentation transforms ingredients such as barley and carob into products with the taste and texture of chocolate. WNWN says its products emit 80 percent less carbon and use 90 percent less water than conventional chocolates. Pak plans to launch cocoa-free chocolate bars in U.K. retail stores and online this year.
Pak hopes this alternative will reduce pressure from traditional cocoa supply chains, which have been fraught with issues ranging from deforestation to child labor. It might give traditional cocoa farmers more bargaining power and allow them to reduce their environmental impact while providing consumers with a transparent option.
Corey Ramsden Scott
Livestock Sustainability Services Lead, Truterra
Corey Ramsden Scott is embedding a more holistic sustainability approach to the dairy production system. In her work at Truterra, a Land O’Lakes subsidiary focused on carbon markets, she works with dairy farmers and other stakeholders along the supply chain. The collaborations aim to go beyond traditional concerns of manure management and tackle emissions from cow’s feed and their digestion, which account for the bulk of dairy’s overall emissions.
In 2023, Ramsden Scott aims to expand a pilot approach she developed in collaboration with cheese manufacturer Bel Brands that will help the company advance its science-based targets. The pilot project helped a dairy farmer apply regenerative practices to its feed production that sequestered 784 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per acre per year, according to Truterra’s evaluation. In addition to carbon, she also evaluates changes to soil quality, erosion and fertilizer efficiency.
Ramsden Scott plans to bring the approach to over a dozen additional farmers in the Bel Brands milk supply shed this year, in addition to developing new strategies to bridge the gap between the environment and farmers' and ranchers’ bottom lines.
Vice President, Innovation and Product Management Excellence, Trane Technologies
Leveraging her heritage, network and day job, Rasha Hasaneen brought new technology to life that can make a real dent in food waste and support some of the world’s most marginalized communities. Hasaneen sponsored a project as part of Trane Technologies’ social innovation program that can help street vendors in rural parts of India and elsewhere keep their produce fresh for longer.
"Our field research showed that street vendors in more rural parts of India earn less than $5 a day while throwing away around 30 percent of their produce due to spoilage," Hasaneen told GreenBiz. "Our solution aims to directly benefit low-income vendors, who play such an important role in access to food, while simultaneously reducing food waste."
How? By providing them with a cart that uses the latest passive-radiative cooling technology that doesn’t require electricity. During the day, the canopy reflects sunlight and produces a radiative cooling effect, preventing fresh produce from ripening faster. At night, vendors can lower the canopy and use it as a cooler, allowing them to store and sell the produce the next day — thus improving their income. After successfully piloting in Kolar, India, Hasaneen will work to expand the cooling cart project in 2023.
Head of Sustainability, Meati Foods
After leading Danone North America to become one of the largest B Corporations in the world, Catherine Musulin started a new chapter at the end of 2022 when she joined Meati Foods. The startup is producing meat from mycelium, the root-like structure of fungi.
For Musulin, 2023 will be all about building out a sustainability strategy from scratch that will allow the innovators at Meati Foods to get things right from the get-go. She wants sustainability to "never feel like an add-on, but instead, second nature, our culture."
She’s excited about the opportunity at Meati Foods because meat from mycelium promises to have remarkably lower carbon, water and land footprints than its animal-based counterparts while offering rich nutrition and taste. She hopes that this fast-growing option will make sustainably produced food more accessible.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify Laura Lee Cascada's work at the Better Food Foundation