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3 lessons from sustainability leaders on accelerating impacts on food systems

Tackling tough issues, enlisting unlikely partners, and harnessing local communities will be crucial to making progress on sustainable food systems in 2024.

A young plant with renewable energy images

There are no easy solutions for tackling the social and environmental challenges in food supply chains. Source: Miha Creative via Shutterstock.

Last year we highlighted 12 women with big ambitions for transforming food systems in 2023. From corporate sustainability leaders to civil society advocates, journalists and startup founders, they represented many vital levers for change. 

At the end of 2023, we checked in with them to learn about their most impactful accomplishments and gather lessons learned. 

They’ve done impressive work: Arohi Sharma at the Natural Resources Defense Council worked with actor and comedian Nick Offerman on a "soil is sexy" campaign. Julia Person at Bob’s Red Mill saved nearly 200,000 pounds of food waste. And Corey Scott of Athian started developing new ways to gauge the environmental consequences of livestock production. 

Three themes for accelerating impacts stand out from these initiatives. 

Transforming food systems requires addressing the gnarly issues, even when that work is frustrating or uncomfortable; leveraging unconventional partnerships can pay off; and unlocking the power of communities creates change on the ground. 

Tackle the tough issues 

There aren’t easy solutions for many social and environmental challenges in food supply chains. Grit, patience and an appetite for tough decisions are prerequisites for accomplishing real change. 

Ahrum Pak, CEO and co-founder of WNWN Food Labs, advances technologies for cocoa-free chocolate to address the industry’s labor and climate challenges. Cocoa supply is increasingly unstable, leading to a 46-year price-high in 2023. For Pak, it created a new window of opportunity. For the past few years, she’s been raising awareness around issues such as deforestation and unlivable wages for farm workers, and bringing cocoa-free products to the market. Pak is proud of "being seen as potential collaborators instead of adversaries by companies like Mondelēz, Häagen-Dazs and Martin Braun-Gruppe."

Corey Scott tackled another difficult space in 2023 — livestock production. Previously at Truterra, she took on a new role as vice president of sales and marketing with Athian, a cloud-based platform that benchmarks, verifies and monetizes on-farm carbon reductions for livestock producers. The large demand from the industry for this new tool surprised Scott, who found motivation in contributing to the economic and environmental well-being of farmers and the communities surrounding them. 

Find unlikely partners

Slowly but surely, people outside the food community are starting to learn about the industry’s critical role in not only feeding the world but responsibly stewarding ecosystems and creating valuable economic opportunities. This rising awareness stems from creative advocacy campaigns and unconventional partnerships. 

Arohi Sharma, deputy director of regenerative agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council, led a breakthrough advocacy campaign in 2023. Her team partnered with Offerman, of "Parks & Recreation" and "The Last of Us," to produce a 1-minute long video in which Offerman "face plants" to show how cover crops can help fight climate change. The spot landed Sharma airtime on MSNBC and CNN, where she made a case for why soil is sexy and why cover cropping should receive more support in the U.S. Farm Bill, which Congress was supposed to renegotiate last year. 

At the level of global food systems, Food Tank president Danielle Nierenberg pulled many strings to gain the attention of policymakers. "At COP27 [in 2022], we celebrated the presence of four pavilions dedicated to food and agriculture — a major step forward," she told GreenBiz. "And over the last 12 months, we worked tirelessly to highlight food and agriculture systems as a solution to the climate crisis. I’m excited to say that we succeeded." 

COP28 saw a plethora of conversations on food systems and tangible outcomes — including a food systems declaration signed by 134 countries and mention of food in the official Global Stocktake document. 

Nierenberg credits the success of this work to broad partnerships with journalists, farmers, philanthropists, investors, the private sector, NGOs and government officials: "We must continue to dismantle silos and ensure that food systems are considered in everything we do."

Unlocking the power of community

Finally, we move from global policymakers to local communities — after all, actual change happens on the ground. 

At Bob’s Red Mill, sustainability manager Julia Person learned that "nothing solves problems better than the expertise of our own people." She collaborated with employees and tapped into lean manufacturing tools to reduce waste. After manually auditing food and packaging scrap sources by hand, they developed an automated real-time scrap dashboard to target and prevent waste. This process has allowed the company to save nearly 200,000 pounds of food waste. 

Laura Lee Cascada, senior campaigns director at the Better Food Foundation, tried to convince more cities to adopt plant-based meal strategies critical to reducing carbon emissions. New York City hospitals successfully piloted an approach to serve patients plant-based meals by default in 2022, thereby reducing a third of food-related emissions. Institutions in Denver and Ann Arbor have followed suit in 2023. The Good Food Purchasing Program has also embraced plants by default among its recommendations for institutions greening their food procurement. 

"This year has been filled with some dead ends and stalled conversations, reminding me that transformational change takes a lot of time and grit," she said. "But it’s also cemented the power and importance of communities in fomenting change at a time when national and international leaders stall."

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