Robyn O’Brien: Following the ‘North Star’ in food systems transformation

Robyn O’Brien: Following the ‘North Star’ in food systems transformation

As the environmental and business landscapes continue to evolve, there’s a common thread: Systems thinking has never been more critical to solving the pressing issues of our time. And few challenges are more urgent than food system transformation.

To explore the intersection of food, finance and women’s leadership, I recently sat down with Robyn O’Brien, co-founder of rePlant Capital and a former financial and food industry analyst. Following is an excerpt from our discussion on courageous leadership, systems thinking and following the North Star in the journey toward the future of food. 

Carrie Norton: What have you learned over the last decade that you're taking with you into this next decade?

Robyn O’Brien: This month, I spent a fair amount of time reflecting on the last decade because It was 10 years ago that my book, "The Unhealthy Truth," was published. I think one of the most important lessons I have learned is that courage is contagious — and one of the bravest things we can do is to own our own story.

I have this strange combination in my background: attending business school on a full scholarship to Rice University, going into investments on a team that managed $20 billion in assets, being a mother of four, launching a hedge fund. That doesn't fit into anybody's "box." It made a lot of people uncomfortable, and I had to confront that discomfort. Through the process, I realized that discomfort is really just growth.

Our food system has a systemic, structural problem. In every problem, there is an enormous opportunity to create really smart systems that address the challenges we're seeing. And to me, that’s inspiring. That's my focus moving into the next decade: innovation and inspiration.

Norton: What you’re describing here is a solutions orientation.

O’Brien: Exactly. We need a lot of people around the table — farmers in particular. Our farm economy is completely upside down; there's more than $426 billion in farmer debt. When I stand on these farms in Kansas or Nebraska or Ohio, my first thought is, what young family would want to move out here to grow our country's food?

My second question is, what happens if they don't? What happens if we really are hitting this shortage of farmers, this crisis in the U.S. farm economy? Additionally, farmers are hit with fires and floods and droughts. No one person or organization can solve this crisis. But if we come together as a country, we can.

Norton: As the CEO of Mars has stated, "The engine of global business — its supply chain — is broken." I’d love to hear about your mission to finance and build the new food economy.

O’Brien: You can’t fix a broken food system with a broken financial system. I thought, if we're really serious about this — and if 80 percent of citizens are trying something organic but only 1 percent of U.S. farmland is organic — why aren't we tackling supply-chain issues? I realized that if I was the CEO of General Mills, even if I wanted to be putting more organic products on the shelf, the U.S. supply chain makes that incredibly difficult, and that Wall Street is measuring these companies with the same metrics as in 1985.

And it got me wondering: What would happen if on earnings calls, Wall Street asked about a company’s organic acreage or what water conservation measures are in place? Or asked what percentage of farmers are in transition to regenerative, organic agriculture? What we need are metrics relevant to the 21st century. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet. 

The conventional food system is extractive. The same thing is going on in the financial system; we’ve got extractive capital structures. With rePlant Capital, we realized that we needed to create an alternative source of capital aligned with regenerating not only the integrity of the farm and food system, but one that tackles this giant issue that's impacting every industry: the climate crisis.

Norton: Less than 1 percent of the farmland in the United States is organic. What would it take to get us to even 5 percent? What about 20 percent?

O’Brien: The farmers themselves will tell you the subsidy system is broken. And those are our tax dollars. If we had a whiteboard in front of us, how would we want to be allocating these dollars? To operating systems that are repeatedly spraying insecticides, fungicides and pesticides, or to subsidize regenerative, organic farming so that organic food is more affordable to more Americans?

Farming in America is absolutely upside down. Young people don't want to go into it. Farmers are strapped into massive debt. There's an opioid epidemic, there's a suicide epidemic, our farm economy is in crisis.

So what are those solutions? Well, let's step back and think about what the soil does. The soil doesn't just deliver us our fruits and vegetables. The soil also has an incredible capacity to serve as a carbon sink. Farmers are only compensated for products sold. But in reality, the farmer delivers a huge service to society — carbon sequestration, building soil health so that it’s able to capture the carbon from the atmosphere. Water conservation and infiltration are stronger when soil health is stronger. How can we compensate the farmer for that? 

You can't undercut and devalue that service to society. There's too much at stake. What's interesting is that the food industry is starting to step into this role. They can tell this story about a farmer’s role not just in creating healthy food, but in creating a healthy climate. That serves all of us.

Norton: It sounds like what you're really talking about here is financial innovation and incentive realignment.

O’Brien: We have a financial system that extracts what it needs and compensates a few. We can ask ourselves what it would look like to have regenerative agriculture. But what would it look like to have regenerative finance; something that’s not just regenerating the soil, but allows for regeneration of capital? How do we actually tie this to the outcomes we're trying to achieve?

We realized that if we brought in a third party who could capture those metrics, then we could tie that loan to those metrics. The stronger the metrics on soil organic matter, carbon sequestration and water conservation, the more the farmer can demonstrate those metrics are improving — and the lower the cost of capital.

Norton: You’ve talked about the need to move from extractive capitalism to regenerative capitalism. What's the dream for rePlant Capital?

O’Brien: Our goal would be to look back 10 years from now and not just see a new financial services firm, but a whole new industry around this. We need to create a regenerative financial system. That's our invitation with rePlant: collaborate with us, farmers, our technical assistance partners, to place capital efficiently into farmers’ hands so that they can not only tackle the supply-chain constraints but also do this critical climate work. There is over $426 billion in farm debt that needs to be addressed. Can loans be tied to soil health, carbon sequestration and water conservation? We’ve proven they can. 

Norton: How might we transform policy so that we're not beholden to quarterly analyst calls and results?

O’Brien: You can't convert the food system on the quarterly earnings model. It bottlenecks growth when it takes three years to convert a farm from conventional agriculture to organic. CEOs spend so much time on this song and dance routine for Wall Street. What if CEOs spent that time building climate resilience into business models?

Norton: Let’s talk about courageous leadership. After your TEDx talk, you said you were terrified of getting on that stage. How has your emotional state evolved since then?

O’Brien: I think courage is a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. I also think of fear as an old friend. You won’t eliminate it, but you recognize and work with it when it shows up. Because this work is so important, I've learned how to dance with fear — how to move with it more efficiently than I did 10 years ago.

There have been incredible, punishing periods in this work. During these times, I had to focus on my mission and North Star: making clean, safe food affordable and accessible to anyone who wants it. The more that we can build out the supply chain, the more people can have access to clean, affordable food. So you’ve got to do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

Norton: Can you describe an experience that really tested your will and made you focus on that North Star?

O’Brien: In the early years of this work, I was abandoned by a lot of people who were really close to me. That’s when I developed my resilience. I was going through not only isolation, but fear and grief and sadness, realizing that we had a broken food system. These food companies employed a double standard. Kellogg's was creating the same product for families in Europe, but it didn't contain artificial colors, high-fructose corn syrup or genetically engineered foods. And yet they were selling that same bar with these crappier, lesser ingredients to American families. That double standard was completely unacceptable to me.

But then, I realized that the reason I was feeling all of that anguish was because of love. It was this recognition that as a country, we had not been informed. If you think about what America stands for, with freedom of choice as a core tenet of who we are, this felt like such an insult. Realizing that my work was fueled by love and positivity was an enormous shift. Once I stepped into leadership in that way, it changed everything. Suddenly, you're not wagging a finger and telling people they can't do something. You’re actually showing people the way through.

Norton: We’re in this moment where women's leadership is on the ascent and women are leading in a unique way. For example, the leaders of Finland, New Zealand and Norway; I call them "the three muses." What do you make of this moment?

O’Brien: It goes back to how we started this conversation. These women are standing completely in their own power because they are standing in their authenticity. They're not trying to be the best white guy in the room; they're trying to be the best version of themselves. And that, to me, is true leadership no matter who we are.