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What truths can emerge from an Italian food systems summit?

From fighting over pasta to fighting over regenerative agriculture, the food world still has internal obstacles to overcome when overhauling our food system.

A person standing in a field speaks to a gather group

Part of the summit was a visit to a regenerative farm. Photo by Theresa Lieb.

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

Earlier this year, I received an unusual invitation. Sharon Cittone, a longtime food and ag tech convener with whom I hadn’t crossed paths before, popped up in my inbox. She asked if I wanted to come to a food systems summit her new events and consulting firm Edible Planet Ventures was hosting with the central Italian region of Umbria. 

I’d spend four days meeting 150 food and agriculture experts from around the world, envisioning a new charter for working towards a more sustainable and equitable food system and visiting the region’s sustainable producers.

I’m rather skeptical of initiatives focused on writing new sustainability charters and frameworks. To me, it seems like we have abundant roadmaps out there and should spend our time implementing the big changes around regenerative agriculture, food waste, diet shifts and food justice many of them agree on. 

But since a key part of my role at GreenBiz evolves around understanding trends and challenges in the sector, the summit was a perfect learning opportunity. So I replied with an enthusiastic "yes!" to Sharon and made my way there last week.

The group included activists, artists, entrepreneurs, investors, journalists, farmers, politicians and consultants. We work across the food system — from biotech to food sovereignty, regenerative agriculture to indoor farming, foodservice to policy making and plant-based proteins to food waste.

While Cittone spoiled us with magical dining experiences and stunning venues, she also gave us hard work. We dug into what each segment is doing well, where it’s lacking and uncovered opportunities for cross-pollination.

It will still take a few weeks to compile our discussions into the final charter, but I’ll be sure to share it when ready. Even though we put in a good-faith effort, I don’t expect it to be the framework that will finally fix the food system. Still, it was a powerful (and at times painful) process that left me with three big takeaways.

1. Let’s stop fighting each other

As a food systems generalist, I’ve been painfully observing the increasing hostility between groups working on different food and agriculture issues. Those tensions were real in Umbria as well.

I witnessed a serious indoor agriculture vs. soil health standoff. Some regenerative beef advocates canceled their trips altogether because they thought the plant-based crowd was overrepresented. Health experts challenged cultivated meat investors to step up their food safety standards.

While some of this skepticism is healthy, and the discussions had valid points, much disagreement stems from the food industries' siloed and competitive nature. People are focused on their own work and don’t engage enough with peers outside their immediate networks.

A feeling of scarcity also feeds tensions. The attention of funders, policymakers and consumers is scarce. Instead of positioning a solutions catalog — from food waste reduction to carbon farming — as critical to creating a better overall food system, each camp seems to fight for its own survival. Yet, banding together on systemic advocacy and education may make everyone better off.

2. Let’s be honest about our contributions

More collaboration will require less bragging. Neither cows, vertical farms, composters, smallholders nor food scientists alone will reverse climate change or save the world. Yet today, the single-hero narrative prevails in the hundreds of press releases flooding my inbox every week, as well as news sites, social media discussions and industry webinars.

It was refreshing to witness a much more nuanced debate in Italy. At the end of our two-day workshop, each group gave a short presentation of its lessons learned. Several kicked off by articulating a more concrete and collaborative vision of their roles.

For many, regenerative agriculture contains too many ifs, mays and coulds to serve as a serious alternative to the status quo.

The cultivated meat group rejected the narrative of wanting to completely replace animal agriculture, realistically stating that the sector most likely won’t get beyond 20 percent market share. The plant-based group brought more nuance to the dietary shift they are working towards. They spoke up against protein overhype in the United States and other Western countries, instead highlighting their products' cultural and nutritional value.

I’d love to see more nuance and myth-busting such as this. We need to articulate the potential, uncertainty and limitation of each solution alike. This will make for a friendlier and more collaborative food systems community at large and help outsiders allocate their support more effectively.

3. Let’s establish more complex measures of success

Yields and profits have dominated today’s mainstream agricultural ambitions to the detriment of harder-to-measure metrics essential for human and planetary health. These more holestic metrics include biodiversity, resilience, community wellbeing, workers’ rights, local pollution and food sovereignty. Hyper-focusing on yields has silenced the contributions of food and agriculture practitioners with more holistic traditions, worldviews and experiences, most notably indigenous peoples and smallholder farmers in the Global South.

Because the climate crisis looms large, embracing alternative practices feels scary and risky. Agroecology exemplifies that challenge. Compared to intensive farming which results in high yields and high profits, it promises a wealth of social, economic and environmental co-benefits that are harder to quantify. But it tends to have lower yields. Common carbon logic says that we need to safeguard yields above all else to prevent encroachment of farms on native ecosystems because converting them to cropland releases large amounts of carbon.

A visit to a 2,000-acre organic and increasingly regenerative farm on the last day of the summit provided fodder for thought on this question. After experiencing severe drought-related harvest losses over the past two years, owner Marco Minciaroni works toward resilience and circularity as his primary farm management goals.

Minciaroni acknowledges that agroecological practices such as planting biodiversity strips, hedges and cover crops, using traditional seed varieties and reducing tillage tend to lower his yield per acre and harvest. But he believes that his investments in soil health, water retention and pollinator services will improve his long-term success under more extreme conditions.

He also experiments with inter-cropping — meaning he grows wheat and lentils in the same field and plans to integrate chickens and wild asparagus into his olive groves. Once dialed in, these practices could boost his farm’s overall productivity.

For many, the regenerative agriculture experiences of Minciaroni and other farmers contain too many ifs, mays and coulds to serve as a serious alternative to the status quo. What if their hopes don’t materialize and we end up with a global famine in addition to the climate crisis? 

I have that fear too. But I also think about what happens if we don’t do it. What are the risks and costs of not investing in these options? Alongside many other summit participants, I don’t think we have done enough analysis on what happens if we don’t optimize for co-benefits, or at least have not considered all the evidence. Agroecological approaches won’t be the right option for all farms everywhere, but many will benefit from revisiting and restructuring their success measures.

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