2020 Sustainable Agriculture Summit
Building sustainable food supply chains a chief goal of the virtual meeting
for The Fence Post
With a record 800 attendees, and farmers making up one-fourth of the audience, the recent 2020 virtual Sustainable Agriculture Summit hosted by five organizations representing the beef and pork industries, commodity crop, specialty crop and the checkoff-founded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy provided an awakening to insuring a sustainable global food supply. Living through a pandemic was a key discussion topic to create the path to sustainability.
“We all need to work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and even just thinks about food,” said keynote speaker Beth Bechdol, deputy director-general at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations during the ag summit Nov. 18-19. She also previewed the 2021 Food Systems Summit and its implications for U.S. agriculture. “The Food Systems Summit, which will be held in New York City in September, will be an opportunity for the U.S. food and agriculture community to ensure its diverse voices, sustainability record and progress are reflected in the role food systems play in achieving the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.” She added that this agenda “must be owned by everyone.”
Sustainable development goals including zero hunger, good health and well being, quality education, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, life below water, life on land, place-justice and strong institutions, and partnerships for the goals were also highlighted. Bechdol said this food systems approach uses solutions based on holistic analyses that identify root causes of unsustainable behavior, prioritize leverage points and address critical constraints. Collaboration across different sectors is vital.
COVID-19 has created a high-end public awareness of food security, and has turned the spotlight on the food and agriculture’s value chain’s ability to adapt to changes and keep pace with demands.
The pandemic is reported to have caused an 86 percent suspension of school meals, 68 percent restriction of selling meals in public spaces, 57 percent restriction of markets functioning, 40 percent limiting supply of food commodities and 60 percent rising prices. Therefore, building sustainable supply chains in the face of a pandemic has become a top goal.
“We wanted to do everything we could to stay open, and keep our stores clean and stocked to give people in our communities continued access to safe, healthy, affordable food which was our top priority,” said Denise Osterhues, senior director of sustainability and community engagement for The Kroger Company. “We ultimately invested in $1 billion in protections for health and safety for our associates and customers to keep things moving, and to pivot our systems and accelerate e-commerce as much as possible so people could shop in our stores, or use curbside pickup or have things delivered.”
She said some categories are still constrained, and they continue to talk with their suppliers about how to keep shelves stocked in their grocery stores as much as possible, and where they might see some areas under pressure this winter.
The Kroger Company has been involved in the Zero Hunger/Zero Waste program; with a goal to end hunger and reduce waste in its communities by 2025, Osterhues said.
Because of the pandemic, the speakers said they learned that people are still cooking at home, so it was important to mitigate a lot of supply chain disruptions.
“We wanted to be sure we were getting as much food as possible out of our doors and into people’s homes,” said Hannah Koski, head of sustainability and social impact with Blue Apron. “However, with the lock-down, we did experience a massive surge in demand, so we really focused on reducing complexities and streamlining our operations.”
Blue Apron is a fresh ingredient and recipe delivery service that enables chefs of all levels to cook meals at home. “We realize that the pandemic is going to be with us for a bit longer, so we are handling orders of more boxes each week to increase flexibility and variety,” Koski said. She said the company is also partnering with sustainability specialists.
FEEDING THE HUNGRY
Hunger was already an issue before the pandemic, with 35 million Americans considered food-insecure before the pandemic, and it’s estimated that number of people will jump to 50 million by the end of the year.
“Because the supply chain became so tight especially in the early days, and our whole food system depends on donated food out of that supply chain, that really tightened up,” said Kate Fitzgerald, executive vice president and chief operating officer with Feeding America. “So, we had to adjust and fill that increased elevated demand with purchased product for which we were incredibly grateful to have that response that the American people gave both at their local food bank and at Feeding America. We had to leverage our relationships with government and work with USDA to help solve what was happening in the ag sector, where the system wasn’t agile enough, and how to take that food in the ag sector and get it into the food sector. We’ve never had to depend on that level of distribution before.”
Another disruption was the loss of volunteers who help sort and pack food, but who instead were staying home, especially when the pandemic first hit.
“Usually we have 2 million volunteers a month helping, but for all good reasons many were staying at home,” Fitzgerald said. “We had to figure out how to move that food and how to distribute it in a low-touch/no-touch environment.”
Lessons learned after supply chains were disrupted, included creating new ways for people to pay for their food.
“We were excited that we were able to more quickly activate EBT (electronic benefits transfer) curbside payments which allows Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants to pay for food through a magnetically encoded payment card. We made that happen very quickly,” Osterhues said. “We’ve learned a lot in partnership with others at Feeding America, how interconnected and complex our food systems are, and about our charitable food system.”
The amount of surplus food they set aside, Osterhues said, has only declined about 10 percent year to date overall. “It was lower in March and April, but it’s coming back and stabilizing, and our volunteer network is made up of a lot of seniors, who are at higher risk and needed to stay home.”
Undernourishment is ongoing, and globally is especially prevalent in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Mongolia, as well as in several regions of Africa including Chad in central Africa, and in eastern, western and southwest Africa.
“Long term, for supply chains to prepare better for disruption we need supply chain transparency and greater visibility and for consumers to be more informed about where their food is coming from, so that we take a more holistic view of the people who harvest it, pack it and prioritize making that information accessible and collaborate to drive the change,” Koski said.
“We truly need everyone,” Osterhues said. “It will take all of us to do our part. Some college students who have stepped up, are putting creative solutions in place, and this spirit of innovation among the younger generation and empowerment — who are saying, ’this is something we need to fix’ — is really encouraging.”
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