It seems as though everyone is talking about sustainability, but what does it really mean when it comes to creating a better food system? Our founder, Shen Tong, discussed sustainability on the Solving for Sustainability panel at the Summer Fancy Food Show. Moderated by Ayesha Vera-Yu of Advancement for Rural Kids, other panelists included Mary Cleaver of The Green Table | Cleaver Co, Steffen Schneider of Hawthorne Valley Farm, and Liz Vaknin of Our Name is Farm.
On Making Sustainability Personal
“To spread sustainability, we have to make it personal,” Shen says. “I became interested in healthy food when I became a father. I want to feed my children tasty, clean, healthy, and nutritious food.”
“Food is the most direct democracy. In 2016, the top 10 food companies controlled over 90% of food production in Western industrial countries, but their top sales dropped $18 billion since 2009. That’s a behavior change among consumers. We can support that change by providing the healthy and sustainable food people are demanding.”
On Industrial Chemical Farming
Only three main chemical companies supply 60% of seeds purchased by farmers around the globe, and the consolidation of these companies is damaging our food systems. Domestically, we’re seeing negative impacts on our health along with a loss of diversity in our food supply. On a global scale, food costs are rising. What alternatives are there to industrial chemical farming?
Many of the panelists agreed that storytelling and education are essential in changing consumer habits for the better. Ayesha stated that consumers have been conditioned to expect low prices as a result of government subsidies, and these artificially low prices come at a cost to small farmers. Liz added that “We need to tell the story of why [good food] is costing more money and why you should spend more. It is a problem unique to the US that people are willing to pay more for higher quality products except when it comes to food.” Jeffen urged individuals to become aware of their own agency as daily food consumers. Similarly, Shen expressed the importance of changing consumer behavior, stating that “Food is the most direct democracy. In 2016, the top 10 food companies controlled over 90% of food production in Western industrial countries, but their top sales dropped $18 billion since 2009. That’s a behavior change among consumers. We can support that change by providing the healthy and sustainable food people are demanding.”
On Meeting Nutritional Needs and Price Points
Liz suggested two ways we can meet the nutritional needs of consumers while keeping their price point in mind: address food waste and put “harvest dates” on products rather than expiration dates to let consumers know when their food was harvested. Shen added that being able to price food appropriately—neither too expensive nor too cheap—comes with scale.
“This is an individual and societal problem. We’re fat, sick, and hungry at the same time. We need to tie price, quality, and scale together.”
On Scale and Capital
Lastly, panelists were asked how scale and capital can be used to combat conventional chemical companies. Shen explained FoodFutureCo’s strategy which focuses on consumer behavior and identifies trends harnessed into a movement. By supporting purpose-driven entrepreneurs through long-term capital and impact investing, FoodFutureCo helps these ideas scale up and take hold in the mainstream.
Shen also expressed the importance of nutrition education. In a time when we have food products that haven’t decayed in decades, we must move past empty calories and food that is high in calories but low in nutrition. “This is an individual and societal problem. We’re fat, sick, and hungry at the same time. We need to tie price, quality, and scale together.”
Shen also added that when it comes to communicating with consumers, celebrity chefs, other storytellers, and investigative journalists are able to gain trust from consumers and convey meaningful messages that have the power to change consumer behavior.