Francisco Noguera

Net Impact: Business Solutions to the Global Food Crisis

Bree O. 2Guest blogger Bree Olivari is a second-year MBA candidate at Thunderbird Global School of Management and is a leader of the Net Impact chapter.? At Thunderbird, Bree integrates her interest in sustainable business with her degree in supply chain leadership. Her projects include mapping best practices of supplier codes of ethics, organizing Thunderbird’s Sustainable Innovation Summit and greening procurement practices on campus.

During a recent internship Bree helped design the distribution of micronutrient sachets to undernourished children in Mexico.

By?Bree OlivariAs I?bit into an?apple provided in my Net Impact lunch box, my mind wandered to the farm it came from and how this juicy treat related to a growing and global food crisis. It is expected that such a thought cross my mind especially since the details from the session I attended at the Net Impact National Conference hours earlier entitled “The Global Food Crisis: Business-Led Solutions to Alleviate Food Insecurity and Malnutrition” were still fresh.

Back to my thoughts of the apple farm. Much unlike the farms described in the session, which the world’s poorest communities depend on, the apple?farm probably uses technology?developed over?the past fifty years, can afford to use fertilizer and may even receive a subsidy from the US government. Furthermore, the apple farmer clearly has access to a reliable transportation infrastructure which affords her access to markets where she can make well-informed decisions on price and value for the customer.

The session opened with the moderator (Mr. Shantu Shantharam from the Woodrow Wilson Institute on International Affairs) setting the stage. He explained how the 10,000 year old agriculture industry only really had one revolution, the green revolution of the 1960’s. The green revolution refers to the spread of agricultural technology to maximize crop yields, such as the use of irrigation systems, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and superior crop varieties.

According to Mr. Shantharam, the green revolution skipped the continent of Africa and parts of Asia because governments did have the capacity to observe or manage the technology.? Consequently, subsistence farming in these areas has not been able to keep up with the rapid population growth and has ultimately resulted in the global food crisis exists.?

Beyond missing what has now become standard agricultural technology, there are many other reasons why the global food crisis persists. The others, Mr. Shantharam continued, include: political insecurity, a lack of investment vehicles such as crop insurance and loans, unfair crop subsidies in the developed nations, limited food safety standards, mass migration, poor access to market information and little awareness ?or education on the ?environmental impacts of agriculture.? “So why has this crisis not been addressed?” Mr. Shantharam asked, “Because there are too many crises with no time to plan.” Mr. Shantharam believes that the most hopeful solution to the crisis is the introduction of genetically modified seeds which will be able to grow in areas with little resources such as water and deficient soil nutrients.

After the bleak introduction to the global food crisis, Mr. Shantharam introduced Marlene Gummo, a West African Trade specialist who worked in Dakar and Senegal for several years on a USAID-funded project that prepared regional food products and trained regional producers for export. Although she agreed with Mr. Shantharam on the reasons why the crisis exists, her answer to the crisis was not in the use of bio-engineering but in industrial technology. Ms. Gummo supports investment in machines that are adapted to the nature of local agricultural products and methods of processing.

She gave the example of the numerous varieties of millet grain grown in West Africa. The millet is believed to be one of the most important grains in the world in terms of consumption, yet it does not have the technology in place to improve crop yields and production. The traditional method of processing by crushing the grain with a handheld stone is very time consuming and labor intensive. The result is less is processed and less is available for consumption. ?With a machine, greater quantities of millet could be processed and made available for local consumption.

The next panelist was Mr. Brian Milder from Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund that supports agricultural businesses in the developing world.? The beneficiaries of Root Capital are entrepreneurs who have devised ways to avoid agricultural practices that are harmful to the environment. Beyond providing funding to these entrepreneurs, Root Capital also offers financial training and connections with ethical sourcing companies. Mr. Milder sees a solution to the crisis through investing in farmers who are environmental stewards.

Beyond loans, he sees a future in public-private partnerships, thereby providing a perfect segue for the introduction of the third panelist, Ms. Mara Russell, Institutional Capacity Building Specialist of Land O’Lakes International Development.

I was particularly surprised to learn about that Land O’Lakes had an international development program. Ms. Russell described the program as focusing on providing technical support for mostly dairy production in the agricultural development of parts of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. In her work at Land O’Lakes, Ms. Russell has observed the disconnection between dealing with the global crisis and addressing the immediate concerns of feeding a nation. ?Far too often governments resort to food aid which provides an unsustainable solution. She believes farmers associations can break the cycle of dependency on food aid.? These associations bulk their inputs and outputs together, thereby leveraging their purchasing and selling volumes to decrease their production costs and maximize their revenues.

Considering the magnitude and complexity of the global food crisis, the panel gave a different views of the problem, a variety of solutions currently being employed and their implications for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. I walked away from that session with a deeper appreciation for the individuals and organizations who are attempting to tackle this daunting crisis.?