Reflections on Driving Positive Change in Food and Agriculture: The Second Annual AGree Partners Forum

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Earlier this month, AGree Advisors, Co-Chairs, partners, and friends spent a day laying out integrated, forward-looking strategies to drive positive change in the food and agriculture system. The Second Annual AGree Partners Forum brought together leaders who understand the critical role food and agriculture plays in our economy, environment, and health and wellbeing. Participants were as diverse as AGree itself – producers, agricultural companies and retailers, nutrition and public health advocates, environmentalists, international and rural development experts, government representatives, and the media. A slideshow of the Forum can be viewed here .

Forum Highlights

The AGree Co-Chairs and I shared AGree’s “story” – our path to develop eight initiatives to tackle food and agriculture challenges from a systems perspective, taking into account their complex and interconnected nature. We shared these stories in a Prezi and short video that features AGree’s Advisors and Co-Chairs.

A number of distinguished speakers underscored the importance of engaging diverse stakeholders to craft and execute effective, practical solutions. Senator Richard Lugar kicked us off with his reflections on the potential of research and technology to address key challenges, and Union Kitchen’s Owner and Co-Founder Jonas Singer closed the forum with remarks about his work and how food entrepreneurs are agents of social justice and change.

In the Forum’s opening panel, Responding to the Challenges: Creating Interconnected Policies and Programs for Food & Agriculture, speakers from Wal-Mart, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research highlighted key tensions in the food and agriculture system. We want people to eat more nutrient-dense foods, yet “junk” foods are often delicious, convenient, ubiquitous, and affordable. We want producers to use sustainable practices to grow the food we eat, but it is hard to get supply chain actors to agree on which practices and measure whether they result in environmental improvements, and ultimately many consumers aren’t willing to pay for them. We also want to help producers manage risk, yet minimize the cost to tax payers at the same time. Although daunting, panelists noted powerful tools that can overcome these tensions – such as research on agricultural practices and their effects on water quality, education about nutrition (coupled with research about who is the best messenger to change behavior), new partnerships with minorities and young people, and collaboration across the supply chain.

Prevention was a recurring theme at the Forum. A panel on Food as Health: Building Bridges to Foster Healthy Children, Families, and Communities made a compelling case for investing in nutrition and healthy eating in a range of settings. As we heard, “you can pay the farmer now (for healthier, more nutrient-dense food) or, you can pay the doctor later.” Panelists and participants called for approaches that integrate food and nutrition with health to reduce healthcare costs and improve wellbeing, such as more fully seizing opportunities associated with diabetes prevention through moderate weight loss (e.g., 7 percent of body weight). This just makes sound economic sense.

Then looking beyond our borders, we explored agriculture’s primary role in improving food security and alleviating poverty in developing countries during a panel entitled, International Development: Bringing Agriculture to the Table. The conversation pivoted off the work of AGree and others to bring U.S. production agriculture into discussions about agricultural development assistance and push forward advocacy efforts for national legislation, such as the Global Food Security Act. The panel also emphasized the need to forge connections between U.S. production agriculture and developing country farmers, particularly smallholders. U.S. agriculture has an important role to play in advancing international food and agriculture development, and panelists noted the need for increased education and advocacy to build long-term support for agricultural development assistance.

Luncheon Keynote Speaker, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, shared his work in Iowa to support the state’s agricultural economy and safeguard water resources. Reflecting on his work on a nutrient reductions strategy, he described how producers will step up, commit resources, and work together when the right incentives and collaborative environment are put in place. Following his remarks, AGree Co-Chair Dan Glickman joined Secretary Northey on stage to share AGree’s Call to Presidential Action – a targeted set of recommendations intended to inform Presidential campaigns of areas in need of leadership. Forum participants shared their views on why food and agriculture are critical to the country and made a number of suggestions to strengthen the message. Topics to consider adding included: hunger, access to nutritious food, urban agriculture, the need for diversity, the connection to STEM disciplines, rural economic development, crop-neutral insurance subsidies, and child health and school readiness. A number of participants underscored the importance of educating candidates as well as the general population about the food and agriculture system.

The Forum’s final panel, Working Landscapes: Developing Innovative Policy Solutions and On-the-Ground Actions, featured the announcement of an AGree partnership with the Minnesota AgriGrowth Council that will promote producer-led conservation in several Minnesota watersheds. The project puts farmers in the driver’s seat, working with others in agriculture, the food supply chain, government agencies, and non-profit partners, to solve water quality concerns through unprecedented collaboration. (A press release and short video provide additional details.) Panelists also discussed crop insurance, noting that data integration and analysis is critical for assessing the risk reduction benefits of conservation practices. Indeed, research and associated data collection build the case for – and enable action on – many important challenges across the food and agriculture system.

To close the day, Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at The White House, spoke about encouraging progress to prioritize healthy food for children. In one project, Let’s Move! is working with advertisers to place Sesame Street characters on fruits and vegetables. It turns out that Elmo can sell broccoli! A former AGree Advisor, she stressed the importance of listening, building trust, and taking action and praised AGree and its partners for their work.

My Concluding Thoughts

Over the past four years, AGree has grappled with the tremendous challenges facing food and agriculture. We have mapped the system, built trust among diverse stakeholders, developed eight initiatives to address the challenges in an integrated fashion, and issued 37 consensus recommendations. Now, we must act.

In 2016 and beyond we will carry forward this important conversation and take action – through our Conservation and Crop Insurance Task Force, Working Lands Conservation Partnership pilots, our NextGenFR program, and through new coalitions on international development, research, and connecting food and nutrition to health. Our Call to Presidential Action urges the nation to make food and agriculture a national priority to create integrated, lasting solutions that ensure national security, a vibrant economy, a well-nourished population, and a healthy environment.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Forum! I look forward to working with you to drive positive change in the food and agriculture system.

As we move forward, we always appreciate your ideas, assistance, and outreach to others in your networks. Please don’t hesitate to contact us! You can reach out to either me (DAtwood@merid.org ) or my Chief of Staff, Heather Lair (HLair@merid.org) with questions, comments, or ideas at any time.

Best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving!

Deb

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