The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently held their annual Global Food Forum in Chicago. All conversations, in one way or another, touched on the critical need to build resiliency in our existing food system. 

For those who follow supply chain or environmental and social sustainability issues, this isn’t surprising or a particularly new theme. We have been discussing the need for resiliency across the food value chain as a result of extreme weather events for a few years. Then, COVID-19 highlighted the systemic issues in our existing supply channels, as well as the social injustices faced by farmers and food workers. Now we are facing further disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine, which will also only worsen the current food insecurity crisis. A crisis that is getting the attention of one of the world’s preeminent investment firms.

We know we need food systems resiliency. But the conversation is shifting slightly related to 1) what “resiliency” looks like and 2) what needs to happen to get there. 

Based on the perspectives of government, food industry executives (from multinational corporations and disrupter startups), scientists, and farmers at the WSJ Global Food Forum, here is what that looks like:

  • A resilient food system is flexible. Much of the conversation has focused on the need for our food system to bounce back. To “fix” itself, getting back to status quo. This is only half of what it means to be resilient. A resilient food system is also one that is flexible and can adapt or change quickly. 
    The “unprecedented events” of the past few years are now precedent. All companies in the food sector need to have a plan to address these events, but that plan must be nimble, and executives need to be comfortable changing that plan.

    This could be related to how products get to consumers but also what is included in that product to begin with. For example, companies are investing in reformulation to ensure their products can adapt when facing a shortage of a particular ingredient. Cargill* discussed this approach for sunflower oil, a key ingredient in baby food facing supply issues due to the war in Ukraine

    While we can’t predict what specific challenge our food system will face next, we know the general challenges we’re facing – from the impacts of climate change, supply chain disruptions due to geo-political conflict or health issues, to a growing food insecurity crisis. Continuing to study the effects of these challenges will help us create a resilient food system that can bounce back and adapt.

  • We should broaden our view of what innovation can look like, as well as where it can come from. The increased interest in the food sector is driving innovation and resulting in startups which leverage technology to improve how we currently produce food (for example, the use of AI to monitor the health of poultry) as well as innovation intended to disrupt the category entirely (see mention of Bowery Farms below). 

    This type of innovation is exciting. And it’s not going anywhere. But it’s not the only source of innovation. Companies should also look to supplier-enabled innovation to address challenges, and the importance of a mutually beneficial supplier-buyer relationship came up in many conversations. Jason Buechel, Whole Foods CEO-Designate discussed an instance when a snack supplier couldn’t meet demand. The retailer provided loans to the supplier to adjust, standing up a new sourcing line to increase supply where they would have otherwise been shorted. 

  • Innovation can disrupt. It can also be simple. Every company has their own journey in innovation, ranging from incremental (low risk, gradual improvement to existing products or services) to disruptive (a new business model that changes the market but doesn’t come without risk). 

    Bowery Farming is an indoor, vertical farming and digital agriculture company with farms along the East Coast. Founder and CEO Irving Fain created a system where robots monitor crops, gathering data about how they grow. This data from each crop at each farm helps the entire system learn how to become more efficient, using less inputs to grow the same amount. Fain was clear he started the company to create an entirely new agriculture system as he believes controlled environment agriculture – referred to as CEA – is the latest wave of sustainable infrastructure and moving farms indoors is necessary to adapt to climate change. 

    But not all innovation needs to disrupt the current market. Rob Hargrove, Chief Research and Development Officer at Mondelēz, discussed the importance of engaging a company’s supplier network to “simplify everything,” in particular how we source ingredients and working closely with suppliers to localize distribution channels where possible. 

  • The mutually beneficial aspect of the supplier-buyer relationship is crucial to addressing food system challenges. Specifically, speakers focused on benefits to the farmers, ranchers, growers putting in the work each day and the importance of monetizing the benefits farmers create. This monetization is currently seen in the emerging carbon credit market, but work is underway to measure and monetize additional sustainable outcomes of in-field practices, including water use and quality as well as biodiversity outcomes. 

    John Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farms Association, put it simply when asked how farmers in America were feeling. “It’s heart wrenching,” he said. “Farmers do not need crop insurance when they can’t pay for diesel fuel or seeds. Farmers need fair access to credit.” He went on to issue a CTA to the executives in the room, “It’s time to give back. We need help and we need it now. It’s time to give back to the Black and American farmer.” 

  • As are solutions to ensure a strong labor force. Food industry employers are making inward commitments to their talent in hopes it pays in longevity for the future. Whole Foods is reigniting their founding purpose to be more than a grocery store, but rather a mission-driven company created to drive positive change in the food system. Chefs and restauranteurs, including Stephanie Izard and Tom Colicchio, are building trust amongst their staff with open and honest dialogue on societal issues, from women’s rights, gun laws and overall staff safety. Colicchio went as far to say the priority for him is the happiness and experience of his staff. If he has that, guests will have a good experience, as well. 

From disruptions, stressors and shocks, challenges to our food system are here to stay. We are in a moment of transformation. As food and agricultural companies race to embed resiliency into their supply chains, it will not only be crucial to be open to all forms of innovation—from supplier- to technology-enabled—but to also look to all members of the system—from farmers on the ground to corporate c-suite—on what is needed to make this transformation possible.   

Paige Graham is Vice President, Social Impact & Sustainability, Edelman
Carrie Becker is Senior Vice President, Edible, Inc
Christine Zinker is Senior Vice President, Edible, Inc

*Edelman client