June 28, 2017
The first FoodCrunch conference took place last week, bringing together diverse individuals across the value chain for candid discussions about how to create a more sustainable and nutritious food system. The conference had no agenda – the participants were the agenda – and while I’m not usually a passive listener, I had my doubts that just convening a group of impassioned people for conversations would provide new insights. I love it when I’m proven wrong.
An open mind with no agenda helped define my agenda
There’s much agreement that we urgently need to improve our food system. There’s much controversy, even polarization, about how to best do it and what role technology should play. Polarization to the point of distraction, missed opportunity and most importantly wasted time.
With a bias toward urgency, I was apprehensive to spend more time debating where the goal post should be and interested in challenging my assumptions to discern where we could build progress on a perceived narrow body of common ground. I was surprised and encouraged to find others in the same place.
One participant commented that the sustainable food movement has evolved from highlighting the need for a better food system to identifying more inclusive approaches to achieve it. That’s encouraging to hear, so what could that mean… and as the leader of a company that empowers organizations to advance genetics (scary!), what does that mean for me?
A unifying message for the role of technology
The role of technology to advance seed genetics is one of the most polarizing issues in our food system. For many of the participants, the concept of technology in food was not bothersome. We do, after all, use technology in every aspect of our lives. But norms and principles of the way technology is deployed in our food requires a lot of attention.
Many of these new entrants to agriculture, some of whom I had a chance to meet, are entrepreneurs like us. They are highly focused on consumer expectations of our food system, appreciate the importance of transparency and believe that too few companies have too much control. As my head was nodding with agreement, the kicker was hearing receptivity, even enthusiasm, for the role of technologies like genome editing to promote more nutrient-dense crops, to manage plant diseases with less pesticides, and to address bottlenecks in indoor agriculture systems. Many participants promoting specialty crops and local production appreciate that good seed and therein, seed genetics, are foundational to success, but they did not appreciate to what extent plant biology has been underleveraged for our industry.
Then comes the introduction to Benson Hill. Expecting people to cringe when they heard I founded a company working on improving plant genetics, my head practically spun when folks quickly asserted that what we do could have a positive impact on their business. When someone asks, “where have you been?” and “how can I work with you?”… I cannot wait to find ways to collaborate with this refreshingly open-minded community, and to help enable them to solve problems and develop better products faster.
Recognizing shared values as a KPI
My experience in Montana far exceeded expectations and emphasized a unifying message. For the stakeholders I met, sustainability, community, and transparency are as much a part of their business DNA as profitability, and they are equally diligent in understanding how applications of technology align with and advance their values. These leaders want to know that technology is deployed in a way that creates more choice and less dependency for farmers, more health and wellness for consumers, and a more diverse and resilient food system.
I’ve written in the past that one of my greatest mistakes as a CEO was not recognizing the importance of a company’s culture in its success. The real learning was that it takes more than written goals or HR programs to create such a culture. It takes clear commitment and actions from leadership to value and prioritize people.
Similarly, it takes clear commitment and actions from leadership to prioritize sustainability, community and transparency as values that guide our company as we do our part to make a real impact. A culture based on values that inspire our people, meet the expectations of consumers, and demonstrate the enormous contribution farmers bring to society makes good business sense and may be the beginning of common ground we can all stand on.