July 9, 2015

Scalable, Repeatable, and Sustainable: The Need for Private Sector Investment to Achieve Lasting Food Security

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series
 
By Erin Lenhardt, 2015 MBA Candidate at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Co-Founder of Norm’s Farms, 2014 Kirchner Food Fellow, and 2015 Next Generation Delegate
 
As a Next Generation Delegate, I was thrilled to see that one of the minor themes of The 2015 Global Food Security Symposium was the role that private industry can play in helping to create sustainable food systems. As a Chicago Booth business school student who believes in the power of free markets to bring important innovations to the markets that demand them, business is a topic I feel is not breached often enough within the context of food security.
 
The Lightning Presentations, chaired by Allison Aubrey (Food and Health Correspondent, NPR News), were especially rich with direct and indirect allusions to the power of business to solve important problems. Salif Romano Niang (Cofounder and Chief Impact Officer, Malô) talked about the work his start-up is doing to address rice production issues in Mali. David Fleming (Vice President, Public Health Impact, PATH) and Shen Tong (Founder, Managing Director, FOOD-X) spoke more directly about the role business plays in creating scalable, lasting solutions to food security issues.
 
David Fleming kicked off the Lightning Presentations by sharing four examples of innovations that impact human health and nutrition on a global scale. What each example has in common, Fleming pointed out, is that they are all inherently scalable innovations that originated in the private food industry. Fleming’s point was that the world’s biggest problems require solutions that are “inherently scalable” and also “sustainable.”  This is private industry’s specialty.  Any entrepreneur can tell you that if you haven’t found a scalable, repeatable, sustainable business model, you have no business at all.
 
Shen Tong continued the business discussion when he introduced FOOD-X, a triple-bottom line (“people, planet, and profit”) accelerator focused on finding business solutions that will impact at least 100 million people. Shen sees the growing percentage of the population that cares about where food comes from as an opportunity, and envisions creating an alternative to the current state of our food system. FOOD-X works on creating this alternative food system, and is doing it “10 startups at a time” (the size of their accelerator classes).  Like Fleming, Tong underscores the importance of scalability: “You have to be highly scalable to create a compelling alternative.” Again, this is where business can help.
 
While the Lightning Presentations were rich with commentary on the potential of business to solve health and nutrition problems, the topic was largely absent from the overall discussion of the day. This is not an isolated event. Shortly after the Global Food Security Symposium, I attended a panel discussion on “Sustainability in Agribusiness and Food Production” hosted by the University of Chicago. Panelist Timothy J. Andriesen (Managing Director, Agriculture Commodities for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) mentioned that a few years ago he had been invited to a food security conference in Rome. He stated that he was the first and only person in the room to represent the private sector.  
 
Business has been only recently invited to the discussion when it comes to food security. While we often think of hunger, malnutrition, and food security as being domains of the public sector, and as problems that can only be tackled with the support of public aid and philanthropy, this simply is not realistic.  Business—and entrepreneurship in particular—is very well equipped to solve existing and emerging world problems. This is because business, by its very nature, must be scalable, repeatable, and sustainable. Next year, I look forward to even more business people sitting at the discussion table.
 
Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:  

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The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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