USAID Deputy Administrator Isobel Coleman at Foreign Policy’s Food+ Forum on Fostering Resilient Food Systems
ALLISON CARLSON: I’m very excited about this conversation. Thank you all.
So we’re talking about building resilience in food systems. What does that mean? And what are we talking about? Resilience has been increasingly in the lexicon and in some cases, a bit of a buzzword. And so when we’re talking about resilient food systems, what are we talking about?
Mark, I’d like to turn to you. And you, your work, your organization is really focused on strengthening value chains and embedding resilience in food security. So what does that mean? How can you characterize that for us?
MARK VISO, PRESIDENT, FOOD FOR HUNGRY: Yeah, thank you. I think it’s a great framing question for our discussion. It’s a real honor to be here. Thanks for inviting us. Great to be here with USAID – who has been leading in this space globally, with PepsiCo, who has been so involved in public private partnerships and with civil society, so great to be with you on the panel.
You know, a little bit of context if you zoom out, you know, as the World Economic Forum warned us earlier this year in Davos, we are looking at an onset of what they call a polycrisis, where we have multiple pressures: climate, conflict, interruptions in the value chain, disease – where risks and crises sort of converge in a devastating way that kind of erodes resilience. So with that context, I think that resilient food systems and approaches really are those systems that effectively manage those overlapping interconnected risks and crises – shocks, events, but also stressors, long term trends that are putting pressure on things.
I think though, and we’re certainly guilty of this in our sector and I’ll just speak for our sector, the civil society sector. We far too often – our prevailing approach, especially in hard places, where Food For the Hungry works, in 20 of the harder places around the globe – has focused on food production, generally at the community or local level, the farmer level, and it’s mostly been a mix of humanitarian assistance with agriculture and livelihood, interventions and support. And I think what we’re missing are the essential components necessary for a sustainable food system, which is resilience, and I’m almost done – in resilience – I think what we need to do and what Food for the Hungry is trying to do is build the three capacities that are necessary upfront to anything – even before you get to sustainability, even before you get to interventions around resilience. Absorptive capacity – can you take a shock, withstand that not getting knocked down knocked out? Adaptive capacity for resilience – can you pivot? Can you change? Can you shift to another value chain? And transformative capacities – can you change or build a more accommodating system to overcome the shocks and stressors and go to scale? That’s how we’re approaching, that’s what we’re looking at. We’re trying to build that in our new program model along with systems practice, that we can talk about more and human centered design, putting those we serve at the core of everything we do and helping them determine their own future.
MS. CARLSON: Thank you, Mark. That’s really helpful. And, you know, when we are facing these complex crises, and multiple factors at play, Isobel, I’m wondering from your perspective, how do you, and how does USAID, think about resilience as kind of an organizing principle and a framework for your strategy? How can that be a way to assess risk and also really target interventions that will strengthen food systems and value chains?
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR ISOBEL COLEMAN: Thank you, and it is great to be on a panel with different parts of, I think, what the solution has to be here. Look, humanitarian assistance – last year USAID did $13 billion in humanitarian assistance, and it’s not enough, and our Congress has just allocated another billion dollars in humanitarian assistance. It’s just not enough to meet the growing needs.
Today, there’s 750 to 800 million people in need of food assistance, and the billions and billions is just simply not enough. So Mark is exactly right. We have to be building more resilient food systems. I just came back from the African Food Systems Forum in Dar es Salaam the week before last. There were almost five thousand people there working on this exact issue. And I can tell you, it’s a really thorny, knotty problem. It’s a very intricate problem to solve, and it’s not like many people haven’t been working on it for a long time, but we’re not doing well enough.
So it’s a combination of investing in all of the infrastructure that Mark is talking about. Making sure that we have infrastructure and technology today, even drought resistant seeds; targeted fertilizer to get to the smallholder farmer; when the crops are grown, transportation to move it; cold storage. All of these things have to come together in an integrated food system way and, of course, being cognizant of the impacts of climate. I mean, one of the systemic ways that we’re addressing it at USAID is we are actually combining our climate work and our food security work into a new bureau, recognizing that the shocks that Mark referenced – they’re the new normal. This is the new normal, and we have to be absolutely cognizant that it’s not a shock this year. It’s going to happen next year, and the year after, and we have to be making the investments in a more completely resilient system.
And look, technology is not a silver bullet, but we are bringing new tech to bear on this. I’ll just give one quick example: USAID has a long term partnership with NASA, and we’ve been able to leverage geospatial data and pinpoint it directly into the hands of farmers, so that farmers can understand better what the condition of their soil is, so that they know what types of farming techniques they should be using and the type of fertilizer. It’s not any type of fertilizer, it’s specific to the soil so that they can use less fertilizer in some cases, or certainly waste less. So this project that we’ve had has helped some farmers waste up to 80 percent less fertilizer. So that’s just one way of building in resiliency.
MS. CARLSON: A few of the things you said really struck me, and one of them is – there are so many people working on this, but we need to do more. And then the example that you just gave, I think really illustrates how there can be innovative partnerships that are leveraging the complementarity of skill sets. Where different organizations, entities, agencies are best positioned to contribute, and how can you best align your efforts so that you’re really driving impact, driving efficiency? And so it’s not just technology which is so important, but it’s innovation in the types of partnerships and frameworks in which you’re addressing these issues.
And then another thing that you mentioned about sustainability and food security and that came out of the last conversation as well, and how inextricably linked they are. And C.D., I’d like to turn to you. I know we were talking before about some of the projects that PepsiCo is really rolling out that integrate just that. And making sustainability commitments that are core to your operations. And can you speak to that a little bit and provide some of the examples that you know, you’re working on with regenerative agriculture, water, and other ways in which you’re really embedding sustainability into the value chain?
C.D. GLIN, PRESIDENT, PEPSICO FOUNDATION: Thanks, Alison. Thank you FP, it’s great to be on the stage with you, USAID, Food for the Hungry. So why is PepsiCo on the stage talking about food security when we make soda now? Well, we’re much bigger than, quote unquote, a soda company – we’re one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies. We source 30 crops from 60 countries around the world. We have an employer base of more than 300,000 people and operate in 200 companies, and we’re rooted in agriculture.
When you think about PepsiCo, yes, think about Pepsi Cola, maybe you think about Gatorade. You probably won’t think that we own Quaker but we own Quaker, so we care a lot about oats. We care a lot about ‘tos – we care about Doritos, Tostitos, burritos – a lot of ‘tos. Those products that we enjoy, they’re made from corn – Doritos is corn. Lay’s potato chips is about potatoes. And so agriculture is core to our business – we’re an agriculture company, everything that we use and those ingredients, they are coming from the land or from natural resources.
So, you know, two years ago we launched an initiative to be a positive force for good in the world and it’s called PepsiCo Positive. And this is where, Allison, we put sustainability and human capital at the center of everything that we do, how we’re going to create value and grow as a company operating within planetary boundaries, but doing more good for people and planet. So great products, but we really are rooted in agriculture and care about people and planet. And so with this PepsiCo Positive agenda, it really is about being positive in our agriculture, how we source – I mentioned 30 crops, 60 countries – that’s over 7 million acres of land – we want all of that land where we’re resourcing from to be under regenerative agriculture. So regenerative agricultural practices, is what we’re doing across that. We were looking at positive in our value chain. We use a lot of water but we want to be net water positive, and we have clear goals to get there on being net water positive – where we are replenishing and using even more water than we actually utilize. And then we think about positive in our value chain, the choices that we put out in the world and that could be thinking about a bag of chips and that bag being biodegradable and compostable. So really, that the choices that are being made that they’re positive.
All of this is putting a system – we’re all about putting all this together to create a – to transform the food system and to create a sustainable regenerative food system. So in agriculture and products, and I lead our foundation and all of our social impact efforts. So when we’re talking about regenerative agriculture, we talk about that’s how we’re farming, how people are farming. That’s about sustainable sourcing, how we’re sourcing.
In my world we do a lot with who’s farming, so making sure that it’s inclusive. And that’s a commitment that we have, working with CARE International to support five million female smallholder farmers around the world helping them improve their livelihoods, increasing their incomes, increasing their crop yields. How they’re using water, and key programs, and products, and also making more nutrition available for them and their families. So this is where a company is using our power from a philanthropic standpoint, but also what makes that program so innovative. Is that – yes, we’re improving the livelihoods of those smallholder farmers, but we also are now giving them a long term sustainable market, because when we’re working with potato producers in Egypt, or potato producers in Vietnam and Thailand, or in Colombia, we’re working on that supply chain, it’s going to be regenerative. It’s gonna be sustainable. Women are going to be sourcing – women are going to be farming. We can use that as a source to really take those potatoes that they’re growing and put them in our supply chain.
So now this isn’t only a do-good program from the foundation, this is business. This is a sustainable food system that literally is creating this virtuous cycle of good, where how they’re farming in a regenerative way, but we’re creating a market for ourselves and for other buyers.
The same thing in water in terms of being net water positive and looking at our plants that use water and cleaning that water, and replenishing water back. This is where as a company, we’re conscious this is again this is some of the spending from the foundation, but this is where the company itself – PepsiCo as an entity, we want to be positive and we have strong partnerships with USAID in Western Bengal – and USAID where we have you know, tens of thousands of small holders in our supply chain that we’re sourcing from – with USAID, working with them to build the capacity of these small holders to produce more, to do it in a quality way, to enter into our supply chain, and really integrating women into these supply chains. This is where public-private partnerships are creating transformational work in the communities where people live and work. And we talk about our approach being local, we go ultra-local. Where we are, we become part of that community. So being local. We’re going to be leading for PepsiCo – we are a Fortune 50 company, one of the biggest buyers of agricultural products in the world – but we want to make sure that the solutions that we are integrating are leading, that you’re using technology, that for us resilience building is future proofing. If we don’t have a sustainable, regenerative food system, we don’t have a future as a business. So this isn’t a nice to have, this isn’t the social impact guide, and some of you my friends in the audience know I was in government. I was in the nonprofit world. I was with the Rockefeller Foundation. That’s what we’re doing good, now with this company, that sort of thing. The work the good that you have to do is how we’re going to survive, adapt, and thrive for years to come as a company. So these programs with local nonprofits – international nonprofits, like CARE, bilateral donors like USAID, global nonprofits like Food for the Hungry, this is how we’re doing business today.
And ten years ago, we wouldn’t have seen the private sector sort of saying we have to make sure we’re a part of the solution. We want to be a part of the ecosystem of players, with nonprofits, with governments and with business working together to create that sustainable food system.
MS. CARLSON: Absolutely. You point to so many great concrete examples. And one of the things that you mentioned regarding inclusion, and equity, and capacity building, I know is front and center. And when we’re talking about localization, and making sure that the programs, the interventions that are so connected in terms of the global value chains are really oriented toward what’s needed on the ground and being driven and inclusive by those who are on the farms and who are working in regenerative agriculture.
And so Mark, I’d like to turn to you. You are operating and working around the world, and when you think about your efforts for greater inclusion and greater capacity – capacity building, particularly in some of the hardest places in the world, how are you approaching that? And what are some of the factors that you’re keeping in mind, and that we should all be keeping in mind to make sure that local communities are front and center?
MR. VISO: Yeah, I think that you know, like your first question kind of framed it – this one’s now the meta question for, at least for us. Because I think localization can become very transactional and the way we define it or the way we seek to move forward in it. For us, at least at Food for the Hungry, we’re challenging ourselves to reimagine who we are, the value we add, and who decides if we are of worth – do we add the value that should be added? Who gets to say that?
And to me, that’s really about localization. It’s not just, you know, extracting data from the local community, so we can do better programming, it’s about giving agency, voice, and power. And that makes us all uncomfortable, you know, because localization is really about a redistribution of power, the power dynamics. To me, that’s the fundamental precedent for real resilience. Do those we serve – do they have a voice? Can they say what the value you’re adding is not the value we want? Are they the ones who get to evaluate if we have worth or not? That’s challenging. I don’t pretend that we know how to do it. But just asking the question makes it raw and uncomfortable, and that’s a good place to be, I think.
You know, we are in 18, 20 countries, many of those countries, we’ve been there 40-45 years, and those same communities, developing long term trusted catalytic relationships. And by catalytic, we mean that there’s nothing that we’re bringing new. There’s already a solution there somewhere. As you know, Muhammad Yunus said, “the poor are not a solution to be solved but an opportunity to be unlocked.” There is a solution that just maybe hasn’t had the fire starter. What can we do to that in service of those that want that solution to take hold or there’s a solution but it’s slow, it’s not going to scale – what can we do?
I do think that this panel represents, you know, three of the four components and this is well tried rhetoric right? Public private partnership, civil side we got the you know, bilateral aid, powerful go to scale, innovate, policy, the private sector and corporations driving sustainability, driving what matters driving, you know, economic ecosystems that are dynamic, and sustainable, and enriching. Civil society – local long term intimate relationships that provide a degree of bonafides and validation. And then I look to see the impact investors come along, you know – there’s a lot of capital that can be unlocked. It’s trying to figure out how do they deploy that, right? With their own type of bottom line thinking? I think we’re on the precipice of that. I think what the World Economic Forum talked about these last four or five years around the Fourth Industrial Revolution – you know, these polycrises, that’s a challenge. But the Fourth Industrial Revolution, if we do it, right – machine learning, you know, like you talked about sensing, all sorts of epigenetics, all everything’s offer an opportunity to think a little different, not just about what we do on the interventions, but how we do that. How we get that done, making sure that there’s a power redistribution as we own those solutions. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
MS. CARLSON: Thank you for that. And I think you raise a really important point about impact and questions about how we measure that. What metrics are we using? And so yes, we need to be more data informed, evidence-based to the extent possible, ensure that those programs and those investments are being targeted in the greatest extent and will have the greatest impact that they can.
But Isobel, when you think about USAID, and the programs that you have around the world, how are you thinking about impact and the metrics that maybe aren’t always included? And the factors that need to be considered when you’re prioritizing in what is, you know, a resource constrained environment and you have to make hard choices?
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Well, certainly, there are a multitude of metrics but numbers reached, of course, is one but it’s really ultimately about a return on investment. You know, how much more productivity are we stimulating? How much more financing are we putting in the hands of farmers? How much more of a solution to the problem are we able to deliver? And Mark mentioned impact investing, I mean, look, financing is a huge challenge in this space, and it’s something that we’re really more and more focused on. We’ve been long focused on improving access to fertilizer, technical assistance to farmers, leading cutting edge seeds – and metrics around all of that, you know, how much more productive can farmers be.
And with financing here’s another element that we have to look at. We just announced a first loss facility this week here at UNGA. In collaboration with the government of Norway, we’re each putting in $35 million for a $70 million fund that will help de-risk investing in agriculture around the world, but in Africa, specifically, we’ll help de-risk it for investors with the goal of coming up with a $200 million fund that will be able to leverage a billion dollars. There’s a metric right where we want to see at least a five times leveraging, if not more, on these types of financing facilities.
And I will just give one other example, on insurance, crop insurance. You know, this is something that is the norm for wealthy farmers around the world, but it’s the poorest farmers, the most vulnerable farmers who need it the most, and they’ve never had access to crop insurance. But now bringing to bear more technology that can help insurers really understand drought conditions and soil conditions and other things – it enables them to provide more cost effective insurance. And we’ve worked around the world with different governments. In Kenya, we started this a decade ago – 900 farmers have access to crop insurance – today it’s over 1.4 million farmers in Kenya have access to crop insurance. So, we’d like to see a hockey stick like that, again, getting back to metrics, this has to be at scale. It can’t just be a handful of farmers benefiting, it really has to be at scale. With the first loss facility, we hope that as I said, it will eventually reach 1.5 million smallholder farmers, which will really allow a scaling on access to financing, access to insurance, access to specialized seeds that are drought resistance – whatever it is, it has to be a really high ROI and able to deliver at scale.
MS. CARLSON: It’s an exciting announcement and it can also potentially be a model and inform other projects of that type and mobilizing capital in that way. And so it’s an exciting announcement, and thank you for pointing to that.
And as you’re talking about the metrics and financing, and also the other innovations that can be brought to bear to scale, C.D. from your perspective, what are you focused on and what are you prioritizing? Are there either blended finance, or collaborative projects, or other types of innovations, technological innovations that you’re integrating into your value chain that are really enabling greater efficiency and driving that impact then at scale? I think you’re operating on such a large scale – you can really move the dialogue.
MR. GLIN: You know, I often talk about our size and our scale as that – pressure is a privilege, where you – because you can do more, you should do more and we look at that as an opportunity and a responsibility. And so just the regenerative agriculture journey is front and center for us with the seven million acres that we want to convert for regenerative agriculture, but not going it alone. And so even in the U.S. with ADM and with Walmart, both time companies committing to long term transformational projects, where we’re gonna do two million acres, a piece with those two companies. So PepsiCo with ADM, with Walmart, so big companies who can get to scale really, fast coming together.
I think another thing that when – from a private sector standpoint, is really using all the tools in the toolbox. So when a company wants to step up, yes, we can talk about the capital and the cash that we have, but we also have a lot of other assets that can be used and so that’s that procurement capability at scale, in terms of really entering into relationships, where we are procuring and sourcing at scale.
Thinking about our people – these are 300,000 people who have the time, the talent, and the treasure to be a part of the solution that’s there. So using our people in a very different way as an asset for us.
Our products alone, so you know, just over the past three weeks from Maui to Morocco to Libya, when we showed up. Yes, our money matters, and funding organizations like World Central Kitchen or the World Food Program. We have products for delivering water, delivering granola bars, delivering real food products in times of need. So a lot of assets that we try to leverage in different ways at scale all around the world. And so I definitely am somebody who’s a big proponent of blended finance and using catalytic capital, philanthropic capital to de-risk to draw in others to fill gaps. And so businesses thinking about all the assets that we have, again, our products, our people, our performance to deliver, and letting that be leveraged. I think that’s what was really important was that Isobel mentioned that – this all can be leveraged and combined together.
So I think that we’re in a really interesting time now where collaboration is key and even a company such as mine, that wants to win in the marketplace. We talked about, you know, collective impact, and we talked about we’ll partner with anybody as long as they share our values, and our goals, and we want to get further together. So this is a really important time. Well, we know that these challenges need to be addressed at scale, and we know no one company can do it alone. But there is a real journey and and transformation happening around the food system and we’re seeing it as a system and everybody playing their part, unlike I’ve seen in years past.
MS. CARLSON: We’re running out of time, but I have a speed round question for all three of you. You know, you all spoke to the importance and value of partnerships, and it’s not a throw away. It’s absolutely absolutely the case that those partnerships need to be strengthened, new partnerships forged. In the context of the UN General Assembly, what needs to be focused on this week that will really materially impact food security. What do you want to see either focused on or come out of the discussions this week that will have a meaningful impact going forward?
Isobel, can I turn to you first?
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Well, I think ultimately, it is about partnerships, and it’s about partnerships – I’ll take us back to where we started – about building resiliency. And, you know, coming out of this week, actual concrete commitments to try new things, to put money on the table, not just talk but real commitments, and those are commitments from the private sector, from civil society, from government. I mean, look at what we’ve done here as a U.S. government – we’ve made a ton of new commitments here at UNGA this week and have done it in partnership with other governments. We’ve done it in partnership with nonprofits, and partners who can really help us deliver on the ground. So and look, not everything’s going to be as successful as we hope it is. You just have to keep measuring and, and iterating, and come back to the table with new commitments and new ideas and continue to drive forward to have the progress that we demand.
MS. CARLSON: Well put.
MR. GLIN: Let’s let action be our default. You know, I think I talk a lot on my team about, you know, results – driving results, relevancy, and relationships. So we need these partnerships to do more together, need to be addressing the problems on hand especially in this time and age, but delivering results. And so I think having that action as a default. A journey of a thousand miles does begin with a single step. But let’s start running. Let’s go a little bit faster, let’s fail faster, we can succeed sooner, but I do think we need more experimentation. I think we need more action. And we need you know, the commitments but also the real action behind them. So I just want to see us do more – want to see us do more together, and I want to go a little bit faster because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “there’s a fierce urgency of now. The world is not waiting. There’s a fierce urgency of now.”
MR. VISO: Yeah, you said one, I’ll do two, I’ll be quick.
One, a real focus on systems – looking at things as interconnected systems. I think that invites partnerships – we don’t have to be as jealous. There’s lots of entry points as we see these challenges as interconnected systems that can be changed if we interdict in the right ways and think through that. So systems thinking, systems planning, and again, it’s important rather than just transactions.
And second, putting those, we serve at the heart and core of all we do – human-centered design, just practical ways to do it. I’ve been doing this for 36 years. It’s easy, you know, I confess, it’s easy for us, for me to forget about those we serve in communities when we’re running around here in New York at UNGA, you know. But let’s make sure that we remember that those are the people who have to be equal partners in owning our collective future, but also their future – what that looks like.
MS. CARLSON: Well put. Thank you. Thanks to all of you. We really appreciate you being here and the work that you’re doing.