Friday, July 25, 2014

What I learned at the conference: Responsible Business Forum on Food & Agriculture

Last week I participated in Responsible Business Forum onFood and Agriculture conference in Manila. Oriented around the theme, “Driving growth, improving lives,” the speakers, panels and discussions focused on the environmental aspects of being responsible. Global Initiatives put it together, in partnership with WWF and corporate, NGO and media partners.

Lately I’ve been focusing on the ways that agriculture impact and can contribute to public health and nutrition, and working primarily with public and NGO sector, so the environment and business emphasis made a nice change of perspective for me. 

One highlight was meeting Jason Clay from WWF. In his opening plenary talk, Jason very masterfully walked us through the enormous impact that agriculture has on the environment, and why it’s so important for companies involved in agriculture and food production to work together ‘pre-competitively’ to pull the rest of the market toward better practices and products. All consumer choices should be more sustainable, Jason says, and I agree! I highly recommend his TED talk from a few years ago which includes these themes and more.  Jason is a terrific speaker who takes his mission to raise awareness about these issues very seriously. We need more ambassadors like him who are dedicated to cutting through the complexity to carefully explain the trends and the urgent issues in ways that policy makers, corporate executives and the news media can understand. He’s a master. 

Another highlight for me was realizing that there is a lot I don’t know about agriculture and food production! The conference included an afternoon spent in self-selected working groups on specific commodity groups. I joined the discussion on aquaculture and fisheries, in part because I knew less about that topic than the others. But I didn’t know just how much I didn’t know, like how many fish it takes to make a fish! This sector is incredibly complex and important for nutrition, economics and the environment. 

From a communication perspective, the conference speakers and panelists that did the best were those who weren’t afraid to get into some of the specifics of their topics. I was happy to learn that one speaker’s daughter thought farmers should be respected just like parents “because they feed us every day”. Another speaker, now a senior executive at a big multinational company, spoke movingly about helping his father on the family farm in South America. From passionate Philippine industry and government speakers, we learned fascinating things about the benefits of bio-char and why senile coconut trees are an emerging issue in the Philippines!

Kudos to the organizers at Global Initiatives for gathering a great diversity of participants from around the world, across Asia, and especially from the Philippines. I shared a table with an executive from a local restaurant and catering group, and an official from the department of agriculture. And it was great fun bumping into friends and colleagues from past projects. 

Looking ahead, I would love to see this kind of business conference framework oriented around a nutrition topic. The business sector has an incredibly important responsibility in addressing hunger and malnutrition as well as dealing with the growing issues of obesity here in Asia, as was pointed out in this blog just a few days ago on the importance of using private sector supply chains to meet nutrition challenges (lots more good stuff on the #feedingdev site!). 
PS: Thanks to my friend Tod Gimbel and Landmark Asia for sharing the invitation so I could join!