Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: COVID-19 impact underscores need, ability for industry to tackle sustainability goals
Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the recently rebranded non-profit US Farmers & Ranchers in Action, explains that prior to and even in the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, food and ag stakeholders operated in silos. And while she says they were able to do “amazing work” on their own, it wasn’t until they began to work together that they successfully recalibrated the supply chain to meet quickly evolving demand.
In doing so, Fitzgerald says that stakeholders from different areas of the food network were directly confronted with the challenges that their peers have long struggled to address on their own.
With their eyes now open, Fitzgerald says in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast that she hopes everyone in the value chain including farmers, ranchers, brands, retailers, environmental groups, financial institutions and others can identify and advance solutions not only to their personal problems but to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by the fast-approaching 2030 deadline.
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Rebranded USFRA launches Decade of Ag Vision
By all accounts, Fitzgerald says that 2020 was not the best year for the US Farmers & Ranchers in Action to rebrand from the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance or to launch an ambitious Decade of Ag Vision that mirrors the UN’s Decade of Action, which calls on more stakeholders to mobilize to meet Sustainable Development goals.
But, she adds, the challenges addressed by the UN’s SDGs and felt by the farmers and ranchers who make up USFRA’s constituency aren’t going away just because the coronavirus poses a global health crisis.
And while she says the outbreak has raised new and pressing challenges, it has also underscored the importance of many SDGs, such as ending hunger, spurring decent work and economic growth, encouraging responsible consumption and production and advancing good health and well-being among others. The pandemic also has forced industry players to come together in a way that Fitzgerald says lays a path for addressing other shared challenges.
“Sustainability is a journey and one that we have to accelerate,” says Fitzgerald, who explained when she first joined USFRA she was “motivated to see farmers in the leadership role,” but over the past year and a half she realized that USFRA, farmers and ranchers can do more if they work with all stakeholders across the value chain, non-government organizations, financial institutions and others.
Within months of inviting others to join USFRA in its mission, the coronavirus outbreak tested the organizations’ alliances and leadership team. But by working together, Fitzgerald said that the food system “bent, but didn’t break,” for which she is grateful.
“Largely because we had that leadership network pulled together that last June, we were able to pick up the phone and many of those leaders” came together to share best practices, FAQs and solutions to shared and unique challenges, she said.
The industry’s resilience was due in large part to its ability to breakdown silos, which Fitzgerald said USFRA helped tear down with its nascent leadership network.
COVID-19 was only a test run
While Fitzgerald lauds the industry for coming together to quickly tackle COVID-19 related challenges, she notes that the pandemic is far from the only threat to the nation’s food supply.
“COVID hit after the two most challenging environmental years. We had last year flooding along the Mississippi, we had incredible freezing, and the year before were fires in California. And then, of course, the hurricanes this year. We’re also see that as well with the derecho in Iowa. So, more than COVID, we really need to put agriculture front and center in climate change and we have to be able to prepare and adapt for resiliency on our farms for extreme and episodic weather events,” she explained.
With this in mind, USFRA’s Decade of Ag Vision, which mirrors UN SDGs, includes four main outcome areas. The first is restoring the environment through agriculture that regenerates natural resources, which Fitzgerald says can be achieved in part through the second outcome area: Investing in the next generation of agriculture systems. In particular, Fitzgerald encourages corporations making environmental social governance investments to look to the ag sector. /
Helping farmers and ranchers more efficiently and environmentally responsibly produce greater amounts of food also is a pivotal in tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger. But, Fitzgerald adds, this is not a challenge that farmers alone can tackle, as illustrated by the struggles during the pandemic to get food from the farm to hungry Americans.
As such, Fitzgerald says she would like to see more companies and industry players embrace the idea of Zero Hunger and work together to achieve it – a call to action that fits into USFRA’s Decade of Ag Vision’s third outcome area to strengthen the social and economic fabric of America through agriculture.
Two straightforward ways that retailers and industry can move the needle on addressing hunger is by rotating food from retail to the hunger channel before it expires and making additional product to go directly to food banks as manufacturers are able.
The final outcome area of USFRA’s Decade of Ag Vision is to revitalize the collective appreciation for agriculture, which Fitzgerald has already begun thanks to the pandemic shining a light on the struggles of farmers, manufacturers, retailers and frontline employees to grow, process and deliver food for Americans’ tables.
She adds that building on this momentum by “honoring the harvest” and continuing to invest in the food and ag sector also will “unleash an American economy” and help those who have lost jobs, homes and other necessities during the pandemic find their footing again.