How to Shift From Disconnected Innovations in Agriculture to Collective Impact With Government Engagement

Here’s how to shift from disconnected innovations in agriculture to collective impact with government engagement.

Elizabeth Reaves

Imagine that we’ve all shown up to rebuild an old house. Parts of the foundation and some of the walls are still good. We want the house to be more open to the trees and sky, but carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and masons are milling around, not quite sure what to do next. There’s no architect because some of the key builders don’t want anyone to tell them what to do.

Creating resilient agriculture out of the current system is like that. Some farmers have proven that a transition is possible, and some leading food companies have invested to support farmers with technical support and financial incentives. But these innovative farmers and companies still represent less than two percent of the market, and growth is slow because many of the needed investments do not make more money for the investors—they’re instead investments in the long-term health of the soil, cleanliness of water, and abundance of wildlife.

Sustainable Food Lab community of front-runner companies and their partners are proud of years of hard work, but sometimes we feel as if we are plugging holes in a leaky bucket, and there are so many holes that just plugging a few isn’t making a visible difference. Many necessary next steps are beyond the ability of any one company, and those difficult steps are necessary for landscape-level outcomes such as next-generation extension, infrastructure development for rotation crops, and R&D for resilience to climate change.

Kevin Rabinovitch from the Mars Company uses the example of a peloton in bike racing. He said, “Companies like ours at the front of the peloton, are pulling the lead riders along and letting the laggards draft from us. In bike racing we would want to win the race, but in the case of being able to meet our climate targets, we need everyone to cross the finish line at the same time. Our hope is that we can bring enough of our supply chain along to make it politically feasible for government to step in and make it a requirement for everyone to cross the line.”

He is making a very strategic suggestion: encouraging a critical mass of the most innovative players in the food and agriculture system—farmers, processors, manufacturers, retailers—to demand investments, coordination, and rules from government.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently committed more than $3 billion in agricultural change, but the design of the program is only weakly linked to those leaders in the private sector who have been testing technical assistance, financial incentives, and measurement systems for the last several years. We are learning that within the USDA:

  • People are well intentioned, but it isn’t their job to solve systemic problems.
  • Functions are siloed and focused on their own priorities.
  • Senior staff change roles frequently and don’t have capacity to reach down to the state level.
  • They are only as good as the ideas they get handed to them, but there isn’t a mechanism to bring them ideas, and they hesitate to turn to the private sector for fear of being criticized.
  • Big things do happen episodically when political leaders get involved and make big investments. These pivots are big moments of opportunity but can fizzle when not connected to long-term policy shifts or based on a solid theory of change.
  • Relationships are at the center of getting things done, but relationships take time to build, especially when we seek to co-design different ways of working together.

We know what we would like USDA to do with us, built on years of learning and data.  But how do we get there?

Our hypothesis is that the key is to anchor partnerships in specific geographic regions, and include three types of partners:

  • A partner who can manage funds and has boots on the ground to implement initiatives in that place;
  • A partner who is business-savvy and can manage a network of relationships to facilitate a collective-impact process; and
  • A partner who can help navigate across USDA agencies at the state level, while elevating needs to the federal level.

After many conversations and workshops, we suggest that the USDA Office of Public Private Engagement (OPPE) is an underutilized resource for making introductions, innovating partnerships, and supporting cross-agency navigation. A more directive and influential role for OPPE is needed to engage with the private sector on place-based initiatives, and OPPE is already well positioned to help initiatives access and influence USDA resources.

Returning to Kevin Rabinovitch’s example of a bicycle race peloton, meeting collective goals for climate-smart agriculture will require collective leadership from government, companies, and partners who can knit together relationships in each farming region.

For more on how to create the enabling conditions for farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture, see the Scale Lab report and ppt decks.

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