Jason Clay on "Building and flying the plane as we go"

January 12, 2023 TABLEdebates.org Season 2 Episode 13
Jason Clay on "Building and flying the plane as we go"
Show Notes Transcript

Jason Clay is the Executive Director of the Markets Institute at World Wildlife Fund. He comes with decades of unique experiences and a big picture view of global food systems. In our conversation we ask him how power needs to be shifted to transform the food system, what the future looks like for small farmers, and whether we should be intensifying agriculture and sparing land or extensifying agricultural production and sharing land with nature. Jason Clay also shares ideas around how to increase transparency for consumers, improve farmers livelihoods, and urgently scale up systems level solutions.

For more info and transcript, please visit: https://tabledebates.org/podcast/episode36

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Samara 0:05

Welcome to Feed, a food systems podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Samara Brock.

Matthew 0:12

And I’m Matthew Kessler . Today we speak with Jason Clay, the executive director for the Markets Institute at WWF.  

Samara 0:22

Quick note that we recorded this conversation back in early 2022, so we don’t discuss the impacts of Russian aggression on Ukraine and how that has impacted the global food system. We also had some issues with our recording software so you may notice some shifts in sound around the middle of the interview.

Matthew 0:42

Jason has worked with governments, foundations, researchers, and NGOs across the food supply chain. He worked at the US Department of Agriculture and he also ran his family farm. 

Jason  0:52

I've lived on less than $1 a day on a small farm for 15 years. And then my father was killed on that farm, and I had to run it. It's a tough life. 

Matthew 1:01

Jason Clay studied anthropology and economics, and his focus on food systems comes from some very hands-on experience.

Jason 1:09

I'm a James Beard fellow. So I kind of do food sustainability, but I also love to cook. A professor of mine, one of the Cornell graduate school had three lambs that had been twins and were rejected by the mother. So his kids got to bottle feed them all summer, and then they had to be slaughtered. And so I was the only one that had actually butchered animals. And so another graduate student had been there from, he'd worked in the Faroes, so he was very keen to get his little piece of the thing, which was the fat from around the stomach, and all the blood, which is how you make a pancake in Faroe culture. Usually the people who butcher animals in most rural traditions in the US get the things that are going to perish fast. So the organ meat, the heart. I love lamb kidneys, etc. Wanted to get the brain but couldn't because it was just too hard. We didn't have the right kind of saw to get in. Because remember, they kind of hit their heads together. So it's really reinforced steel. 

Samara 2:15

It is clear that Jason enters these discussions from a unique perspective. In our conversation we zoom out to big picture food system debates . He has a lot of ideas about how to increase transparency for consumers, improve farmers livelihoods, and urgently scale up systems solutions.

Matthew 2:32

We ask Jason Clay how power needs to be shifted to transform the food system, what the future looks like for small farmers, and whether we should be intensifying agriculture and sparing land or extensifying agricultural production and sharing land with nature?

Samara 2:48

But first, we asked him how he thinks about power in the food system and what past experiences have informed those views?.

Jason 2:57

Well, I think that it's important to to understand that there are power dynamics in all relationships but in food, which is so - at one level, so personal both on the buyer and the seller side, there's a lot more power involved. This really came home to me when I was a teenager. I grew up on a farm. My father was killed in an accident on the farm. And so I was trying to figure out how to make more money, how to do some things that could help etc.

And so I started planting more vegetables in our garden thinking that we would - we had about an acre, acre and a half garden, and we can sell vegetables and make some extra money. And so I planted cucumbers, and I thought that would be a good crop because a lot of people either eat the fresh or  to pickle them. And the first customer I had was an older woman in in the local town. I mean, everybody knew everybody. But She wanted to cucumbers and she wanted to make gherkins and so she needed them to be no longer than, than an inch and a half or about three centimeters, let's say, which are tiny and just very difficult to pick without doing damage to the plants and the vines and all this stuff. So I picked them and then we started talking about price. And her idea of a price would have been something the equivalent of 10 cents an hour. it was not something that I wanted to do, but I couldn't turn her down. And so in that, in that case, it doesn't matter how much you have to sell or how much you want to sell or even what you want to sell it for. It depends on how much somebody wants to pay for it. And is willing to pay for it. I just gave her the gherkins for the price that she wanted, and never planted vegetables again to sell. Because there's just no money in it. So we learned these things the hard way. 

Matthew 4:49

Jason sees how power dynamics can change based on the crops, and on the markets surrounding them, which also changes depending on the region, the nation or if we are talking about international markets .

Jason 5:01

And so I think understanding how the food system works through this lens is actually very useful, not just to see where power is, but also how you can change it. Where are the leverage points? Where are the opportunities that this gives you insights about.

And sometimes it's not power, per se, sometimes it's just inertia, and inefficiencies that have been ignored for so long that they seem to be the norm. I remember when I went to Brazil and I was looking for Brazil nuts for Ben and Jerry's ice cream. And I found out that the Brazil nuts were being harvested in the western Amazon and transported by pump and barge, about two and a half 1000 miles downstream to the port, Belem, and 40% of the nuts would rot sitting in water and tropical temperatures the whole time. And so I thought to myself, well, there's an opportunity.

Even if it costs more to shell the nuts in the western part of the country. You've got a 40% margin that you can play with right off the get go. And within two or three years, we had tripled the price we paid to the others and the entire industry had doubled the price. And within five or 10 years, all of the shelling factories in Belem were closed because nobody wanted to sell them anymore. I mean, it just hadn't made sense. But nobody really question it.

Now, you could argue that the families that ran those shelling facilities had a lot of power. But I think they had inertia on their side more than anything, people don't like to change basic businesses, it's that's I'm finding that's really, really hard. And that's true of the farmers too. I mean, if you can think of a lot of ways to make farmers more efficient, around scale around economies of scale, around managing at a landscape level with a lot of different farmers who are contributing. You could see a very different system making a lot of sense economically, and it's very hard to get it put in place.

Matthew  7:02

So you just talked about some of the inefficiencies in the system and some of the inertia in the system. And you're the executive director of the Markets Institute at WWF. Do you agree with the current market incentives in food and agriculture as it's currently structured? And if not, how should they shift?

Jason  7:22

So there are market incentives, and there are market incentives. I think that the biggest opportunity that we have right now, are government subsidies, and those are incentives. I think right now there are incentives to do more of the same, or even to do the wrong things. But I think we don't have nearly enough money to make all the changes we need to adapt to climate change. And nowhere more is that evident than in food. And so we've got to figure out how to use the system to change the system and the biggest sort of source of finance right now. Is to pivot those subsidies more towards the type of agriculture we need to be more resilient, but also contribute less to climate change, and maybe be able to adapt to the impacts of climate change on the ground on production.

Matthew  8:11

Can you give some more specific examples of from which subsidies to what direction exactly?

Jason  8:16

So we've got about 500 billion globally in subsidies. That's a good start. So how do we use that to encourage farmers to invest in practices that maintain or build soil organic matter? 

The one thing that has always amazed me is that farmers tend to - and I'm going to generalize here in any kind of way that I don't accept in other people. So I'm going to be treading on thin ice. But farmers tend to think about how much they produced last year. And that's usually in a total bushel or total ton or total volume kind of way. But they never think about how much they produce that actually made them money, and how much they produce that actually cost more than they made from it. And as a result, they never looked at what land was marginal. And I found in my own work with farmers on six continents that they could, every single one of them could take land out of production and produce more. Because they were fighting the bad land, and not actually promoting the production in the better land. And they could do it with fewer inputs, and they would have a higher net profit by far. And farmers just don't think that way, because they're paid by volumes. And so that's what they always think about is the volumes. But it's, we really have to change that and start looking at where are the net profits.

And now we have the opportunity to look at what are the other markets I can also be selling into. I can sell a ton of maize or a ton of, of soy, but maybe I can also sell two tonnes of carbon or I can sell, year round streamflow off of my farm. Or I can sell hunting rights to somebody else because I've left this piece over here that I can't farm. And now there is wildlife back in. So their farmers need to get much more multi-product focused, and not even just food products, I would say other services that they have that they can sell, because farming and producing food now covers half of the terrestrial part of the planet. And so how do we use that to provide multiple benefits to society, not just bread and butter, as it were.

Samara  10:47 

So you mentioned that shifting subsidies would be a good way to transform food systems. There's huge lobbies behind how current subsidies systems work. Do you have suggestions for how we might go about transforming these subsidy systems?

Jason 11:01

Well, think the reason that there's an advantage for shifting subsidies in the food system is because every country is going to have to invest in adapting to climate change and addressing climate change. And these are funds that are already appropriated. So it's not new funding. It just makes sense. And if you can also have it make sense because it's helping to make farmers more resilient, helping farmers to adapt, and to start producing new crops that are better suited for the growing conditions. If it lets them add value or generate income in some other way. And if it creates markets for new services, particularly carbon but also reduced or avoided carbon and even services like water and biodiversity, nature is going to become part of what farmers are selling in the future. And so how can we begin to pay for that in the transition now? I think this is half to three quarters of a trillion dollars that could be well spent.

Samara  12:07

Do you have an example of where shifting subsidies has worked?

Jason  12:10

Well we know that shifting subsidies has worked for supporting things that governments wanted at the time. I would say during wars, we've often seen government shift. In World War Two, or was probably a really good example of that, both in terms of what farmers were able to produce in quantity, and what was then going to be available for consumers to buy. I think that is clear.

China has been able to use subsidies for massive programs in the past, around tree planting and rehabilitation of degraded land. Brazil has done this quite a lot with certain types of rehabilitation of degraded land, etc.

But I think that, subsidies have been used for insurance in the past on prices. And I think that is something that we're going to need to do now.

Matthew 13:02

You might be wondering what are subsidies on crop insurance? These are meant to protect farmers against the loss of crops and the loss of income if they are faced with natural disasters like floods or drought. If they don’t make any money from their harvest, they can still invest in seeds and inputs to plant for the next season.

Jason 13:20

We're seeing companies reinforcing this with long term contracts for products. And those long term contracts are now an asset that producers can borrow against, to actually invest in more sustainable production. Some of its just around working capital. But some of these contracts are 10 or 15 years. Mars has a 15 year contract on cocoa , that allows the producers to replant the crop and get better genetics to adapt to new conditions. Because if growers don't adapt with better genetics - better genetics suited to the conditions that are evolving, they're not going to be able to produce those crops. And so you've got a whole lot of regions of small farmers around the world growing coffee and cocoa and palm oil and rubber and bananas and other things that they're going to be out of luck, because they can't just get up and move. Or rather, we don't want them to just get up and move because we're already have projections of a billion to a billion and a half people on the move by 2050. If those are farmers, then that's going to be so disruptive to the food system that it's going to be very hard to figure out how to make that work.

The biggest thing that I think we have to think about is how do we anticipate the change rather than react to it. And that is everything - that's crops, that's business models, that's all kinds of things, including consumption.

Samara  14:45

You've given a few examples from around the world. And you talk about taking a 30,000 foot view when approaching food systems. Can you talk a little bit about how you conceptualize global food systems through your work and how this might be different from how others are approaching it?

Jason  15:01

We have a global food system. And trade is an increasing part of that food system, and there's no way to get around it and we shouldn't try. Trade is a good thing. It's not a bad thing. Trade fills the cracks when there are gaps. And there are going to be gaps with climate change.

And in fact, right now about eight countries export about 65% of all the cereal grains and about 85-90% of the oil seeds. So those eight countries tend to fill the gaps. Now, going forward, what those eight countries produce is going to shift and who is going to be part of that eight country list may shift. But we're still probably going to have certain countries that dominate the exports. We can fill the gaps of normal years. But when we start having drought over multiple years, or we have extreme weather events, hurricanes or rains, whatever, then we have to fill more, more gaps than we have in the past. We don't have enough fingers to put them in all the holes in the dikes, as it were. And also trade has increased, partly because production is going down in some places, partly because agriculture is simply not an attractive business to be in.

I travel, well I traveled all over the world. And what I found is that fewer and fewer farmers wanted their children to be farmers, it wasn't seen as a viable or a good profession to be in if they had a chance to do anything else. So food production became kind of the fallback. What you could do if you couldn't do something else, it wasn't the place where in many parts of the world where innovation is happening. There are exceptions that I would, I'd say, large parts of Brazil are the most innovative farmers right now on the planet.

Matthew  16:53

How have we ended up with our current food system? Why are so few countries responsible for cereal exports? Was it always that way?

Jason 17:04

The food system that we have today has been both the result of technologies that have evolved, but also the requirements of populations that have evolved. And I think both have kind of barely kept up with each other, or there's a kind of fine line of difference. It wasn't so long ago, actually, in my lifetime, when India would have - and China too - would have huge numbers of people die and famines each year. And we've pretty much avoided that. For the last 30 or 40 years. The Green Revolution was part of the reason where we were able to produce more, using fewer inputs in all. Be more productive. But that has waned over time, because we've relied on the same crops or the same approaches.

And as nature teaches us, you need to have different things in order to have the most viable long term systems in place. And we've got to get back to that kind of mimicking of nature, I think to get where we need to be.

But there is some equation at the end of the day where population times consumption has got to equal what is the planet. And that for me is why we focus on intensification. And I know intensification gets a bad rap in a lot of places. But if we had the same levels of production, as we did in 1960, today, we would be using 75% of the planet to produce food. We simply can't be allowed to happen if we want other life to be alive and have habitat to live in on this planet. So how do we do that more sustainably? How do we do that sustainable intensification and this is where I think reasonable people can disagree. Of course, people that aren't reasonable, they're going to disagree all the time. But you know, do we take 10% of an area and farm it super intensively and leave 90% for nature? Or even 75% for nature? Or do we farm 50% of it more extensively, and leave the rest for nature. 

Matthew 19:13

The debate Jason is referring to here is often described as the 'land sparing' vs. 'land sharing' debate, where 'land sparing' refers to farming more intensively to be able to leave more land for nature, and 'land sharing' farms land more extensively. You can read more about it in TABLE’s explainer series. Jason tends to falls more on the land-sparing side. . 

Jason  19:35

As somebody working for an environmental organization, but also coming from a farming, I don't know how many generations of farmer, probably since time immemorial. It seems to me that we do need to farm based on how many people there are to feed. And we need to take that very seriously. Because whenever people don't have enough food, that's when you see the biggest impacts on the environment. So during an economic collapse, in Southeast Asia, people went into the forest and started producing food, people who'd never farmed before who hadn't farmed in the last generation, and they didn't know how to farm and they did untold damage to the forest. So we don't really want that, we want professionals doing this job, right?

Samara  20:20

You talked about the need to link the amount of food we produce to the amount that people need to consume, how many hungry mouths we have. So how would you respond to those who argue that hunger is about access to resources and power that we already produce enough food, it's just that people don't have the ability to access it? 

Jason  20:39

It’s absolutely true. We definitely produce enough food. Probably 2 billion people on the planet consume too much food. And so that's an issue that we need to address. There's also a systemic issue here, which is that we waste about a third to 40% of the food that's produced in either post-harvest loss or post -consumer use or downstream in the supply chain.

Matthew 21:07

Jason Clay wants to cut out waste and inefficiencies in all parts of the system – on the production, consumption and distribution side. He follows the mantra that if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Jason  21:19

What I don't think many people have realized, and we're just beginning to see it nobody's really measuring it yet, is what is the impact of climate losses on food, the extreme weather events that we're seeing this is not post-harvest, this is pre harvest loss, where you can't get the crop in the ground or where in Iowa 60% of the corn crop was flattened and couldn't be harvested a couple years ago. So these are issues that I think we need to start measuring, because they have a real impact for how much food we may need to keep in storage. We're going to need to have national food banks, we're going to need to have global food banks, because the production in any given year may not be what is needed by all the population on the planet, even if we could distribute it. And so whether we distribute it or not, is another whole issue. But I think it's going to be important to make sure that we have the ability to have the food that people need. Right now we do. They don't always have access.

And it's not just I'd say the poor in cities, I think it's more often the poor in rural areas. So if I was trying to reduce food loss and increase income to farmers, and reduce malnutrition, and poverty in rural areas, I think I would probably, in small farmer areas, make a policy to put in place, either village level food storage, or a one or two tonne container for every farmer that is rodent and insect proof. 

It just is very important that, if farmers can hold on to food for three or four months, they can usually triple the price that they get. Because that's how much the price is depressed because of harvest. So if you can just spread that over a little bit of time, and keep the quality of the product up. Well, you also then have product that they can eat, because they don't have to sell it off to pay all their cash needs right away or their debts for the crop. And so this allows us to do those kinds of things.

Matthew 23:29

You're talking quite a lot about different parts of the world, and the different systems that exist in them . And one of the things that we're curious about with this theme of power, is what parts of the world do you think hold the most power to transform food systems.

Jason  23:47

So if we look at the food system, as it is, thiI nk the US has always been, for the last 150 years, at least, a true innovator in the food space. It didn't have a whole lot of cultural baggage about feudal systems and the evolution of land ownership. It was, if you accept the appropriation of land from indigenous people as part of your strategy and you take it from that point on, then it was run in a way that was much more focused on scale and innovation than farming had been in other parts of the world. And I think a lot was learned from that. And a lot of other parts of the world benefited from that innovation. I think the innovation in the traditional things that we're growing is now coming from Brazil. No till was first really adopted at scale in Brazil, because of tropical conditions. And that's going to be really important for the tropics with climate change, because they're going to become more marginal unless they do more to actually maintain soil organic matter, which is what no till does. So that's really important.

Samara  25:00

One of the arguments that we often hear against intensification is that it's going to displace a lot of farmers from their lands. So smallholders will cease to be small holders, and then there'll be large land owners often, you know, offshore land owners, who are farming plots intensively, what are your thoughts on that?

Jason  25:18

Well, I think there's a long way between a small farmer and an offshore landowner. I mean, let's just be clear here. Also, I think it's fantastic for people to have opinions about all things. But I've lived on less than $1 a day on a small farm for 15 years. And then my father was killed on that farm, and I had to run it, it is not something that you want to wish on anybody. It's a tough life. And it's tough, you don't have opportunities for your kids, and they don't have opportunities, and they know it. They either have to leave and try to do whatever they can. Or if they stay, they know that they're looking at their future, when they look at their parents and their grandparents, except it's going to be worse, because they have more material needs now than ever.

I mean, every generation, there are just things that you need more of, because everybody else has them. And so why not? Why are you going to feed the world but not be able to provide your own children with what they need to have a better lot in life. But I don't think it's as stark as that.

We need to start thinking differently about how food is organized as what I'm saying. keeping, keeping small farmers as small farmers is not, in my opinion, something that should ever be considered a good option. I would never support somebody to maintain poverty. What's the good of that? You can't get behind that. You can't sell that anywhere. So until you've actually worked on these small farms and know what it's like, don't be telling me that kind of stuff.

Samara  26:49

I mean, it's an interesting debate, that's sort of central to a lot of the food systems debates that we we talk to people about.  And I can think of some people who would argue that it's not smallholder farming, that is the issue, but it's the systems that set those farmers up, to not have access to markets, etc. Do you have thoughts on that?

Jason  27:09

Farmers have access to markets or they wouldn't exist. So do they get a good shake? Do they get what they could get? Do they have any kind of negotiating power? I think it requires some shifts in thinking and regulation. So I think from the thinking part, companies are more and more aware that they don't just buy from the best producers, they buy from everybody. And on any given day, they can be buying from anybody because commodities are mixed. And that's actually a good thing from an efficiency point of view. But it's not a good thing from a traceability and transparency point of view. You want to know who produced it, you want to know how they produced it, you want to know that you can stand by that product that's in your product. So I think we're moving towards longer term relationships at one level, but it has to be at scale. And these companies produce so many products and demand so many raw materials that they can't have individual relationships with all those. So we've got to figure out how to scale at the local level, still retain the independence that we want to see, but also support a kind of an ability to aggregate and take advantage of scale.

Samara  28:20

So you've talked a lot about a bunch of different actors in our conversations: processors, buyers, retailers, government, farmers, laborers. We wanted to ask you, who do you think has the power to shift food systems? And who has too much power? And who should have more?

Jason  28:38

Well, I think, I think the entity that has the power to shift food system is government. I mean, the bottom line is government has the power. But I don't know any governments that are really stepping up to the table.

There's just a lot of inertia in the system. In the US, all the farm programs that we have are counterbalanced to get the political support you need in Congress by all of the food aid programs and what happens with people who don't have enough food, those are linked together in a common bill. So you get the whole thing passed, and you benefit both sides. 

Matthew 29:13

Jason here is referring to the US Farm Bill. A giant piece of legislation that passes approximately every 5 years. It’s written by Democratic and Republican lawmakers that represent their constituents in cities and in rural areas, so agricultural policy and food policy are intertwined.

Jason 29:30

I don't think that is true in a lot of areas. But I think that type of thinking has, on the one hand forced the issues to be connected, but not necessarily the solutions to be innovative. And we need innovative solutions, now we can't just do more of the same. Continuous improvement is actually the enemy of the changes we need.

Matthew 29:50

Jason sees governments as having an important role, but they’re not doing enough and they are not acting fast enough. The scale of global hunger and biodiversity requires urgent action.

Jason 30:01

So how do we start a process now to begin to address issues that can shape the food system in positive ways, as we go forward can put in place what we need, can, you know, we can maybe it's a bad metaphor because of the fuel source, but we've got to figure out how to start flying the plane and build it as we go. And I just don't think anybody is really anticipating what's going to happen in the next generations or with climate change.

Matthew  30:31

Continuing on this theme of what power different actors in the food system have, let's focus specifically on NGOs and WWF. What role do you have in the food system to shift power?

Jason  30:44

So I think that NGOs need to need to focus on what they have the potential to do best. And they need to shed some things that they do a lot of. I think NGOs can influence people, I think they can influence companies, they can influence governments, they can influence society at large. But when NGOs and companies can agree and work on things together, they can influence government, faster than anybody.

But the issue here is, it's about influence. As a former farmer, I would never trust an NGO to give me information about how to farm, they simply don't know they don't have the expertise. They may go out and try something that may work as long as they're willing to throw money at it and bring a lot of high price individuals and equipment and stuff to it. And it works for a while. As soon as they're gone, it's gone. It just doesn't work. And so I think NGOs could do a better job of documenting what is working that others are doing. Farmers are in the business of farming. They're not in the business of writing case studies. Neither are companies. And so if you see something that's particularly good, we should document it. How does this work? Get people to learn from each other. I think what we miss in the kind of pre-competitive space is that we can all learn faster when we share.

And so NGOs can help create those platforms and can help get beyond what these competition law issues so that companies can actually share around sustainability, they can share about business models. There are a lot of things that people can do that they're not because they don't want to get slapped on the wrist.

And eventually, we need to bring regulators to the table, but I don't think there's anybody in the world that thinks we can address climate change without working together. We really do need to, to push NGOs to play that role of facilitator of awareness, of consensus builder. At least some NGOs have the power to convene, use it. The world needs that now. We need people on the same page.

Matthew 33:00

What one thing he talked about earlier was that we need to work across the value chain and work across the supply chain. And one actor that arguably does that at the moment are larger agri-businesses, they have a presence in each part of the supply chain. And I wonder you think they have disproportionate power? And there are some people who argue they should be broken up. Others say they are a really important lever of change. Where do you fall on this? What are your thoughts on working with or against corporations?

Jason 33:26

Well, I mean, I, it may not be a terribly popular view right now. But I think companies buy and sell all over the world. And the bigger they are, the more influence they have. I think companies have an interest in making sure their supply chains are more resilient, and more secure, and have been investing in certification systems and other types of systems that will help them see whether their suppliers are good, or even good enough, using metrics etc. 

By contrast, most governments are only concerned about their piece of the planet. And in most discussions around climate change, they're trying to protect their interest in that whole discussion just based on their piece of the planet.

But more to the point, Wherever I look, governments are trying to reduce the number of liabilities they have. People are balking at higher taxes. They want money to be spent in different ways. They don't want a whole lot of these types of regulations and costs associated with government. And so just from a purely pragmatic point of view, I think that working with companies at least gives us a start for how we can begin to address some of these global issues at the scale that's necessary. And picking on the ones that have the most impact and the most influence.

We started a program, more than 10 years ago called market transformation which focused on - what are the 15 commodities that have the biggest impact on the places we care about?  Our focus was really on certification and standards. It identified the six or eight most important impacts. And it found ways over time, it wasn't based on practices, it was based more on results. How much soil erosion is there,, et cetera? How much water do you use?  Not just, do you have drip irrigation. But what we also discovered was that, while we built consensus globally, about what the impacts were, and about how to measure them, that people that actually benefited most from standards and certification were not the problem. They were already doing better. We just recognized and gave them access, that isn't going to move the people on the other end. 

And so what this work that I mentioned, that we've done on 15 commodities shows is that the poorest performers cause about 50% of the impacts, and only produce about 10% of the product. So if you're going to have if you're going to if you really want a more sustainable food system, you focus on the bottom, not the top. And that's another thing that NGOs should start looking at. 

Now, that raises a lot of reputational issues that people don't want to get involved with those companies. And yet, that's where we have to be involved. That's where we need to make the changes.  I think we need to start looking at strategies like that about how we move the bottom. 

Samara 36:30

You're someone who's done a lot of innovation in the certification field. And I think when it first began, it was thought of as this very transformative approach to non state market driven approaches. So would you say your theory of change about where we can shift power and shift food Systems has evolved over time from corporate actors to state.

Jason 36:58

So I think that to really qualify as a bona fide farmer, you have to be against government. I mean, I think that just comes with the genetics. Because government's always trying to screw you out of something, or take away from you or regulate you or whatever. So I probably am coming– was coming originally from a distrust of government. I also realized that I cut my teeth academically in a lot of Latin America, in the middle of dictatorships, where governments, I was in Brazil for almost two years doing research, I couldn't even talk about what I was actually doing there. Because I would have been arrested and deported. Government was always part of the problem, but I didn't see ways to make them part of the solution. Now, I think we can't move the bottom without governments. And I think the cost of poor performance is affecting governments’ reputations and country's reputations to not just individual companies that buy from them, etc.

So I'm hoping that we can get civil society. And I would say, the progressive companies, I don't care how big they are. I do think that if civil society and the private sector can get together, we can move government, I think it's the only thing that's goning to move government actually. And so how do we build that consensus in a time that's becoming increasingly contentious? 

Samara  38:17

Quick follow up to that, why do you think there's so little consensus in food systems debates?

Jason  38:23

I think there's little consensus in society. I think it's much bigger than food systems. I think it's become - you can't have civil disagreements, because of disagreement is like slapping somebody in the face. And it's the cause for a duel. It's not the cause for a change, or for having an argument, it's a cause for a fight. And we just got to get away from that. If we can't talk about these things. How are we ever going to build consensus and get to some kind of an agreement?

Samara  38:59

Where do you get your information from? Like, what sources do you trust or not trust? 

Jason 39:04

I didn't really notice this, early in my career, but I think I learned how to learn, growing up on a farm. Where things are coming at you from different directions, and you've got to take them into account because they're meaningful. And they may not be apparent at first, but over time, they become that way. And I've approached, I think at university, I learned some new ways of learning and new sources of data. But I also learned more about what I was interested in learning about. But now, I would say that for me. Learning is kind of like a kaleidoscope. You turn it one notch, you have all the same pieces, all the same information, but you see it in a totally different light, you see a different picture. And that is how we have to approach this. The data is there. It's incomplete, it's imperfect, you might have to weight it in different ways. But we need to be thinking more sideways than linear straight on.

Matthew  40:05

On the question of trust, what sources do you trust? Because a lot of people are producing information, and as you said, having opinions. How do you sift through that?

Jason  40:16

So I think that is kind of like, we got to build it and fly it at the same time. I think trusted sources of information are built over time. I think in my lifetime I have some of my friendships have come and gone based on how much I trust their sources of information, quite frankly. How reliable are they consistently over the years etc. I'm from a state in the US that that has a reputation which is the “show me state”. Don't tell me, show me. So I'll listen to you and and I'll listen to anybody. But I want to see it, I want to see with my own eyes, I don't want to be told about it. And I think that even when data isn't necessarily accurate, it can open your eyes to possibilities and, and ways of seeing linkages that you might not have seen otherwise. I think just getting information out there and not being afraid to have other people, you know, criticize it, those that are, that are really trying to solve problems will do it in a constructive way so that you can actually learn from it, and they learn from it. But we're all in this together, you know, and we got to learn faster.

Matthew  41:28

I think that's also entirely consistent with the farming ethos. You try things you see if it works, you try a different method, a different input, etc. 

We've had a wide ranging conversation. We've talked on a lot of different areas: actors, processes, linkages. What do you think are the three biggest levers of change for food system transformation?

Jason 41:49

Let me go with the most specific first, I think we're going to see where it matters most long term contracts, we're going to see contracts that are 15-20 years, they're going to be the kind of food equivalent of power purchase agreements. They send signals to the market that they want crops. And they want to produce in these ways with these conditions.

So I think long term contracts is a way to use the system to change the system. And to use that long term promise of purchase in order to not just change animal protein, but to help coffee and cocoa growers replant, because this way they can borrow the money they need to survive during the period when they rip out all their trees. Because they're disease prone or because they don't have the right genetics for the new water levels or precipitation levels in their area. Contracts are important.

A second is pre-competitive platforms. I think we can all learn from each other faster than we can learn on ourselves, even the smartest of us. And everybody has something to teach everybody else. Maybe just one thing, but that one thing can be very important. And so making those platforms work and getting beyond competition laws to make that happen. That's another thing that I think is really important.

The third is farmers will not survive by selling food alone. They've got to be able to sell carbon. Either sequestered or avoided or reduced. They've got to sell habitat and biodiversity. They've got to sell water. They need to eventually sell other things, but right now if we can start with carbon and habitat, we can move on. 

Samara  43:30

What are your aspirations for the future food system? What does your ideal food future look like?

Jason 43:39

Well, for me, I think we need to, to realize that we can produce food in cities. And then we can produce fresh, fresh fruit and cities, we have, we've sponsored a project in St. Louis to look at vertical soilless Ag, and they put the project up for a bid at the community level, they got a bid, it's going to be the biggest vertical soilless Ag in the US. And they're now creating a parallel Center of Excellence for that. We're not going to produce all of our food that way. But here's the thing, we can produce food on brownfields like that, because we're not using the soil. We can employ unemployed people and unemployable people in those systems. We can create food in the middle of a food desert, we need to start doing those things. And this is fresh, you can use long term contracts from local retailers, but also from schools.  If we put a 30 to 40% equity in there for communities so that community funds could buy into that and then transition it to an ESOP for the workers that are working in that program, then you have a whole different business structure as well.

Matthew 44:48

AN ESOP, E-S-O-P, is an employee stock ownership plan, which incentivizes employers to take more ownership in the vision and success of the company since they own shares in it.

Jason 44:59

I think we need to get out of the traditional ways of producing food. Every time climate affects what you can produce, you have a new opportunity to change how you produce, because you're gonna have to buy new equipment. Cotton is now in the US above interstate 70. Well, that's, that's a pretty big deal, when you used to think cotton has been in Texas in the southern states. Illinois will have a loss of 40, 50, 60% of its corn production by 2050. So what are they going to produce, that's an opportunity to think about something different, and a business structure that's different.

Matthew  45:35

What are the specific aspects of power that are getting in the way of realizing this future? 

Jason  45:42

I think for me, it's more personal than systemic in a way. So it's about egos. It's about  history. It's about return on investment for shareholders. To me some of the structural issues, we have a sense that we should be making a lot on our money, rather than our money should be worth a lot over time, and worth a lot in terms of the investments, and be useful for society.

I think global markets are actually empowering rather than just sources of concentration of power, which they are as well. But I think having that kind of transparency, having people that are beginning to manage food systems from a global perspective, is critical to addressing climate change. Having people that try to anticipate markets, for whatever reason, that can then anticipate markets from a climate perspective is also critical. 

I would almost say that a company is not going to survive if it doesn't have at least one or two people that are looking at what's coming. Because they're going to get caught out. Other things are going to start making moves. Same with farmers, same with governments.

Matthew  46:55

Thank you very much for your time. It was really nice speaking with you. 

Samara  46:58

Yes, thank you so much. There's so much more we could have talked about.

Jason  47:01

Well, or if anything changes. In the meantime, things do change. Sometimes way too slow and sometimes a little faster.

Matthew 47:11

A big thank you to Jason Clay for talking with us. As we said up top. Things have changed. Quite a lot in the last year. There was a new and ongoing war that impacted global food trade, COP27 in Egypt that had some mention of the food systems impact on climate and the climates impact on food systems. And there was the development of a ‘loss and damage’ climate fund for vulnerable countries.

If you’d like to stay up to date with Jason Clay’s views on ongoing global food system issues, you can subscribe to his WWF Markets Institutes Weekly newsletter, which we’ll link to in our shownotes.

Samara 47:45

And thanks to all of you for listening. Please take a minute and rate and review us wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what are your favorite episodes.

Matthew 47:53

We’re wrapping up our theme on power in the food systems in just a few episodes and then we’ll be taking a short break with the podcast. You can stay up to date with all of other activities at TABLE by subscribing to our newsletter Fodder, found on our website: tabledebates.org/

Samara 48:10

TABLE is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Wageningen University.

Matthew 48:18

This episode was edited by Ingrid Reiser of Azote and Matthew Kessler. Music by Blue dot sessions. Stay tuned for a new episode on power with Philip McMichael in a couple weeks.