This sponsored post is produced in association with Panasonic. 

“If we really understood where our food comes from, the characteristics of how it’s grown, we might take more ownership of where we buy our food, and what types of food we buy,” says Matt Rothe, co-founder of Stanford’s FEED Collaborative, which is redefining and redesigning our relationship with food.

Rothe would know. He grew up on a 10,000-acre conventional corn farm, lost to “the system”; the experience catalyzed his deep dive into ways to disrupt the existing agricultural model.

He sees that Silicon Valley has taken a very compartmentalized approach to solving agriculture problems, and while well-intentioned, most people working in ag tech have great backgrounds in technology, but not in food. “Most people do not understand the fundamentals of agriculture, so the solutions coming out of Silicon Valley do not change the fundamental problems.” Instead, he says, ag tech tends to provide only symptomatic relief.

The root inquiry, says Rothe, is “What do we want our food system to actually do? Recognizing outcomes such as improving soil fertility, enhancing people’s health, providing equitable distribution of food and economy allows us to get outside the typical labels that people use, such as conventional, organic, biodynamic, etc., which are constrained to create those outcomes.

Rothe’s family farm failed due to the triple threat to all farmers: weather, pests and market conditions. “Farming as a business is the worst in the world, because your success is dependent on forces outside your control. Ag tech has designed technologies to deal with these risks: pesticides, GMOs, specialized equipment, and now, Big Data. And farmers have bought into these. But when circumstances conspire against you, farmers can still go bankrupt, because they are financing these technologies with debt to mitigate their risk — but they’re not able to mitigate the risk long enough to maintain solvency.” It’s a conundrum Rothe’s working to resolve.

After stints in meat production and cooking, a B-school degree from Stanford and experience with a food tech startup, Rothe made “a risky career pivot” to run Stanford’s sustainable food program, serving 18,000 meals a day. He accepted a fellowship to Stanford’s d-school and began envisioning the FEED Collaborative, now housed in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

FEED Collaborative explorations take place at the nexus of design innovation, social entrepreneurship, experiential food education — and the existential questions that plague our food system.

Projects the FEED Collaborative is co-creating to bring about root change for sustainable abundance include:

  1. Partnering with Pie Ranch, which has established the equivalent of a corporate CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program with both Google and Stanford. This innovative model allows for efficiency and scale while achieving the core principles of a CSA. The FEED Collaborative sought to create a retail channel on top of the wholesale channel, in order to get fresh, healthy food from farmers and ranchers into the hands of employees at both companies. Healthier employees — and by extension, healthier families — results in improved productivity and reduced health care costs.
  2. Redesigning the Stanford Hospital Cancer Patient Center food experience. “It’s an interesting opportunity to think about food as a means of creating health,” says Rothe. (Hippocrates, considered the father of Western medicine, is reputed to have said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”) The large-scale Pie Ranch model could plug in nicely to a hospital setting, he notes.
  3. The new farmers. Current farmers are all nearing retirement; in the next decade, there’s going to be “a huge transition from family farms to private equity ownership.” The FEED Collaborative has initiated a relationship with Farmland LP (an institutional investor) to explore the thesis that farmland can be managed as both a profitable investment, and for positive environmental impact. The corollary, says Rothe, involves thinking about how we train the next generation of farmers and ranchers, who will not be land owners but land stewards, optimizing for both economic and ecological output.

How do we scale the new models without compromise? It requires a fundamental shift in mindset. “You can minimize the use of pesticides if you’re approaching the management of your land in a more agro-ecological fashion” — seeing the soil as ally rather than adversary.

Matt Rothe will be speaking at Panasonic’s LAB 1.0 “Hacking the Startup Lunch Economy: Re-imagining Food in Our Everyday Lives” on May 26th from 6 to 8 pm in San Francisco. It’s part of Panasonic’s ongoing series on innovation, exploring a different theme each time. Rothe will be joined by Jae Berman, Registered Dietician and researcher with Stanford’s “One Diet Does Not Fit All” research project. You can register here for free.

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