An interview with

Danielle Nierenberg

Co-Founder, Food Tank: The Food Think Tank

What made you want to start working towards making a change in the food system?

It was really an evolution from being interested as a kid in environmental issues and then slowly becoming more and more interested in food.  I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and before I had that experience I blamed farmers in a lot of ways for deforestation or cattle crazing or eroding soils and then really seeing farmers and working with them and just seeing the challenges they face everyday as well as the things that they’re doing to protect the environment.  They know more than anyone how important protecting natural resources is to their livelihood.  It wasn’t even an epiphany it was just oh I’ve been thinking in my head that it’s farmers faults but they are really the solution.  Pursuing that interest in graduate school and going to Tufts for an agricultural, food, and environment program and again really putting the ideas and things that I had seen on the group into a more academic context and really being able to articulate that through research and writing.  I spent about 9 years working at an environmental organization writing about food and agriculture issues and as part of that work I did a lot of traveling and a lot of on the ground work and the last two years I was there I visited roughly 35 countries in subsaharen Africa, Asia, and Latin America and talked to hundreds of farmers, farmers groups, researchers, policy makers, women, and youth groups, and really got a sense of what I called to myself a global listening tour. I wanted the opportunity to go and sit and visit with people and visit their farms and visit their offices or their community centres and really just listen to them and find out what was working to alleviate hunger and poverty and to protect natural resources.

What I tried to do because many of the organizations I visited don’t have fancy websites, they don’t have charismatic leaders, so no one knows about them and no one knows about the potential that’s there so I really tried to shine a spotlight on some of these projects and show all of us, especially the donor communities who are increasingly interested in agriculture after a long long time of sort of ignoring it, these are the things that are working, they’re not nesicairly sexy new technologies and they’re not nesicarely something that costs a lot but they can be effective and what they need is more investments so they can be replicated and scaled up.  Not only in the developing world, I think what we forget in the Western world is that we have a lot to learn from food producers, entrepreneurs, and farmers in other parts of the world, we often think we know all the answers and that’s certainly not true, especially when you look at the intergovernmental panel on climate change report that came out this week, humans are responsible for roughly 95% of greenhouse gases that have occurred since the industrial revolution.  I think we have a lot to learn about going forward by going back in a lot of ways and really looking at traditional knowledge and some of the innovative practices that are being used in developing countries.

Students have a specific focus when they’re working on their masters thesis and once they graduate they sometimes have to abandon that work and find a job. It sounds like you managed to extend your research and turn it into a career.

I’ve always had these fuzzy made-up majors, I made up my undergrad major, it was environmental policy and government, I really tried to combine hardcore science classes with environmental policy and also a lot of writing classes.  I wasn’t a typical science major, although I took all of these science classes. The same with grad school I took a lot of data and statistics courses and heavy science and agriculture courses but combined it with writing.  It’s really worked for me personally and professionally just being able to write and communicate.  I think what happens to a lot of people in graduate school is that they’re not free, or they don’t feel free enough to really explore things that are beyond the normal ciriculium and having the opportunity to do that and figure out what you’re good at is something I think is really lacking in our educational system, whether it be high school, college, or graduate school.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly but I knew what I was good at and I was able to build my classes and career around that.

With Food Tank and the previous positions I’ve held, I’ve always tried to give young people and students the opportunities I had to write and get published. Whether it’s short blogs or more substantial research pieces we try to do that with our Food Tank contributors to give them the opportunity to make mistakes, people are still learning, we are all still learning everyday how to write about these issues and how to communicate them and how to put all the data together and give them an opportunity to put their name out there and try things.  Even for hardcore science majors if you don’t know how to explain it to your Mom or your Dad, who aren’t experts in the same field that you are, then you probably aren’t doing your job well.  We all need to be able to communicate what we’re doing effectively.  Again it’s something we try to instill in our contributors and our staff.

Your first big job was with Worldwatch Institute, How did you land that position and what were you doing there?

I fell into that in a really funny way, I was interning for another organization, The Science and Environmental Health Network when I was in graduate school and they had a monthly newsletter and I wrote an article about how it’s not easy to be green when you’re a student when your parents are asking you what are you going to do with that when you graduate and how it’s still important to stick to what you believe in and figure out how to make some money doing what you think is important for the world.  Someone at the World Watch Institute, my former boss, Kyle, who is now the executive director of Earthworks, he read that and called me up and said “we want to hire you”.  I interned for a summer and sort of just made them keep me on and eventually they hired me and I really built my career there.

I wrote a lot about women’s issues and population issues and the growth of factory farming in the developing world and the implication that has on health, animal welfare, the environment, and workers rights.  I quickly became an expert on sustainable agriculture issues because that’s my passion and in addition to writing and research I’ve also worked on farms and farmers markets, which is an aspect I think we sometimes don’t think about when we’re talking about these issues, to market and sell the things that farmers are growing, it’s important to learn how to do that effectively.  I’ve been so lucky and so blessed and really so grateful to be able to combine all of my interests and passions into what I do for a living.  I don’t make a lot of money but that said I feel very fulfilled and blessed and thankful that I’m able to do this work.

Some people might be a little hesitant about applying to NGOs or charities because there is a stigma that they aren’t going to make a lot of money.

Every place pays differently but you’ll certainly make a living.  We’re a new organization so we’re just getting off the ground but certainly the well established and older organizations can offer more but they’ve had funding problems like we’ve all had since the early 2000.  You’re not going to be a millionaire, let’s be honest, but you’re going to be able to support yourself and do the things that you want.  For me and for so many others we would’t be happy doing anything else.  While it’s important to be able to pay your rent and pay your student loans and pay everything else there are so many people my age who didn’t do what they were passionate about because they felt the need to be bankers or something else and not really follow what their hearts and their passions were telling them.  You’re not going to be a millionaire but you’re not going to be poor either.  You’re going to be enriched by so many of the other things that you’re doing and experiencing and are able to share with other people.

Food is a really big subject that impacts health, the environment, the economy, what are some of the important areas people should be focusing on?

When I started working on these issues in the late 90s early 2000s food was just becoming a national story, there was this interest in local and organic food and because there has been such an upsurge of people being interested in food, whether it’s Michael Pollen or movies like Food Inc. or whatever, we have a real opportunity to grab that attention and make a real change.  One thing that we’ve been talking a lot, it’s really a low hanging fruit, is the issue of food waste.  1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year globally.  A little more than half is lost because farmers aren’t able to get it out of the field on time, they don’t have proper storage, they can’t transport it before it rots.  The other half of that is because you and I buy too much when we go to Costco or we over order at restaurants or we get confused by expiration dates and end up throwing food away.  Because my generation has really lost a lot of our culinary skills and traditions, we grew up with parents who were working a couple a jobs and didn’t have a lot of time to cook at home, I think it’s really important to relearn some of those skills and trust our senses when we’re thinking about whether we should throw something away and learn how to not cook too much when we do make meals.

There is so much opportunity and it’s super easy stuff, who doesn’t want to save money?  If we’re preventing food waste we are almost automatically saving money.  Realizing that you can have a personal impact on what I think and what other organizations, including the United Nations, think is a really important issue of preventing food waste.  We’ve been able to reframe it over the last decade to not looking at agriculture and the food system as a problem but really looking at it as an opportunity.  The food system can create jobs, it can provide better protection of natural resources, it can stabilize communities and bring them together.  Looking at the food system as an opportunity and really focusing on what can be done and again some of that low hanging fruit.

Why did you decide to form Food Tank?

My co-founder, Ellen Gustafson, and I were working in different aspects of the food system, I was more in the research, on the ground research, and communications side and she was sort of a food system entrepreneur, helping co-found FEED at the World Food Program.  We both saw this gap that needed to be filled, there’s not really one think tank devoted to bridging both global and domestic food issues and coming up with positive solutions and highlighting the things that can be done.  Instead of trying to figure out where we could work, where those things might exists, we thought that we both had a lot to offer, we are still relatively young and have a lot of energy, so let’s start our own organization that will address some of the things that we think are missing in the other environmental and food groups.

We launched in January, we’re off to a great start, our community of people who subscribe to us and read us regularly through our weekly newsletter is now around 107,000 people.  We’ve sold out events that we convened in Chicago and New York around food system issues.  We’re doing really exciting collaborations with groups like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization around the international year of family farming, which will happen in 2014, doing some hardcore and exciting research around the important role that family farmers play, not only in food production, but in things like social stability, job creation, protecting biodiversity. These and other partnerships we’re really excited about and really hope to continue them.  Convening and bringing people together and bringing different stakeholders together is a huge part of our mission so we’re really excited about the year ahead.

You’ve assembled a very accomplished members board at Food Tank.

Because of the work I’ve done over the last decade or so and the work Ellen has done we are considered not only credible but also agnostic on these issues.  We’re not left or right.  I’m obviously an environmentalist, I’m very concerned about environmental issues, but we are able to help people understand these issues in a way that’s not political.  Obviously a lot of the policy making pushes that we are trying to make are political in nature but again we’re not conservative, we’re not liberal, we are just presenting the facts in very objective way along with what we think are reasonable and impactful solutions.  We aren’t the only ones who saw the gap in organizations that don’t really address these issues, this ideas that we are trying to brace the global and domestic is very important to folks.  They’ve seen since 2007-2008 when the food and financial crisis began that these are not just issues that effect the developing world but they are issues that effect us here in the United States.  The drought across the country last year really convinced people that our food system is not that stable because we are very dependent on fossil fuel resources and abundant rain and when those things don’t happen or farmers can’t afford the things they need because they’ve had a bad year then the whole system is vulnerable and at risk. People are craving a closer connection and they want to get beyond just shopping at their local farmers market, although that’s important, but to get a closer connection to some of these issues. Not just thinking about the problems but also the solutions.

You’ve built a really big social media following, which is something a lot of charities and non-profits struggle with.  Do you have any advice for organizations trying to build a similar following and have their message be heard?

It’s a lot of trial and error and figuring out what messages can hit a particular audience.  The best advice I can give is just write simply, write clearly and simply. I think a lot of organizations aren’t good at giving a human face to these issues and telling stories.  A lot of what we do is storytelling, me talking to you, or the things we write, it’s all about putting a human face to these issues and making them seem much more tangible, much more real, and ultimately much more solvable.  There are solutions out there, fixing the system is not hopeless.  There are a lot of innovative things being done.  I don’t think a lot of organizations are good at telling success stories and telling stories of hope.  That’s something that we’ve found to be very important because if people feel that they can’t do anything then they don’t.  If you make them feel like there is stuff happening out there that they can be involved in or support or even just knowing about those things they feel much more hopeful or much more compelled to take action, whether that’s in their own homes or through other organizations.  That hope is necessary and important.

You’ve hosted events and have traveled the world presenting at different conferences and events.  Do you have any advice for someones looking to get involved with these conferences to present their work or even just to learn more?

We hope to be able to have more regular Food Tank events on our end.  We get invited to a lot of places and we give a lot of talks at not so exciting conferences.  I think what we want to do is make Food Tank conferences different.  What we’ve been doing with the Chicago and New York events is we’ll bring up experts and have them do a sort of 5 minute slam poetry or elevator speech.  The last event we had was about food waste and I asked each speaker to spend two and a half minutes on the problems they face in their work and two and a half minutes on the solutions.  That gives people on stage the time limit to be able to talk about what they’re doing very succinctly.  It also allows the audience and the experts time to comment and share their own experiences.  Obviously we have really good food and beverages, which I think is very important for bringing people together. It can just be about experts telling the audience what the solutions are and this idea of sharing and networking and learning about things that you might not have known about before and the more we can do those kind of events the better.

How was your last event in New York?

It was a lot of fun.  We had great partners and collaborates and speakers.  We sold-out, we sold tickets just to cover our costs, we don’t make any money from these events, that’s not really the idea behind it, but we sold-out about a month before.  It was really exciting, we were in the heart of Times Square, we worked with food and beverage vendors to get local food, one of our speakers worked with a local chef who used food that would have otherwise been wasted.  It was a lot of fun and we got a ton of great feedback on it.  It was viewed online by folks from five different continents when it was very late for them, timezone wise, or very early.  From our perspective it couldn’t have gone better we were very pleased with it.

There has been a trend recently with companies like Ben & Jerry’s switching to non-GMO ingredients for their products, do you think this trend will continue?

Absolutely!   The more that consumers have learned about the issues around biotechnology in agriculture the more they’re going to demand very clear labelling so they can make a choice when they’re at the grocery store about whether they are buying GMOs or not.  More companies will have to make that change and help their consumers understand what the ingredients are in their products.  It’s unavoidable at this point.  Companies are going to have to take a stand either way and let customers know what they’re buying.

A large percentage of farmers in North America are producing GMO corn and soy, how can we change the current farming system and cut out GMOs?

It’s not an easy fix but I think in so many ways the farming of the future will need to be based less on artificial input, whether we’re talking about biotechnology or artificial fertilizers, I think as climate change becomes more evident and we become forced to switch to alternative fuel sources. Things like artificial fertilizer, antibiotics in agriculture and other agrochemicals will become rare and more expensive and most farmers won’t have the opportunity to be able to afford them.  We’ll be depending on farmers knowledge of their land and their crops and their ability to be resilient and to adapt.  With the work of so many institutions like The Land Institute or The World Vegetable Center or some of the other research groups who are really focused on increasing nutrient density and increasing the idea of resilience through growing a diversity of crops and not just depending on monocultures from year to year.  That kind of work will be the norm because that’s what we’ll be forced into.  I think we should look at that as an opportunity and not something to be scared of.  The issue of climate change is only going to become more relevant to farmers, not only does farming around the world contribute not only 18-30% of greenhouse gas emissions but it’s also the endeavour that most humans do that will be most effected by unstable weather, extreme climate events, droughts, and flooding.  We’re going to need to come up with better solutions and better practices than the ones we’re using now.

Expiration dates are a public relations problem not a safety problem.  What do people need to know about best before dates?

These dates are used by retailers and manufactures and they’re not regulated.  They’re almost expressly made to confuse consumers and to force them in many ways to buy more than they need to.  The Natural Resource and Defence Council and Harvard last week issued this really cool report about expiration dates to really remind consumers that these are not federally regulated.  Trust yourself rather than food corporations to tell you when food has gone bad or not.  I think you’ll see a lot of grocery store chains over the next several months and years really making changes so that they’re saving food and preserving food and not throwing it away because of these confusing dates.  I think you’ll see, whether it’s USDA or FDA, someone making a real push to make sure that products on grocery store shelves are easier for consumers to understand.

The big complaint is that eating healthy can be expensive, how can we get to a point where healthy food becomes more affordable?

When you look at where the subsidies go it’s not for the crops that we actually eat.  They are for things like soybeans or corn that goes to feed livestock or goes into ethanol for cars.  Whether we’re concerned in North America or Subsaharan Africa about whether people eat well we’ll shift the investment and we’ll shift some of the funding to crops that really nourish people rather than just fill them up.  We’ll help consumers be able to afford healthier foods instead of the unhealthy food products that are available in so many urban areas in this country and across the western world especially but also snack foods are becoming more and more available in the developing world and starting to contribute to the obesity epidemic.  The fastest growing segment of obesity is in the developing world.  We’re good at filling people up but we’re not good at nourishing them.  The rise of convenience food and snacks is really helping contribute to that problem because those are the foods that are cheap.  We need real shifts in policy making and real shits in the research that’s being done to make sure we’re making investments in the right sorts of crops.

What jobs do you think will be important or in demand in this field in the future?

That’s a really good question and one I’m incredibly excited about.  I’ve been talking about agriculture being this opportunity and I think because we’re at a point where food is becoming a bigger issue, you see university programs around sustainable food production, you see more companies taking these issues on, agriculture will really help solve our unemployment and youth unrest problem because it will provide more opportunities.  You’ll have more people working in agriculture because again it will be more knowledge intensive.  You’ll have more people doing things in other aspects of the food system, whether they’re becoming food scientists or researchers or agronomists or nutritionists or folks who are artisan bakers or people figuring out innovative ways to preserve food or compost.  There are so many job opportunities that I don’t think we’re taking advantage of around the food system.  All of those things will become the careers of the future.

Can you name a couple interesting jobs that people might not know exist?

Most of the folks that I’ve met with are farmers or researchers in food and some of the most interesting things to me is what’s happening in urban centres around food production.  You’re beginning to see innovative companies being built around using human waste to help fertilize crops and provide a source of water in urban areas for food production.  No one likes to talk about poop so you don’t often think of that as a career (laughs) but utilizing something that we typically think about as waste to help feed the world is something that I find very exciting.  A lot of the innovations that are happening around food waste where people are building solar powered dehydrators or dryers to dry fruit so that it’s not wasted and give communities and extra product to sell or a way to provide their children with more nutrients throughout the year.  I think there are so many interesting careers that haven’t even been found yet, people are just doing them and not really thinking of them as a job yet.

Do you have any final advice for someone who sees a problem in the world and wants spend their life working to fix it?

It’s hard when you’re young and you’re in school and you’re not sure who you want to be and you get a lot of pressure from professors and parents and your peers to go where the money is.  There’s nothing wrong with that but I think if you have a real passion you’ll figure out how to make money from it later on.  It might not happen immediately but if there is something you’re really passionate about and really excited about you should do it even if the money’s not there. It’s hard.   It was hard for me to figure out what I wanted to do and how I could make money from it but there is so much opportunity in this field and so many exciting things to do.  Don’t let it go just because you’re scared, keep pursuing it because it’s important to you and important to the world.

Date: November 5, 2013 • Category: Uncategorized
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