Food+Enterprise is building the soil for Sustainable Food

As we're rushing around trying to get everything ready for Food & Enterprise Summit, organized by Slow Money NYC, I want to take one moment to reflect on what it’s all about and what makes it so great.

Slow Money was founded in 2008 by Woody Tasch, who believes that we need to create a shift in the way money is invested, and that “We must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered.” (Slow Money Principle #3).

Slow Money NYC started in 2010, and began organizing the Food+Enterprise Summit in 2011. Food+Enterprise is designed to “spark dialogue and action addressing the nexus of where our food comes from and where our money goes.  We hope to reshape roles for investors and extend the definition of “investment,” providing local alternatives to Wall Street.”

What does all that mean and why does it matter? To really understand, let’s take a step back and look to where it all begins – the soil.

Soil scientists know that below the soil’s surface there are anywhere from thousands to millions of different species in just a gram of soil. Organic farmers rely on that diversity to build up the soil health, and in turn, to grow more resilient, delicious crops. They rely on that subsoil community to decompose organic matter, store nutrients and make them available to plants, to aerate the soil and build soil structure, and to reduce pest pressure.

Industrial farming does not depend on the same relationship to the soil. Instead it relies on synthetic fertilizers to give plants have quick access to nutrients. Pesticides quickly kill off unwanted pests; herbicides provide a quick fix for weed pressure.  For efficiency, large mono-crops are planted over large areas of land, so the same inputs can be applied throughout. Industrial farms get fast results from these methods.

So what’s the problem? While industrial agriculture can appear effective and efficient, without that care for soil health, the industrial agricultural approach over time leads to a decrease in soil fertility, structure, and biological activity. Without replenishing the organic matter and nutrients that are removed from the soil, soil gradually reduces its fertility. Excessive use of inputs can lead to toxic run-off, decreased water quality, pesticide-resistant insects and pathogens, and an overall loss of biodiversity. Without the thriving ecosystem both below and above the soil’s surface, and with the inevitable decline of soil health, this approach to agriculture becomes more and more dependent on inputs, thereby continuing this cycle and reducing the soil health further.

Slow Money’s approach recognizes that our economy is similar to that of soil health. In the past century, much of our economy has been focused on making as much money as possible as quickly as possible. At last year’s Food & Enterprise Summit, Woody Tasch explained that “The 20th century taught us that these [investing and philanthropy] were opposed ideas, presenting us with a binary situation: First, you maximize profits on the investment side; then you take some of the proceeds and use it for philanthropy. Never the twain shall meet.” As a result of this approach, growth has occurred at a rapid and destructive pace, valuing only profits and not any other impacts along the way. Vast amounts of wealth have been accumulated, and there has relatively little analysis about what’s happening beneath the metaphorical soil surface.

Slow Money embodies an alternative model. Instead of fast and reckless growth, we can grow slowly and in a way that nourishes and “regenerates place, planet, people + profits.” The theme for this year’s F&E Summit is “Finding Food Value: Balancing Purpose + Profit.” We can have both.
Woody Tasch calls to investors:
“…investors have to roll up our sleeves and put our hands into the soil—the actual soil and the soil of a restorative economy. We need to plant the seeds of the nurture capital industry. We need to bring some of our money back down to earth. We need to take a little of our money out of there — those gross abstractions called global capital markets and computer algorithms—and put it to work here —near where we live, in things that we understand, starting with food.”
As entrepreneurs, where do the rest of us fit in? A healthy, thriving soil can benefit from adding organic matter – yes. But it’s the thousands and millions of species living in relationship to each other that create the balance, that make nutrients available to plants, and that make soil the valuable resource that it truly is. Likewise, the economic change that we need depends on all of us – on thousands and millions of relationships working together to change our economy and food system. We are the microbes, the fungi, the nematodes. We are the farmers, food producers, investors, lawyers, accountants, cooks, community organizers, politicians, and consumers who are helping to build our new food economy. We need to focus on making slow, meaningful, lasting change close to home, and doing it in partnership with other people.

As we build and invest in sustainable food businesses, we need to remember that we are part of this thriving ecosystem, and that we’re actively building it. We are not just individual businesses operating in a sterile void. The success of this movement and our local food community, the health of our “soil” means a healthier, more sustainable environment for our businesses, one that will help us to thrive.

Where does the Food & Enterprise Summit fit in? This event is the best place for entrepreneurs and investors to meet each other. Food & Enterprise is a meeting ground for people who are committed to building a local food economy. The Summit helps build that community. Change does not happen once we get rich or meet that financial goal – change is happening along the way. Let’s partner with others who are doing this too. Let’s make this change together.

(Cross post from CFO on Speed Dial and Food + Enterprise)