13 Nov 2019

‘Grand-standing pledges of being sustainable must be reinforced with practical and verifiable evidence’

David Green is the Executive Director of the U.S. Sustainability Alliance (USSA). For the past twenty five years, he has advised numerous European and US agricultural and food organizations on international market access and policy issues particularly the understanding and acceptance of new technologies in food and agricultural production.

David will be speaking at a Food Matters Summit session asking, ‘How can science save us?’
Moderated by Penny Sarchet, news editor at the New Scientist, the session will examine how we explore what the next food and agricultural revolution will look like, and how science will enable it to happen.

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you became Executive Director of the U.S. Sustainability Alliance?

Farming is a huge part of my life and has been from the age of 19 when I ran my own farm in Northern Ireland for ten years. After that I joined the editorial team at Farmers Weekly before moving to the United States where I had a small farm in Virginia and for the past 25 year have been an advisor to several leading U.S. farm and food organizations. Through that work I was asked to take on my role at the U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

What does the Alliance do and what does it hope to achieve?

The Alliance is a not-for-profit group of 21 of the leading farm, fishery, and forestry associations in the United States. The main purpose is to explain and promote to European audiences that conservation and sustainability are taken seriously. We also want to provide context to the different approaches to sustainability in the U.S. from some of those in Europe. And to some of the misperceptions of American agriculture. The differences in approach are exactly that – differences based on culture, geography, climate, laws and scale. Neither is right nor wrong.

Sustainability has become a buzz word especially in political and business circles, but have you found that the rhetoric has been backed up with action?

There have been so many interpretations of sustainability that ‘buzz’ seems to be an apt description. But for all the buzzing of the last few years, there is something of an understanding that grand-standing pledges of being sustainable must be reinforced with practical and verifiable evidence.

Our current food system succeeds in feeding an enormous population. However, primary food production of tomorrow needs to provide solutions that are climate adaptive, nature inclusive and fair, and to allow farmers and others in the food supply chain and suppliers to make a living and run a sustainable business.

How have you seen attitudes change towards sustainability and do you think we will ever be able to feed the world sustainably?

Companies worldwide increasingly see the need to source responsible raw materials and provide proof to their supply chain partners and customers. This has resulted in various certification schemes, company-specific programmes, ‘zero deforestation’ commitments and actions on waste management and climate. Implementing these is challenging in international commodity markets with homogenous goods and small margins, and with civil society avidly checking corporate behaviour. With less farmable land every year, then more needs to be produced from less. That’s why we need a realistic look at how innovation and technology can help. At a time when food is probably safer than at any time previously, more and more people are worried about what they eat. New technologies might be unfamiliar and could even seem scary to consumers. But if shown to be safe and effective then we need to move from the arguments of ‘prove that it’s NOT safe’ to ‘prove that it IS safe’ if we are to provide enough food for a growing world population.

How important is it to keep the dialogue going about sustainability and are events like Food Matters Summit important in doing this?

We are entering another critical phase in the evolution of food and agriculture - perhaps best described as a sustainable revolution. We will need collaboration, debate and communication by scientists, regulators, farmers and all those in the food industry if we are to understand, accept and provide ways to a sustainable future. Events such as Food Matters Summit are critical to keeping the issue front and centre, and while such events are hardly going to provide an instant solution, the more discussion that is based on pragmatic and acceptable solutions, the more able we will be to provide for those who will want to have enough to eat in 2050.