Farm Food Facts

Dan Esty, A Better Planet author and Yale Professor

January 22, 2020 USFRA Episode 59
Farm Food Facts
Dan Esty, A Better Planet author and Yale Professor
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Farm Food Facts
Dan Esty, A Better Planet author and Yale Professor
Jan 22, 2020 Episode 59
USFRA

Dan Esty is Hillhouse professor of environmental law and policy as a professor at Yale since 1994 he holds faculty appointments in both Yale's environmental and law schools. With a secondary appointment at the Yale school of management. He also directs the Yale center for environmental law and policy. Dan is the author or editor of 12 books including the prize winning book, Green to Gold. How smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage. His latest work, A Better Planet ,was published last fall. The concept of A Better Planet is to bring together the insights of 40 of the biggest and best ideas in sustainability and the environment that are grounded in sound science. 

Show Notes Transcript

Dan Esty is Hillhouse professor of environmental law and policy as a professor at Yale since 1994 he holds faculty appointments in both Yale's environmental and law schools. With a secondary appointment at the Yale school of management. He also directs the Yale center for environmental law and policy. Dan is the author or editor of 12 books including the prize winning book, Green to Gold. How smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage. His latest work, A Better Planet ,was published last fall. The concept of A Better Planet is to bring together the insights of 40 of the biggest and best ideas in sustainability and the environment that are grounded in sound science. 

Speaker 1:

Farm food facts where every farmer, every acre and every voice matter. Welcome to Farm food facts for January 22nd, 2020 I'm your host Phil Lempert. Remember to watch the new short film from USFRA 30 harvest to see just how farmers provide a source of healthy food while addressing environmental concern for current and future generations. Go to U S farmers and ranchers.org to view this impactful and Hartville film. Today we're going to talk all about the environment. Dan Esty is Hillhouse professor of environmental law and policy as a professor at Yale since 1994 he holds faculty appointments in both Yale's environmental and law schools. With a secondary appointment at the Yale school of management. He also directs the Yale center for environmental law and policy. Dan is the author or editor of 12 books including the prize winning book, Green to Gold. How smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage. His latest work, A Better Planet ,was published last fall. The concept of A Better Planet is to bring together the insights of 40 of the biggest and best ideas in sustainability and the environment that are grounded in sound science. USF, RAs, CEO Aaron Fitzgerald was one of those voices and her insights focused on the role in potential of agriculture in solving for climate change. Dan, welcome to farm food facts.

Speaker 3:

Really a pleasure to be with you.

Speaker 2:

You're focused in addition to the environment is also about the feasibility and economics of the sustainability issues that are being discussed today. Now, your voice is a realist, which at the end of the day means that the sustainability measures and advances we have to make make sound economic sense. Share with me if you would, your insights that learn from both a better planet and green to gold.

Speaker 3:

Sure. I'm happy to offer some thoughts about what is kind of moving in the environmental world and how sustainability is starting to play out in a way that I think offers real promise for broadening the base of people who say, I want a sustainable future because I want the environment protected. I want the land conserved, but I also have to make a living. I want to have a job. And frankly, society has people that need to be uplifted. We need to ensure that we've got ways to make everyone benefit and provide material wellbeing across society. And I think it's that critical point that we don't need to have a trade off. It's not a choice of a good environment or a job. It's not a choice of economic prosperity or success in conserving the land. But we really are finding ways to do both at once. That lies at the heart of what I've tried to argue for in the business environment. Book green to gold and frankly is one of the core themes that's emerged from the 40 essays that are part of this new, a better planet book.

Speaker 2:

So when people say, I want a sustainable future and they don't realize what that all means, what could you share with people when, when their hope is to have a sustainable future? What are some of the steps that they need to take in order to make that happen?

Speaker 3:

Well, we need to have, um, action taken at several levels on the policy level. And that's what some of these essays in the better planet book focus on. We need more coherence. Uh, our 20th century approach to environmental protection was often um, quite sort of dis-aggregated in a way that meant you dealt with water problems in one place and air pollution and another and chemical use and yet a third. And the standards weren't similar so you often ended up with things getting crosswise. So one of the core themes that's emerged is a more systematic and really systems approach to environmental protection that brings us all together into a kind of common format and simplifies what's required for those that are in the farmer rancher community on the one hand, the business community more broadly and even beyond that for the public. So I think trying to simplify, clarify and try to make more coherent our framework of policy as a starting point.

Speaker 3:

A second element is to understand that there really does need to be some focus on tradeoffs. You can't simply say we're going to do everything in environmental all the time. You've got to think about how environment issues and energy issues and economic concerns all come together and recognize that will force you to think hard at some points about how to manage tradeoffs. And I think that reality is starting to emerge as well from a policy point of view. And then I think from the kind of a recipient end of the, of the regulatory world, that is all of us who lead our lives. And then face rules and regulations, particularly those in a business or, or those on the land. Um, we're trying to make sure, I think going forward that people see ways to do both. What needs to be done for a sustainable future, for protection of our land and water, but also what's going to be required to be successful as a farmer, as a rancher, as someone in the food system.

Speaker 3:

And that of course does require getting out there using resources, uh, bringing products to market. And I think what we're seeing is there's a kind of emerging set of best practices that allow us to understand ways to do what we need to do to provide the food society wants. But to do it in a way that reduces, uh, doesn't eliminate but reduces the tension, uh, with sustainability ensures that we're doing things always, uh, uh, in better ways that reduce, uh, chemical exposures, reduce damage to waterways, limit those trade offs that I was talking about a minute ago.

Speaker 2:

So Dan, let's talk a little bit about the trade offs. How do we measure what trade offs are valid and what trade offs are, you know, an easy way out for, for companies to be able to say, Oh, well we're doing our sustainable practices, but you know, uh, we, we couldn't do this. So give me some examples of what some real trade offs are that don't hurt the environment that are much more then just, you know, marketing speak, if you would.

Speaker 3:

Sure. I think one of the areas of opportunity that's a big theme of, uh, the new better planet book is opportunities to bring technology to bear in ways that will make, uh, farming work better and also reduce environmental impacts. For example, precision farming with the tractors that are hooked up with geographic information systems, GIS systems, and can really gauge in a much more refined way where a particular, uh, fertilizer might be required and where it's not, this allows a more precise laying down of product. And it also ensures that you don't get excessive runoff. And I think that's the kind of 21st century opportunity to actually save money by limiting the amount of product you're putting down on a field and at the same moment improve environmental outcomes. So that's the kind of win-win sort of path forward. I think we're seeing more and more ways to get to, and frankly technology is a big potential in that we have ways to measure things today, gauge things, track things, have tractors, talked to, uh, those that are watching the weather, watching the flow of water across the land in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago or two decades ago.

Speaker 3:

And, and certainly compared to 30 or 40 years ago. So I think we're seeing technology emerge in a big way. I think we're having people understand what the big issues are, a better science, better ecological science about where harms come from and how they flow. Uh, what the ecological science world calls the fate and transport of pollutants. And I think we're starting to understand that we've got to focus on the big issues and recognize that some of the things we might've once thought were significant, maybe less so.

Speaker 2:

And how do we measure those? How do we put together that list, if you would, that says, here's, here's what we need to focus on for 2020. Even though that in, you know, 2015, this might've been at the top of the list now for 20, 20. Let's, let's rejigger the list to what really is important today.

Speaker 3:

Well, I think you said at the top of the program that the critical thing here is good science and I think we're getting better science all the time. And I think one of the things that environmental protection advocates have come to expect and understand is it's gotta be good science, good risk analysis, careful benefit cost analysis that underpins our programs, underpins our requirements under pins, our regulatory standards. And uh, we now know that some of the issues that got a lot of attention in the 20th century, for example, abandoned toxic waste dumps, uh, had, you know, few cases, big impacts, but in many other circumstances we're really not a top tier environmental issue and billions of dollars spent on those problems, which might better have been spent on other issues. Uh, I think we now know that there are certain kinds of air pollution, particularly in urban areas that are quite a serious problem. Lots of asthma, particularly among young people. And other respiratory distress. Uh, we know now that that's a, a better place to spend our limited time and attention and financial resources for attacking environmental problems.

Speaker 2:

So Dan, I'm going to ask him a strange question here. Besides you, who else is looking at this to make sure that our priorities are the right priorities? Do we look to the government for, are we looking to NGOs for, I mean who is the voice in addition to yourself that, that we really need to be listening to about what those priorities are.

Speaker 3:

That's a, it's a funny thing. You see that as a question that is itself funny and I agree with you cause it turns out a lot of people don't step back and ask what are the priorities and have we rethought them based on UpToDate information. So it's a perfectly good question. And one frankly I think needs more attention. And I think one of the things that's changed, but between, you know, where we are today and where we might've been 10 or 20 years ago, is that the public doesn't accept that the folks that were once seen as the experts or particularly the advocates on this, the, the environmental groups, the nongovernmental organizations necessarily can be trusted. Uh, in fact, one of the interesting changes in language is the 25 years ago we used to talk about public interest groups referring to environmental organizations. Today we don't use that term anymore cause the public wouldn't accept it.

Speaker 3:

We call them nongovernmental organizations, right? So I think there's now a bit of a challenge out there to anyone who claims that they're going to identify the right priorities. Ultimately government has to do it. But I think there's needs to be more of a debate about what's the big issue set that we should prioritize really put our money up against. And where are things, I'm not such a big deal. And I think that is part of what this better planet book is trying to sharpen the focus on. It seeks to be in a way that's very unusual. Bipartisan. It's got, uh, important essays from Republicans as well as Democrats. And one of the things I'm actually excited about is the potential emergence of what I sometimes call the up the middle environmental strategy. Uh, recognizing there are significant and important issues that have been under addressed and need more attention, but that there's also been, um, kind of over-hype on some problems and frankly a, a waste of resources when we really could have done things differently and better.

Speaker 2:

So in your opinion, are consumers smarter now than ever before, or do they still need a lot more information to be able to challenge these things?

Speaker 3:

Well, I think consumers are smarter or there certainly is a lot more information out there where one of the real sort of defining elements of our current moment is the information age, technologies and capacities that are available to us that weren't there 20 or 30 ago. So I think, uh, we do have a public that's smarter, but we also know that some of the problems are technical. Some of the problems require a kind of a scientific expertise that the everyday person doesn't have. And we do need a government that tells us, um, you know, what is the level of a pesticide residue on a particular food product? Uh, is that a safe level or what might be the safe level? And that can't be done. Uh, every individual trying to figure it out for themselves. We need leadership and we need government with good scientific underpinnings.

Speaker 3:

And frankly, we need those, uh, government officials to be pushed with the crosschecks from the media, uh, crosschecks from industry associations and from environmental groups. And one of the critical elements of good policy is that nobody gets to do it on their own. They're always, uh, invited to put their ideas forward. But then there's some push and pull and debate over what the best science and the best data might be. And I think that's one of the things we are getting better at. I also would say that the public does want to have confidence that the food supply is safe. And I think we want to make sure that when there is a challenge brought forward, um, that it taken seriously that we have a way to check it. But we also want to make sure that there aren't a kind of false scares that are getting people spun up when the issues are not that real and where the food supply really is safe and secure.

Speaker 2:

So talking about food recalls for a moment, do you think that the average consumer has been jaded by the food recalls and the really not paying attention to them or are they, you know, just so scary that we have consumers that throw up their hands and they say, Oh, I'm never going to eat blank again. Uh, because, because they heard about our recall.

Speaker 3:

Well, I think the recalls are an important part of a safe and secure food supply. I think we do want the government and frankly the producers themselves to be looking for problems and where there are problems to take action quickly. I think there's a, a good track record now, a real sort of emerging set of best practices. Say when there's a problem, you want to move fast and you want to be open, you want to be transparent and that's how you put things behind you. And I think the public has an intelligence to its response to these problems. Uh, where the producer and the product in question is one that is, you know, do you see the companies taking it seriously? You see the government responding thoughtfully. The public understands that sometimes things do go wrong and that there was a problem on spinach last year.

Speaker 3:

It doesn't mean people won't buy spinach this year, but I think they do want ever more care taken to make sure that when problems arise there's a quick response and a transparent response. But I think, um, the producing companies are starting to get clarity on that as well. And I think we are seeing whenever there are crises that come up quickly but be responded to a quick way. And then I do think the public puts it behind them. Uh, a way that's different than, uh, a couple of decades ago when the issue of a LAR on apples appeared and it effectively wiped out a whole year's worth of the Washington state Apple crop because people got so worried and there wasn't a clear understanding of, of a degree of risk. There wasn't clear guidance from the industry, uh, and from the Apple growers. And that was really quite devastating and I think we've gotten better at it. So I do think we're in a stronger position today. I think the public is smarter about it, uh, but it does require ongoing vigilance.

Speaker 2:

I would agree with you that we've gotten better about it. But back to the comment you made before about technology, you know, we've just seen where the government has taken three or four months to be able to determine where an E coli outbreak came from, from a particular crop. What could or should we be doing from a technology standpoint that, you know, we don't have to wait three or four months to discover where an outbreak started.

Speaker 3:

Well that's a great question and one where I think we do have more work to do, but technology is available to help. And I would say traceability is now one of the big issues for the food industry broadly and really even more than that for the government in terms of understanding how it plays out its role. So I think the, the answer here is in part one of a, of kind of commitment to transparency, but it's also one of using technologies that are available. I've recently been in an avocado packing house in every tray of avocados now has a barcode on it, so you should be able to quite quickly trace products right back to where the farm they came from. Understand where there's an issue. And I think the smart packaging opportunity is significant where everything has got a, an electronic code and where you can move quite quickly to understand the source of any particular product that shows up on a supermarket shelf weeks or months down the line. Even on the other side of the country. And I think the farmer rancher community and I think the food suppliers more broadly in the producing companies are moving that direction. Are investing ever more in these kinds of technologies, the smart packaging. And I do think we, I expect we're going to get further along in this over the coming years.

Speaker 2:

So Dan, take a look at your crystal ball for this year for 2020 what would you hope, with all the research that you've done with all the people that you talk to on a daily basis, what do you hope we can accomplish across the entire food supply chain over the next 12 months?

Speaker 3:

Well, I think we are seeing a shift steadily towards the world of diversity in food, of giving people choices around organic products, giving people choices about what they want to pay for and what they don't. And you know, there are some issues on which I think the government has to make the choice for us, but I think in the food category much better to give people their own freedom, to choose what they want to pay for, what they're not willing to pay for. Uh, and you know, I think we're, we're seeing more of that. So I do think a commitment to sustainability as a core element of our food system across society, uh, is a good thing. Uh, that of course is the essay that, uh, Aaron Fitzgerald and our coauthor Gregor Shuni focused on in their essay in this better planet book that's just come out.

Speaker 3:

And I think what we see is that the stewards of the land, the farmers and ranchers who are tending our crops and raising our cattle and taking care of the food supply really do see their role as a stewards of the land. And I think to be stewards of climate change as well. And that's of course what Aaron and Greg were pushing. And if you asked me one thing I would wish for it would be that that agenda of being good stewards of the land and of the immediate environment around a farm or a ranch be extended so that everyone understands themselves at the same moment, the need to be stewards, uh, of the global atmosphere, uh, and protecting us against a, this risk of climate change. That seems to be emerging. And one of the stories of, uh, of the past year that will really resonate and I think shape our thinking going forward is some of the terrible fires that have emerged in places like Australia.

Speaker 3:

You know, I, I can't tell you what a tragedy is to hear that a billion animals may have died in Australia. This is really scary and those fires are, are a shocking in their scope and severity and frankly in, in what damage they've done to large Sloss a of a whole huge country. And I think we want to make sure that that kind of a story doesn't expand. And I would say more generally, and now I'm going to give you, if you're willing to accept it, a 20, 30 prediction. So not just for the next year, but looking out beyond, I think we are headed to a world where this idea of sustainability is starting to become operationalized around a concept that I want to just throw out there. It's one of the ideas in this better planet book that I think kind of fresh and interesting and emerging as something significant.

Speaker 3:

And that's the idea that we should be thinking about the world going forward with what the economists might call an end. The externalities. And let me try to explain that. By that I mean that any business that has its success in the marketplace dependent on extracting natural resources from public spaces, whether that's water or the use of land or dependent on polluting the community with either a emissions going up a smokestack route, an effluent pipe is going to find itself under increasing pressure. Basically, I think over the next decade we're going to move toward a world where people are expected to either eliminate the harms that are causing that spill over onto the community or society more broadly or to pay for them. So if you're drawing water from public resources, you're going to have to end up paying for that, paying full price for it. And if you're cutting timber on federal land, you'll have to pay for that.

Speaker 3:

And frankly, I think, you know, in the industrial setting, people that are putting smoke up a smoke stack are going to end up paying for that or putting effluent out of pipeline. End of the year by river. So I think we're headed for a world where the regulatory framework is going to shift from the government trying to measure everything and tell people precisely what to do. And in some cases tell them in fact what specific piece of pollution control equipment they have to deploy toward a world that's more focused on price signals, where you pay for the harm you cause you pay for the resources you use. But then the individual, whether it's a business, a of any kind, will get to make choices about how much of a public resource to use and whether and how much to pollute. You know, not that they'll be allowed to do crazy bad things, but if it's a question of modest emissions or slightly greater emissions, you know, you pay for the harm you cause and then you can manage your operations as you see fit.

Speaker 1:

So Dan, if you had to pick one topic or one issue that a better planet should, should give to farmers, retailers and consumers, what would that be?

Speaker 3:

Well, I think the overarching challenge for our society at the current moment is to get a grip on the issue of climate change. And I think what it turns out that people haven't realized is that farmers and the, uh, the world of food production is a really critical part of the path to a sustainable future. Uh, with regard to climate change. And I think people have seen farming as a source of some of the problems. There's been a lot of talk about the level of greenhouse gas emissions that come from certain sectors in particular beef production, rice production. I think what we're also coming to understand is that farmers and ranchers are going to be absolutely essential to the solution. And one of the things that's really come into sharp focus over the past year I think will be an even more of a central point of discussion in the next year or two, is the enormous opportunity to capture carbon, to sequester carbon in the, in the language scientists sometimes use, uh, in our soils and, uh, in our green plants, in our forests. And I think you're going to see a big push to have more of what we've been out call nature-based solutions, the climate change, recognizing we have to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but that we benefit as well by capturing the carbon dioxide that's out there, uh, with green plants doing that work and with soils reinforcing it.

Speaker 1:

Well, Dan, congratulations on a better planet. It's a must read for everybody across the entire food supply chain. And thanks for joining us today on farm food facts.

Speaker 3:

Really a pleasure to be with you. Thanks so much for the conversation.

Speaker 1:

For more information on all things, food and agriculture, and to listen to our archives, please visit food dialogues.com under the programs and media tab and visit us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers or on Twitter at USF FRA.