What is the Sustainable Food Lab? A conversation with Senior Program Director Stephanie Daniels

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

The Sustainable Food Lab is a non-profit organization that helps business and civil society build the know-how, tools and partnership for sustainable food systems. The Food Lab works with both small and large companies, such as Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, MARS and Target, as well as organizations such as the Sustainable Trade Initiative, GIZ and Catholic Relief Services to help bring collaboration and a spirit of partnership when thinking through sustainability challenges. One of the core functions of the Sustainable Food Lab is to create the “kitchen table,”  where stakeholders can learn from each other’s perspectives and tackle issues together.

As Stephanie discusses in our conversation, the myriad issues that the global food system faces today –such as climate change, deforestation and failing soil health – are of great concern to consumer goods companies. In our Q & A, she explains how the Food Lab works collaboratively with companies to meet consumer demand for more sustainable products and do better addressing issues such as ethical sourcing, farmer poverty, lack of transparency and waste in supply chains.

Tell me a bit about your background? Where did you first learn about sustainability and how did you get passionate about the topic?

Like many others, there were some pivotal moments in my past that led me to where I am today. After undergraduate, I volunteered in Central America, where I worked with unions in Guatemala during the 1994 post-civil war peace process. At the time, there were nationwide banana strikes and our team was responsible for bringing in medical supplies. I remember seeing these workers as we drove in a truck to a remote plantation, passing families that knew at any moment the army could arrive. As a U.S. citizen and a person of privilege, I realized I could help provide visibility and solidarity to this issue. I started to understand the imbalance of power and the role of agriculture in rural communities. After that, I became focused on environmental issues and the social aspects of sustainability. 

What was your first job?

After completing my undergraduate program,  I happened to meet an entrepreneur who founded a chocolate company with the mission to buy cocoa from small farmers. Working with this company was my entry into sustainable trade where I learned by doing. I worked as an intermediary trader, buying directly from small farmer groups in Latin America and Africa and working to help those cooperatives get certified organic and fair trade. At the time, in the early 1990s, there were no U.S. standards for fair trade and we followed European standards. My job was to convince American companies this was a good system to follow. We were the first importers of organic cocoa, which came with it the challenges of learning how to import, to prevent customs officials from fumigating our containers and to maintain pest control in the early days of organic trade.

What did these farms have to do to become certified organic?

Unlike today, where large scale farmers that want to become organic need a minimum of 3 years to transition, which can include de-toxification of soil, the transition for cocoa farmers was much easier as they didn’t use chemical inputs on their farms in the first place -- so they were organic by default. We worked with farmer cooperatives on how they could increase productivity, professionalize and make more money selling to international markets. 

How did you transition to Sustainable Food Labs?

I was with the chocolate company for 7 years and then went to graduate school to focus on International development. I decided I wanted to work at the intersection of trade and rural development. I ended up starting my own consultancy to develop ethical trading standards. I worked with a range of organizations such as the Shell Foundation and Starbucks on ethical cocoa standards and through that work I met the Sustainable Food Lab team. Their mission spoke to me.  The Lab was supporting not just one company to change its practices, but rather a consortium of companies, NGOs and others to make real change and take a systems approach.

Do you believe traceability is vital in our food system to ensure sustainability at the farm level?

On the one hand, as consumers we want and should be able to have visibility through the chain, but in reality, the cost to do that is very high. Traceability systems need to provide as much value to farmers as they do downstream. I like what the Grameen Foundation and Sourcemap are doing around traceability as they are trying to provide digital systems that can be linked to banking and technical services so there is an incentive for farmers to sign up –  and it’s not just an audit. I also believe there should be a requirement for supply chain actors to provide value through sourcing standards or price transparency. 

Thinking about large corporations with complex supply chains, how can huge companies like MARS and Pepsi, trace to the source when it comes to commodities?

Take palm oil, for example. A single company can’t change a large sector like palm by only focusing on its specific palm oil supply chain. There needs to be a consortium of companies that demand deforestation-free palm oil to provide enough of a market pull for palm companies and origin governments to enact laws and protect forests. We need regulatory systems to penalize bad actors. We need to be putting money into monitoring for deforestation. Is a company committed to a system that has teeth? Are they disclosing how much of their supply chain is certified? Without an industry approach there is no leverage, which is why I believe in collaborative approaches like the Food Lab. 

What are the biggest sustainability challenges facing companies today? 

We want cheap food and sustainable food and those two things can’t exist simultaneously without well planned systemic programs (and sometimes not even then!). We can’t expect farmers to produce better quality food at such low prices. We need to commit to buy other crops from farmers who adapt crop rotation. Poor people need access to affordable and healthy food. We need smart regulation that can help make healthy food accessible. We need to make sure farmers can cover the cost of production as well as have some margin for reinvestment and emergencies. As commodities are inherently substitutable, if one region has a bad season, commodity buyers can fill the gap from another location while that farm does not have the ability to change the crop that they grow. This system fails farmers by not sharing risk, thus leaving many farmers vulnerable and in debt. 

What role do consumers play?

Continue to ask where your food comes from, who grows it and did they get a good deal? Choose 1-2 products you follow and learn about. Pay for local and sustainable products. 

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