State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Building Regenerative Local Food Systems

By Jeffrey Potent

On April 27, 2017, the Earth Institute, the School of International and Public Affairs, the Agriculture and Food Security Center and the Columbia Water Center presented the third annual Forum on Sustainable Agriculture. I hosted the event, which included presentations by Dr. Ruth DeFries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute, Mr. Michael Kinstlick, CEO, Coppersea Distilling, and Mr. Paul Helgeson, former sustainability manager, GNP Company.  The speakers and I offered introductory presentations, participated in a panel discussion and fielded audience questions.  The panel discussion also included brief remarks by Mr. Rod Richardson, president of the Grace Richardson Fund and Ms. Susan Arterian Chang, director of content development for the Capital Institute.

Our series addresses how the agriculture sector is confronting the challenge of feeding a growing and increasingly affluent population while improving environmental and social performance and contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation.  For 2017, we focused on small scale farming operations and other market participants contributing to the sustainability of local food systems, serving local, regional and in some cases national markets.  We explored how these players are improving land stewardship, producing nutritious crops and value-added products, revitalizing rural communities and facilitating distribution to urban and suburban markets.

We addressed the challenges to scaling up sustainable agriculture beyond what is now a relatively small percentage of agricultural production, the opportunities and limitations facing small farms and other food businesses in contributing to this transition, and clarified terms and addressed prevailing misconceptions.  We explored the imperative that, regardless of size, ownership structure and mode of distribution, in the future, all agriculture must embrace sustainability to bring value to society and succeed in business.

I kicked off the presentations with an overview of sustainable agriculture and the role of small farms and other market participants in advancing this agenda, including presenting data on the rapidly growing market for organic and locally produced agricultural products.  This was followed by Mr. Michael Kinstlick, who profiled agricultural value chains, progress toward standards for sustainable performance, and highlighted Coppersea Distilling as an example of emerging local agricultural production and value chains across the nation.

Mr. Helgeson provided a history of innovations in the U.S. poultry industry.  He profiled this evolution at GNP, highlighting sustainability-related improvements in processing, incentivizing small farm suppliers to improve their environmental and animal welfare performance, and highlighting associated product attributes in the company’s packaging and marketing.

Dr. DeFries completed the formal presentations by exploring the challenge of feeding a growing, urbanizing population, highlighting the trade offs between organic versus conventional production, small/local versus large scale farming operations, and the comparative nutritional value of various staple cereal crops.

The formal presentations were followed by a panel discussion among the speakers where these topics were covered in further detail, facilitated by questions from the host and the audience.  To add to our discussion on advancing sustainable agriculture and a more significant role for small producers, Rod Richardson presented the work of his foundation to propose an array of tax cuts that could incentivize and improve the competitive advantage of businesses practicing and supporting sustainable agriculture.  Susan Arterian Chang profiled the innovative work of the Redd on Salmon Street food hub in Seattle, Washington, providing a warehouse, a wholesale market for local farmers, ranchers and fishers, and an incubator for startup food processing companies.

The video recording of the event and the speaker presentations can be viewed at:

Jeffrey Potent is an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute. For additional information about the event, please contact him at

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