The shrinking source of elements used in fertilizers and the practices of corporate farming pose significant problems for the agriculture sector, Harvard Business School graduate and Grantham Foundation founder Jeremy Grantham said in a panel on agricultural leadership and innovation hosted by the Harvard Alumni for Agriculture.
Grantham, along with three other Harvard affiliates, spoke Thursday to an audience of students and representatives from local food companies about the global implications of sustainable agriculture and the need for leadership in the field.
“You can’t grow forever with finite resources, but everyone thinks you can,” Grantham said. “It’s baked into capitalism, it’s baked into the American corporate way.”
Gary Rodkin, the CEO of ConAgra Foods, spoke directly to students pursuing careers in agribusiness about the importance of spreading business worldwide.
“We follow our customers globally, we supply them globally,” Rodkin said. “You can see McDonalds and KFCs building five restaurants a day in China, and we supply them. Whatever you debate as the merits of french fries, I’ve never met a person in the world who doesn’t like them. So it’s just about availability.”
The panel also discussed the global problem of coordination within food industries. Calestous Juma, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School whose work focuses on technology and sustainable development, drew from his experience working with the Kenyan government.
“Looking at the agricultural system, we realized that very little of what supports agriculture is under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Agriculture,” Juma said. “We started to think about how to coordinate it, and it became evident that no one minister could do it.
”The final panelist, Business School professor Ray A. Goldberg ’48 added to Juma’s commentary on issues in agribusiness. He described his work in the past two decades to bridge gaps between business leaders.
“How do you get people who distrust each other to sit down and realize that they’re working for the same common denominator?” Goldberg said.
Goldberg encouraged the students present, many of whom are studying subjects related to agribusiness at the Kennedy School or the Law School, to approach the sector with a different outlook from that of the previous generation.
“The challenge has never been greater, the opportunity has never been greater,” Goldberg said. “Instead of ‘I win, you lose’ mentality of transactions, you’re going to live in a world that says ‘we both win.’ It’s a win-win situation.”
A reception that featured food and beverages from local startups founded by Harvard alums preceded the panel. Lorin A. Fries, a recent graduate of the Kennedy School and the director of corporate relations for the Harvard Alumni for Agriculture, described the event as an opportunity for the students to interact with panelists who are already experts in the field.
“This is meant to introduce people to each other across the schools, introduce students to panelists, and introduce local businesses,” Fries said. “It’s meant to be representing a number of aspects of the Harvard community who are engaged in food and agriculture and to establish those sorts of connections.”