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SXSW: Cargill on the (digital) future of regenerative agriculture

Read Time: 20 minutes

March 19, 2024


What is regenerative agriculture? (Hint: think rotational grazing, reducing soil erosion and increasing biodiversity.)

Why is regenerative agriculture important? (Hint: healthy soils can be at the root of improved crop yields and sustainable agriculture.)

And how can we use digital technology to promote regenerative agriculture practices that strengthen our food system? (Hint: by monitoring regenerative farming systems, we can measure and reward progress.)

These were some of the many topics Cargill’s chief information and digital officer took on at South by Southwest (SXSW). Jen Hartsock joined a March 9 panel called "Digital Transformation for Resilient Food Systems." She spoke with Regrow Ag CEO and Co-founder Anastasia Volkova and moderator Jesse Klein, a freelance climate reporter.

Listen to the audio from the panel and follow along with the transcript below.

Want to learn more about regenerative ag? Learn how we’re helping farmers adopt regenerative agriculture techniques across our global supply chains and see regenerative agriculture examples on the farm.


Transcript: ‘Digital Transformation for Resilient Food Systems’

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio above if you are able. This transcript was generated with a combination of speech recognition technology and human transcribers. Please check the corresponding audio above to confirm accuracy before quoting in print.

Jesse Klein: Hi everybody. My name is Jessie Klein. I am a climate reporter. I have written for Green Biz, Wired and Tech Crunch, and I'm joined by Anastasia Volkova from Regrow and Jen Hartsock from Cargill.

Jen, do you want to start and introduce yourself and talk a little bit about Cargill just to start us off?

Jen Hartsock: Sure. Let me start with: My path to this stage began maybe earlier than some. If you can imagine me at 12… I was living in Iowa, and I was traveling in a car to the nearby town because our town was small enough that we did not have a grocery store. So, on the weekends we would travel to another town over in order to go supermarket shopping.

And at the age of 12 for me, there were no screens. So the screen was looking out the car window. And I remember in the winter I was looking out and I said to my mother, “Mom, why is it that all the snow is covered in dirt?”

And she said, “Well sweetie,” like all good moms, “maybe you should go find out.”

So that was my seventh-grade science project, was all about soil erosion and soil health and the connection to the farming industry and the understanding of what practices led to less soil erosion and better soil protection.

So now fast forward just a few years, and a little over two-and-a-half years ago, Cargill called and said, “Hey Jen, we're looking for a digital and data leader. Would you be interested?”

So I felt like fortuitously, I came full circle. I joined Cargill a little over two years ago to have the opportunity to have such a huge impact with digital and data on the entire agriculture supply chain.

If you don't know Cargill, let me tell you a little bit about it. The likelihood is, is every single person in this room has either consumed or purchased a product that came either directly from Cargill or includes Cargill's ingredients. From your favorite body wash to your makeup to the salt that is seasoning the food that the chefs in Austin are feeding us while we're here, to the supermarket that you shop at. It could be your turkey, it could be the beef you're buying. But for sure, it is incredibly likely that you're consuming products that Cargill has had their hands on.

So we are a large organization. We're all over the place. We have about 150,000 employees worldwide. Actually it might be slightly north of that, and they are in every facet of our business. They're partnering with farmers and ranchers, which we'll talk about today. If you haven't been to the innovation showcase, it closes down at 5:00, so please don't leave. But one of the things you could have seen is one of our products in action as ways we transport goods around the world.

So it's an incredibly complex organization and certainly fundamental. Our purpose guides us. Our purpose is to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way. And I'm confident as we go through this panel discussion, you're going to hear lots of examples where we're bringing that to life.

Jesse: Anastasia, want to introduce yourself and your company?

Anastasia Volkova: Well, that's quite an introduction to follow on. Also Jen and I decided to go personal because why else are you all here? And hopefully you will learn something. That's what I've been agonizingly optimizing for in the last two days. Like, what are you all here to learn? What can we tell you?

So who am I? I'm a Ukrainian girl that was in a drought-stricken south and gardening was something that we did. Not because we were like subsistence farmers, but because everyone did just have a piece of land outside of the city, you grow things and moving out of Ukraine, [I] studied in different places.

I realized that not everyone had their childhood literally attached to the rainfall pattern in going and gardening at a certain time and optimizing when to do the homework so that you can go and plant something with mom or do something with grandma. Not everyone grew up with their windowsills covered with the ceilings of plant tomatoes. They actually smelled delicious and it's like our family thing. At some point they had 56 varieties of tomatoes. Mom even brought them to the U.S. when she was fleeing the war. Literally, like the pack of tomato seeds.

So food is very important to me. And becoming an engineer, I always wanted to figure out how to make sure there was more resilience in the system. Like why did we have to go on a Friday if it was raining on a Sunday, why was it so, so urgent?

Because in the drought-stricken environment, in the climate change world, food is not certain for people who don't earn a lot of money. And even for all of us who mostly are here because we do make enough money, it doesn't mean that we can guarantee being there in 10 years.

So I wanted to dedicate my life to figuring out how to make the planet cooler and make the food more delicious and nutritious by not cooking it, but helping it grow better. So that's how I ended up doing what I'm doing.

Jesse: Do either of you want to give like a two-minute summary of what regenerative agriculture is just so that the people who don't know, know?

Anastasia: Yeah, I love that. So many of you do know, and we all agree probably that it's hard to define something such as regenerative agriculture.

But I think for people who don't know, here's probably one of the definitions you can use. There is a way of farming that is more optimized for the quantity of what's being produced. And you can use all the different practices. But really the post-World War economy, especially war-torn Europe, needed the U.S. to feed it and we optimized for a lot of calories.

We didn't necessarily account for what exactly was happening to the environment as we were pushing to feed more people. That is important. We feed 2 billion people thanks to an additional enhancement in [the] fertilizer manufacturing process right now. 2 billion people thanks to that alone innovation.

So regenerative agriculture would be shifting more to indigenous practices, to more climate-friendly practices and incorporating the understanding that the environmental outcomes should be another outcome to optimize for — not just the yield but also what happens to the soil, what happens to the environment. And through it you can also deliver better nutritional benefits to us, the humans eating the food afterwards.

And maybe I can just add a little more. So regenerative agriculture usually is associated with moving from conventional tillage — turning a lot of topsoil over, exposing it to ultraviolet light and not just damaging a little bit of life in it as we're doing it — retaining the topsoil so it doesn't end up on top of that snow, so it sets nice and well protected with a cover crop, with a good rotation.

Everyone in high school or in school, middle school, probably here, learned about hummus, right? The top layer of soil, like the best one that keeps all the nutrition, our conventional methods of farming just don't retain it.

It's like if it rains too much, it flows downstream. If there's too much wind, you can see it on the snow in the ditch. And regenerative farming is employing the practices that are different in different places in the world like moving to organic fertilizer, starting to do no-till farming where you don't turn over the land using cover crops to retain that soil health, enhance it and build on it. 

It's not organic, it's not a premium, it's something that is [a] different farming paradigm. You can just use different practices and get to a different set of outcomes.

Jesse: And Jen, why has regenerative agriculture become this buzzword for a lot of big food companies?

Jen: So we talked about the 2 billion that are eating now because of the fertilizer capabilities that we have in the world. But we're not done. We anticipate that we're adding another half a billion people to the planet between now and 2030.

We think that we're going to continue to see a situation where water becomes an even more scarce resource and at the same time there is less land being dedicated to farming.

So, all of those things come together to say we have got to find ways to be able to maximize the health and the prosperity of the land that we farm and the farmers that do that. So that's why we're so passionate about this topic.

Jesse: And kind of switching now, we talked about the farming part of it, now I want to talk about the tech part of it. What are these digital tools that are helping us get there and what is the point of them? What are they measuring?

Anastasia: So we mentioned that the practices are different.

So as Jen just said, agriculture uses a lot of water: 70% of the world, fresh water. 70%. That's a lot of water that we need in certain places, in certain volumes, at certain times, right?

Because if it's too much, OK, the crops are drowning. If there's too little, we can't grow enough yield. So the need to maintain practices to optimize for the use of resources now is heightened as the climate is warming up.

How can we see some of those practices? We cannot go and ask every single farmer what they're doing on every single field. It's just impossible.

Yet we need to transform the food system by looking at where the good practices are happening, motivating that. Where not enough good practices are happening and figuring out the transition finance.

That's where technology steps in. Some of my background is using remote sensing technology. So satellites that look down at Earth. They don't see a nail polish color if you use one, that's not that level of granularity.

But the satellites can see big agricultural fields, and by looking at pictures that satellites take over time in different spectra — so not only visual, infrared — we can see what crop is growing. We can see if it was tilled afterwards. We can see if there was a cover crop. That's how technology helps us understand the health of our planet, of which we're terraforming a lot of that planet by farming.

So technology is starting to reveal, unveil just unprecedented level of visibility. We're getting into how the food is grown. We are now pairing that with the cutting-edge climate, crop and soil models. So we not only see what's happening, the sort of sensors and systems, we can actually understand the impact environmentally.

Oh, these set of farmers that transitioned in 2017 to regenerative practice all around the Midwest? By the time in 2019 when the huge flood hit, they were all able to plant, but their neighbors couldn't plant

Oh, I see there's a pattern of, we increase the infiltration capacity of the soil, we can grow more food, there is less losses, there is more stable food prices.

And we can model it both for greenhouse gases yield as well as the payments that the farmers would get for transitioning to a better model.

So that's how the technology plays a part in it, monitoring, measuring outcomes and enabling the payments.

Jesse: Yeah, a lot of these technologies, they're being used to measure the soil carbon. There's a thing in agriculture where our biggest carbon sink is underneath our feet and we're not using it that efficiently. So there's the part of the change to regenerative agriculture and these technologies for sensing is understanding how much carbon is being absorbed into the soil from these new regenerative techniques.

But some people are still a little bit skeptical of soil science and especially the soil carbon that's being sequestered there, and it has to be done on millions and millions of acres for it to make any difference to the emissions that are in our atmosphere.

So what do you know now that we didn't know two or three years ago that makes you confident that soil carbon sequestration can actually be a really big sink for us?

Anastasia: I would like to just engage you for a second. What Jesse just said in terms of soil carbon being one of the biggest carbon sinks underneath our feed, raise your hand if this is not the first time, you're thinking about this, that soil carbon can be a carbon sink. OK, perfect.

I just want to understand at what level I need to explain things because we get to nerd out about this like 24/7 and we don't want to lose you.

What makes us more confident is seeing better results in more volatile climate conditions. So previously the research was done on a very small scale and said OK, if you're transitioning to the no-till system, if you're using cover cropping, there's clearly very positive soil carbon accumulation in a topsoil.

Then that sort of results was taken out of proportion, and everyone was thinking, ‘Oh, soil carbon is going to save us, this is going to be great.’ But not all soil behaves the same way.

A meter down is different from 15 centimeters. This is why the topsoil is different from the rest of it. Regrow, for example, uses models that go down to a meter.

But what we've learned in the last couple of years is that you can not only see and measure because so many farmers are getting involved. We're getting so much more data for modelling of all of this. It's not like a research trial somewhere on the plot two by two. I've monitored a lot of them in my Ph.D., but that's not the case. What we're doing here is a couple million acres in on several continents of transitioning farmers to regenerative by helping them finance that transition with part upfront payments.

That amount of data is now giving us confidence that it's happening and how it's happening [with] different soils in different climate conditions. Again, most importantly, where you could see the conventional system being decimated in a climate shock like a drought or a flood, and then seeing a regenerative system flourishing, I think that's all the proof you need.

Jen: And maybe to add on more. Because for us, if the farmers aren't winning in this, it's not interesting, because we have to make sure that they're going to not lose as we go ahead, as we work through all of the incredible complexities around climate change.

And what we can actually show through our partnership with farmers that have lasted decades through generations is that the farmers that are deploying these practices are actually seeing an increase in their productivity and an increase in their income.

So not only do we see the benefits for the planet, we see the benefits for the farmers. So it is a case where we have the facts and data now because we've been doing this long enough that we can see it with confidence that that is happening.

This is not a one growing season thing where I get an initial pop up of some kind of capacity and then it goes away. No, what we're seeing in this trend line is that it actually helps create sustainable and resilient farming as well as much better pricing for our farmers.

Anastasia: Just to take this head on for a second. Something that I think you might find curious about what Jen just said is how that actually works.

So when we deploy a regenerative agriculture system, it means the microbes in the topsoil work better because they see more diverse things and they're actually protected year-round. Unhappy microbes make a lot of greenhouse gases. That's what happens. Happy microbes actually sequester a lot of carbon and productively kind of cover the roots of the plants to build more soil carbon.

So if the farmer adopts regenerative in a couple of years [and] sees higher soil carbon, they also see such diversity and nutritional abilities in the soil that they can shorten the amount of all the different synthetic and chemical products that they're using. So they don't need as much synthetic fertilizer. That means their biggest cost on farm is going down. Very important. Their margin is improving. They're less dependent on a very volatile market.

Fertilizer is directly connected to gas and energy. And if you're following the macroeconomics, gas, energy and [the] geopolitical situation are very tied together.

So the farmers had very high fertilizer prices recently and are acutely aware of the issue and want to adopt practices that make them more independent in their production.

Of course the system needs to transform, but I hope that that nugget helps you understand how we're transforming the system foundationally from the synthetic treadmill onto OK, now you're in the healthy well-being space where you have resilience and you can support yourself as a farm.

Jesse: And making fertilizer is a big contributor to greenhouse gases as well. So getting them off of that fertilizer, using less of it is also important for just like reducing our carbon emissions.

I think the other part of this technology that gets thrown around a lot is the idea that you can monitor the soil carbon in for these farmers and then you mentioned getting payments but getting payments for those farmers. 

So talk to me a little bit about the carbon credit market. We might need to explain that a little bit, depending on who's in the audience and how the soil technology works for that and what you think it can do beyond the carbon market. And we want to also talk about why the food system cares to pay farmers.

Anastasia: The world is warming up. This is not news to anybody sitting in this room, right. We are pumping 51 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year into the atmosphere. That is an absurd amount of emissions. We've slowed down during the lockdown and COVID and then we ramped up faster. So we actually are now exceeding the warming projection in figuring out how we can cool down the planet.

There's not a lot of technologies that would remove carbon out of the atmosphere at a very large scale. You've probably heard about direct air capture — DAC systems. Basically like a reversed air conditioner box that sucks up the air, somehow binds the CO2 and then releases other parts of the air.

Very hard to deploy, very hard to scale. You simply cannot turn on a switch with any amount of money you would have to fix that problem with that type of technology. But nature previously was balancing this cycle for millennia, right?

So if we go back to positive farming practices and incent the farmers, because it's a very distributed market — we all can't go and tell every farmer to do something just because we want them to. We need them to have an incentive. So before we were just paying them for the yield.

Now because we have the science and technology to model the environmental outcome of a certain crop and say if you change these practices, you're going to remove this many tons out of the atmosphere per ton of your crop, we can pay them for that outcome.

And what Regrow does is a part of all of that monitoring and evaluation technology, and then we offer it to our partners like Cargill to say, “Can we have them transition? Can you sell it to your customers? Can you accommodate for it internally?”

And we also could have, say, Microsoft come in and buy it from the farmers? Ideally, we keep it in the value chain because then you have a chance of going to a supermarket and choose cereal that is more carbon-friendly because it stayed in the value chain. The farmer got paid. You have an option to vote with your dollar. Ultimately, that's what matters.

Jen: Maybe to add on to that, because we talked a lot about crops that we're very familiar with in the U.S., and me, I'll switch and talk a little bit about cocoa.

So I don't know if there’re people in this room like me, but I may have a problem with chocolate, as in I eat way too much of it. And I do love the fact that Cargill produces some amazing chocolate.

But one of the things that we all know is consumers, that they were expecting more sustainable chocolate in our lives. We search for it on the grocery store shelves, our customers — so Cargill's customers — are expecting us to be able to provide assurance that the cocoa they're buying from us is more sustainably harvested. So going back to the same type of thing, when we work with these small farmers in West Africa growing cocoa beans, we can work with them. 

We can provide them technology, we call it CocoaWise, which will allow us to trace for that bag of cocoa, what farm it came from, what practices they deployed. Candidly, are we committing to not having child labor? Do we have all these things that we can then trace through the entire supply chain and share that with our customers so that they have higher confidence that the products that they were producing for all of us to buy and consume have come from a more sustainable food chain?

And as a consequence, we can pay those farmers in West Africa a differentiated price because they have practiced things that we as consumers value. And that is one of the hardest things about the food supply chain is it's so long, that if you don't have the technology to be able to look and help do the traceability, you can't always attribute value where you should. So it goes back to, it's a very distributed supply chain.

We want to make sure that we're aligning the incentives with those that are practicing the things that we as consumers value and, candidly, what the planet needs.

Jesse: Is there a risk to focusing too much on tracking everything and all that data? I mean in the sustainability world, “What's getting measured gets managed” is a saying.

But I think there's sort of another idea that's coming to the forefront of like, “Stop being accountants and start doing something.” So is there some danger or some risk in just focusing all your attention on tracking and collecting data and not actually doing anything?

Jen: You can see Anastasia desperately wants to have a point of view and she will, she will. But the answer is I don't think it's an “or” question. I don't know that as a consumer I would have confidence if there wasn't ability to trace, if there wasn't some data to back up our claims because then anyone could claim anything.

Now, that being said, I don't think just the traceability is what we're talking about. We're trying to help farmers candidly get value out of implementing practices that are good for the planet and good for us as consumers. So if it were only the traceability, I would agree, but it isn't. The traceability is a way to measure the impact of the programs that we're putting in place to create less carbon in what we do to create more sustainability.

And I don't know that without the traceability, we'd have confidence that those things were actually happening and generating the outcomes that we need.

Anastasia: I would try to make it more personal before building on Jen's message. 

So a lot of you probably have smart watches or Oura rings or something like that that you use to understand how are you doing? Are you moving enough? Are you sleeping enough? You care about that. Not because you're going to stop choosing healthy foods and stop exercising. You're not choosing between those things. You need to take care of yourself and have a system of kind of measurement or evaluation of am I doing better? Am I doing worse? Not all of us need that. Some of us have clarity, like, “Oh yeah, I went to sleep at this hour. I woke up at this hour. Therefore that dinner was a bad choice. Or drinking after that dinner was a bad choice.”

So choices matter, but also the measurement systems matter. To bring it to what Jen was talking about is that big companies, that we all as consumers expect to change the system, have to have incredible system of checks and balances to not be called out for greenwashing. Because otherwise, “How do you know this happened?” is the question that's so easy to ask. You paid these farmers, and what happened? Did it become more climate friendly? Did it become better for me? Is it that I need to choose this brand over that brand now? And if you cannot quantify it, if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.

But where traceability comes in is some commodity supply chains need to be traceable. Some supply chains outside of commodity need to be identity preserved and traceable. Meaning we know exactly which field it comes from. Who was the farmer that grew it, where did they process it? How did it go to be an end product on the shelf?

But with the technology that we're talking about, like satellite imagery, we don't know which field is farmed by which farmer. Makes sense, right? If you take a picture on Google Maps and you say, “Oh, that's my house,” you know that's your house, but you don't know 10 houses away who's whose house that is.

Same with farming. We don't know whose those fields are, but we know Cargill has an elevator or a facility for processing in an area, and they're reaching out to farmers and influencing them and Cargill's partners — like General Mills, Morris and Nestle, Unilever — are doing the same to influence the area. 

And then we can take a snapshot. Oh, it became 40% better over the last three to five years. That is not traceability dependent, but that is a landscape-level impact. So I want you to kind of get a sense of both of these ideas. We don't have to have traceability to have environmental impact.

Jesse: So you talk about all this data that we're collecting, all these things we're tracing. How do you address the issues of data ownership and privacy and control and who's benefiting off of these things? Is it the farmer? Is it the big companies? How do you think about all that?

Anastasia: How would we have a digital panel without a question about data privacy? Well, to get it out of the way, [the] farmer owns their own data. Companies like Regrow bring a lot of data to the table. 

Because if I ask each of you how much you earn, it's one data point. If I ask your employers to give the W-2 or to run a reference check that you work there and this is how much you make, that's the second decorrelated data point. So just like that in farming, environmental impact and sustainability, we have to have decorrelated data points. So the farmer can say this is what I did, then the tractor sends the data and said this is what they did, and then Regrow looks at satellite imagery and says this is what they did.

And ideally those three things say the same thing. That is assurance that we're absolutely certain this is happening. We're absolutely certain better practices are taking place. Is there a non-perfect version of this? Of course. We don't always see everything. There's clouds in the sky and we cannot see fields because of that some days of the year. Is there that John Deere tractor falls off of the connectivity circuit on farm? But of course not all of the much connected to begin with. Is the farmer sometimes mistyping the numbers? Yes.

But ultimately, we want the whole system to be easier and sometimes the farmer comes in, logs in and Regrow prefills the data. We bring the data. We think this is what happened historically. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Can you correct it? They don't hate that at all. They actually love it because it's so much easier for them to enroll. The burden on reporting is lighter and ultimately, they get paid physical real dollars for the tons of carbon they removed from the atmosphere. That is tangible addition to their margin, notwithstanding the fact that resilience will improve over the years and their costs are going down by adopting these practices.

So we are not finding that farmers are asking this question. We're finding that they want it to be easier, less burdensome, faster and more direct-to-consumer. They're human. They're not like a big business. They don't have time to plug in numbers into spreadsheets. So that's what we've been finding with them, and we have thousands of them in the program jointly.

Jen: I can certainly add on. And one of the things that to your point is that again, it goes back to the farmers aren't winning. This doesn't work. This is how I have confidence that we will continue to, if there is friction, we will continue to work through that friction, because if they don't win through this, this doesn't work.

One of the things that I find really interesting as a digital leader is of course we have to talk about data privacy. Of course we have to talk about all of that. And our commitment from our organizations is that we will do all the things that we need to do to protect that data.

We will make sure that the farmer wins. And of course we're going to use that data for correlations because that's how we get better together. 

In this case, it isn't a competitive advantage if one part of the food supply chain is excelling and another part is falling behind. We actually have to do sharing. In fact, we have tracked, which is a collaborative effort with our competitors to share data, because again, what's in it for everyone is that we do this better together.

So to your point, I agree and I would be 100% skeptical. Because the fact of the matter is as consumers, we have gotten so used to other people monetizing our data where we're no longer the customer, we're the product. So we have to be sensitive to that. I don't think that we've gotten that wrong.

Anastasia: And to build on it because we're talking about the farmer being also the consumer and the business.

I think it's worth mentioning for any of you who are thinking, “Oh, so is Anastasia making it easier for a bunch of farmers to ship their data to big companies?” That's actually the trick. They do not have to. 

We look at what's happening. We're an independent science-based organization and then we only estimate the outcomes which we can verify when the auditor comes. We have to pass the audit every year. That's the outcome on which Cargill compensates the farmer and the farmer doesn't have to share the data.

So it's a nice firewall-protected system whereas an individual they don't expose all the information about their farm. Because imagine giving the whole household budget and all of your bills to someone. That's how it feels. They don't disclose exactly the financial information, but what you planted, when and how it yielded is effectively that.

So it's nice separation where the supply chain can really function and keep improving without the data privacy being bridged thanks to third-party system. This is why you have Stripe when you're trying to pay someone. They're that anonymous exchange. You're not telling everyone where your money is in the bank, but you are connecting to Stripe so they keep you safe and then someone pays you or you pay them. Same model.

Jesse: You mentioned that farmers are super busy. You know, they're getting up at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., they're working until, you know, late at night. Farmers are also … the average age is like 65, I think, and a lot of them are in rural areas or in developing countries with not access to broadband. So how are you getting them to adopt this new technology?

Anastasia: Usually what you would see is a lot of mobile connectivity where someone would literally come with an iPad and help them get connected and set up. Often, they would need to sit with the farmer on their desktop and help them get through it. That's what we're generally seeing in terms of how the farmers are being reached.

Jen: So as a technologist, I learned a long time ago that if you can't change human behavior, your technology is just that – just basic technology without actual outcomes. And that's not what I chose to go into this field for. I'm an outcome-based, I'm a problem solver with tech, I love that. But if you don't actually solve the problem, who cares?

So one of the things that we're very interested in is figuring out ways to make it easy for our farmers to engage. So to your point, it's the training. We've provided training to over 800,000 farmers in 2023 on practices on the technology we need so that we can pay them for the work that they are doing.

So how do we make sure that that doesn't impede their ability to engage? Part of it is like any other technology solution, we have to design it to make it easy for the user, and we're on a quest for that.

So I know the Regrow team, I mean they have product teams that are looking for feedback from farmers on how to make this easier, because if it's easy, they do it, and that's what we want them to do.

So again, it's like tech for the sake of tech, not interesting. So we have to make sure that it's outcome focused and that we're meeting our farmers where they are.

Jesse: Jen, Cargill is a huge meat supplier and beef supplier and there's sort of been chats about sustainable beef for a long time and the skepticism around them or the pushing for it. And so what's the data saying about sustainable beef? Is that something that actually exists or is that a pipe dream?

Jen: So let me start with going back to that half a million people in growth between now and 2030. At the same time, what we're seeing around the world is a growing middle class, and you know what middle class people like to do? Eat protein. So we anticipate the protein demand will go up by 70%. So even if optimistically, you're opting out of beef-eating, the world isn't.

So to your question, is it a pipe dream? I certainly hope not, because we have huge practices that are indicating that the U.S. beef market is already among the most sustainable on the planet and we have made commitments to make it 30% even more sustainable between now and 2030.

It requires a lot of the same practices. It will require different practices. What I would say is we don't have all the answers yet. I would argue we don't have all the answers yet on anything that we're talking about.

But our commitment is that we don't wait, that we engage and that we will ultimately lead in partnership with our ranchers and farmers to continue on creating our beef supply chain that is more sustainable. Because there is no scenario where protein does not continue to grow in demand around the planet. So we don't have a choice. We have to find ways to make the beef supply chain even more sustainable than it is today.

Jesse: So is the data saying that that's a thing that can happen?

Anastasia: So let's like take the scientific perspective on the data. So many of you have heard that protein is not very good for the planet. Well, but why? Let's just quickly run through what's happening to them that's not good for the planet, OK?

They burp. OK. There's manure. You have to manage it. You can manage it in a way that becomes fertilizer and is really positive for the farm they're on. They eat crops that have a lot of emissions associated with them. We just talked about that. So you can decarbonize the crops, slightly change their diet so there is less interior commissions and manage manure in a way that captures the natural gas and actually uses that as energy. Hence there's manure digesters on dairy farms and in other facilities where the animals are.

And then there's the final piece, which if you're in the supermarket and you're looking at grass-fed beef anything, grass-fed beef jerky, for example. It's that element of the animal being on the land that we don't quite know about. To Jen’s point, we actually don't have fully the science.

There is a recent study, very recent, that says that the animals being on the land running around just like bison back in the day where we weren't here, they help sequester carbon because they basically modulate the way that the perennial grasses grow in the environment, that they grow deeper root systems that sequester a lot of carbon. 

Is it universal? Is it independent of where they live? Of course not. If it's dry, nothing grows. If it's a little bit more humid or higher rainfall area, it's more likely that it'll be a grass that sequesters that carbon.

So in some areas it can get to a point where the freely ranged cattle will actually be carbon neutral. And I'm looking forward to that because I'm not going to eat meat for another — until that happens. I have not been eating meat for like what, 15 years now.

Jesse: So I think there's actually one other piece that you miss that contributes to emissions, which is the deforestation problem, which is that there's a bunch of clear-cutting happening, land conversion in general. But deforestation in Brazil that is cutting, clearing this land for cattle raising. So how are these tools addressing that problem?

Anastasia: So for everyone who's not a climate nerd, spending time with these numbers all the time, your highest emissions profile from [the] food system is when the forest gets cut down. It's like no matter how you're going to grow that food forever and ever — if you lost the trees, this is an emission that you just created, you just took all the sequestration that the forest was providing and you're now on a prairie.

Or for the U.S. specifically, because you don't think about deforestation here. People in Amazon, a lot of Brazilians that are here think about that a lot. In the U.S. it's the native grasses in the prairie that got converted. Also deep-rooted grasses going into an annual system, also a huge loss in carbon sequestration landscapes.

So what are we seeing? There is actually a number of commitments from Cargill and their peers on ending deforestation. I can just start by saying that from the monitoring perspective, it's really obvious. If you look at satellite pictures, the trees disappear. It's a lot more obvious than if it's barley or wheat or rye. Yeah, there's just arteries or no trees.

Jen: So speaking of as someone that does an extensive amount of business, Cargill has an extensive amount of business in South America where a lot of this conversation is happening. I would actually argue that's happening more broadly than that. So you can look at Southeast Asia for the palm oil industry. There's several places where this is relevant.

And yes, we have some incredibly bold goals around making sure that those supply chains become deforestation free and what we love is the technology that is available. Because to your point, from satellite imagery alone, we will know if it's happened or not. And so we use that as a way to work with our farmers to be able to make sure that we understand what fields these products are coming from and giving ourselves assurance that it's happening. 

We've accelerated our commitments around conversion and deforestation-free supply chains. And at the same time we have to partner in those countries because those farmers are also concerned about the livelihood of their families. 

And just like we said, for all of this work that we're talking about, for row crops and others, we have to start at the farm gate. It has to make sense for those farmers or else those practices won't stick. They won't sell it to Cargill, but they'll sell it to somebody else who might not have that same commitment.

So we have to go back to the source and find ways to make these farmers’ livelihoods good enough where the deforestation isn't where they go to continue to support their families.

So it's a complex issue, one that we are incredibly close to because we have such an important part of the overall feeding the world story [that] is going to come out of Brazil and Latin America.

There's just not a way that we're going to feed that half a billion people that we see coming without helping those farmers be productive. So it is huge and it's super emotional and something that's very close to our heart.

Jesse: So you wouldn't know it by looking at this panel, but tech and agriculture are not exactly women-dominated fields. So what are some of the opportunities and challenges you've faced being women in these fields and what advice would you want to pass along to women and what advice would you want to pass along to men?

Jen: OK, I'm going to go first. So we were commenting on how cool it is, there's three women up here. That was not because we designed it that way. It just happened to be that we were three women that had passion around this topic and theoretical expertise to share. I'm saying myself theoretical. These two [women] are clear.

But what I would say is, is that it is absolutely inconceivable to me to think about solving some of the world's most complex challenges without having half of our population interested in what we do. It's not possible. When we know the diverse teams create better problem solving. We know that diverse teams create much more fruitful debate.

And for what we're talking about today, where there's not easy answers, where there's no one light switch, that when we turn it on, all of this will be taken care of, and our kids and our kids’ kids are going to be just great. So we have to find ways to create more attractiveness for everyone to participate in both technology and agriculture.

I talked about how many farmers were training on better practices and the use of technology. One of the things that our team found. And so we were, we were out training farmers and we looked in the room and what I'll tell you is there are more women outside of the U.S. farming than in the U.S. So that's just an important data point.

We didn't see women in our classes. That's a bit of a bummer. So we went to the women that we partner with. So we have contracts with these farmers and we went and talked to the women and said, why aren't you coming to our training where we're teaching about more sustainable practices, we're teaching you where how you can monetize your sustainable practices.

And they said, “Your location and your time is terrible. I got kids. I have to make sure they get to school. I have other responsibilities.”

You know how simple that solve was? Change the time, change the location. So I think we all have to look at ourselves and say if we're not seeing the level of diversity in the room or on the farm or anywhere else, that we'd like to see what's contributing to that.

One of my favorite sayings is that diversity attracts diversity. If you look at big diverse teams, they have no problem attracting more and more diverse talent because they see people like them and you can't be what you can't see, right? So while the diversity attracts that diversity, it's through inclusive behaviors that we actually see that the benefits of the diversity show up.

So Cargill's really proud of our commitments on this. We have commitments around gender parity for pay. We have commitments around gender parity for leadership representation.

I will now sit back and let Anastasia carry it forward being equally as passionate about it.

Anastasia: To just give a personal story, when I started the company in 2017, we didn't see as many female engineers, and I started the company in Australia. And being Ukrainian and the Australian tech agriculture field, I've experienced that the education system actually brainwashes women differently in Australia to how we see things in Ukraine.

I literally — legitimately not a joke — grew up with the perspective that girls are better in STEM. Like that was just the case. You're a woman, you should be better in algebra. You're a woman, you should be better in geometry. You're a woman, you should be better in physics. I'm like, OK, well, clearly there was something right about that education, which empowers you.

And then like Jen is saying, you can't be it if you can't see it. So when I started the company, we already had a very small team. It was largely male, but I made a commitment to have more than 50% women in leadership team. And I didn't know when I'm going to meet it and what's going to contribute to it, because I could not see women leaders for such a very specialized field all around me on an island in the middle of nowhere, very far away from everything else.

I'm proud to say that we became [a] women majority leadership team two years in and we've held that since and we've grown the leadership team. And now we have 43% of all Regrowers being women. That is not something even I was hoping to accomplish. We're a highly science and technical organization with 90 people out of 180 engineers. But I think you can be it if you can see it.

And the little other nugget is if you feel like it's upon someone else to compel themselves to contribute, maybe challenge that perspective. Because if someone's not contributing, maybe they need to be invited into the space. They need to be asked what their perspective is.

It's very easy to assume the gender role of [a] woman that, oh, she needs to be quiet. She doesn't have her opinion. Well, she probably has great creative opinions and solutions, but culturally, we need to be more inclusive and ask those questions and take it upon ourselves. And I had to practice that because for Ukraine I was like, yeah, I can speak up. I have no issues with that.

But my leadership team is very diverse. Oh, why is this person not speaking up? So I had to teach myself that. So I'm not giving any advice I haven't taken.


Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.


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