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Ann Tutwiler – Biodiversity Determines Human and Environmental Health, Farmer Profitability, and Food System Resilience; Here’s How We Deploy it at Scale

Aug 13, 2020

The coronavirus has highlighted the importance of resilience, not just efficiency, in the long term success of agriculture supply chains. One of the most powerful tools we have to drive resilience is agricultural biodiversity… and yes, it can be done at scale.

Biodiversity is a critical sign of ecosystem health–in the rainforest or on the farm– and has proven to be crucial for agricultural productivity, profitability, and resilience. Biodiversity has been on the decline due to a simplification of our diets, growing demand for animal feed and biofuels, and a climate that is changing faster than nature can keep up with. We sit down with food system and agriculture biodiversity expert Ann Tutwiler to explore the tangible steps we must take to systematically increase biodiversity and the outsized impact this will have on the health of our planet and the profitability of farming. 

Ann has spent the past 35 years tackling some of the most pressing issues in food and agriculture. She co-developed the U.S. govt’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future program. Ann is also the former Deputy Director General for Knowledge at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as well as the former Director General of Bioversity International.



UN Food Systems Summit 

World Benchmarking Alliance – how are companies holding up against their promises

00:00 / 00:00

Borna (ClimateAi) 0:03
This is Agriculture Adapts by ClimateAi. We’re a team of climate scientists and agriculture entrepreneurs on a mission to make agriculture more resilient, sustainable and profitable in the face of a changing climate. This podcast is our journey as we speak with industry leading executives, farmers and thought leaders to uncover the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry that feeds the world. I’m your host Borna Poursheikhani. Welcome to Agriculture Adapts. Joining me today is Ann Tutwiler, a food system veteran who has spent the past 35 years tackling some of the most pressing issues in food and agriculture and has led prominent think tanks she has run the Washington office for a multi billion dollar agribusiness and she created the Agricultural Development Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and co developed the Feed the Future program during the Obama administration, which was and still actually is the US government’s global hunger and food security and Most recently, she was the deputy director general for knowledge at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more commonly known as the FAO, and the director general of bioversity. International, a global Agricultural Research Center focused on safeguarding biodiversity and utilizing it as a tool to achieve sustainable Global Food and Nutrition security. She is now a senior fellow at Meridian Institute, where she is working on the food system summit and the just rural transition. Ann thank you so very much for joining me.

Ann Tutwiler 1:33
Thank you for having me.

Borna (ClimateAi) 1:34
So just for the listeners, and has clearly tackled many key issues in the Food and Ag domain, frankly, we can we could make this conversation about anything I related and I would probably walk away 10 times smarter. But today we’re going to be hyper focused on a topic that gets thrown around quite a bit in the media and has actually floated around in previous episodes of ours as well, to topic that and has spent a number of years digging into and really understanding during her time at bioversity and beyond. And today we’re going to be digging deep into biodiversity, particularly as it pertains to agriculture, our diets, the health of global ecosystems and climate change. So a lot to unpack there. Really interesting topic. And it’s my opinion that it’s actually a fairly misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented topic by a lot of adversaries and proponents alike, but fundamentally, it’s a it’s a critical topic for everyone who lives on this planet. And not only that, it’s a powerful tool for resilience, sustainability, and productivity for our food and agriculture, livelihoods as well. A lot to go into here. But before we unpack this, Ann tell us a bit about your background and your journey into the world of agriculture,

Ann Tutwiler 2:45
I got interested in agriculture from a pretty early age through I guess, traveling and enjoying cooking and enjoying, you know, the fruits of the farm, if you will. I really became the To the challenges facing people in rural areas on a study abroad trip to Spain when the rural areas in Spain were far, far behind, you know, where Madrid was. And then a year and a half that I spent living in a mud hut in very rural Kenya, where I saw just what the impact of you know, poor agriculture, productivity and lack of access to markets, all of these things really affected the lives, the lives and the livelihoods of people who were living in, in rural areas. So, and frankly, it was just such a fascinating political economy and in the ag sector that Yeah, I really got interested, you know, pretty much in my 20s

Borna (ClimateAi) 3:46
nice and what were you doing down there in the in the mud hut operation that you were that you were excited in?

Ann Tutwiler 3:52
So I was originally just there to teach teach school. This was a so called haraam Day School, which was a Private School in Kenya, so funded by the parents. I ended up being the headmistress of that school at the ripe old age of 21 and a half I think that we were you know, we were seven or eight kilometers from the nearest paved road, no running water, no electricity, you know, mud floors, the whole bit.

Borna (ClimateAi) 4:22
Yeah, you start you still making visits out.

Ann Tutwiler 4:24
Actually, I have not been back to the to the village where I was the couple of times that I have been to Kenya on that part of Kenya has been in a bit of turmoil. So it has not been an easy place to get to so on. But ironically, I, my secretary when I was at the UN in Geneva, for a few years, she was from the village nearby where I was away, I had worked and so she was able to tell me how much progress that area had made in the years that I’ve been away

Borna (ClimateAi) 4:55
such a small world and it’s and it’s also crazy to just think about how much travel impacts you just The way that other cultures operate and the different problems that they have really opens your eyes to the world beyond you know your own existence. I looked up the definition of biodiversity just so we can all start with a level playing field here. The definition that I found was, was this the term biodiversity from biological diversity refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels from genes to ecosystems, and can encompass the evolutionary ecological and cultural processes that sustain life. If you look at the National Geographic definition, it also includes that it’s, it’s in danger right now. But basically, it sounds like it’s everything under the sun. So I mean, can you can you give us the biodiversity for dummies explanation, like, what is the importance of biodiversity and and how does it How does it pertain to agriculture?

Ann Tutwiler 5:46
Well, I think Yeah, most critically, biodiversity writ large, the description that you just read, sustains life. I mean, it is life and we could not survive on this planet. If we didn’t have the biodiversity of forests, the biodiversity of animals of soils, the whole range by a diversity but I think, you know, when most people think about biodiversity, you know, the first thing they think about are the sort of what they call charismatic megafauna, which is the epitomized by the panda. When we think about these endangered species, the whales that we can all care about, and they’re very useful because they do make us care we do have an identification with with some of these endangered species and endangered you know, flowers and things that are so approachable, you know, to us. But when we talk about agricultural biodiversity, it’s it’s a subset of that whole universe of biodiversity and I think it’s an it’s an important subset because it really is that biodiversity that contribute to the production of food and You know, just to be a little more concrete, it goes from, as you said, the general definition of from the variety of crops that we plant or animals that we use for food. It goes to the different species, or, or different types of maize, different types of tomatoes that we eat. But it also includes the soil biodiversity that is important for the health of soils and productivity of food. It includes the diversity at the farm level, what farmers are planting in their fields. So it includes the diversity at the landscape level, pollinators, all the way up to the foods, the diversity of foods that we eat, and I guess these days with what we’re learning more and more about the diversity of the microbes in our, in our own gut, is also part of that bio diversity.

Borna (ClimateAi) 7:51
Yeah, and there’s, there’s a lot of dimensions to this topic that we’re going to dive into, but there’s divert biodiversity, excuse me as people think of it, which is, you know, we’re We’re currently destroying a lot of a lot of species that we have on the planet. There’s also the perspective of, you know, reducing biodiversity at the agriculture level at the production level can actually be harmful and detrimental to productivity as well. And then also for the health of humans, our diets as we’re reducing the diversity in our diets, that’s also becoming a problem as well. But it’s um, I’m currently reading the book, Sapiens. Have you read that book?

Ann Tutwiler 8:24
No, but I’ve heard a lot about it

Borna (ClimateAi) 8:25
really interesting. And it changed my perspective on this on this topic, maybe not changed, but it was it provided a really interesting insight, because they showed me that the concept that humans are really crushing a lot of these species and biodiversity is not necessarily as new as I had previously thought it so when, when humans became the species that we are today, which was I think, about 70,000 years ago, they call it the cognitive revolution. And we started to be able to imagine things that weren’t tangible in the real world. From that point to the point where we invented agriculture, we crushed 50% of the megafauna. So that’s just pretty much these large animals that used to exist There’s mammoths, there were like slots that were two times the size of like, you know, lions, there’s lions that were two times the size of the they currently are. And we basically crushed all these things. And it changed my perspective on I thought this was just a modern issue. But I realized that it’s something that’s kind of been inherent to our species for some time now, but I would love to hear from you like, what has the timeline on the topic of biodiversity looked like up to and including current times? And you know, what’s the current state? Where are we at today?

Ann Tutwiler 9:28
Well just talk about really, sort of our modern understanding of this. I think there’s a lot of work that’s been done showing that we’re, we’re really pushing and exceeding the sort of planetary boundaries for our use of and if you want to say destruction of biodiversity writ large that yes, in the past, there have been, you know, these extinctions that you’ve mentioned, or you know, we’ve hunted different animals or encroached on different populations. Lost trees and Europe in the United States when we’re when we’re using wood for fuel. So there’s humans have certainly had an impact on on biodiversity throughout our history, as you just said. But I think what’s different now is that, you know, the pressures are coming from so many different angles. And it’s such a global level that we’re, you know, there’s not a lot of room to keep undermining species and undermining the biodiversity if we want to really continue to have a sustainable planet, really. So I think it’s just the reason it’s become more urgent is because population has increased to such a stage diets have changed, our use of natural resources has intensified. So I think we’re just it’s just accelerating the pressures.

Borna (ClimateAi) 10:50
Yeah, and it’s interesting, you know, when you think of reduction of biodiversity or you know, destruction in the past, you would think of like hunting like we almost hunted. I think the bison in the US or in North In America texting genomes very close but but now it’s almost this idea of, of the resources that we need to consume we want and the oversimplification them a lot of processes that we’ve set up in the agriculture domain. At least that’s my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, is that is one of the key drivers now. But there’s also the other side of it, which we, which we briefly mentioned, which is that it’s not just an environmental issue, it’s by reducing biodiversity, you’re reducing the productivity of land, you’re reducing bushels per acre that you could be receiving because you are, you know, your soil health might not be where it could be, or the bees that should be pollinating your plants are not as active as they are, because it’s hot. And they’ve You know, they’re, they’re tired and they’re lethargic, or they’re not able to get the protein out of the flowers that they need to be getting from the pollen. So can you break that component down for us? Like, how does biodiversity in agriculture tie into like productivity and profit? Because I know bioversity does a lot of research and there’s a lot of evidence they provide on this stuff. So can you give us a high level on that component?

Ann Tutwiler 11:59
Yeah. Maybe though it’s useful to sort of take us back to the 20th century a bit and talk a little bit about the Green Revolution, which suffers a lot of slings and arrows, right. But you know, in a way at its base, it did start out using agricultural biodiversity because they were using different varieties of crops that were using different genetic material to create new varieties that, you know, could produce more that were more productive, that were less susceptible to diseases and all of that. I think that the difference that we’re seeing now is, you know, somebody once said to me that the 20th century was a century of chemicals. And the 21st century is going to be the century of biology. And I think we tried to solve a lot of the problems in agriculture in the last century by by using in some cases to access you know, agriculture, chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. And now there’s a an increasing knowledge base and understanding that you know, by a person International and many, many others have contributed to, to say, by pursuing the path that we did before, we actually have not set ourselves up for longer term sustainability, we’ve been able to achieve, you know, short term, year to year increases in yield. But we have kind of ignored the other aspects of biodiversity that contribute to the agricultural system. And we’ve ignored the costs of that agricultural system on the rest of the planet, if you will. So I think it’s safe to say that we haven’t used biodiversity in the past we certainly have, but in a very different way than how people are thinking about it, you know, now in a much more systemic way, which I think is much more more positive. I had a conversation a few years ago with when I was giving a speech on this topic, and I was challenged by a farmer, a big farmer in the Punjab, using Why should I care about, you know, agrobiodiversity I’m a weak farmer. And that’s, you know, I’m just going to plant wheat. And I’m not going to be planting, you know, fruits and vegetables on part of my acres. And I said, but you don’t really care about your soil health. Oh, yes, of course I care about my soil health. Right. You know, Don’t you care about how effective your pollinators are? Oh, yes, absolutely. I care about that. And don’t you need different varieties of wheat, depending on, you know, what the weather is that you expect? Oh, yes, absolutely. So even, you know, now in the context of a big mono cropping operation, there’s still add by diversity, it’s really important to how that operation can can thrive and probably integrate better and more into what these big operations are doing.

Borna (ClimateAi) 14:48
If you say, you know, we need more biodiversity at the farm level. I think most people would imagine a romanticized view of a small farm that’s that’s covered with a bunch of different crops which is obviously I want that in my backyard, as some point I won’t be able to go and pick some some fruits

Ann Tutwiler 15:02
As long as you have a salary from somewhere else to pay for it. Yeah,

Borna (ClimateAi) 15:04
it’s not it’s not gonna pay the bills. But there’s also Yeah, I mean, there’s the other side of it like it’s, and this is what I was talking about with them with the misunderstanding of the topic is that there are ways to implement these practices at large scale and thousands of acres. And I would be curious to get your insights on on what some of those key methods are. There’s the whole regenerative movement right now is a very in line with a lot of those is a different.

Ann Tutwiler 15:28
So one thing to point out is, you know, when we talk about biodiversity, it’s, it’s across space, so cross, you know, a farm or landscape, but it’s also across time. So, you know, a farmer that’s planting soybeans one year and corn The next year, is actually you know, using bio diversity because those, those two plants have some symbiotic relationships and the soybeans put the fertilizer back in the soil, nitrogen back on the soil, etc. So, you know, that’s just one way that we can Think about biodiversity getting used in these, you know, larger form contexts. But yeah, I mean, a lot of times we think about it in that romanticized version, but it can be a biodiversity across the landscape where you have one farm is growing, you know, one crop and another farm next door is growing another that, you know, creates biodiversity in that landscape. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on every single individual that you have. But we are seeing more and more interest in this regenerative ag notion and how using your land differently can actually build productivity in the soil can actually create habitats for pollinators, you know, produce pest damage and disease damage. One of the interesting pieces of work that biodiversity was doing was looking at using different varieties of beans, whatever it was in a field in a single farmer’s field, and we did this in I think 12 or 15 years. countries, a lot of different crops. And what we were finding was that if you could plant these multiple varieties in a single field, you could reduce pest and disease damage by 50%. With no use of agrochemicals. And I think part of this to me is we just haven’t invested enough a lot of research into these kinds of solutions. Most of the research has been directed at kind of the detailed solutions that we had in the last century. So there’s I think there’s a lot of possibilities that we haven’t even scratched the surface of out there. Yeah, and

Borna (ClimateAi) 17:37
I think I mean, research funding in general is a great way to kind of get the ideas out on the set. I think in general, a lot of a lot of these regenerative practices are are different depending on the location, depending on the variety or the crop that you’re growing. And yeah, I think it just I think it just requires more research for us to get to the point where we want to be in and the devils in the details with how this all happens. I think if you ask if you ask any grower, do you want You know, you want better soil health? You want your bees to be healthy? Of course everyone’s gonna say yes. But I think what they would come back with a lot of times is how do we make this happen? Who’s going to pay for in the transition, right? And I want to, I want to get into the topic of like, how do we spot this shift? But before we do that, just so I kind of drive home the context here for myself, before we dig in, what are kind of the main drivers for biodiversity loss right now. So in my head, I’m thinking, climate change. I’m thinking crops that are being used for animal feed and biofuels, and pesticides. That’s that’s what I have in my head. And these are all things that kind of make the world go round at this point. And so I’m curious to get your perspective on that. Do I have a data proper framing of that issue?

Ann Tutwiler 18:44
Yeah, but I think I would add the simplification of diets. You know, we put a lot of burden on the production system here. But you’re also seeing, you know, we’ll simplification of diets too. Another piece of work that FAO and the Botanical Garden, the Kew Gardens in the UK, that we know there’s something like 5000 varieties of plants that have been eaten for food that we can name and we rely on three 450 percent of our calories, global calories, and about a dozen for the bulk. And, you know, that’s getting more and more uniform around the world, you know, particularly as, as people in developing countries get more income. So that demand feeds back through down to, you know, farmers to what they, you know, are getting paid to produce. So it’s all the things you said that i think you know, how we consume food is also driving some of that, right, we’re seeing loss.

Borna (ClimateAi) 19:45
And the other side of that is that it’s also not as good for our health if we’re eating the same, whatever three to five crops all the time for all of our meals. If we were eating a diverse array of crops we’d be we’d have a higher likelihood of getting all the nutrients that we need. And that’s all A lot of people are getting nutrient deficiencies is because we’re eating three or five, whereas our ancestors were eating probably 30 or so. That’s also I would imagine, potentially one of the hardest things to change, though is like changing diet seems like it can be difficult and also touchy.

Ann Tutwiler 20:16
I think there’s a couple of different pathways. I mean, I think one is certainly making those healthier foods or nutrition dense foods, I guess to call them more affordable. So, you know, some of that does link back to we haven’t done the research and some of those crops to make them more to help them be more productive. There’s high food losses and waste in those in those particular crops.

Borna (ClimateAi) 20:41
Why is that just because they’re not a storable

Ann Tutwiler 20:44
repair? Yeah, perishable, you know, and in developing countries, that’s, you know, sometimes to do with a lack of processing facilities in the vicinity. Here things in the US things get thrown out because they don’t, you know, they’re not perfectly unblemished apples that you know, consumers By so there’s a lot of, you know, things in the in the policy sphere, and providing some support to to growers of those crops, I think, you know, can be can be very helpful. forcing people to change their diets is is unworkable and untenable. But there’s a lot that can be done to change what’s called the food environment. So one is, you know, how affordable these products are, but how available they are in people’s, you know, shopping locations, we can go into the details of that, you know, and some of it is when the government’s do have an opportunity to influence feeding programs, like the school feeding programs that are now almost been in every country, you know, providing models and samples of what is you know, what a good diverse diet looks like through those government sponsored feeding systems. And I think one thing one outcome of the corporate crisis will be you know, we often talk about diet, the related to non communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes, and it’s like, well, now we know it’s it’s related to a highly communicable disease, that if you have, or obese if you have heart disease, if you have diabetes, you are much more susceptible to a bad outcome on COVID. You know, and so I think there’s going to be this link between food diet and health is much stronger. Now. We’ve seen that much stronger now. So I think the medical profession also has a role to play here. And they have not, you know, generally felt that they had the training or the understanding to play that role. So I think it’s a lot of different pieces.

Borna (ClimateAi) 22:44
Do we lose efficiency, though by right now? We’re pretty I mean, I think the argument historically has been we have three or four or five, whatever, you know, key crops that are really, really three that are feeding everyone. And those things are at economies of scale. They are the definition of an economy of scale. If we break this thing up, and you know people are eating more nuts, they’re eating more types of vegetables. Do we lose those economies of scale? Does it actually make it more expensive to be a human that’s eating food and grocery stores?

Ann Tutwiler 23:11
When we look at the economies of scale, as argument, we’re looking at it very narrowly, and, you know, this is you know, how many acres you need to produce a bushel of wheat, or Hector’s to produce a ton of wheat. Right? But when you look at, you know, what are the impacts of that production on human health and the negative impacts on human health and I’m not blaming wheat, I don’t want to, you know, blame a particular crop. But, you know, we look at the negative impacts of how we produce food and what we’re eating, on water on soil on diet and health. You know, just looking at this in terms of economies of scale in one production system, really is is only a small measure. What the food system should be delivering to us as citizens? Yeah. So that’s one thing I would say. But the other thing and again, you know, COVID has just exposed this burning platform. Efficiency is not the only thing we need to be worrying about. I mean, you know, resilience,

Borna (ClimateAi) 24:16
resilience, there it is, there it is,

Ann Tutwiler 24:18
is really, really critical. And I think even the, the, you know, big players who have benefited and do benefit from economies of scale and are able to offer well priced food, if you will call it that. They are recognizing that, you know, an exclusive focus on economies of scale and price, per se, does not get them to, you know, resilient, sustainable systems and strong systems. I mean, we’ve just seen how fragile the food systems are.

Borna (ClimateAi) 24:51
Why have we not learned our lesson on this? Yeah, I mean, we we recently wrote a piece a climate AI sort of about resilience class. Resilience but also other forms of resilience as it pertains to COVID, specifically about potatoes, we took the perspective of, instead of getting another high level overview of how this has impacted the food system, let’s dive really deep into one crop and explain what happened to each level the impacts on people the impact on on the cost and the supply chain. And that was a really eye opening experience for me, because I had never done that in depth of an analysis talking to the heads of these different Commission’s to understand like, what are the problems that we’re dealing with? How big of an issue is this? But I mean, if you look back, not that long ago that we had a situation with with bananas, we had one form of banana that we were growing, that was like the dominant forum,

Ann Tutwiler 25:37
we still have that situation. That’s not gone.

Borna (ClimateAi) 25:40
We had the gross Michelle or I don’t know how to say it’s its name, but we had a variety that was the dominant form Chroma shell. Yeah, the grim shell. It was presumably tastier it was it was better than the current version that we’re using, which is the Cavendish and they got wiped out, essentially by Panama disease. And so everyone’s switch to Cavendish. But there is this period where people were like, are we not going to have Bananas like, are you gonna lose bananas? And now we’re back in the same exact position with a different type of banana. So why is it not clicking for us? And whose job is it to make sure this happens? Because it’s hard for the average consumer to have that kind of foresight, unless it’s really brought to them. So whose job is it to do this?

Ann Tutwiler 26:17
Well, back to first party question. I guess I you know, I think the differences now with COVID is it’s just, it’s universal, and it cuts across everything, you know, when there would be a food disruption. I mean, Katrina, in New Orleans, you know, it was terrible in that region, but it didn’t affect the rest of the country terribly much. We were able to get aid and assistance and all of that to that particular region. So a lot of disruptions we’ve had in food has been localized in that way. There’s a drought, there’s a more hurricanes, whatever it is. So you don’t see the fragility as a national issue or a global issue because it relatively isolated, these individual crops in a week, my versity was responsible for the world’s banana gene bank. I don’t know if you knew that. But so we had 1500 varieties of bananas in our, in our gene bank. And the Belgian scientists were quite aware of this and have been working on, you know, developing resistant varieties. And I’ve been working on trying to find ways to address the contamination in the soil, which is, which is where this disease particularly comes from. So scientists have been at it for a while. I think it took some time to raise it to the attention of political leaders. I mean, FAO and several organizations just had launched a big initiative. The year I left bioversity, which was in 2018. So even though we’ve known about this issue for a while, so I think it just people think maybe science is going to solve a particular problem, but in many cases, it’s It needs much more than scientists to, you know, find a solution. And I think that’s what bananas that’s been the particular issue. Belgium is the largest importer of bananas in the world. Little known fact because they are the distribution for all the bananas going into the rest of the EU and other places in in that region.

Borna (ClimateAi) 28:20
They want to secure their supply, they want to make sure they got their banana and

Ann Tutwiler 28:24
I mean the issue is, you know, they, they have certain equipment, certain processes, these bananas that we’re eating now they they have thick skins are easy to transport, they don’t fall off the bunch, you know that easily. So, you also have some, you know, lock ins if you will that make it hard to switch from one variety, you know, to another because the, the people who are shipping those bananas and or have been used to shipping a certain variety and type of banana, so it’s just not so easy. To shift, but not so that’s why I say it’s not just the scientists trying to come up with a solution. It’s it’s much broader.

Borna (ClimateAi) 29:09
This goes into the topic of like, if we look at the private sector, right now, does there need to be new incentive structures for if you’re a seed company right now you want to give a grower exactly what they want. And what they want is high yield, because most of the time they’re not being rewarded for a higher nutritional content food or, or, you know, a better tasting crop. You know, if it tastes better, maybe people will buy it, but will they pay $1? More? Will they pay 50% 50 cents more for it? Maybe not. So what is it? Do we need to change the incentive structure? And what is the role of the seed companies and all this

Ann Tutwiler 29:42
and maybe pulling back from just the seed companies for a second? So, you know, there’s been a lot of studies coming out recently one by the food managers coalition, showing that, you know, the food system writ large is actually costing us more when you take into account health, health costs. environmental costs, etc, then it’s benefiting us from, you know, straight sales and marketing of food. So somehow we need to figure out a way to make sure those the cost of the food system are captured in the food that we eat. All right, but, you know, often the conversation devolves to what consumers can’t afford to pay higher prices for food, which in many parts of the world, I can’t. So I think, you know, one of the issues for government for public policy is to think, you know, how can we manage to distribute those costs across the system in a way that, you know, the government picks up, some farmers will pick up some business companies will pick up some consumers might pick up some to really make sure that we’re not mining the earth and we’re not, you know, damaging people’s people’s health. So, you know, going back to the farmer In the seat system, so to transition from some from a current set of practices to another set of practices, you know, can take three or four years. No, and then many cases. So there needs to be some level of support incentives from, from governments or incentives for companies to help farmers make that transition. And I think the companies also, you know, need to do that, but many of them are starting to see themselves in a different light. I mean, if you talk to the fertilizer industry now, you know, they’re, they’re thinking about, you know, themselves as providing Soil Health Solutions, you know, which is a different thing than just selling packets of fertilizer.

Borna (ClimateAi) 31:44
Yeah, it’s a goal focused company as opposed to the job focused company

Ann Tutwiler 31:47
and you’re seeing that in different different sectors. I think

Borna (ClimateAi) 31:50
same in the meat in the meat industry as well. A lot of these companies are now seeing themselves as protein companies has a which is which is just a smart decision financially because otherwise they’re gonna potentially go out of business. To sort of lose a huge chunk of their profits,

Ann Tutwiler 32:01
I mean, look at many of those companies are buying into the, you know, beyond meat type ventures and selling those products right alongside their animal protein.

Borna (ClimateAi) 32:12
Let’s go into that one too, because that was another I mean, meat. An animal feed is another huge driver of, of loss of biodiversity, correct. I mean, we have, we have a ton of land that’s being used for the two biggest crops that were growing in the US, our soybeans and corn, both around 80 to 90 million acres each and 70% of soybeans are for animal feed 50% of corns for animal feed, and 40% of the other 40% of corn is going to biofuels. So it’s not like we’re like we’re eating these things. They’re going into other things that we’re then trying to consume. And I know that the end of the food and land use coalition has done a fair amount of work on this. So what’s what’s kind of the portfolio of solutions that we see for addressing this animal feed issue and what is the portfolio solutions that we’re seeing for kind of weaning off this

Ann Tutwiler 33:01
It’s such a complex topic. And, you know, I’m not as current on some of it as I, as I used to be when I worked for a corn and soybean processing company years ago.

Borna (ClimateAi) 33:12
What was what was your role there? Just so real quick, how long

Ann Tutwiler 33:14
I was the head of government relations?

Borna (ClimateAi) 33:16
Oh, nice. Awesome. You have a ton of these, like hidden things I didn’t know about?

Ann Tutwiler 33:20
Well, that’s a agribusiness company that I used to work for. So so I was and we had a feed company actually at the time. So that was a different, different time. You know, what, I think there are lots of ways that we can improve the ways we raise meat and the ways we consume meat. And I gave a lecture to another company that was a venture capital firm that was thinking about how it could get engaged with these issues. And I mean, one thing to point out is that, you know, if we’re looking at it from a greenhouse gas emissions point of view, efficiency is really important the efficiency of, you know, livestock per unit of Have greener grass or whatever they’re they’re eating is quite important. And there are a lot of ways to improve that efficiency through different feed rations whether it’s going to be grass fed or whether it’s going to be fed with corn soybeans. There’s a lot of genetics involved going back to that level of biodiversity, different breeds of cows performed better in certain climates. And with certain feed rations, there’s a lot of work being done actually talking about the gut of cows and how cows actually process food and can improve that and improving their health. The health of the animals also can contribute to better outcomes. And I think we also have to be aware of different opportunities are available in different form systems. And I was listening to a conversation between a Togolese government official who was talking about wanting to you know, increase the organic production because of the European market that they have, talking to a Brazilians who were saying, you know, well, that’s that may not be a solution that we could take on on a wide scale, because we have different, you know, different countries, different markets, different land area. So, I think we’re going to see more interest, you know, even animals that are in the companies that are, you know, in the animal business, and how they address some of these issues and challenges. You know, I do think making people more aware of the environmental footprint of their diets, you know, can also help, you know, moderate or shift some of the consumption that we’re seeing in some animal products.

Borna (ClimateAi) 35:44
Yeah, and I think that that dietary shift to eating less meat or eating you know, these like plant based meat solutions that we’re seeing coming out of, you know, beyond meat, impossible burger live kindly those types of companies that are doing really cool stuff is it is a really important piece because like eating pasture raised beef, I don’t think that that’s feasible for like the amount of meat that we’re consuming right now, we would have to deforest a ton of land to do that. So like, I’m fully aware of the fact that that is not a solution to this issue. And it needs to actually be a dietary and a cultural shift that needs that needs to happen.

Ann Tutwiler 36:19
We’re sitting here in the US, so and a lot of our conversation is focused on us issues, but but I think the other thing we have to realize when we talk about the animal protein and meat issues is for many people in developing countries, you know, cows are their main source of wealth, right? That’s the bank, then when they need to send a kid to school, they sell a cow. And so, you know, a lot of the conversations that seem to demonize meat, you know, you’re really talking about people’s livelihoods and in developing countries, women, women tend to be the keepers of the goats and the smaller animals. So it’s a source of income from them, which goes to Their kids and whatnot. So when we talk about these issues we have in our heads this production system that we have in the US or Brazil, or Argentina. It’s a whole different ballgame and parts of Africa

Borna (ClimateAi) 37:14
whole different ballgame. Yeah, the need is definitely different and the problem cannot be treated as uniform for sure. What about the issues..

Ann Tutwiler 37:21
Thats a great topic for another podcast

Borna (ClimateAi) 37:23
This, this podcast is going to lead to like five different five new ones. What about the topic of pesticides, specifically in the context of killing insects or other types of biology in life?

Ann Tutwiler 37:36
You know, again, I think the start a one size fits all solution, I think there, you know, has been a tendency in the past to, in some areas to overuse pesticides to use broad spectrum pesticides that have you know, affected so called beneficial insects as well as the ones or pets that we want to try to get rid of. or using pesticides or agrichemicals, sort of, you know, before you get sick before the field gets sick, and it’s, you know, akin to, you know, us taking antibiotics all the time. I mean, you wouldn’t want to do that to take preventative antibiotics. So we’re broad spectrum antibiotics that were, you know, too broad to treat the disease that you particularly had. So, I think with the right incentives, right, encouragement, right leadership and, and the agro chemical companies, you were seeing, you know, more interest in having agro chemicals that are no more targeted, it’s just specific problems that are, you know, used at particular times when those problems emerge that aren’t broad spectrum. You know, and you’ll also see are seeing more use of, you know, back to the regenerative agriculture, you know, about how can we manage pests and disease in other ways. So I think, you know, again, that’s with the like with the fertilizer companies, I think so. agro chemical companies are also starting to see their roles quite differently.

Borna (ClimateAi) 39:06
Yeah, so making those chemicals more specific for a specific use and then using it at a particular time as opposed to just kind of all the time. What about the issue? And this is one that I’ve that I’ve thought a fair bit about recently. What about the issue of using an Of course, to generalize pesticides into one category? I understand is a overgeneralization. But there’s a lot of talk about inorganic, you might have a bio based pesticide, you’re still going to use some sort of pesticide likely, but you will use a bio based pesticide and you will use it in larger quantities than you would a stronger pesticide. That’s maybe synthetic. Do you have any intuition around? Which of those is better from a biodiversity standpoint? does and does anyone is does that? Does that body of literature exist?

Ann Tutwiler 39:52
I you know, I don’t know. I mean, I think it would be an interesting thing to explore. You know, people will also always tell you this Measure of a poison isn’t the dose, right? I mean anything, if you take too much of it is not going to be good and healthy. And so, but I think I’m sure there is a body of research there, but I’m not, you know, cognizant of it.

Borna (ClimateAi) 40:16
So the final component in kind of the the drivers of loss of biodiversity that we had initially mentioned, was climate change. Can you provide a little color on the impact that climate change is having on biodiversity?

Ann Tutwiler 40:31
I think the biggest issue is that you’re seeing such shifts in what can be produced Where? Yes, I was on the phone yesterday with somebody who was telling me that they’re starting to be able to grow, I think it was made up in some of the permafrost areas. And this is going to be possible in a few years. So as you see, you know, the climate shifting, you know, biodiversity that is in you know, One area is certainly going to change because if, unless it can adapt, it won’t be able to survive. But on the other hand, we will probably start seeing, you know, different biodiversity emerging, you know, as climate zones get warmer than the polar parts of the globe, you may see different diversity emerging. I think it’s, you know, for me, it’s a lot the question of how quickly can plants and animals and crops adapt because

Borna (ClimateAi) 41:29
the rate is pretty fast, like the rate of climate change is, is pretty fast. And the worry, I guess, is that evolution won’t be able to keep up and we’re going to have a far greater and I guess we currently are seeing a far greater rate of loss than we are have gained because we’re, we’re moving so quick.

Ann Tutwiler 41:45
And I think that’s really the issue. I don’t know that we know enough about how quickly different parts of that bio diversity spectrum can adapt to climate changes. You Another interesting piece talking about climate change and adaptation. So we as a globe have done a pretty good job of protecting crop varieties and their gene banks that the cgiar Research system has there’s nothing small barn in Norway, there’s sort of the world’s backup system for a lot of different crops, nations have their own gene banks. And so we have a lot of crop varieties and to a lesser extent, but animal for, you know, species that are probably adapted to different climate zones, you know, and so, but we haven’t done such a good job with pollinators with pest with, you know, other sorts of support all that supportive ag biodiversity that I mentioned, you know, to know what’s going to happen and how and to have a bank that we can draw on for the varieties that are going to help us adapt.

Borna (ClimateAi) 42:58
We spend some time here really out lining the problem, why it’s important, no ties into the productivity and the end ultimate profits that you’ll be seeing. It ties into ecosystem health. These are all core tenets that I think everyone can get behind. People generally believe in the same things. They have similar morals and the way that they arrive at those things are different. And that’s, that’s my impression of a lot of arguments and debates that exist. So how do we actually make this happen? Like, what are the next steps that that we need to do to start improving biodiversity? What is the next step to get that going and what is currently in the process of moving forward?

Ann Tutwiler 43:36
Well, like I said earlier, I mean, I, you know, I come at the world as a policy person. So I do think creating incentives and, you know, in various subsidies, government programs, you know, conservation programs, whatever, to promote by diversity, and it’s all multiple forms, I think is really critical. Think helping companies understand and many of them are starting to understand that there is money to be to be made here. I mean, two years ago, Unilever launched its 50 future foods, where they identified 50 you know, highly nutritional foods that they could start incorporating in their food products, that would provide opportunities for farmers, but also sell, you know, sell those products. So, so I think companies need to be able to see that there’s a big and small companies, not just the guys but need to be able to see that their profits to be made there. I think that, to me, the biggest challenge is, you know, farming is an incredibly risky business. And, you know, in order for farmers to make a shift in their production systems and and whether in the US or in Africa, whatever. They need to see that the other thing works.

Borna (ClimateAi) 44:58
Yes, to be proven out. It has to be proven in their area. It can’t just be proven because you know, you’re you’re growing a totally different thing in a totally different place. You can’t take some data that you have from, you know, Minnesota and use it in Florida. It’s not gonna, it’s not gonna fly.

Ann Tutwiler 45:14
Exactly. So I think that there is a lot of Show me. Yeah, in the ag sector, that we need, or, or to go back to what I said before is that, you know, for farmers to shift, you know, sometimes it takes two or three years, and they need to be reassured that during that time of the shift, they’re not going to be losing.

Borna (ClimateAi) 45:33
We’re financially spotted in that shift.

Ann Tutwiler 45:36
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So it’s not simple. But

Borna (ClimateAi) 45:40
I want to ask that question in a different way. What stands in our way of getting this done on a timeline that we need to get it done on?

Ann Tutwiler 45:46
You know, maybe there are other fields that are similar to this, that I don’t know about, but I just think we talk about this a lot in the sector. Agriculture is so full of people with very strongly held. And I’m just going to call them religious. I mean, it’s not religious, but convictions about the way they see the world. I mean, you know, organic people see, you know, one world and one set of issues and the people who embrace more conventional ag see another

Borna (ClimateAi) 46:18
both with the same goal, though is that is the thing that people will lose sight of,

Ann Tutwiler 46:21
like what you said, and I made a speech once on I said, these fights about trade, about GMOs about you know, they have not fed a single person in this world. Yeah. So I think I see it happening more now. We’re getting beyond those kind of fights stick to having more reasonable conversations among people who have those different points of views and and how you can make them live beside each other, and not one having to feel like they’re losing out or dominating the other one. And again, like I say, I don’t, I’ve never worked in another sector. So maybe other sectors have those same kinds of issues, but I think food is just it’s it touches us every single day. And everybody has an opinion about it. So I just think it’s it’s a hard issue to solve, but I think we’re seeing now because of the burning platform because of the planetary boundaries. You know, I do think people are coming around to saying we got to sit down together and figure this out.

Borna (ClimateAi) 47:23
And you mentioned the univers as kind of putting forward those, I think it was 50 future food, what are some of the other companies that are leading and doing stuff like Unilever is just because I think, in general, people like supporting companies that they see as progressive. So for the listeners, who are these companies that are kind of on the forefront of a lot of these issues, you

Ann Tutwiler 47:40
know, I don’t want to get into I mean, I happen to know the Unilever because we were involved in helping them identify those foods. So I do think a lot of the big companies are there’s shifting and coming around and paying attention to sustainable development goals, paying attention and really realizing they need to Part of delivering on that. Yeah. So, but as it is a little advertisement, though, I will say the world benchmarking Alliance, which I’m also involved with, is going to be evaluating 2000 companies globally, of which 300 and something are ag on how they are doing towards delivering on the SDGs. Okay,

Borna (ClimateAi) 48:24
nice. I’ll link to that in the show notes for people to

Ann Tutwiler 48:26
ya know, and that’s coming. That should be out sometime the first round will be out next, in the next year. So we’re just developing the criteria and the data and whatnot now, but and so that will be a good benchmark for people to you know, actually look at how these companies are doing. delivery.

Borna (ClimateAi) 48:46
Yeah. Last question here. What’s your outlook on the state of biodiversity? Do you think that we’re, we’re on the right track here? Do you think we have a long way to go? Are you optimistic or pessimistic

Ann Tutwiler 48:59
You know, I tell people, I wouldn’t have been doing this for 35 years. If I was a pessimist. Yeah. I just see when I took over bioversity International, there were some people who told me the organization didn’t deserve to continue to exist. Our mission was done. We had collected all the seeds in our earlier history. And, you know, by diversity wasn’t that critical. And now, it’s everywhere. This need to be having a more diverse production system is everywhere. And that’s an seven year change that has taken place and people’s understanding of the importance of these issues. And I think there’s been a sea change in the understanding around climate change and the understanding around water and soil health and soil quality, just in the last four or five years. So I have to be optimistic. I don’t think we’re going to solve it tomorrow, but I think we’re more on the right track now than I was saying we were even eight years ago.

Borna (ClimateAi) 50:05
Yeah. I mean, you’ve been a huge driver. And all this is my is my introduction for you wasn’t enough. But I mean, you’ve been really leading on this front for a while. So on. On behalf of the listeners, I want to I want to thank you for your work. Is there is there any way that people can support what you’re currently doing or any any movements here part of right now?

Ann Tutwiler 50:23
Yeah, directly, maybe? Well, I would say one thing. So this the food system summit, which is going to be happening next year, we’re really making a push that that is in engages citizens. Now that this is not just a process that is, you know, un driven or driven by companies, and we’re going to be food systems. summit Secretariat is going to be setting up process ways for citizens to get involved in that process and helping to push the governments you know, and demonstrate support for Under these kinds of efforts, governments are also afraid of getting too far ahead of their citizens. So I think, you know, as citizens as consumers, the choices we make every day affect biodiversity affects soil health, planetary health. So,

Borna (ClimateAi) 51:16
yeah, I love that. All right. And well, I learned a ton today. This was a really, I think, focal topic that I hadn’t dug deep into yet. And you clarified a ton for me, I learned a lot. And this has been extremely valuable for me, and I would imagine it was so for the listeners as well. So thank you for your time.

Ann Tutwiler 51:33
And for me as well. Thanks.

Borna (ClimateAi) 51:36
All right, everyone. Thanks for listening. If you liked the episode, please rate us and give us a review on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play. And if you really liked the episode, or if you just want to help push forward the climate resilience movement, share the episode with friends and family. If you have any feedback or you’d like to add your own two cents on the topic discussed today, feel free to shoot me an email at I do respond to all emails. At its core. This podcast is a way for us to learn and to share our learnings as we go. So we’re always open to building on these conversations and hearing more perspectives. Thanks for your support. See you next time.


Ann Tutwiler

Senior Fellow at Meridian Institute and a Senior Advisor at SystemIQ.



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