2017 Forum on Sustainable Agriculture

Building Regenerative Local Food Systems

On April 27, 2017 the Earth Institute, the School of International and Public Affairs, the Agriculture and Food Security Center and the Columbia Water Center presented the third annual Forum on Sustainable Agriculture. The event was hosted by Jeffrey Potent, Adjunct Professor, the Earth Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs, and included presentations by Dr. Ruth DeFries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute, Mr. Michael Kinstlick, CEO, Coppersea Distilling, and Mr. Paul Helgeson, Former Sustainability Manager, GNP Company. The speakers and Professor Potent offered introductory presentations (see links below), participated in a panel discussion and fielded audience questions. The panel discussion also included brief remarks by Mr. Rod Richardson, President of the Grace Richardson Fund and Ms. Susan Arterian Chang, Director of Content Development for the Capital Institute.

Our series addresses how the agriculture sector is confronting the challenge of feeding a growing and increasingly affluent population while improving environmental and social performance and contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation. For 2017, we focused on small scale farming operations and other market participants contributing to the sustainability of local food systems, serving local, regional and in some cases national markets. We explored how these players are improving land stewardship, producing nutritious crops and value-added products, revitalizing rural economies and facilitating distribution to urban and suburban markets. We addressed the challenges to scaling up sustainable agriculture beyond what is now a relatively small percentage of agricultural production, the opportunities and limitations facing small farms and other food businesses in contributing to this transition, and clarified terms and addressed prevailing misconceptions. We explored the imperative that, regardless of size, ownership structure and mode of distribution, in the future, all agriculture must embrace sustainability to bring value to society and succeed in business.

Professor Potent kicked off the presentations with an overview of sustainable agriculture and the role of small farms and other market participants in advancing this agenda, including presenting data on the rapidly growing market for organic and locally produced agricultural products. This was followed by Mr. Michael Kinstlick, who profiled agricultural value chains, progress toward standards for sustainable performance, and highlighted Coppersea Distilling as an example of emerging local agricultural production and value chains across the nation. Mr. Helgeson provided a history of innovations in the U.S. poultry industry. He profiled this evolution at GNP, highlighting sustainability-related improvements in processing, incentivizing suppliers to improve their environmental and animal welfare performance, and featuring associated attributes in the company’s products and marketing. Dr. DeFries completed the formal presentations by exploring the challenge of feeding a growing, urbanizing population, highlighting the trade offs between organic versus conventional production, small/local versus large scale farming operations, and the comparative nutritional value of various staple cereal crops.

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

Speaker Bios

Dr. Ruth DeFries is University Professor of Ecology and Sustainable Development at the Columbia University Earth Institute. She was elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, one of the country’s highest scientific honors, received a MacArthur “Genius” Award, and is the recipient of many other honors for her scientific research. In addition to over 100 scientific papers, she is committed to communicating the nuances and complexities of sustainable development to students and popular audiences, most recently through her book The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis. Dr. DeFries uses images from satellites and field surveys to examine how the world’s demands for food and other resources are changing land use throughout the tropics. Her research quantifies how these land use changes affect climate, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, as well as human development.

Mr. Paul Helgeson formerly served as Sustainability Manager of GNP Company in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He joined GNP as its Sustainability Manager in 2010. At that time he represented the fourth generation in the family-owned chicken business, which is best known for its Gold’n Plump brand. GNP Company was established by his great-grandfather, E.M. Helgeson, as St. Cloud Hatcheries in 1926. Since then the company evolved from a seasonal hatchery to a fully integrated chicken processor with annual sales of more than $450 million.

As GNP Company’s Sustainability Manager, Mr. Helgeson led development of the company’s sustainability operating principles and its participation in the World Resources Institute GHG Product Road Test to help set a worldwide standard for measuring a product’s life cycle impact on the environment. He is also the founder of the “Field Stewards” program, which is a supply chain initiative focused on reducing the water quality and environmental impacts of the company’s commodity crop inputs, and led U.S. Poultry’s sustainability working group. Mr. Helgeson holds a BS from the University of Denver and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Michael Kinstlick is the founder and CEO of Coppersea distilling, a ‘field-to-glass’ farm distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley. Mr. Kinstlick is also a Chartered Financial Analyst and special advisor to the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB). Formally, he was the Head of Standards Setting for SASB, where he oversaw research, analytics, consultation, codification and maintenance of the SASB standards.

Mr. Kinstlick has worked predominantly in finance, including almost a decade at quantitative equities firm AXA Rosenberg with roles in both core research and helping manage billions of dollars in long/short term strategies. He graduated cum laude in Economics and Philosophy from Columbia before graduate school at Northwestern (MS, Industrial Engineering) and UC Berkeley (MBA, Haas School of Business)

Speaker Presentations