This article is adapted from the Food Weekly newsletter.
What does this new year have in store for the world of sustainable food and agriculture? A lot of cool and impactful initiatives is the short answer. Instead of providing you with my big picture analysis of these topics and trends, I wanted to highlight the people that inspire me and give me hope for a better future.
Truth be told, I’m biased. I more often look to other women for inspiration than men. And there’s a lot of badass women in food and agriculture out there (it was a struggle to cut down this list to only 12). But I don’t feel bad about it as women are still underrepresented and underfunded and I plan to do my part in changing that.
With that, I invite you to dive into this list of 12 amazing women who will deliver critical contributions to a better food system in 2022.
Shayna Harris, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Supply Change Capital
Shayna Harris is managing partner at Supply Change Capital, a venture capital firm that invests at the intersection of food, culture and technology to catalyze early stage businesses. Harris has experience as a food startup executive and in sustainable procurement at Mars and co-founded the firm in late 2020 with Noramay Cadena, an aerospace engineer.
The duo kicked off its efforts with five investments in 2021. This year, it will ramp up support to startups in food and agriculture technology, ingredient technology and consumer-facing brands with seed-stage checks of $500,000 to $1 million. Themes that Harris and Cadena will keep a particular eye on include the continued intensification of the climate crisis and its impacts on the food system, supply chain disruptions and transparency and food waste.
Diversity is another key concern at the firm. Case in point: The mere existence of Supply Change Capital — a 100 percent women-led and owned investment firm and 50 percent Latina-owned firm — is already breaking molds as female and BIPOC investors are still a rare sight in venture capital circles. Diverse startup founders are similarly underrepresented.
But according to Harris, it’s a matter of perspective, not a pipeline problem. All of her investments to date were led by under-represented founders, and 80 percent were woman-led. In addition, over 75 percent of the 800 deals they reviewed in 2021 were led by a woman or person of color. Time for other food VCs to take note.
Jenna Coughlin, Head Cheesemaker, Tomales Farmstead Creamery
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jenna Coughlin was studying sustainable agriculture in San Diego and working in a vineyard nearby. But as her campus and tasting room closed along with most everything else in the city, continuing to pay for urban life didn’t make sense to her anymore. When she heard of the opportunity to join Toluma Farms and Tomales Farmstead Creamery north of San Francisco as an apprentice, she packed her bags and exchanged San Diego’s sunshine for Point Reyes’ foggy hills.
The apprenticeship on the organic goat and sheep farm taught Coughlin about milking, rotational grazing, establishing hedgerows and restoring watersheds. As a member of the Coast Miwok, an indigenous people, it was meaningful to her to play an active role in the stewardship of land originally inhabited by her ancestors. But Coughlin’s passion really unlocked when assisting in the farm’s creamery, where she found an instant connection to crafting artisanal cheeses. Two years later, she’s the creamery’s head cheesemaker.
Having a good understanding of the cheesemaking process, Coughlin wants to double down on improving the creamery’s efficiency — producing more with less input and reducing waste. This year, she aims to focus on water use in this often drought-stricken area of the country. Coughlin also runs a collaboration with the Graton Rancheria Tribal Garden. Unripe and surplus pumpkins from the garden serve as a supplemental food for the creamery’s goats and sheep. In return, Coughlin donates cheese to fruit and vegetable boxes the tribe distributes to Native elders.
Ezgi Barcenas, Chief Sustainability Officer, AB InBev
After eight years at AB InBev, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of beers and other drinks, Ezgi Barcenas became chief sustainability officer. She builds on her background in international development, foreign trade and public health to manage the social and environmental impact of the company’s global value chains.
AB InBev stands out for the direct sourcing of its six priority crops — barley, hops, rice, maize, sorghum and cassava — procured from over 20,000 farmers across 13 countries. This supply chain traceability enables Barcenas and her team to partner directly with many of these farmers on projects that foster innovation and resilience.
Barcenas is particularly excited about a collaboration with BanQu, a blockchain-enabled supply chain platform. It provides over 5,000 farmers in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Colombia and Ecuador improved security of payments and access to formal financial services, while increasing supply chain traceability. In another partnership, Barcenas works with Soil Capital to pay farmers in France for carbon sequestration.
Under Barcena’s leadership, Ab InBev announced a plan to reach net-zero emissions across its value chain by 2040 at the end of last year. She aims to prioritize deep decarbonization efforts before pursuing carbon offsets. This new long-term goal works in tandem with the company’s 2025 science-based climate targets.
Maia Tekle, Co-Founder and Head of Sales and Partnerships, Dispatch Goods
Maia Tekle co-founded Dispatch Goods together with Lindsey Hoell three years ago on a quest to create circular packaging systems. Since then, Tekle and Hoell have created the infrastructure and business case, mastered the logistics and built a team that could help large and small businesses reuse containers and other packaging.
The startup works with about 50 restaurants and a growing number of direct-to-consumer companies such as Imperfect Foods. It provides reusable containers as well as the infrastructure for the home collection, sorting, processing, sanitizing and redistribution of those goods. This work allowed the female powerhouse team to replace about 250,000 single-use plastics in 2021. They also closed out the year with a $3.7 million seed funding round led by Congruent Ventures.
Tekle is planning to use these additional funds to expand the company’s geographical reach from the San Francisco Bay Area to the East Coast and explore new packaging solutions. Ultimately, she hopes to enable anyone, anywhere to have circular packaging infrastructure around that allows them to make more sustainable choices.
Jennifer Stojkovic, Founder, Vegan Women Summit
Jennifer Stojkovic founded the Vegan Women Summit in response to the inequities female founders in the food tech industry have been facing for too long. Her initiative has been an instant success at empowering female changemakers. It all started as a 250-people event in San Francisco in February 2020. Since then, it has quickly evolved to a global community of over 35,000 female professionals, founders, industry advocates and investors who have been craving a safe and inspiring space in which they could share their experiences and catalyze growth of the plant-based food, fashion, beauty and biotechnology industries.
Over the past two years, Stojkovic has hosted a varied series of events addressing key issues in her community such as building an executive career, becoming a founder and creating diversity in the plant-based food industry. She also launched a pitch competition featuring founders from 31 countries, a virtual job networking series that connected 2,000 jobseekers with roles in the food industry and conducted a survey to uncover better data on the investment bias affecting female founders.
The Vegan Women Summit hosted some of the most inspiring online events I have attended during the pandemic. The summit will return as an in-person event in Los Angeles in April. I can only imagine the joy with which the community will gather and the countless game-changing initiatives Stojkovic will develop as a result of it.
Maggie Monast, Senior Director, Climate-Smart Agriculture, Finance and Markets, Environmental Defense Fund
What’s the connection between climate-smart agricultural practices and long-term farm profitability? Working with farmers and agricultural economists over the past several years, Maggie Monast and her team at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have been trying to answer this question.
In 2022, Monast’s work will come to fruition with the launch of several partnerships and financial products that aim to help farmers bear the financial burden of transitioning their practices — for example, loans for farms with lower interest rates to reflect the risk reduction value of resilient practices.
The EDF team is also working with U.S. agricultural lenders to quantify the financial impact of adopting conservation practices on farms, understanding climate risks in loan portfolios and developing new products and programs to integrate the value of resilient agriculture into their businesses.
In addition, Monast serves as co-chair of Field to Market’s Innovative Finance Working Group and contributes to the Banking for Impact on Climate in Agriculture (B4ICA) initiative, launched by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development at COP 26 (and led by Amy Senter — another woman to watch!).
Eva Goulbourne, Founder and CEO, Littlefoot Ventures and President, Upcycled Food Foundation
Eva Goulbourne was a founding team member of ReFED, a non-profit working to end food loss and waste, and continues to accelerate solutions for this critical climate and social justice issue as the founder and CEO of Littlefoot Ventures, a boutique consulting firm.
In December, Goulbourne was elected president of the Upcycled Food Foundation, a trade association dedicated to growing the upcycled food economy. In this role, she looks forward to driving the strategic direction of the association, converting upcycled food from a trend to a mainstay in the sustainable food space. She aims to influence policy and investment affecting the industry and improve consumer and retailer understanding of upcycled foods.
Establishing a national campaign to inspire and mobilize consumers to take action to reduce food waste is another priority project for Goulbourne in 2022. She’s working collaboratively on the campaign with three other female food champions — Sophie Egan and Eve Turow-Paul of the Food for Climate League and Dana Gunders of ReFED. The quartet hopes that increased consumer awareness of food waste will in turn pressure food businesses, retailers, restaurants and suppliers to improve their practices, enabling the country to reduce food waste by 50 percent over the next decade.
Anne Palermo, Co-Founder and CEO, Aqua Cultured Foods
What’s your seafood of choice? Tuna filets, popcorn shrimp, calamari or scallops perhaps? No matter which, Anne Palermo and co-founder Brittany Chibe have good news for you. Your seafood cravings may be guilt-free in the future as a novel protein fermentation technology works to replace fish in the value chain.
Aqua Cultured Foods is a startup founded in 2020 aiming to deliver seafood alternatives that realistically replicate the texture, taste and nutritional value of seafoods. At the same time, it aims to avoid contaminants found in traditional aquaculture such as microplastics, mercury, pesticides, antibiotics and parasites. It’s an attractive promise backed by a $2.1 million seed round and a proof of concept partnership with Migros, Switzerland’s largest retailer — both announced in Q4 of 2021.
While plant-based and cultivated meat technologies are better known approaches in the alternative protein space, Palermo has chosen to go down the fermentation path. Advantages include its resource- and energy-efficient production process and the avoidance of animal, GMO and highly processed ingredients, she claims. In addition, the startup hopes to use regional facilities to bring affordable seafood alternatives to landlocked countries. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and look forward to a taste test.
Joan Salwen, Co-Founder and CEO, Blue Ocean Barns
After 20 years in management consulting and heading a girls’ college preparatory school in Atlanta, Joan Salwen became a visiting scholar at Stanford University, exploring her interest in mitigating the climate impact of livestock farms. Six years into her journey, Salwen is CEO of Blue Ocean Barns, a startup cultivating red algae as a feed supplement for cows that can significantly reduce their methane emissions.
It’s an idea that has been around for a while, but Salwen and her team have made consistent progress toward testing its impact and overcoming production challenges. Now, Salwen stands at the brink of launching the startup’s first commercial product called Brominata with a set of corporate partners. In a trial last summer at Straus Family Creamery, an organic farm in California, cows who ate the algae supplement produced on average 52 percent less methane emissions without compromising the quality and quantity of milk production or causing animal welfare issues.
According to the startup, the technology requires no additional capital equipment or training on the part of livestock workers, making the solution applicable for big and small producers alike and helping to lessen the extraordinary impact of beef and dairy production on the climate crisis. In the first year of launching Brominata, Salwen expects to prevent the equivalent of 1000 metric tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere and to enable the production of 100,000 pounds of lower-emission dairy and beef products.
Andrea Learned, Founder and Climate Influence Strategist, Learned On
Reducing the consumption of meat and dairy altogether is even more impactful than lowering its emissions intensity. But convincing people to adopt more plant-based diets is a challenging task. That’s where climate influence strategist Andrea Learned comes in with a fresh approach.
Authentic storytelling and the consistent influence of credible community leaders is what can change social norms over time, Learned believes. This kind of messaging can be especially effective when coming from “surprising validators,” as she calls them.
Consumers will be more receptive to messages about the benefits of sustainable diets when they come from people they know, trust and admire — mayors, church leaders, celebrities and so on — instead of animal rights activists or climate scientists.
To that end, Learned is supporting public and private leaders who have adopted a plant-based diet in expanding their social media following and other influence platforms. “Name and fame” is her strategy to help cement plant-based eating as a new social norm and benefit those leaders along the way. In March, Learned will launch a new podcast called Get Louder that will illustrate such leadership examples. If you know someone who deserves to be named and famed, send her your recommendation.
Wendy Coleman, Founder and Partner, LA Urban Farms
Together with Jennifer Crane and Melanie Dorsey, Wendy Coleman is the driving force behind LA Urban Farms, a manufacturer of vertical aeroponic gardens. Over the past eight years, the trio has developed tower gardens that grow leafy greens, vegetables and herbs without the need for soil or chemicals while using 90 percent less water and land compared to traditional gardening. In addition to these environmental benefits, Coleman believes that enabling more people to grow their own food and eat it freshly will help them appreciate the journey of food more and enable healthier food choices.
LA Urban Farms has convinced an impressive list of clients to sign up to urban gardening — ranging from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to hotels and resorts including Hilton, Marriott and Las Vegas’ Bellagio and companies such as Nike and Ikea.
In its most recent project, LA Urban Farms has installed 24 aeroponic gardens on the rooftop of Google’s new LA headquarters, housing 672 organic edible plants including broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, zucchini, strawberries and many leafy greens. The harvest of this rooftop garden will be donated to the LA Mission, an organization helping people experiencing homelessness in downtown LA.
Coleman, Crane and Dorsey have even more in store for 2022. They teamed up with the Green Bronx Machine and the Future Food Institute — two other organizations working at the intersection of sustainable and just food — for a grant proposal to the Italian Ministry of Education that, if accepted, will bring tower gardens and a growing curriculum to 800 schools in Italy.
Alia Malik, Senior Director for Data and Traceability, Better Cotton Initiative
Alia Malik calls herself an in-house entrepreneur at the Better Cotton Initiative, where she modernizes and reimagines their work from the inside. A year ago, she stepped into a new role focused on developing an end-to-end traceability system for the cotton sector — something Malik believes will transform the fashion industry. Her work includes building definitions, data standards and physical infrastructure for a digital traceability system.
In her previous role at the initiative, Malik worked for almost three years on implementing field-level sustainability improvements on farms across 23 countries. But due to changing sourcing practices and increased supply chain pressures, she felt that traceability was of increasing importance and took on the new challenge.
Leveraging the initiative’s long-standing link with 2.5 million farmers around the world — many of them smallholders — as well as leading brands and retailers, Malik hopes that a scalable traceability system will bring both social and environmental benefits. Traceability could also enable direct ecosystem payments to farmers, financially rewarding the adoption of climate-smart practices.
If you weren’t inspired for what’s to come in 2022 yet, I hope these 12 examples helped you get excited. Women are working to transform the food system from so many angles. I’m optimistic that these forces will sum up to a more sustainable, just, nourishing and resilient system when we look back to where we started 12 months from now.
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