“We can leverage a tonne of opportunities to meet that challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 through technology and services that improve the economics of more sustainable regenerative type farming practices.”
In this episode my guest is Ben Gibbons. Ben is the Founder and Managing Partner of Waterpoint Lane, a venture capital firm focused on investing in growth stage companies centered in primary production, technology and services, and consumer products, that promote sustainable practices throughout our food system.
In our conversation Ben and I talk about the really big challenges facing the world in creating and maintaining a sustainable food system in the face of escalating climate change impacts; the most promising policies, strategies and technologies for helping us reduce the environmental harm we are causing; the huge challenge of food security and a sustainable food supply in the face of climate impacts; and what advice Ben would offer listeners about what they can do to be part of making a difference in meeting the challenges of the Twenty-first Century Imperative and maintaining hope.
Ben grew up on his family’s sheep and wheat farm in central New South Wales, in Australia.
In 2019, Ben re-established his connection with the land and the sustainability of our food supply, culminating with his founding of the venture capital firm Waterpoint Lane in 2021. (and Ben tells me that Waterpoint Lane was the name of the road leading up to the family farm!)
Ben spent the previous 15-plus years of his career in investment banking and consulting to support growth-stage and middle-market companies, with extensive experience across mergers and acquisitions, debt, equity, and alternate capital financing transactions.
Through Waterpoint lane, Ben sees significant opportunity to drive change in the way we think about our food system, change that contributes to climate solutions, and secures a lasting-and-sustainable legacy for our children.
Mission Statement of Waterpoint Lane
What thinks are some of the promising policies, strategies, and technologies that are going to help us reduce environmental harm we are causing, especially related to agriculture
I think up and down the supply chain there’s a tonne of interesting things that are happening and have happened. Policy is always an interesting topic from my perspective. I think policy is helpful in a lot of respects, but we can’t rely on policy and regulation to get us to where we need to get to. It’s an enabler. It helps frame and contextualize a lot of the time. But there are some great policies and funding opportunities that have been enacted by various governments over time. One that is current that I actually am quite supportive and excited about is, there’s an On-Farm Climate Action Fund that supports farmers in adopting beneficial management practices related to climate change and storing carbon, reducing greenhouse gases, particularly in regenerative agricultural practices like cover cropping and rotational grazing practices.
So as long as that capital can get utilized in the right fashion, I think those policies are very important and help innovation occur in the sector, because, with government funding opportunities, the adoption curve can sometimes be reduced for people at the production level, which has often been the problem with ag-tech adoption historically, and the challenge that has been faced in innovation in the space. I would be a big proponent for increasing funding levels to the organizations that do support these types of initiatives. That policy that I mentioned in particular was led by a group called Farmers for Climate Solutions, and they’ve been great champions.
[There is also] some interesting stuff that’s happening at production level. As we move down the supply chain, there’s some great efforts being made in that waste reduction side of the equation. And I think there’s importantly around this upcycling and recycling opportunity, reducing food waste throughout the supply chain. I’m not sure if you’ve heard the stats, but it’s upwards of anywhere to 58% of our food is lost [in the supply chain.] This starts at the farm gate. It goes all the way to consumers. Consumers are probably the worst.
But there’s some great companies that are doing some cool things in terms of taking, to your point, that ugly food that doesn’t make it to our shelves and repurposing it. A company called Outcast Foods. They’re a sustainable food tech innovator. They’ve partnered with a number of companies to take their product and repurpose it for better usage in lots of different types of products. There’s a company out of Montreal called Loop Mission that does the same thing in the juice market, et cetera, and taking waste product there and putting into the juices that you and I would actually drink.
And then the really big opportunity, I think, that we are seeing for consumers at the moment is this concept of transparency and traceability of our food. Consumers are at this stage now where they’re demanding more access to information with where their food is coming from. And it started off being a bit of a niche, but it’s certainly grown over time to be something that is becoming a lot more prevalent. Coincidentally Cargil just actually released a report on food packaging, and highlighted that consumers are more likely to purchase a packaged item with a sustainability claim on it.
Now, I won’t go down the rabbit hole of food packaging and claims that are made on food packaging, and how right or wrong they are, but standards will catch up in this regard. But I think the opportunity for consumers will be in getting true transparency and related to their ingredients. And the technology that we’re seeing in terms of traceability, I think is going to be something that’s hugely important going forward.
“Our food system is very complex. And there’s a lot of significantly interrelated parts to our food system. And to some degree, there’s no magic bullet that’s going to improve sustainability across the system.”
And there’s been a long conversation around blockchain usage in the food industry for traceability purposes, but the fundamental idea of traceability as well, I think is in knowing where your food comes from. And localization of food, and the movement towards a more localization of food, I think has probably gained a little bit more traction as supply chain issues through COVID have obviously popped up. So what we’re seeing with urban and vertical farming projects that I know you’ve discussed on this programme in the past, as well as QR codes, direct farmer to consumer models that have become a lot more prevalent in North America as well. All these issues that just allow consumers to say, “All right, I’ve got a good handle on where my food comes from and how it’s sourced. And therefore, I feel comfortable eating it.”
Some of the key lessons Ben has learned in being a venture capitalist in the Sustainable Agra-Tech Space?
Well, I think that the biggest lesson, and I think this point gets lost too many times in conversations, is that our food system is very complex. And there’s a lot of significantly interrelated parts to our food system. And to some degree, to our conversation, there’s no magic bullet that’s going to improve sustainability across the system. This is a process of ongoing and incremental change, and there’s no end state, so we’re going to keep making improvements over time. And everyone throughout the supply chain can make small, incremental steps that will make large improvements over time. And we’re not going to see a fundamental change, as these, what I call micro steps occur over periods of time, they collectively add up.
And as the supply chain continues to keep pace with itself, I think we’ll see some of these opportunities occur. And yeah, some of the concepts in food sustainability do cause some polarizing views. I’ll use the term regenerative agriculture, ultimately focusing on, we need our soil to be better than what it is today. And a lot of markets and large CPG companies have made commitments to sourcing from farmers, practicing regenerative agriculture, but it’s not a clearly defined practice. So what is regenerative agriculture? No one necessarily agrees on a specific definition on that point. And yeah, there’s probably smarter people than me that are trying to figure out what an appropriate standard in this space is.
“And there’s been just a general fundamental movement from institutional investors all the way down to family office investors that they want their capital to be doing more than just generating an economic return, they want it to generate socioeconomic returns along the way as well.”
[But] if we can direct capital – because I think that the one fundamental point is there is a lot of capital in the market – we can direct that capital to making improvements in sustainability, in food, which has a tonne of beneficial effects from climate change through to health, then I think we’re directing capital to do the right thing. And there’s been just a general fundamental movement from institutional investors all the way down to family office investors that they want their capital to be doing more than just generating an economic return, they want it to generate socioeconomic returns along the way as well.
What Ben thinks about the challenge of food security around the world and how we might best address it.
As you said, it’s a highly complex topic and definitely climate change has played a massive part in food security. And what it means to various geographies and communities in particular. We talk about food security in Toronto, because we walk to one of the grocery stores, and we see empty shells for products that we normally buy. And so we say, we’ve got food security issues because of COVID and the pandemic, and what’s going on with our supply chain? Sure. That is a food security problem, but it’s also been a much more prolonged issue and a much more deep seated issue for communities in particular, in our North, and obviously first nations communities in particular.
And what food security, and in particular, the concept of food sovereignty, means to those communities is obviously something that has a lot of different factors that need to come to play to create appropriate solutions, I think as much as anything. And that’s definitely why I look at opportunities for localization of food as being critically important, and certainly for people in urban areas, again, coming back to vertical and urban farming opportunities for people in our first nations communities in Northern Canada, that same opportunity applies. Leveraging vertical and urban farming technologies to localize food opportunities so they are less dependent obviously on longer supply chain for accessing their food I think is going to be something important. Yeah, I think there’s definitely been a lot of barriers between first nations groups in particular and their preferred food sources because of regulation and industry that has also come under increasing threat because of climate change as well.
It’s a complex issue. And again, one of those somewhat divisive issues because traditional foods for some of our first nations communities, people in traditional Western societies aren’t necessarily ok with the way they’ve sourced food in the past. But the interesting thing is that they’ve always done it in a sustainable manner, and it’s always been the difference between indigenous food practices historically and where we find ourselves today with our larger more industrialized food system. So I think localization of food supply is a really important element to food security. And it’s interesting because I mentioned before, you can break localization of food down into very small micro parts.
There’s super cool companies doing really small things in this space, like a company called Urban Leaf that’s helping the consumer ultimately like people living in condos in Toronto and New York, and Vancouver grow their own food. And maybe it’s just tomatoes and herbs, and those things to start with, but once you start touching and feeling, and knowing where your food’s coming from, and growing your food, then I feel like it’s a start to a journey that people will obviously move along.
What gives Ben hope for the future What do you think, are we going to be able to get our act together on the food sustainability side in time??
And funnily enough consumers, give me hope. I think we’ve seen a real fundamental shift in consumer behavior in the last two years. And COVID has been a challenge obviously for all of us and more than a challenge for a lot of us. But it’s also created some significant fundamental changes in behavior. And I think in our food system, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in the way our consumers are demanding sustainability in our food now. I’ve mentioned increase in requirements for transparency. I think consumers are just now being afforded the ability to make better choices, and I think we’ve seen an assuming rise up of consumer demand for better outcomes. And so I think that’s what gives me hope, because as I think I mentioned before, regulation and policy is one thing that’s going to enable that, but for true fundamental change to occur, it needs to start at the consumer, and the rest of the supply chain will respond accordingly.
What advice offered listeners about what they can do to be part of making a difference in meeting the challenges of sustainable food, but also in the challenges of the Twenty First Century Imperative, and maintaining hope?
I would say choose sustainable where you can. What does sustainable mean? I would say, identify if you can local farms and suppliers where you can purchase directly. It’s a better outcome for the farmer, cuts out obviously the middle man, they get a better income as a result of that. And it’s a better outcome for you as a consumer, generally speaking, because you know where your food comes from. And I would say, get out there and see where your food comes from. I’ve got a, I think I mentioned, two-and-a-half year-old daughter. The most fun that we had last year was taking her strawberry and blueberry picking, and apple picking. Go and talk to farmers and educate yourself about where food comes from, and enjoy it. And I think if you can see food more than just something that sustains you, but something that you can enjoy, you’ll get a better outcome for it.
What Ben asked of our listeners. What would he like to ask of them going forward?
Yeah, I think to that end, I’d say, I want you to know what’s in your food, know where it comes from, walk around a farmer’s market and talk to those that are producing our food and understand the process that they got to, to put food in front of you. And when you’re in a grocery store, look at the ingredients. If you don’t know what half of them are, maybe there’s a better option for you.
We’ve all generally been conditioned to walk through a grocery store and head to the areas that we always head to and buy the same food that we always buy. And our supply chains have dictated that food is relatively common in our grocery store. So find the local boutiques in your neighbourhood as well, that generally stock more local and certainly more seasonal produce. You never know what you’re going to get. I subscribe probably three and a half years ago to the delivery service from a farmer up near Bracebridge, delivers a box of produce to us once a week. And I don’t know what I’m getting every week until he sends me an email, and I’m looking up recipes because I’m like, “I don’t know how to cook this.” And he provides some recipe examples as well, but this concept of, “I shouldn’t be eating peppers every day. I shouldn’t be buying strawberries every grocery shop.” Because while we have greenhouses, obviously in Ontario, they’re not necessarily seasonal produces. And buying seasonal produce, one, it’s better for you because it’s generally more nutrient dense because it’s grown in the right season, and two, it’s more sustainably produced. (The name of the farmer is The Stubborn Farmer, which is a great name.)
Ben’s Book and Documentary Recommendation:
Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth by Charles Massey [From Goodreads] Call of the Reed Warbler shows the way forward for the future of our food supply, our Australian landscape and our planet. This ground-breaking book will change the way we think of, farm and grow food. Author and radical farmer Charles Massy explores transformative and regenerative agriculture and the vital connection between our soil and our health. It is a story of how a grassroots revolution – a true underground insurgency – can save the planet, help turn climate change around, and build healthy people and healthy communities, pivoting significantly on our relationship with growing and consuming food.
Kiss the Ground – Netflix documentary, Science experts and celebrity activists unpack the ways in which the earth’s soil may be the key to combating climate change and preserving the planet. Narrated by Woody Harrelson, this doc features interviews with Gisele Bündchen, Tom Brady and Patricia Arquette.
Clarkson’s Farm – Amazon Prime documentary Jeremy Clarkson, more famous for the car series Top Gear. He’s a bit of a polarizing figure generally, but he bought a farm and ran a farm. An intense, arduous and frequently hilarious year in the life of Britain’s most unlikely farmer, Jeremy Clarkson. Join Jeremy and his rag-tag band of agricultural associates as they face-up to a backdrop of unhelpful weather, disobedient animals, unresponsive crops and an unexpected pandemic. This is Jeremy Clarkson as you’ve never seen him before.
How You Can Connect With Ben
Please Support this Podcast:
The Twenty First Century Imperative podcast is ad-free and relies entirely on user support. If you find it valuable, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron at our TFCI Patreon Page. And we now have a new TFCI Online-shop, with all the proceeds going to cover our production costs! And it has some great products for you! We have organic, fair-trade t-shirts and hoodies, as well as non-toxic BPA-free coffee containers, with great graphics! So, if you like the podcast, please think about helping us out by buying a t-shirt, hoodie or mug for you (and one for each of your friends!)