Hal Hamilton is founder and co-director of Sustainable Food Laboratory, which brings corporations and NGOs together to help mainstream food producers incorporate sustainable practices. Before his work with the Sustainable Food Lab, Hamilton worked as a commercial dairy farmer and received the “Master Conservationist” award. Now, he lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Business School, the Kennedy School, and more. He has published several articles, columns, and book chapters on agricultural policy.
Food Tank (FT): With a background in commercial dairy farming, what sparked your interest in sustainable food and agriculture?
Hal Hamilton (HH): Farming is intrinsically about sustaining land, family, and community. Wendell Berry once commented to me that “organic farming is OK, but I’d rather talk about good farming.” I tried to be a good farmer. I loved my neighbors and community. That’s what sustainability means to me.
FT: Big businesses and sustainability seem incongruous. What makes sustainability possible on a large scale?
HH: Food companies depend upon ingredients from agriculture, and therefore the foundations of their business require sustainable agricultural systems and people who can manage land and resources well. Sustainability is in many ways independent of scale. General Mills needs a reliable supply of oats and Unilever needs a reliable supply of tea. Oats are grown on different sized farms. Tea is grown by smallholders in Kenya as well as plantations in India. All need to use water wisely, build healthy soils, and eliminate toxic chemicals. The farmers and the workers need to have a good life. Sustainability is driven by many motivations, and not all companies are at the same place in the journey. They all need solid reputations with their customers and NGOs. They need a secure supply out into the future and reamin resilient as the weather becomes more volatile, so they need to help steward watersheds and support farming communities.
FT: Tell us about the Cool Farm Institute. How have companies like Heineken, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer as well as other member organizations made strides to improve sustainability?
HH: The Cool Farm Institute, which we help manage, supports continuous improvement and use of the Cool Farm Tool. The unique feature of the tool is its balance of scientific rigor and user-friendliness. I’ve had a lot of fun in rooms of farmers comparing experiences using the tool in their operations as they how they have improved efficiencies and reduced their carbon footprint. The companies use the tool to help their farmer suppliers reduce net greenhouse gas emissions; in some cases, they have set corporate goals accordingly. For example, Walker’s Crisps in the UK, owned by PepsiCo, was able to set a 5 year goal of greenhouse gas reductions of 50 percent, and they use the Cool Farm Tool to help their potato farmers identify which practices on their farms make the biggest difference.
FT: How have their successes and challenges informed or altered future initiatives on a similar scale?
HH: Everything we do in the Sustainable Food Lab is about helping these companies and their partners make faster progress. They learn from experts but they learn even more from one another. We have another cluster of projects, for example, in which quite a few companies are measuring the impact of their supply chains on small farmers in developing countries. By using a common and simple measurement tool, they are able to compare results of their different projects and make course corrections in their initiatives in different parts of the world.
FT: Sustainable Food Lab provides a toolbox with articles, books, and case studies related to various projects. Who can take advantage of these tools?
HH: All of our publications and tools are open source, which means that they are freely available to anyone. In some cases, commercial use costs something, but use by farmers or NGOs is always free.
FT: One of the Food Lab’s professional services is “strategic planning and supporting cross-functional teams to refine sustainability goals.” How can sustainability be incorporated across different sectors of an organization, and why is this kind of depth important?
HH: We help a lot of different organizations with strategic planning, supplier summits, team learning journeys, and coaching for people in sustainability positions. Since sustainability is relatively new in many large organizations, it needs a lot of work to be integrated from the people with sustainability in their titles to the people who actually make policies and purchasing decisions; part of that integration is to align performance objectives for all key personnel with sustainability goals in the same way that performance objectives are synced with profit and growth objectives.
Similarly, we work with several nonprofits that are still learning to integrate corporate partnerships with their more traditional service or advocacy programs. Many times, one part of the organization can be at odds with another part of the organization. None of these functions are “right” or “wrong,” but a certain degree of coherence, communication, and shared learning is always a good idea.
FT: What does membership in the Food Lab entail? How do members collaborate to further their goals and what successes have arisen from these collaborations?
HH: We used to work primarily with dues-paying member organizations, but now we also work with many organizations that choose not to pay dues but rather to sponsor specific projects. Members do have more opportunities to participate in strategic conversations about the future of the food system and unique leadership roles that emerge.
One of our core purposes is to support the incubation of new collaborations where working together is more efficient than doing something separately. Many development organizations, for example, can provide both expertise and credibility to the companies wanting to include small farmers in their supply chains in a responsible way. Sometimes competing companies can collaborate in a pre-competitive exploration of how to align their sustainability programs so that suppliers, including farmers, have an easier time meeting these new requirements of doing business.
FT: What plans does Food Lab have for new projects or expansion?
HH: One of our new projects we’re co-managing with Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform. A number of multinational food and beverage companies are working together on water stewardship in places where they have overlapping needs for agricultural products and where that production is threatened by dwindling or threatened water supply. We’re helping these companies share water risk assessments and design collaborative projects where their interests coincide.