Ten Questions with Shen Tong, Founder and Managing Partner of Food Future

Food Tank, in partnership with American University, is hosting the 2nd Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. on April 20–21, 2016.

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Shen Tong, the Founder and Managing Partner of Food Future, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Shen Tong (ST): I’m a father of three young children. Eating flavorful and healthy food has been a challenge in the United States. Food is essential to our existence, survival, and health, and also the emotional connection to our day-to-day life. We are what we eat. But as a five trillion-dollar global industry, there are still significant challenges that need to be addressed. As a serial entrepreneur, social activist, angel, and impact investor, I run a scale-up accelerator for disruptive innovations in food, agriculture, wellness, and environment to grow the food movement.

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

ST: We are seeing rapid changes in consumer behavior: people demand tasty, accessible, affordable, healthy, local, and sustainable food. This drives a new era of big opportunities that connect innovations, new business models, consumer awareness, and social changes. Investing in the future of food is possibly one of the most important investment opportunities of our time, given its ability to impact societal issues, including obesity, poverty, and environment. It is comparable to the Internet revolution in scale and impact, and more fundamental than the Internet.

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

ST: It’s hard to find a single point of leverage—with a complex system like food, that Silicon Valley tech approach may not work really well—but changing the purpose of the system from producing more and cheaper to wellbeing that’s tasty, healthy, and sustainable. We need to approach food as food and beverages, as agriculture, as a connection to water and soil—not as food tech.

To drive big changes in the food system, companies that are truly disruptive to the food system need to leverage the two most resilient complex systems known to the human race to disrupt industrial food and agriculture: nature and culture. There are three areas of opportunities:

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

ST: Josh Cook, who founded Nextdoorganics with Kris Schumacher offering sustainable produce, meat, and snack weekly subscriptions sourced locally that are healthy and savory food sources for my family for the past couple of years.

Dr. Urvashi Rangan, for her truly independent and scientific research and information dissemination on sustainability, food safety, and the connectedness of our food system.

Dan Barber, for inspiring people to rethink their plate and sparking a conversation about the state of farming, farm-to-table, and the resilience of nature.

John Houseal and Liz Skalla, who founded Givn Water with a great taste and biodegradable bottle. Every bottle of Givn Water purchased funds one day of clean water for a person in need.

Michael Moss, for his relentless investigation into the damaging effects of addictive food.

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

ST: The poor food choices that my children and their friends face when not at our home give me an almost daily reminder and a sense of urgency. The amazing range of solutions and intense uplifting energy of entrepreneurial teams from the vast amount of applications we received at Food Future, Inc. and the start-up accelerator I founded gives me reason to be optimistic.

To make lasting changes for a better tomorrow, starting with how we grow, prepare, and consume our food and beverages. To truly “democratize innovation” in food, we have to empower the people who are really hungry to drive changes: food entrepreneurs, startups, and scale-ups. Food Future provides them access to resources and sometimes funding needed to break through our thick-walled food industry ruled by longstanding corporate behemoths. Startups who prove market-product fit will inevitably face the chasm of breaking into early majority. Food Future helps those companies who have proven a market with access to global and alternative distribution, agricultural, culinary, and business expertise, financing design, operation scaling, company governance design, and enabling networks.

FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?

ST: We have an industrial agriculture and supply chain with inherently huge inefficiencies. It produces foods that lost taste and community, damages our health, and causes environmental issues.

About 75 percent of the world’s natural resources are used to cultivate unsustainable agriculture, which feeds only roughly 25 percent of the world’s population.

90 percent of the food in the American market is tasteless and high calorie with negligible nutrients.

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

ST: Food access to solve the global epidemic of malnutrition, including about 50 million Americans in hunger and the nearly 30 million living in food deserts. Ironically, due to harvest loss, food loss, and food waste, more than half of what our current agriculture and food system produces [is wasted]. This waste happens on various levels: some estimate up to 35 percent of harvest loss, 40 percent in food loss after harvest, 20 to 25 percent on manufacturing, 15 to 20 percent on retail, and 55 to 65 percent on consumer.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

ST: Cooking.

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

ST: I hope to see industrial food and agriculture replaced by a local and sustainable system that offers great taste, sustainability, health, and environmental benefits.

FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the U.S. to immediately address?

ST: End subsidies to industrial agriculture; use real science to regulate the majority of food in our system that poisons and sickens our population.

Interested participants who cannot join can also sign up for the livestream HERE.

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Sponsors for this year’s Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. include: Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Chaia DC, Chipotle, Clif Bar, D.C. Government, Driscoll’s, Edible DC, Elevation Burger, Fair Trade USA, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Global Environmental Politics Program of the School of International Service, Greener Media, Inter Press Service, Leafware, Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, Panera Bread, and VegFund. 

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