During a conversation at the Future of Food @ SXSW in Austin, Texas, Julie Kunen, Director Sustainability North America for Oatly discussed the role that the private sector can play in building a more resilient and regenerative food system.
The first oat milk company, Oatly produces a dairy alternative made from oats. Kunen explains that from a sustainability perspective, oats are an ideal crop because they are water efficient, can be grown in different ecosystems without many chemical inputs.
Oats are also good rotational crops for farmers, allowing them to return to more diverse farming practices. Kunen goes on to explain that there is a growing movement to adopt these diverse and regenerative practices more widely. But she acknowledges that these are not new farming techniques.
“The original farmers on this planet who were First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples farmed in harmony with the planet and they grew a vast diversity of crops,” Kunen says. “And we need to acknowledge that farmers of color, Indigenous Peoples, are the originators of what we’re today calling regenerative agriculture.”
Today, however, many systems “are not in harmony with the world,” Kunen argues. “We’re not making use of the system’s attributes that characterize the ecology and humans’ relationship with people on the planet.”
While support for regenerative agriculture is growing, shifting away from conventional farming practices can pose challenges to growers. Kunen says that companies like Oatly have an obligation to support producers to ensure that they can adopt practices that benefit the environment without losing their livelihoods. “We’re asking farmers to take risks to break up the system they know and to experiment with it. We have to help support that risk.”
In these ways, the private sector can play an important role in changing the food system. Reflecting on her own path, Kunen says that after working in academia and the nonprofit sector, she was drawn to a mission-driven company like Oatly because “the market moves things,” she says. “People’s consumer choices, the market, and this capitalist economic framework that we live in is what drives change on this planet.”
But Kunen also offers a caveat, noting that while the private sector is key, it cannot push this sustainability agenda on its own. Policy, research, advocacy, and marketing all complement the efforts of food businesses. “Companies have an essential role to play, but every lever has to be moving.”
Watch the full conversation here: