Sustainable Food Systems, COVID-19 Drive 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Summit Dialogue

  • 5 min read December 1, 2020

ROSEMONT, Ill. – Beth Bechdol, deputy director-general at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, previewed the 2021 Food Systems Summit and its implications for U.S. agriculture during her keynote address of the 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Summit held virtually, Nov. 18-19.

The sixth annual Sustainable Agriculture Summit attracted a record 800 attendees, with farmers making up about a fourth of the audience. The summit is hosted jointly by five organizations representing U.S. dairy, commodity crop, specialty crop, beef and pork industries, including the checkoff-founded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Bechdol said the Food Systems Summit, which will be held in New York City in September, will be an opportunity for the U.S. food and agriculture community to ensure its diverse voices, sustainability record and progress are reflected in the role food systems play in achieving the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

“This is an agenda that must be owned by everyone,” she said. “In some ways, we really hope that it awakens the world to the fact that we all need to work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and even just thinks about food.”

Barbara O’Brien, president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, opened the Sustainable Agriculture Summit with a review of the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on the world. She said Feeding America projects an 8 billion meal deficit in the charitable food system over the next 12 months, and that the virus created a “reframing” of how people think about and define a sustainable food system.

“Brands, companies and industries, including agriculture, can no longer sit on the sidelines of the conversation,” O’Brien said. “We don’t have the luxury to stay silent on environmental, social and economic issues as NGOs, customers and consumers make it an expectation of business.”

She recognized the 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals announced by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and applauded the resilience of U.S. agriculture this year, saying its collective strength positions the industry for a bright future.

“The counter narrative is growing louder and the global debate over what fits and what doesn’t fit in a sustainable food system is real,” she said. “The question is how do we set the course for the next generation of global agricultural sustainability that builds consumer trust, preserves consumer choice and allows for a vibrant industry? Together, I think we can find the answer.”

Examining ESG issues
A panel discussion led by Krysta Harden, executive vice president of global environmental strategy for Dairy Management Inc., focused on how environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are revolutionizing sustainability throughout the value chain. For agriculture, these challenges include climate change, food waste, labor and treatment of essential workers.

Harden referenced dairy’s proactivity in  launching its U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment in 2018. The Commitment is a voluntary social responsibility pledge to consumers and customers that processors and co-operatives will transparently meet defined criteria in areas including animal care, environment and food safety. Harden said 29 dairy companies representing 70 percent of U.S. milk production have adopted the Stewardship Commitment.

“Investors are increasingly seeking a strong link between corporate sustainability performance and financial performance, which is why it’s important for agriculture to take note and make sure we are prepared to accelerate these areas,” Harden said.

The summit also featured a panel discussion on how COVID-19 heightened public awareness around food security and how food and agriculture can build sustainable supply chains in a disrupted world.

Denise Osterhues, senior director of sustainability and community engagement for The Kroger Co., said the company’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste program that aims to end hunger and reduce waste in its communities by 2025, took on added relevance this year.

She said Kroger’s top priority during the onset of COVID-19 was to simply stay in business so consumers could continue having access to safe, healthy and affordable food. The grocer invested more than $1 billion in health and safety measures for employees and customers. Kroger also accelerated its e-commerce business and offered curbside and delivery services.

Osterhues referenced a milk donation program in Michigan that was in place before COVID-19 hit, in which Kroger collects surplus milk from co-ops and donates the processing. More than 130,000 gallons have been donated into the Feeding America pipeline as a result.

She is encouraged by the charitable and proactive response she has seen during this time.

“One lesson we believed from the start, but has become more clear, is that we totally need everyone,” she said. “It will take all of us to do our own parts and more. We’re excited about the innovation we have seen. Some of the start-ups, entrepreneurs and college students who have risen to the moment are putting creative solutions in place and making things happen.”

Other panel sessions addressed subjects including preserving biodiversity, climate-smart agriculture and working alongside underrepresented communities to build a more just, equitable and inclusive food system.

For information on U.S. Dairy’s sustainability efforts, visit


Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy® is a leadership organization that brings together the dairy community and third parties to collaborate and ensure a socially responsible and economically viable U.S. dairy community from farm to table. Initiated in 2008 by dairy farmers through the dairy checkoff, Innovation Center companies collaborate on efforts that are important both to us and our valued customers – issues addressing topics like animal care, food safety, sustainable nutrition, environmental stewardship and people and community. The Dairy Sustainability Alliance®, a multi-stakeholder initiative of the Innovation Center, includes more than 120 companies and organizations. Representatives exchange ideas, best practices and tackle shared challenges on issues affecting the industry at large to accelerate progress toward common sustainability goals. For more information, visit