Food and agriculture industry insights

During a Wednesday panel of our D.C. immersive, we had the privilege of hearing from food industry executives, all of whom have significant experience in government. Interestingly, none of them spoke exclusively about the positive work their companies are doing at present. Instead, what seemed to motivate them was the need for change – both at their companies and in the food and agriculture sector more broadly. It was clear that they saw the opportunity to lead through that change from their role in the private sector. 

Kenny Thompson described how he continues to be inspired by the positive work he is able to do through his role as PepsiCo’s Vice President of External Affairs, North America. One of the ‘successes’ of his career, as he sees it, is that he has continued to find opportunities to implement positive change at PepsiCo. He didn’t necessarily think that he would spend 8 years in the private sector after working for then Vice President Biden in the White House. 

“I like working here because I have the opportunity to move the needs in incredible ways,” Thompson said. It mattered that he had a seat at the table even if he didn’t always agree with the ultimate decision. “You don’t always agree with what the President is doing either,” he explained, harkening back to his work at the White House. 

It was also clear from the panelists that change is often slow and hard fought. But that’s seldom without wins worth celebrating. Megan DeBates, Vice President of Legislative Affairs and Coalitions at OTA, shared a story about a ‘failure’ when asked about her greatest success. She was working for Representative Peter DeFazio (OR-04) who was committed to advancing the issue of GMO-labeling. Even when they knew they couldn’t win, they pursued an aggressive legislative strategy aimed at making key legislators take tough votes, garnering new attention. 

“Even when you know you’re going to lose, you can put another perspective out there,” DeBates explained. 

Karis Gutter, Head of North America Government and Industry Affairs at Corteva, agreed. Corteva, a major chemical and seed company, supports transparency and recognizes the importance of GMO-labeling with the Bioengineered Foods Disclosure Standards law. If not for Congressman DeFazio, the Mandatory Disclosure we have today might have been a Voluntary Disclosure process. Gutter admitted that DeBates and her former boss certainly got people talking and thinking more about labeling. 

Finally, even among food industry leaders, it’s clear that power isn’t concentrated in one company, association, or powerful player. Instead, it’s held in relationship and the ability to convene people to develop consensus around a shared goal. Chris Adamo, Danone’s Vice President for Federal and Industry affairs, emphasized this point, drawing on his time with the Senate Agriculture Committee. At that time, he helped negotiate deals between conservation groups and farmers around conservation compliance and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) at USDA, a program that expanded in the 2018 Farm Bill. 

“No one asked for [RCPP],” Adamo explained. Something genuinely new and positive came out of convening unlikely partners. 

Gutter agreed that they’re “still building on RCPP” in the next Farm Bill. “If we’re not at the table or in the room, there isn’t anyone pushing [for things like this],” he added.   

These food industry leaders made it clear that change is needed, it is often slow, and the power to make it exists in relationships.

This blog is part of a series from the July 2021 Washington D.C. Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students met with federal food and agriculture-focused officials at USDA, the White House and other agencies, Congressional leadership, industry leaders and other important policy stakeholders.

Stu Lourey

Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student