On April 17 Net Impact hosted and Monsanto sponsored a first-of-its-kind Nourishing 9 Billion SolutionLab at Tufts University.
In the very first moments of the SolutionLab, industrial farming and farmers were called out by the 50+ student participants as the most significant problem in feeding the world. Wow. Although I could see the blood drain out of my colleagues faces, I thought, “We got this right. This is a really important conversation to have with these leaders of tomorrow. If not us, than who?"
Industry as part of the conversation is essential. Several students made it a point to thank me and the others from Monsanto for our participation and leadership. Students voiced strong feelings about organizations taking credit (providing sponsorship dollars) versus real engagement and knowledge-sharing. I believe their recognition and appreciation for our willingness to work alongside students was sincere.
Student voices and creativity need to be heard, not separately, but as part of larger dialogue. We did “dilemma-sharing” with them and really challenged their intellects to think about broad, multifaceted challenges with the purpose of identifying possible solutions. One student said, “I've never been able to have this kind of conversation before, and that's what I've been looking for and need.” Me, too.
When it comes to feeding the planet, GMOs aren't the issue. It surprised me how little energy there was on that topic. Some student workgroups touched on it in their deliberations, but biotech was largely seen as a needed technology. Similarly, industrial farming did not resurface as an issue or a problem to be solved.
I was also struck by the fact that social innovation along the food value chain is now a career opportunity. Several students came to me with a new view on agriculture as a career choice. Most had historically missed the connection that agriculture enjoys--in the truest sense—with communities, education, economics, livelihoods and legacies. Some mentioned the need for more women in the corporate structures, and they were pleased to see women represented in the room.
Together with our partners, we had an idea, created a plan, onboarded more collaborators, found other partners, picked a smart pilot and experts, identified the risks, managed them appropriately, remained cautiously optimistic, and executed well. For their parts, the students were engaged and energized, with solutions ranging from smallholder farmers enablement to nutrition and sustainability education apps. I came away with a refreshed enthusiasm for Monsanto’s work in sustainable agriculture and a realization of what can be accomplished through intentional collaboration and thoughtful problem solving with tomorrow’s leaders.