From Defence to Disruption: Mary Shelman’s pathway to a sustainable global food system - evokeAG.

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From Defence to Disruption: Mary Shelman’s pathway to a sustainable global food system

Our global food system has a long history of evolution – responding to the changing needs of the global population. As we hurtle towards 10 billion people, with scarcer natural resources and in a changing climate, the question is – ‘Are we evolving fast enough?’ Here, internationally recognised thought leader and AgriFutures evokeAG. 2023 speaker, Mary Shelman, shares her insights on how to accelerate our transformation, and achieve a more sustainable global food system.

Image of fresh fruit and vegetables with a stencil of a plate, knife and fork with a world map cut out on the plate.

Mary Shelman is agribusiness royalty. The former head of Harvard Business School’s Agribusiness Program, Mary is an internationally recognised thought leader and strategic pathfinder for global agribusinesses. Multinationals, governments, and not-for-profits seek Mary’s help to turn food system threats into opportunities. And now, she’s bringing those coveted insights to AgriFutures evokeAG. 2023 Down to Earth event.

Mary spent her childhood travelling across Kentucky, USA with her father, a farm equipment dealer. The birthplace of no-till farming, Kentucky has long championed agricultural innovation. But it wasn’t until she encountered Harvard professor, Dr Ray Goldberg that Mary considered a career in agrifood innovation.

“Ray encouraged me to look at the entire global food system, and the trends that shape it, through the lens of individual industries and companies, each unique, but part of an integrated whole.”

This way of thinking really resonated with Mary, a chemical engineer by training, enabling her to see the complex global food system as a set of discrete – solvable – challenges.

“[Through the Shelman Group], I bring those insights to clients across the world, diagnosing the forces of change that will impact their business and industry into the future, and helping them to identify new pathways for growth.”

Mary Shelman presenting

Shaping global forces of change to work for us

Mary’s been working in the agrifood industry for over 30 years, and she believes the ‘forces of change’ have shifted more over the past 15 years than ever before.

“There are four key macro trends I see now, and they’ve been consistent for more than a decade. The first is sustainability, which is now a fundamental, not a fad. The second is conscious consumers – who are engaged, informed and empowered. The third is transformational technology, which is being applied from farm to fork. And the last one, which we don’t often think about, is the new sources of investment into the agrifood sector – investors seeking urgency and transformational change, rather than the steady, incremental improvement that’s been our pathway before.”

RELATED: Green opportunity: Asia-Pacific investments geared to tackle climate change 

A trend in its own right, Mary believes sustainability acts like a golden thread that ties the forces of food system change together. Conscious consumers demand it; transformational technology can help us achieve it; and new investors will pay companies who can deliver it.

“The biggest challenge ahead of us is to position ourselves as the sustainable food system of the future, rather than the agricultural system of the past,” explained Mary.

“But the definition of sustainability is evolving. The environment is one piece of it, but today, sustainability can also include animal welfare, and how labour is treated in other countries. So there are still questions around, ‘What exactly is a sustainable food system? And what are the pathways to achieve it?’”

The Four Ds that define our sustainability approach

Defend, develop, defy, disrupt: the ‘Four Ds’ is Mary’s framework for mapping how companies are responding to the sustainability challenge.

Mary believes every company seeking to improve its sustainability can identify with one of these approaches, and every ‘D’ is as worthwhile as another. “Our framework is agnostic. No matter which ‘D’ you fall into, you can make progress towards a more sustainable world,” she explained.

“No single approach can deliver the sustainable food system the world needs, and if we’re to feed 10 billion people, we need all four approaches to be complementary. And they can be.”

RELATED: Milk without cows – how synthetic biology and dairy farmers can both win

Defining – and substantiating – our value proposition

“The biggest thing I worry about is traditional agricultural sectors losing their license to operate because the rules for production [driven by conscious consumers] become so strict that it’s impossible to stay in business.”

One solution is to build consumer and regulator support by leveraging what we do well. It’s a topic Mary will explore at evokeAG. 2023, where she, alongside  David Downs, CEO of the New Zealand Story Group and Shifka Seigel, Project Manager of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, to will present the concept of ‘branding’ a country’s food system in Ireland, New Zealand and Israel respectively.

“It’s one thing to have a nice story that says, ‘We do the right thing. We’ve been here for 100 years.’ But these days, consumers are wanting to see data, ‘Show me the numbers. Show me the truth behind your claims.’”

It’s an approach Mary proved the merits of in Ireland in the early 2010s, when she helped food producers create the world’s first national sustainability program credentialed from farm to plate.

“All food producers and processors involved in Ireland’s ‘Origin Green’ program make sustainability commitments. And every year they run the numbers against those commitments, providing the data they need to validate their claims. 95% of Irish food exports participate now, [drawn in by the market access opportunities it creates].”

So, should Australia be looking to something like Origin Green to prove its market differentiation?

“Australia has got a lot on its side,” said Mary. “You’re bigger than Ireland, with more sophisticated industries. And you’re very forward-looking, with strong [public-private] investment in R&D, and industry organisations focused on the future. But with so much of your produce going to Asia, which currently values low cost and safe food, differentiation on sustainability might not make sense for Australia right now in the way it did for Ireland, whose exports went to the UK and Europe. However, Ireland has been successful at increasing dairy exports to China which shows there is opportunity.”

“One day, sustainability will drive your markets. My advice would be, whatever you’re doing on the sustainability front, start collecting the data now across multiple dimensions. We’re already seeing more affluent, engaged consumers emerge in Asia. Be prepared for what your future markets will demand.”

evokeAG. panel set to tackle the drivers of world trade

Mary will also join a panel discussion on Day two at evokeAG. 2023 to explore the global forces driving world trade, joining Alastair Macleod, Executive Chairman, Machdoch Group, and regen agriculture champion and entrepreneur, Sam Trethewey, Co-Founder and CEO of the Tasmanian Agricultural Company, in a discussion about climate, COVID-19, conflict and cost.

“The evokeAG. speaker line-up is just superb. There are lots of people on there who I’ve interacted with, and new names that I can’t wait to hear from – who’ll explore the ‘farmer as innovator’ approach and how it can help us on our path to a sustainable global food system.”


Want to hear more of Mary Shelman’s insights on achieving a sustainable global food system? Join us, at the AgriFutures evokeAG. 2023 Down to Earth event on 21-22 February 2023 in Adelaide, South Australia.

Bringing change makers and thought leaders together to talk about how innovation and technology collide, intersect, connect, translate, complement, and challenge our most important assets – our people, our farms, our soil, our water, and our Earth. Tickets are on sale here.

View the full two-day program, including all speakers and partners making evokeAG. 2023 possible.

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