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Q and A with Global Environment Expert Jonathan Foley

November 15, 2013

By: Darden Restaurants,

Q and A with Global Environment Expert Jonathan Foley

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How do you see companies wrestling with the impact of agriculture on the environment?

Darden is unique in that you are consumer-facing business compared to other companies who have more direct interaction with agriculture production. However, Darden does have the consumers' attention and the considerations they make regarding food safety, health and the impact on the environment. Restaurants like the ones you own have a unique opportunity to educate consumers during the hour you have with your guests; less so with retail or other components of food production. Many restaurants are using that time to talk about what actions they are taking to improve the quality and the production of the food they serve. I also believe that reducing food waste is crucial from both a bottom line and an environmental impact.

So how can restaurants better engage on the issue of reducing food waste?

I do think cities are eventually going to create the infrastructure to make food waste reduction more available to restaurants, either through regulations or municipally-managed programs. However, on the front end, is there something restaurants can do to proactively reduce food waste? Could they work with local policymakers to make those changes? Could they think about how to design the menu to reduce food waste? They also have some of the best marketing people in the business, so can they help create some new narratives for guests about how reducing food waste is a good thing and can help build positive feelings with the brand? These are all questions I would start to ask.

What can the restaurant industry do to encourage better farming practices and reduce water use?

First, take inventory of how these issues influence your supply chain. Second, focus on the ingredients and regions where you can make the most impact rather than focusing on all commodities. For example, one company looked at their portfolio and identified the hotspots inside their supply chain. From there, they began to identify ways to support change in the farming practices that could have the most impact.

Who are the influencers you are speaking with to move the needle on these global issues?

I am spending time with food and agriculture companies, like Darden, who have the most impact and can make decisions up and down the supply chain. I also like to speak with cities in the U.S., Europe and Asia who are making regulation changes and are interested in moving the ball forward, such as with food waste. We also work with major NGOs and industry partnerships to look at food and the marketplace to understand how businesses can collaborate in a pre-competitive nature.

Are there other entrepreneurial solutions you are getting excited about?

It's been exciting to watch entrepreneurs bring solutions to the marketplace. One of our students from the University of Minnesota moved to India to understand how they could get drip irrigation to more small-scale farmers. He is now gathering venture capital to scale and bringing solutions to the region. There is also a lot of conversation happening in Silicon Valley looking at ways to address food freshness, sustainability, and traceability to reduce the impact of agriculture on the planet’s resources. And universities, such as the University of Minnesota, are creating global decision support tools that can help companies and supply chains understand their environmental footprints and where they could make the greatest impact. The goal is to help businesses become more nimble to manage risk and be ready to compete in the marketplace.

Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He also leads the IonE's Global Landscapes Initiative.

Foley's work focuses on the sustainability of our civilization and the global environment. He and his students have contributed to our understanding of global food security, global patterns of land use, the behavior of the planet's climate, ecosystems and water cycle, and the sustainability of the biosphere. This work has led him to be a regular advisor to large corporations, NGOs and governments around the world. His public presentations on global issues have been featured at hundreds of venues, including the Aspen Environmental Forum, the Quatauqua Institution andTED.

Learn more about how Darden is reducing food waste with our Darden Harvest program. To learn more about all of Darden’s sustainability efforts, visit the Darden Sustainability website.

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