Investing in Food Security: Opportunities for Canadian Investors

Note: Originally posted on the Responsible Investment Association (RIA) website.

Guest post by Peter Chapman, Executive Director, SHARE

Building Sustainable Food Systems in Canada: A Role for Investors, was released by the Shareholder Association for Research & Education (SHARE), a leading Canadian responsible investment organization. The report was funded by Canadian philanthropic foundations including the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.

Dried corn plants in Nebraska. Source: AP.

Looking outside at the last few hardy frost-rimed vegetables in my garden, the forces at work are easy to comprehend: freezing temperatures and failing daylight hours. But for institutional investors, the risks and opportunities embedded in our food systems are less obvious. So too are the connections between long-term investment returns and the resilience, sustainability and accessibility of food systems. Building Sustainable Food Systems in Canada: A Role for Investors, a new paper from the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), takes aim at broadening our understanding of these issues.

One fundamental sustainability challenge facing global food systems is ensuring food security for all. Simply put, food security means people’s ability to access sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Food insecurity is often associated with political instability, drought and war. It is exacerbated by competition for arable land, climate change, soil erosion, natural disasters, and disease. Corporate practices that shift agricultural land use to the production of cash crops[1], biofuels and animal raising can have negative food security implications, especially for small-scale and subsistence farmers.

Food insecurity happens in households, too. In Canada, for example, approximately four million Canadians, including more than a million children, experienced food insecurity in 2012.[2] This kind of household level food insecurity is perpetuated by stagnant wages, social and economic exclusion, and inadequate social protection.

Read the rest of this entry »

Carbonated Food

ClimateSmartimagetacofino

Source: Climate Smart, Carbon Emissions in the Food and Beverage Sector, 2014

The contribution of food production, processing, distribution, and consumption to our global carbon emissions has been a matter of concern and debate since we began worrying about climate change. And more of our food is ‘carbonated’ than Coke and Pepsi: food systems are responsible for somewhere between a fifth and a third of global greenhouse gas emissions[1].

Much of these emissions come from agriculture, although the contribution of transportation, refrigeration, consumer practices, and waste management is growing. Food companies can take steps to reduce their carbon footprint – and many are. A recently released report by Foundation grantee Climate Smart highlights what 77 food companies in BC have done to cut carbon, including Left Coast Naturals (a distribution company), Van Houtte coffee, Recycling Alternatives (biofuel recycling) and Tacofino food trucks.

Climate Smart estimates a 5% reduction in annual carbon emissions from BC’s food and beverage sector would save BC businesses $100 million in operating costs by 2020 and reduce the province’s greenhouse gas emissions by 250,000 tonnes. This is the equivalent to taking 48,136 cars off the road. Read the rest of this entry »

Introducing the McConnell Blog!

Two people talkingWith the holiday season almost upon us and 2015 just around the corner, we naturally begin to reflect upon the year we’ve just had and the new one about to begin. And so in this spirit of reflection that we find ourselves in, we thought it would be the perfect time to launch the McConnell Blog.

The blog will provide us with a unique opportunity to regularly and openly share learnings and insights, essentially reflection pieces, about the Foundation’s work and that of our partners and grantees.

In our blog, you will not only be able to hear from our President and CEO, Stephen Huddart, but also from our staff, as they reflect on the specific areas that they work in and the initiatives and projects they are leading – whether that be in the world of food, social finance, social entrepreneurship and higher education, or child and youth mental health, to name but a few. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dance of Deception

“Each side is playing a role – the ultra-lean NGO that somehow is changing the world on pennies, and the benevolent philanthropist who always bets on the right horse.”

~Laurie Michaels (individual philanthropist, board chair Aspen Institute)

Horse Race. Photo by Sheree Zielke, 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Horse Race. Photo by Sheree Zielke, 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / https://flic.kr/p/AbUi2

At the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network annual conference this past spring, I facilitated a session with Devika Shah of the Pembina Institute which was provocatively titled Interrupting the Dance of Deception. The panel was made up of two funders and two ‘fundees’, and their reflections kicked off an animated discussion, which has stayed with me many weeks later.

The term dance of deception was coined by former McConnell Foundation CEO Tim Brodhead, referring to a dynamic that occurs when groups pretend they can solve a huge problem, and funders pretend to believe them. As Tim has explained, this deception is not intentional or malicious in any way. Rather, it refers to a tendency among organizations and funders to jointly develop funding agreements and relationships without fully acknowledging that the best laid plans are often derailed by power and politics. Recognizing that as funders we do sometimes ‘bet on the wrong horses’, and that grantees often operate in a complex and unpredictable landscape, a reflection on the session seemed an apt way to begin this blog.

So how can we ‘interrupt the dance of deception’? It’s key to recognize the complexities, uncertainties and ever-changing nature of efforts to change systems. Funders can work with and fund organizations to develop plans that are strategic and flexible, as Ed Whittingham of the Pembina Institute explained, citing Pembina’s experience with a process called Impact and Strategic Clarity[1]. Funders can help facilitate joint strategies and then get distinct, coordinated proposals based on total funds available. Rather than everyone taking credit for one ‘big hairy audacious goal’, organizations can take on a part which will contribute to the common goal.

In what is perhaps the fullest expression of this idea, funders, organizations and other actors work together in ‘collective impact’ initiatives, such as the Vibrant Community poverty reduction work, the Calgary homeless project, or RE-AMP, establishing a common objective with progress measured by common success indicators while allowing each participant to contribute differently. Read the rest of this entry »

Reflections on the 2014 Evaluation Roundtable

Last week, the Foundation co-hosted [1] the Evaluation Roundtable in Montreal. This Washington DC-based network of some 30 US and Canadian foundations meets every 18 months to study a case in philanthropic strategy and evaluation, and this time the subject was Social Innovation Generation (SiG), the Foundation’s seven-year partnership with the University of Waterloo, MaRS Discovery District and Plan Institute. Its purpose is to foster a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada.

By many measures, SiG is a success.  Through a happy convergence of intent and circumstance the term social innovation is in wider use, and the partners, along with SiG’s national office, have contributed individually and collectively to Canada’s ability to address complex and persistent systemic challenges. Examples include SiG’s role in introducing impact investing and social labs; the first Ministry of Social Innovation, in BC; teaching and research into the nature of systemic change; the introduction of new philanthropic platforms such as Innoweave; and many more.

To the surprise of some, the teaching case placed considerable emphasis on the first two years of the initiative, when it was not certain that success was possible, or that the initiative itself would continue. It was a period of confusion, doubt and conflict. So why dwell on it? As in science or business, innovation in philanthropy entails risk and occasional failure. Intelligent failure, as Ashley Good of Fail Forward referred to it at a workshop following the roundtable, requires honesty and humility – as well as patience and generosity towards ourselves and others as we learn failure’s lessons. Read the rest of this entry »

Social Innovation Nation

Recent events suggest that the field of social innovation is maturing to the point where it is possible to envisage adaptive, evolutionary shifts in our social, economic, and environmental systems.

Consider: May 25-27, MaRS Solutions Lab (MSL) hosted Labs for Systems Change—the world’s first gathering of practitioners leading this type of work, with individuals from 30 countries. In her remarks to the gathering, Frances Westley— J.W. McConnell Chair in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo—described how our understanding of psychology and group dynamics; design thinking; and complex adaptive systems theory—together with data analysis and computer modelling—affords us new ability to examine and improve institutional behaviour, and to generate testable solutions to wicked problems.

Meanwhile, May 26-30 was Social Innovation Week in Vancouver, produced by BC Partners for Social Impact and SiG. A public Ideas Jam and an academic conference were among several events surrounding the global Social Innovation Exchange, which Canada was hosting for the first time. The gathering was opened by BC’s Minister of Social Innovation—Canada’s first—who predicted that in five years every government will follow suit—crowdsourcing ideas, introducing hybrid corporate structures, employing new social finance measures, and supporting civic engagement in the search for solutions to our most pressing challenges. Read the rest of this entry »