A few years ago the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization made a somewhat harrowing projection: in order to feed the world’s expected population of 9 billion, farmers will have to increase their food production by a whopping 70 percent by 2050. According to the FAO, that equates to an additional billion tons of cereals like wheat and rice, and 200 million additional tons of livestock.

It is a tall task, for sure. Much of the world’s available farmland is already being cultivated, and of the farmland already being farmed, a quarter was deemed “highly degraded” by the FAO. How is the world to rise up to this challenge, without worsening the already precarious effects of soil erosion, water degradation, and biodiversity loss?

The FAO, in a 2011 report, made a suggestion: agricultural productivity needs to undergo a “sustainable intensification.” Just over five years later, Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability at the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit, is “incredibly optimistic” about the future of the agricultural system in the United States. As she writes in a blog post from last July, “the tide is turning, and momentum for sustainable agriculture is on the rise. Retailers, governments, and consumers are creating demand for sustainable grains, and farmers are changing the way they grow crops so that less fertilizer is lost to the air and water as pollution.”

Friedman will speak at the Food Entrepreneurship symposium, a full-day conference to be held Friday, February 19, at Princeton University. The day will revolve around the central question of how we will feed a growing global population while protecting the earth and its resources, and how entrepreneurship can play a pivotal role in tackling the issue. The event will feature a number of panels, with a range of topics including innovations in agriculture, food literacy, and the future of food study. Tickets are free, but attendees must register in advance. For more details, visit http://kellercenter.princeton.edu/engage­/e-vents­/e-vents-list /179.

Friedman joined the EDF in 2001, and works closely with farmers, grower organizations, agri-businesses, food companies, and retail partners to improve sustainability of the U.S. agricultural system, with a focus on climate stability, water quality and food security. She focuses primarily on the sustainability of the major commodity crops — corn, wheat, and soybeans — and works to leverage the supply chain “to create real demand for making sustainability a business norm.”

Over the years, Friedman has worked with major retailers like Walmart on their sustainability commitments and programs — and she is buoyed by how “unbelievably powerful” the marketplace can be, she says. She describes the “Walmart effect,” whereby sustainability commitments made by the retail giant has triggered a ripple effect, motivating and accelerating action by food companies and agri-businesses to improve sustainability in their approach to food.

“I think we are seeing a pace of action in improving how these major commodities are grown that hasn’t been seen in decades,” Friedman says, crediting both voluntary conservation programs and governmental regulations. But on top of this is the power of the supply chain.

While conservation programs and regulation are both incredibly important, Friedman says, “the scale of movement in the supply chain so far exceeds what we have seen in decades, and I think that is a cause for optimism. There’s still a lot of work ahead, we’re still early days, but it’s very exciting.”

Friedman’s husband is a third-grade teacher, and together they are parents to a pair of twins, ten-and-a-half-years old. Although neither of Friedman’s parents worked in the environmental field — her father worked in business, and her mother worked for IBM — she has always loved the great outdoors.

Friedman graduated from Princeton University in 1994 with an undergraduate degree in history and a certificate (Princeton’s equivalent of a minor) in environmental studies. It was over her four years there that her passion for agricultural work solidified, Friedman says, and she was certain that she wanted to work in the environmental field. She then pursued a masters degree in environmental science and policy at Johns Hopkins University before working for two non-governmental organizations: the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she did media work, and American Rivers, where she was the associate director of outreach.

After 15 years of working on the issue of agricultural sustainability, Friedman says she has learned some important lessons. She has come to appreciate the power of the supply chain, and also the need to “partner with those who have influence over very big things.”

“I think the opportunities of moving the decision making of companies all along the supply chain is much bigger than what many would realize. [Companies] can seem behemoths from outside and impenetrable, but if you can make the business case and show a pathway forward, collaboration can deliver a lot,” says Friedman.

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