What's the cross between a food activist and a capitalist?

An investor in sustainable ag. 

That differs from conventional farmland investing, a hot alternative vehicle among institutional investors like Harvard University and TIAA-CREF.

"Midwest farmland is a bubble, and it's debt-driven," says Craig Wichner, managing partner of San Francisco-based Farmland LP, a private equity firm that converts farmland to organic. "The requirements for ethanol have driven up the cost of farmland and of food, and more land is being taken out of other productive uses and being converted to corn land.

"Food is correlated with oil, and if you are investing in farmland, you don't want that correlation," he says. "A great alternative is sustainable ag."

As an investment, sustainable ag is burgeoning. "The conversation is about scale and affordability-feeding everybody equitably," says Gray Harris, director of sustainable agriculture at Coastal Enterprises Inc., a community development finance institution, or CDFI, in Wiscasset, Maine. The National Healthy Food Finance Initiative, for example, incorporates many issues (obesity, access to healthy food, financing, etc.) and involves three different departments: Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

Last year, the Treasury Department's CDFI Fund awarded grants to 12 CDFIs to provide financing to retailers offering healthy food in food deserts-low-income areas where it's not available. In that light, the California Fresh Works Fund, a public-private partnership led by the California Endowment, raised $200 million from partners like Bank of America. Modeled upon a successful Pennsylvania project, similar partnerships are planned in New York City, on the Gulf Coast and in Illinois and New Jersey. 

The talk across the country is about building a new food distribution system comprising a network of regional food systems linked by "appropriate" trade-something the Sacramento, Calif.-based Food Commons is developing a pilot project for in Los Angeles. Investors are finding new ways to earn returns by building and enhancing soil, and various loan and equity funds offer opportunities to match investors and farmers, convert land to organic, engineer affordable land for farmers, and provide farmers with production and operating capital. 

A Vulnerable Food System

Why reinvent the food system? 

According to Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, agriculture accounts for 16% of the U.S. annual energy budget-more than any other industry. "We use natural gas to make fertilizer," he has said, "and oil to fuel farm machinery and power irrigation pumps, as a feedstock for pesticides and herbicides, in the maintenance of animal operations, in crop storage and drying, and for transportation of farm inputs and outputs." The net result is an industrial agriculture system astounding in its inefficiency-an average of 10 calories of fossil fuel inputs to produce one calorie of food. And he says the use of GMOs to grow crops with less water, etc., also relies heavily on fossil fuels.

"While [local food] is trendy, we may as well take advantage of that," Harris says. "But really, there's nothing trendy about this. It's about feeding ourselves." 

First « 1 2 3 4 » Next