Sara Eckhouse is the Executive Director of FoodShot Global, a position she has held for the past four years. Prior to her joining the FoodShot team, she worked for the United States Department of Agriculture. In January 2022, FoodShot Global, an investment platform, announced the winners of its second “MoonShot for Better Food Challenge”, Precision Protein. This award includes grant funding and networking opportunities for companies and organizations making innovations in the food system.
Food Policy Center: Thank you so much for doing this interview, Ms. Eckhouse. To start out, I’d love to get a better sense of your background. You have experience working with government and policymakers on a federal level, perhaps most notably with the USDA. What initially interested you about food and agricultural systems?
Sarah Eckhouse: If I’m being honest, I really wasn’t excited about food and agriculture until I started working at USDA. I mean, I always loved food, and I grew up in Iowa, and my dad worked in agriculture when I was growing up (for Pioneer Hybrid International, now known as Corteva). But for a long time, I didn’t think about food “systems” or the role of food and agriculture beyond what I was eating. Even when I first got the opportunity to work at USDA, I was skeptical, because I was more interested in areas that I thought of as being connected to social justice. I really had no idea about the breadth of USDA programs and their impact. It took working at USDA, and being able to take on issues like healthy food access, and engaging with stakeholder groups that take a “systems” approach to transform my perspective. I realized that all of the social justice and equity issues I care about are connected to food and agriculture. It’s impossible to address health justice, land justice, environmental justice, labor justice, etc. without thinking about the role of food and agriculture.
FPC: You’re now the executive director of FoodShot Global. What inspired the shift away from government work?
SE: As a political appointee under President Obama, and as someone who prioritizes social justice and the environment, I was not a good fit for the Trump Administration’s USDA. But even before the election, I had been thinking it was time for me to work in a different part of the food/agriculture world. I loved working at USDA, and I’m proud of what we achieved, but I also recognized that there was a need AND opportunity to drive change from outside the government. At that time, there was starting to be a lot of energy and excitement in the private sector about improving nutrition and environmental practices, and there was also increasing public interest in where food comes from. I could see the writing on the wall in terms of the Trump Administration’s abandoning any efforts to address climate change or improve healthy food access, so I felt that the best way to work on issues I cared about was from the outside.
FPC: FoodShot Global is described as “an innovative organization empowering bold ideas and companies to accelerate the transformation to a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system.” Can you talk a little bit about your work at FoodShot Global?
SE: I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to create and launch FoodShot Global with Victor Friedberg. FoodShot Global is a non-profit organization that uses a collaborative model – with more than 20 partners around the world – and an integrated capital platform – both non-dilutive prize funding [funding that does not require an investee give up any amount of ownership of their company] and equity investment – to catalyze innovation for a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food system. Each year we identify a global food system challenge – our FoodShot, or MoonShot for Better Food – and put forward a framework for addressing it. Then we issue a global call for applications for equity investment (from for-profit businesses) and nominations for the non-dilutive GroundBreaker Prize (from researchers, early-stage entrepreneurs, and policy advocates). After starting with Innovating Soil 3.0 in 2018, we completed our Precision Protein FoodShot last year. We are now on our third FoodShot (BioActive Foods), and we’ve continued to invest in our first two FoodShots via our “deep dives,” which focus on specific topics within the broader framework. As Executive Director, I lead FoodShot Global in establishing strong relationships with our partner organizations around the world (including universities, foundations, NGOs, corporations, and about a dozen venture-capital partners); sourcing, selection, and diligence of investment opportunities; supporting entrepreneurs with critical post-investment capacities; and ensuring that FoodShot effectively communicates its mission and values as a non-profit leader in the sustainable food and agriculture space.
FPC: Can you explain how you provide funding for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations? How does someone apply for funding from FoodShot? What’s the process? What is your average investment and/or award? How many investments do you make each year?
SE: FoodShot’s unique blended capital platform includes up to $10 million in equity or debt financing available to for-profit companies via our venture partners, as well as more than $500,000 in non-dilutive prize capital for groundbreaking researchers, early stage entrepreneurs, and policy advocates. (My time at USDA taught me that getting policy incentives right is critical to incentivizing and accelerating the adoption of new technologies.) For-profit businesses can apply via our online platform, and we accept nominations (including self-nominations) for the GroundBreaker Prize. We develop the pipeline and conduct early stage diligence for the equity applicants, after which we share the most promising candidates with our venture partners, who make the final decision of where and how much to invest. For the prize, we have an internal evaluation process and then work with our selection committee to identify the winners. There isn’t a set number of winners – for equity, it depends on our partners, and the distribution of prize funding is up to the discretion of our Selection Committee. In our first cycle, one company received an equity investment, and there were 3 GroundBreaker Prize awardees. For Precision Protein, two companies received equity investments. On the prize side, we had 4 awardees – two for precision protein, and two for our Innovating Soil Deep Dive. This year, we hope to have equity and prize awardees representing all three active FoodShots!
FPC: Can you talk about some of the companies you’ve invested in and/or awarded prize money? Is there a specific company whose work has particularly impressed you?
SE: It’s hard to choose just one! Trace Genomics is a California-based company founded by two women of color. They developed the first analytics engine that learns as it maps the living soil to help growers maximize the value of every acre. Trace Genomics has taken microbiome science to production scale by evaluating thousands of samples per week and generating a database of hundreds of thousands of microbes. The company uses high-throughput DNA sequencing, artificial intelligence, and a growing database of microbial species living in agricultural soils to identify and profile the soil microbiome, interpreting key soil health and disease risk indicators for every soil sample and delivering actionable insights about how to achieve more efficient nutrient use, how to reduce input costs and crop disease risk, and which seeds, rotations or biological agents will work best for their soils. Trace Genomics can also effectively gauge soil health, carbon sequestration, and sustainable agricultural production to help partners meet critical sustainability goals, thereby providing the technical basis for changing management practices at the farm level. Trace Genomics helps connect soil health to increased yield and make the economic case for farmers and businesses to invest in improving soil health.
And I am incredibly impressed by the work of the Precision Protein GroundBreaker Prize winners. Dr. Dil Thavarajah, an Associate Professor at Clemson University, developed an integrated process for organic plant protein production from the field to isolation. She employs high-end protein/amino acid analysis and digestibility determination tests, along with proprietary blending processes, to provide all essential amino acids/peptides that retain various food and beverage functional properties while preserving native protein structure. This is part of what I hope will be a movement toward rewarding farmers for maximizing nutrition, not just yield. Dil’s work integrates crop breeding, ingredient processing, with end-product nutrition and sensory characteristics. This approach, combined with the focus on organic pulse crop production, has the potential to lead to more and better plant-based foods as well as human health benefits, improved soil health, and more sustainable cropping systems. And Dr. Hannah Van Zanten, Associate Professor at Wageningen University, has pioneered innovative food-system modeling to incorporate the circular economy. Hannah developed a European circular food systems model (CiFoS) which is now extending to a global model. The model selects a combination of plant-based proteins (from seaweed to grains and pulses) and animal-based proteins (produced with the biomass losses) to yield a nutrient-adequate diet, produced within the planetary boundaries. She’s using a tremendous amount of data to provide science-based recommendations for how we can protect natural resources, minimize emissions, and support healthy diets.
But honestly, all of the prize and equity award winners are incredible, and we’re very proud to have a portfolio of winners from around the world whose diverse areas of expertise are creating very tangible solutions to our FoodShots
FPC: Looking over some of your past awards and investments, I see that many of the organizations are very granular and scientific. How do you decide which organizations to award funding?
SE: We’ve developed evaluation criteria for both the equity and prize awardees. The most important thing is that they are aligned with FoodShot Global’s mission of advancing a healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food system, in addition to demonstrating meaningful progress toward the specific FoodShot focus area. Other criteria include global relevance, scalability, impact over 5 to 12 years, and investability. From these filters, we focus on a short list of companies that we put into initial diligence, including data room review, live interviews, and market and technology analyses. In identifying finalists, we are not necessarily looking for companies that are already operating globally, but it is essential that a company’s technology or model be relevant to agriculture outside the U.S. and Europe. In addition, we focus on companies that are differentiated in some way, whether by their scientific rigor, unique integrated-systems approach, early success at achieving scale, potential as a technology platform, or some other factor. We prepare investment memos for each of the finalist companies and share them with the investment committees of our Venture Partners, who follow up with their own in-depth diligence and Investment Committee processes. Groups of Venture Partners then form co-investor groups to collaborate on the diligence and decide whether and how much to invest. For the Prize, FoodShot’s Selection Committee evaluates the top 20 candidates and interviews the finalists before selecting the winners. It’s a very collaborative process, and we’ve been lucky to have a surplus of qualified candidates.
FPC: What steps has FoodShot taken to ensure that marginalized voices are part of the food conversation?
SE: I think everyone needs to do more to prioritize this issue. Equity is one of the three pillars in FoodShot’s mission, and so we are always looking for innovators and entrepreneurs who recognize the importance of addressing inequities in the food and agriculture system. We have a truly global pool of applicants and nominees, and several of our awardees and finalists are working with smallholder farmers in low-income countries. We’ve also worked to make sure that our Selection Committee is diverse in terms of the types of organizations that members represent and their individual backgrounds.
FPC: FoodShot has a very strong interest in the environmental impact of our food system. How does the environment affect other issues in the food system, such as food insecurity, diet-related disease, and food justice?
SE: Global climate chaos is really putting the connection between food and the environment into sharp focus. From droughts to desertification to expanded ranges of various pests and diseases to severe storms and floods, our food system is directly impacted by climate change in a way that few other sectors are. Food has a massive environmental footprint – food and agriculture are responsible for about 1/3 of GHG emissions and 75 percent of fresh water use globally. Increasing CO2 emissions are actually decreasing the nutritional value of key staple crops. Rising levels of carbon dioxide from human activity are making staple crops such as rice and wheat less nutritious and could result in 175 million people becoming zinc deficient and 122 million people becoming protein deficient by 2050, as well as reducing levels of iron (see here). Not only that, but the focus on efficiency and affordability in food has dominated breeding programs, leading to food crops that are higher in sugar and lower in vitamins and compounds that protect human health. And the reliance on mono-cropping has reduced resistance to diseases, so that entire crops (bananas, coffee, etc.) are threatened with extinction by things like banana wilt and coffee rust. The loss of biodiversity due to conversion of lands to crops or grazing can destabilize ecosystems, promote outbreaks of infectious disease, and undermine development progress, nutrition security, and protection from natural disasters (see here). Agricultural expansion drives almost 90 percent of global deforestation, and things are not moving in the right direction. The world’s cropland footprint has expanded by just over 1 million square kilometers in the past two decades, representing a 9 percent increase between 2000 and 2019 (see here). Not only that, but deforestation and the conversion of undisturbed land to agriculture leads to increased contact between humans and animals and greatly increases the risk of the “spillover” of animal diseases to humans.
Climate chaos also makes crop failures and supply-chain disruptions more likely, severely threatening nutrition security around the world. And often, small-holder farmers in lower-income areas are the most vulnerable to losing their livelihoods when faced with extreme weather or new crop diseases.
FPC: FoodShot’s mission states that to “achiev[e] systemic change in the global food system means taking big risks – approaches that are radically new, not just incrementally better.” What role does technology play in FoodShot’s work? What is the potential of technology for improving the food system and creating global systemic change?
SE: At FoodShot, we really believe in leveraging science and technology to improve the food system. That doesn’t mean we can focus ONLY on tech solutions, but we do want to use all of the tools at our disposal to tackle the huge challenges facing our food system. For us, it’s more about taking a systems-level approach. Rather than focusing on a single “silver bullet” technology, we think about how technological and scientific advances make up the broader system. But we can’t consider technology in a vacuum; all of the technology in the world won’t make a difference if farmers can’t or won’t use it, or if the policy incentives make it too risky to adopt novel practices. That’s why we also want to reward GroundBreakers who are working to develop new policies and business models that can accelerate the adoption of beneficial technologies. One of our finalists from Innovating Soil developed a land-lease model that incorporated soil health metrics to benefit both the lessor and the lessee, and they’ve been working with USDA’s Risk Management Agency to collect actuarial data that can be used to incentivize better soil health practices in exchange for lower crop insurance premiums. We also want to make sure that technologies and scientific advances are available to farmers around the world. For example, Keith Shepherd, one of our GroundBreaker Prize winners for the Innovating Soil Deep Dive, is using soil infrared spectroscopy to provide a rapid, highly reproducible, and low-cost soil-measurement method for many soil functional properties, including different forms of soil carbon. He is also developing a new Global Soil Spectral Calibration Library and Estimation Service for handheld infrared spectrometers and demonstrating its use in providing actionable soil recommendations. The development is set to scale the use of spectral technology on smallholder farms in Africa and Asia.
FPC: According to the website, the next FoodShot –“a pivotal, systemic challenge facing our food system and puts forward a vision that turns that challenge into opportunities for scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors”– is focused specifically on bioactive foods and “seeks to invest in and catalyze the development of and access to nutrient-dense and optimized bioactive foods supporting brain, immune system, cardiovascular, metabolic, and gut health; while also taking into account production practices to protect human and planetary health.” Can you talk about what types of applicants you’re looking for? How many applications do you expect? How much money will you award? Do you consider organizations that are focused on engineering or genetically modifying food?
SE: There’s a broad range of companies and individuals that fit within the BioActive Foods framework. I can imagine businesses that are working to unlock the microbiome, better understand the metabolism of nutrients at the cellular level, build new business models to improve healthy food access, support higher quality nutrition for children, develop technologies to improve bioavailability and digestibility, adapt food processing to retain or improve nutrient content, reduce the use of chemicals and other pollutants in agriculture, change compensation to reward nutrient density – all of these areas and more would fit within BioActive Foods. In our last cycles, we received several hundred applications, and I think we can expect a similar number this time. For the equity investment, the amount awarded will depend on how much our venture partners decide to deploy. For the Prize, we will have about $600,000 across our FoodShots. We don’t have any restrictions on companies that use genetic engineering or technologies like CRISPR. We think it’s essential to take a systems perspective that considers the potential risks of novel technologies, but we also want to leverage all of the tools we can to improve human health, reduce environmental damage, and support farmer livelihoods.
FPC: In a discussion on the podcast Sourcing Matters, you said, “Food is the ultimate nexus point for a lot of the challenges and issues that are facing the planet, and humans in particular.” Can you talk a bit more about that? What are some of the most surprising challenges related to food that we might not have considered?
SE: One big challenge relates to the labor that goes into food. A lot of people worry about the environmental impact of agriculture, as we should, but we should also think about the conditions facing farmworkers, cooks, manufacturers, etc. Many of these people work under difficult conditions for little pay, and immigrant workers often have little recourse to ensure they are not being exploited or abused. If we look at the cost of food, including the labor that goes into it and the negative externalities related to human and environmental health, we pay only one-third of the true cost. But increasing the cost of food is a political non-starter, and it imposes the greatest damage on low-income Americans. Often with food and agriculture, there are myriad factors to balance, and every “solution” can have unintended consequences and ripple effects on nutrition security, food affordability/availability, etc. The thing I love about food and agriculture is that it impacts everyone — everybody eats. And as someone who cares about racial and economic justice, I think it’s important to confront the fact that our food system has a painful legacy of land theft, slavery, exploitation of people and natural resources, and colonialism. This history has never been addressed, and we still see Black farmers facing foreclosure and unable to access USDA loans and other resources. Despite the challenges, I can’t think of another sector that has a bigger impact when it comes to human health, the environment, labor, land access/ownership, and national security. Plus, food is delicious, and food can bring people together in a unique way to share common experiences, while also honoring the specific cultural practices that define diverse foodways.
FPC: In your opinion, what is the number-one thing governments get wrong about the food system?
SE: This may be starting to change, but for a long time, the U.S. government didn’t make the connection between food/agriculture and other governmental policies related to healthcare, pollution, immigration, etc. Farmers receive a tremendous amount of government support through crop insurance subsidies, but the government is incredibly reluctant to impose requirements on farmers related to protecting soil or water quality. Given the urgency of climate change and ecosystem damage, the government should be more active in requiring farmers to adopt practices that decrease pollution and increase resiliency rather than relying solely on incentives to shift farmer behavior.
FPC: What was your proudest food advocacy moment?
SE: It’s not a specific moment, but I have consistently pushed my organization and colleagues to focus on issues of equity, inclusion, diversity, and social justice.
FPC: As a child, you wanted to be?
SE: A veterinarian, focused on equine medicine.
FPC: Your worst summer job?
SE: I never had a summer job that I hated. I had a few that included mucking out stalls and long hours, but I was happy to be working with horses.
Where you grew up: Des Moines, IA
Where you call home: New York, NY
Job title: Executive Director, FoodShot Global
Background and education: BA in Biological Anthropology, Harvard College
One word you would use to describe our food system: Extractive
Your food policy hero: Ricardo Salvador
Your breakfast this morning: Blackberries
Favorite food: This is an impossible question. I have quite a sweet tooth, so some kind of dessert – ice cream, chocolate, oatmeal crispy cookies, Viennese crescents, Carol’s Cookies oatmeal dark chocolate dried cherry cookies, etc. I’m also a huge fan of GoldRush apples, which are almost impossible to findFavorite last meal: Drunken noodles with tofu and extra vegetables