WWF's Julia Kurnik on working with communities to reform food systems

Julia Kurnik dressed as beekeeper, inspecting hive

JULIA KURNIK—senior director of innovation start-ups—identifies, develops, and brings to life a pipeline of innovation strategies and platforms. She also occasionally brings home a stuffed animal from work to earn credit with her four- and six-year-olds. Julia has a bachelor’s degree from M.I.T. and master’s degrees from Wharton and the Harvard Kennedy School.

I was hired early in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, about a year after I finished undergrad, and spent two years in seven states across the country. And I wasn’t just passing through; I was living with local supporters in communities, both urban and rural, that I probably would never have set foot in otherwise. As a community organizer, my work was to listen to people and build relationships within these distinctive communities.

Learning about so many places was eye-opening, but my biggest takeaway was how broken our food system was for so many people. Seeing their struggles with health, access to food, and affordability, among other things, helped me understand the extent of the problem. I came out of the experience knowing I wanted to work in food and agriculture in some way.

When people think of WWF’s work, they don’t necessarily think about food systems. But globally, agriculture and land use are responsible for nearly 60% of biodiversity loss and up to 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. Our food system is one of the most significant ways we humans impact the environment, so we cannot address climate change and protect biodiversity without investing in this key area. And any sustainable food system needs to consider whom it serves, which is why WWF’s work on food is also focused on supporting communities.

Before I came to WWF, I worked in the research world, guiding and consulting with start-ups, and launching my own urban farming start-up. My interest in hands-on, entrepreneurial ventures led me to my current role at WWF’s Markets Institute, a sort of internal think tank that looks for new business models and strategies that align with WWF’s environmental goals. The work is not about investing in individual start-ups; it’s about coming up with outside-the-box ideas that can work on an industry-wide level.

For example, a project I’m working on is called The Next California. Right now, a large percentage of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts are grown in California, but this is increasingly unsustainable. With droughts, fires, heat, and other extreme weather, many farmers may move out of California. The idea behind The Next California is to proactively figure out what can uniquely be grown in California, and what can be grown elsewhere, in a way that makes both environmental and economic sense.

“Even as we look at innovative models that can grow and live beyond us, a major part of my job is always going to be to listen to communities.”

Julia Kurnik
Senior Director of Innovation Start-ups

We’re looking at the mid-Mississippi Delta, which is already an agricultural region where row crops like rice, soy, and wheat are grown. But row crops here have low profit margins, and the area is devastatingly poor. What if we could grow some of the more profitable specialty crops—like blueberries, bell peppers, and cantaloupe—in the Delta region instead of in California? And since we would be building this system from scratch, could we center it on local communities, including Black farmers, emphasizing economic development, equity, and access?

Another example of my work at the Markets Institute includes a soilless indoor agriculture project focused on understanding that industry’s potential and limitations, especially around energy use. The food shipping project I’m working on would create a direct connection between small farms and local consumers, reducing food loss and waste, supporting small and minority farmers, and getting more healthy food to more people. I’m also kicking the tires on a project to build a robust pet food market using Asian carp, which could help reverse the damage done to rivers by this invasive species.

These are the sorts of big-picture food and agriculture issues that the Markets Institute works on to explore the next breakthrough on the horizon. Our goal is to create solutions that can be replicated around the world. And even as we look at innovative models that can grow and live beyond us, a major part of my job is always going to be to listen to communities before doing anything else. Ultimately, we need to focus on projects that make sense for the planet and that people from all backgrounds can rally around.

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