Interview with Roy Steiner, Managing Director of Food Initiatives at The Rockefeller Foundation

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Roy Steiner is the Managing Director of Food Initiatives at the Rockefeller Center, where he and his team work to improve access to healthy food for people across the globe. His expertise lies in and development, including farmer productivity, agronomy, irrigation and water management, and more. Among other projects, he and his team at Rockefeller are currently working on an initiative to bring about a “Green Revolution” in Africa. Prior to joining the Rockefeller Foundation, Roy worked as the Director of Intellectual Capital at the Omidyar Network, an impact investment firm. He also spent nearly a decade at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he served as the Deputy Director of the Agricultural Development Initiative. He played a key role in the creation of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, an organization dedicated to growing the Ethiopian agricultural sector.

Roy holds a PhD and MS in agricultural and biological engineering from Cornell University. I was fortunate enough to conduct an e-mail interview with him.

Dr. Steiner, thanks for the opportunity to interview you. I would love to know how you became interested in food advocacy. Was it an early passion? Was there a trigger moment? What is your overall food philosophy?
Roy Steiner: My interest in food and agriculture was strongly influenced by two forces in my early life. The first was my mother, who was a nurse, and who saw first-hand the impact of nutrition on human health. She was always concerned about healthy food and I grew up working in the local health food co-op she had joined. She was way ahead of her time in so many practices, including growing our own vegetables, making her own yogurt (which was still an unknown product back then), buying wheat and grinding it to make fresh bread and avoiding any meat grown with antibiotics. The second was working all my high school summers on a dairy farm and seeing what real agriculture means in practice and the huge challenges farmers face every day. By the time I was accepted at MIT I knew I wanted to contribute to food and agriculture because the potential for impact was so clear and the future of civilization depended on have a healthy .

My overall food philosophy is quite simple. Our current food system has been optimized for just two things – production (yield) and profit. It has not been optimized for nutrition, the environment, culture, or community. The challenge we all face is to optimize the food system across all six objectives and not just two, because the status quo is creating a food system that no one really wants. Getting that right – creating a food system that nourishes all people, protects and regenerates the environment and enables the flourishing of culture and community – will take tremendous collective effort, creativity and innovation. We need to transform a complex system, and that is rarely a simple, quick or easy thing to do.

You spent three years at the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment and social impact firm, and almost a decade at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where you led global agricultural development initiatives. What are a few of the key lessons you learned in those positions? What is different about your current work at the Rockefeller Foundation, and what do you hope to achieve during your tenure?
Roy Steiner: Some of the key lessons included:

1) As a society we are woefully neglecting food and agriculture and can no longer do so without dire consequences. Despite the recent upsurge in interest in this sector, food and agriculture still receive only a tiny fraction of all research and investment funding despite the fact that it accounts for a major part of the economy and employment.

2) When we make the right investments, we can make dramatic improvements in the food system. For example, the Ethiopian Transformation Agency led efforts to improve Ethiopia’s agricultural system, and in the last five years staple crop yields have more than doubled, child malnutrition is declining, and Ethiopia is even beginning to export surpluses in some commodities. This is happening in a country that is best known for its famines and pictures of starving children.

3) Development is not something that can be imposed from outside. People themselves must be protagonists in their own development. True development is not about yields or incomes; rather it is about increasing people’s capacity to make better decisions for themselves – be they economic, social or spiritual.

4) We need to develop a more effective “system thinking” practices – in other words, looking at how different parts of a system interact and influence each other within the whole – if we are to address the root cause issues in the food system.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, I want to build upon these lessons and create a portfolio that will use the power of science and innovation to create a more nourishing, sustainable and equitable food system. One objective we are very interested in is increasing the production and consumption of nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and pulses. Our research system has overemphasized calories and meat, and the over-consumption of these two are contributing to the health and environmental crises we are currently facing.

During your time at the Gates Foundation you stated that “you believed in the power of .” Can you elaborate on the importance of technology, perhaps with a few examples from your own experience, as it relates to the global food system or helping underserved populations?
Roy Steiner: Technology is a tool that often acts as a multiplier of the underlying social capital that already exists in a society. In societies that are more equitable, technology will reinforce that value. However in inequitable societies, technology can often exacerbate the inequity.

When we invest in technology, we always need to try and understand the second and third order impacts that those investments could have – something the techno-optimists of Silicon Valley have recently learned the hard way. (See Ethical OS)

Technology and innovation will be critical if we are actually to create a food system that optimizes nutrition and regenerates the environment. For example, we are using new metabolomics tools to understand how various soil management practices affect the nutritional content of the foods we eat.

Based on your experience in global agriculture over the past thirty years, what do you think are the most exciting technology and data available to us today that we did not have a few decades ago?
Roy Steiner:

1)     The whole field of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation.

2)     The microbiome – both human, soil and plant

3)     New approaches to system analysis and system thinking

In a blog post you wrote for the Rockefeller Foundation called 4 Ways to Build a Food System for the Future you said: “Our population is climbing steadily toward 10 billion by 2050, potentially increasing the demand for food between 60 to 100%, all in the midst of unprecedented climate change that will tax even the most resilient systems. Today’s food and agricultural systems are accountable for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of global freshwater use. Those same systems deplete soils, water quality, and natural habitats all across the world. At the same time, more than 800 million people around the world go to bed hungry each night—a number that, worryingly, has increased in recent years—while nearly 2 billion people suffer from [being] overweight.”  You then offer four key ways to improve/change these outcomes, including reducing food waste, increasing the popularity of flexitarian diets, preserving the health of the soil, and spreading technology to underserved areas. Did you get feedback from that post? Do you have any examples of communities, towns, cities, countries that are working towards implementing these suggestions? Is there any region or country that you think is doing farming, ag (in general) and food “right” – meaning a food system that is working and could be used as a model? And could you also please define what you think is “right.”
Roy Steiner: The response was very positive and, to your question, I think there are regions in almost every country that are doing some things right. Agriculture, by its very nature, is local, and therefore there is no single model that works everywhere. I really like the principles developed by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, which accepts that food systems are diverse and that the best ones will adhere to these principles:

–     Renewability: Address the integrity of natural and social resources that are the foundation of a healthy planet and future generations in the face of changing global and local demands

–     Resilience: Support regenerative, durable, and economically adaptive systems in the face of a changing planet

–     Equity: Promote sustainable livelihoods and access to nutritious and just food systems for all

–     Diversity: Value our rich and diverse agricultural, ecological, and cultural heritage

–     Healthfulness: Advance the health and well-being of people, animals, the environment, and the societies that depend on all three

–     Interconnectedness: Understand the implications of the interdependence of food, people, and the planet in a transition to more sustainable food systems

In your opinion, what is the number-one thing governments get wrong about agriculture and food?
Roy Steiner: They 1) underinvest in food and agriculture and then 2) direct their limited investments to programs that don’t optimize the existing food system – and usually benefit vested interests.

In that same blog post, you stated that “unconventional actors” will play a significant role in transforming our food system. Who are the unconventional actors you’re referring to?
Roy Steiner: It means bringing together people from multiple disciplines to address food system issues – surprisingly, agriculturalists and nutritionists don’t really talk with each other and doctors are given only four days of nutrition training in their four years of medical training. Getting all these disciplines, including adjacent disciplines like data science, microbiology and the culinary arts involved has incredible potential.

Can you tell us about your book, Harnessing the Power of Collective Learning: Feedback, Accountability and Constituent Voice in Rural Development? What exactly is collective learning and what is its role as it relates to food?
Roy Steiner: This book grew out of the observation that systematic participation and feedback can often contribute to better-targeted, locally owned, and hence more sustainable projects. Over the past few decades, various approaches and research methodologies have been introduced to transform top-down projects—in which farmers are the passive “recipients” of donor-driven programs—to approaches where farmers become the co-developers and co-owners of projects intended for their benefit. In ideal initiatives constituents (no longer beneficiaries) and implementing organizations work hand-in-hand in a joint learning process through which they become mutually accountable for results. Accountability then becomes multi-directional, because implementing organizations are accountable to farmers to deliver results and farmers and communities are accountable for the roles they have agreed to play.

The book presents eleven case studies of organizations trying to do this, which, as you can expect, is much more challenging than describing it. There are immense barriers, including issues of short time-frames and funding cycles, costs, questions of representation, the type and purpose of feedback systems, etc.

The lessons of this book are highly relevant to the work we are doing, because food systems include multiple stakeholders under conditions that are continually changing, and enabling an effective learning process is key to achieving the results we all want.

Can you define the term “healthy eating?”
Roy Steiner: I think Michael Pollan’s definition is a nice summary – “Eat (whole) food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” There is no one best diet for everyone, but adhering to this guideline will get you a long way. We all have to experiment to find out what is optimal for our unique circumstances.

What food label matters most to you?
Roy Steiner: The more I know about which farm or farmer actually grew the food I am eating, the more comfortable I am – however this is increasingly hard to know. I do pay attention to organic labels, nutrient labels, etc., but I am strongly aware that we still don’t know a lot about the food we eat. Do you know that a common basil plant has more than two thousand active chemical compounds and we track fifty of them at most? There is still so much we don’t know about what is in our food and how it impacts us as specific individuals with unique microbiomes.

Define and briefly discuss failure.
Roy Steiner: Failure is an excellent way to learn if you have the discipline to reflect and the honesty to acknowledge what went wrong. I find the methodologies that use Before Action Reviews (BAR) and After Action Reviews (AAR) very helpful.

Was there a defining moment when you made a decision that changed the course of the rest of your life?
Roy Steiner: Twenty-seven years ago I decided to apply for a Warren Weaver fellowship at The Rockefeller Foundation and taking that opportunity set me on a life course connected to philanthropy and agriculture. On a more personal level, it was the decision to become a member of the Baha’i community and pursue a spiritual practice that had a life changing impact. The Baha’i philosophy is centered on the fundamental oneness of humanity and recognizes that the purpose of life is to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.

Who do you respect most, or who motivates you?
Roy Steiner: The Baha’i community in Iran is severely persecuted by the Islamic government there, and the peaceful and noble response of the Baha’i people there fills me with deep admiration – I am not sure I would have the strength and conviction that they have. It is an incredible example of a community responding to persecution and hatred with love.

Define individual responsibility and how you react to adverse situations.
Roy Steiner: Pass

What was your worst summer job?
Roy Steiner: Working in a distribution warehouse where I took 200-pound barrels of spices and food additives and put them into 1- and 5-pound bags for $1 an hour (I was fourteen years old.)


Grew up in: Wiesbaden Germany until I was eight and then London, Ontario, Canada until eighteen
City or town you call home: Am in between New York and California right now
Job title: Managing Director
As a child you wanted to be: A farmer
Background and education: Two bachelor of science degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Biology from MIT and a master’s and doctorate in Agricultural and Biological Engineering from Cornell
One word you would use to describe our food system: Un-optimized
Foodie hero(s): Khalid Bomba, Haile Johnston, Danielle Nierenberg and Joe Devries
Your breakfast this morning: Bowl of blueberries and almonds
Favorite food: Persian and Japanese
Last meal on Earth: Gormeh Sabzi – a Persian rice dish followed by freshly picked berries and cream shared with the people I love in this world
Food policy social media must follow: by Marion Nestle
Food newsletter, website or book you can’t stop reading: Foodtank, Agfunder, EAT
Your motto: “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole earth” – Baha’u’llah
Your proudest “food” moment: Helping launch the Ethiopian Transformation Agency

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