A large collection of books by Nobel prize-winning United States author John Steinbeck takes pride of place in the Minnesota home of Devry Boughner Vorwerk.
It is a reminder of where it all began for the internationally respected global food executive.
Boughner Vorwerk’s parents moved to the Salinas Valley in California, the home of Steinbeck and setting for some of his novels, when she was 14. She was immediate inspired by her rural surroundings.
The daughter of a schoolteacher and electrical engineer in the aerospace industry, Boughner Vorwerk said there wasn’t much to do in the small farming area, known as the “salad bowl of the world”, so she went looking.
“I found an organisation called the Future Farmers of America. It’s the premier youth organisation that captures youth’s passions and interests at an early age.”
From that introduction, Boughner Vorwerk was hooked, not only on agriculture but on food and its sustainability.
“In that farm town it was a microcosm of what is happening at the global level,” she said.
“It was a lot like what Steinbeck experienced. When you look around you see immigrant labour, large-scale agriculture, issues of water constraint … use of pesticides.
“I saw it all around me. I thought, This is so difficult, to get food from where it is to where it needs to be, and to do it in a way that honours the workers, farmers and consumers.”
Boughner Vorwerk completed two agriculture degrees at university. After finishing her Master’s thesis – on US dairy farming – she was poised to become a university professor.
But at the last minute she got “antsy” at the prospect and decided food production and sustainability were really where her passion lay.
The “divine intervention” that led to her coming across agriculture early on is “why I’m so insistent on exposing young people to agriculture. Not just to agriculture, but what the future of agriculture can look like,” she says.
Boughner Vorwerk, who will be in New Zealand as keynote speaker at Rural Leaders Agribusiness Summit in Christchurch on March 27, has a glittering CV.
She now runs her own company, DevryBV Sustainable Strategies, after filling high-powered roles in some of the US’s major food companies.
She spent 15 years with red-meat giant Cargill and was chief communications officer and corporate vice-president of global corporate affairs when she left in 2019.
The youngest female corporate officer elected in the company’s more than 150-year history, Boughner Vorwerk spearheaded its global brand, communications, public policy and government relations; corporate responsibility and sustainable development across 70 countries; and trade issues with over 125 countries.
She has extensive experience in Asia Pacific, managing international business relations for eight years, living in India and China on assignment, and spent time in Europe advancing the investment and trade policy agenda with European Union member states and the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.
In 2021, Boughner Vorwerk was appointed chief corporate affairs officer at Grubhub, an US online and mobile prepared-food ordering and delivery platform.
She said working for large companies inevitably creates challenges and it “takes persistence to keep driving the change”.
For the most part, companies are intent on doing the right thing by their employees and society.
“But organisations or companies aren’t set up to succeed. From the start companies are set up to essentially fail at sustainability and putting purpose, people and planet at the centre.
“Unless companies are intentional about backing up and saying we are open to holistically changing as a result of putting sustainability at the centre … unless they go through that dream they will fail.
“The other thing I learnt is it takes an incredibly courageous leader, and set of leaders, to carry out the change that is required.”
Asked what she is most proud of during her career to date, Boughner Vorwerk had to pause to think.
“I have never compromised my values or my desire for businesses to do well by society. I have never had to compromise that at any moment,” she said.
“When it didn’t fit with an organisations I had the courage to continue to stay centre and focused on that.”
A passion of Boughner Vorwerk’s is focusing on the United Nations goal of reducing extreme poverty by 2030. She said first it means stamping out a general acceptance that there are just those who have food, and those who don’t. Latest figures show 349 million people are in “acute hunger”, a figure up 150% since 2019.
“The root cause is greed and it runs rampant through governments, through private sector and communities. If we can tip the scale and ensure we’re all centring around the humans’ needs, and get enough critical mass to do that, we can achieve ending extreme poverty.
“I do believe it’s possible. Will we get there? We will know in 2030.”
Boughner Vorwerk is adamant the future of agriculture and its sustainability lie in the hands of young people, and she believes more should be done to encourage them into the sector. With staff shortages in the industry a worldwide issue, she is an advocate of community- and school-based agriculture programmes to spark an early interest in the industry.
Boughner Vorwerk will spend seven days in New Zealand during her visit. Aside from the conference and farm visits, she has another “must-do” during her stay, which will raise a few eyebrows: she will be visiting as many supermarkets and markets as possible, looking out for products unique to NZ, their product labelling and packaging.
“I think you learn a lot about a country or a community by going to their grocery store. I feel like I can really get to know a country that way.”
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