Making Flights a Force for Good

Exito Impact Accelerator: 

Making Flights a Force for Good

Exito is proud to have embarked on a new stage of our sustainability journey in 2023. In partnership with the groundbreaking PBS docuseries The Food Principle, Exito created the Impact Accelerator, an annual grant of round trip flights to accelerate the work of grassroots nonprofits making an impact in the fields of conservation, connection, & community.

The winners of the inaugural grant were the co-founders of Havhøst, a Danish NGO focused on regenerative ocean cultivation through vertically farmed oysters, mussels, and seaweed. In this remarkably efficient system, the bivalves filter water, while the seaweed draws down CO2 and creates a source of nutritious, planet and people sustaining food in the process.

Below is a conversation Jim Kane, Exito’s Director of CSR and Outreach, as well as the creator and producer of The Food Principle, had with Havhøst’s co-founders. He caught up with them during their study trip to NYC to learn, share and develop strategies with peers and mentors in the regenerative ocean farming movement. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jim Kane (JK): How did you come to work in regenerative ocean farming?

Joachim Hjertl (JH): I have spent many years working with food communications.  And in many ways, I see Havhøst as a communications project. Seeing it as a way to get in contact with people about something important. Getting them to change their attitudes and the way they live and interact with the natural world when it comes to marine resources and what we are going to eat in the future.

I used to own a fishmonger in Copenhagen and another food retail store alongside my communications agency. So somehow that whole intersection of communication and food retailing was my way into this thing.

Havhøst came out of this communications agency working with an organization called the Food Organization of Denmark which works to promote Danish gastronomy abroad. We had a campaign working with the European oyster that has this amazing ability to not only fill our bellies but also to heal the world.

Bodil Espersen (BE): My field has always been food. I’ve been teaching and doing different foraging and outdoor cooking courses – all these different ways of connecting people to food. At the same time, I have been a spear fisher since 2011, so I very quickly combined a love for food with a love for the ocean, and somewhere in the middle of that was Havhøst. 

When they decided to add education as part of the agenda, that’s when I came into the picture. That’s where I found my niche using food as a tool to teach the bigger agendas. For me, it was this very deep lifelong connection to nature and the lifelong connection to food that made me settle into a field that combined the two.

“We had a campaign working with the European oyster that has this amazing ability to not only fill our bellies but also to heal the world.” – Joachim Hjertl

JK: What is Havhøst’s work and mission?

JH: Havhost is an NGO that works to promote regenerative ocean cultivation, which means, basically, food production that combines with ecosystem restoration. So that food production becomes a tool for improvement of our natural environment rather than something that deteriorates it.

BH: I usually say sustainability is about sustaining something (status quo) to not make something worse, and regenerative farming is to actually regenerate the soil or the ecosystem or the ocean, so it’s a next level sustainability. 

Our core activity is community-driven ocean farming. Right now in Denmark we have 26 communities having small scale ocean farms growing blue mussels, oysters and seaweed for their own enjoyment and to produce delicious food for their dinner tables. 

In addition to that, we have an educational program connected to some of the community gardens to teach school kids about regenerative ocean farming, future food and ecosystems of the oceans. Everything STEM related, but also about food, culture, and craftsmanship.

JK: What are you most proud of having accomplished so far at Havhøst? 

JH: Going from one line of blue mussels under a bridge in Copenhagen to 26 strong, local community gardens all over Denmark has been pretty cool. And to have succeeded in making a concept so strong as to make it relevant for countries outside of Denmark who are looking to us to find out how we can, in our country, establish something similar to that? How can we move ahead  with a more regenerative agenda when it comes to the ocean? Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, Germany and Poland have been inspired by the Havhost model in starting small and taking the local resources that are there to generate something with a strong local anchorage that can engage and involve people. I think that journey has been pretty amazing.

The claim to fame that we’re exploring right now is to make commercial models now that we’ve made it work in a community-based fashion, to take that and transform it into something that people can make money from. We need commercial success. We need to take the thoughts that we’ve made real and turn it into profit for someone. The whole connection to coastal fisheries I hope will be our next check on the list.

BE: I think it’s worth mentioning that we’ve had more than 6,000 students visiting a [Havhøst] ocean farm either in Copenhagen or somewhere in Denmark. So that’s a lot of people from a new generation who have come upon this idea of regenerative ocean farming and who have had these crops and these ingredients between their own hands – cooking with them, eating them and pushing for a change in their own families when they come home.

“We can inspire people to think differently about the food they eat and habits around food.” – Bodil Espersen

JK: What are some of the biggest challenges going forward?

JH: There are a lot of challenges when it comes to this whole commercial journey because the regulatory systems are not made for low scale multi-trophic. They’re made for monoculture, large scale, and efficiency. So working with lawmakers and regulators to try and implement new incentive structures and a legal framework that makes it interesting for coastal fisheries to go in this direction is a big challenge. It’s a big challenge that political stances change every four years, so the minute you’ve actually succeeded in getting a politician or a minister to love you and try to pave the way for something you appreciate and need, that’s when they get out of office. As long as politicians only see four years ahead, people like us will be challenged.

BE: I think there’s also a challenge based on food culture. One thing is to produce these ingredients or these crops, but another thing is to make local culture for eating them, which is not the case in Denmark – not for mussels, not for oysters and definitely not for seaweed. 

But the fact is, we need to change our eating habits and our eating patterns and that takes a while. But that’s the kind of challenge I think we are the right people to approach because that’s the change we actually can affect in many ways. We can inspire people to think differently about the food they eat and habits around food.

JK: What are you hoping to accomplish with this visit to New York? 

JH: Today we visited the Billion Oyster Project which was an old love affair of ours which has been unfulfilled somehow for so many years, and it was just really nice to come and see them. But the original and primary reason we wanted to come here is Greenwave. 

I had the pleasure a few years ago to spend the day with Bren Smith of Greenwave who was in Denmark to receive an award for sustainability and I showed him around and showed him a hatchery on an island in Denmark and we just had a really good time. Coming back here and having the chance to meet him and his organization is something we’ve been really wanting to do. And we actually had the whole trip planned just before COVID, then COVID came and we had to cancel the whole thing. We had the journey planned. We had the tickets, we had the hotel, we had rented the car, everything was set up and then COVID came. Something inside of us died a little bit at that time, but we kept the dream alive. And coming here is just really, really nice for us. 

BE: The reason that Greenwave is also really important for us at this point in our journey is that their model is based on commercial activities. We are right now on the stepping stone to opening up that aspect of our project. So it’s important for us to get the opportunity to share, to listen to their experience, to learn from them before we start upon this part of our journey because they’ve done it. They have the experience and I think we can learn so much from them. And the timing is probably actually better now than it was three years ago. I think we’re ready right now, we’re literally on the edge to make that jump. So the timing is really good for us.

“Screen meetings are really good for exchanging information, but building relationships is really, really difficult on a screen.” – Joachim Hjertl

JK: Nowadays everyone is connected virtually. Why was coming in person so important?

BE: Of course there’s a human connection that’s hard to replicate behind a screen. Everyone knows that a physical meeting has more levels than an on screen meeting. But in this specific case, it’s also a case of hardware. Seeing the boats, getting on the water. There’s all these tangible things that we need to get our hands wet. See how they’re cultivating, how their hatcheries are set up, how their harvest systems are created. So in this specific case, getting on the water and getting in the field is actually very important to us. 

JH: Screen meetings are really good for exchanging information, but building relationships is really, really difficult on a screen. You know, the day that I spent with Bren back then was 100% relationship building, trust building, and that doesn’t happen over a screen. 

On a screen it’s always very on point. You have a very specific thing that you want to talk about, and you talk about it, and it’s over. And actually, all the real value creation is created between the lines. It’s created by a smile, and understanding our different life stories. Where do you come from and where do I come from, how do we connect, and so on. That’s how relationships are built, That’s how trust is built. And I think, that’s one of the things in the whole COVID period that disappeared without maybe us even knowing it, really. We became instrumentally very strong, but our humanity maybe somehow deteriorated a little bit. And I think you don’t really know that until you go back out into the world. When you sit in a screen meeting, you don’t sense that because it’s so intangible. You just feel that, oh this was really efficient, I was able to meet with 10 people from 10 countries in one hour, that was really efficient. 

But maybe that’s back to the Havhøst starting point. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about quality and it’s about empathy and our shared humanity.

“It’s about quality and it’s about empathy and our shared humanity.” – Joachim Hjertl

Thank you!


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