Stories / Awards, Impact

Meet JBF Leadership Award Winner Dr. Jason Clay

Nicole Citron

Nicole Citron

October 09, 2012


Dr. Jason Clay

Our 2012 James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards will be held at New York City's iconic Hearst Tower one week from tomorrow! As promised, we're introducing you to each of the five visionaries being honored for their outstanding contributions to creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. Last week we filled you in on Dr. Kathleen Merrigan's inspiring work—and today, we'd like you to meet:

Dr. Jason W. Clay
Senior Vice President, Market Transformation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

How much water does it take to make one latte? A WWF short social-media video, conceived by Jason Clay, poses this trick question. The disturbing answer: 200 liters. Clay looks at how much water is poured into the production of the latte’s cup, lid, sleeve, sugar, milk, and coffee, and finds that most of it goes into growing the coffee. You don’t have to sacrifice your “morning java fix,” the video reassures. Instead, we need to change how we farm and process coffee to produce more beans with less water.

The latte story is a glimpse into Clay’s broader strategy to conserve resources and reduce impacts, particularly those related to carbon and water, on a finite planet. Clay believes agriculture poses one of the biggest problems. “We are literally eating our planet,” he warned in his 2011 TEDx talk. “We’ve got to freeze the footprint of food. And we’ve got to start doing it now.”

“I’m a kid who grew up on a dollar a day,” Clay says of his upbringing on a small farm in northwestern Missouri. “Food security was always an issue. That’s my roots. I just took it to a different level.” A scholarship to Harvard was his ticket off the farm, and after earning a Ph.D. in anthropology, he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and then focused on indigenous peoples, refugees, and famine victims for a human rights group.

Since joining WWF in 1999, Clay has established global standards for major commodities including palm oil, sugar, soy, beef, and 12 aquaculture species. WWF CEO Carter Roberts lauds Clay’s “clear vision for engaging the largest companies on earth to use their massive supply chains to tip the way commodities are grown.”  

Environmentally, the commodities’ impacts include deforestation, soil erosion, water use and pollution, greenhouse gas emission, and habitat loss. But it was price increases from 2006 to 2008, Clay says, that shifted corporate willingness to collaborate on sustainability issues. “Companies are scared,” he says. Over the long term, he explains, the issue won’t be price but availability of raw material. “Sustainability is now being seen by companies as a precompetitive issue.”

Clay has played a key role in framing sustainability as such. Sheri Flies, 2011 JBF Leadership Award recipient and assistant general merchandise manager at Costco, Corporate Foods, commends both Clay’s “big heart” and his strategic mind. “He was one of the first to realize that business, governments, and NGOs have to collaborate to address the environmental, social, and economic needs of the planet.”

In a 2010 TED talk, Clay laid out a targeted, innovative approach to his goal of getting companies to commit to 100% certified product. WWF identified the 35 most environmentally important places on the planet, the 15 commodities that pose the biggest threats to these places, and the 300–500 companies that control 70 percent or more of these commodities. Clay’s most recent analysis shows that 57 companies control 25 percent of the trade of all 15 of these commodities, and that 25 percent of demand will pull 40–50 percent of production. For the bottom producers, governments need to step in.

Clay’s approach has evolved since he invented the eco-label Rainforest Marketing and Rainforest Crunch ice cream in 1988. “My thinking has shifted to, maybe consumers shouldn’t have a choice about green products. All the products on the shelf should be green.” – Nicole Citron

About the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards

The 2012 JBF Leadership Awards recognize visionaries from a broad range of backgrounds, including government, nonprofit, and literary arts, who are working toward creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. This year’s honorees were chosen by an advisory board comprised of a dozen experts from diverse areas of expertise, as well as last year’s Leadership Award recipients. Now in its second year, the Leadership Awards recognize specific outstanding initiatives as well as bodies of work and lifetime achievement. Winners will be honored at a dinner ceremony that will take place during the James Beard Foundation Food Conference on October 17 in New York City. For more information, visit