Have we lost sight of a sustainable future for food?

Written by Lesley Mitchell Associate Director of Sustainable Nutrition and Roberta Iley, Principal Change Designer

The year 2020 was meant to kick-start the ‘decade of delivery’, acting on the urgency of the climate crisis and accelerating delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. Those working on a sustainable food system were focused on building momentum toward a pivotal UN Food Systems Summit in 2021. 

Now we are collectively facing a deep global crisis. In this, the food system is being truly tested – COVID-19 has exposed the strengths, as well as the fragilities and weaknesses in the food system, which was primarily focused on maximising output, driving profit, convenience and choice. Notably, some of the existing deep inequalities are now in the spotlight – including food poverty, but also around the producers that were already operating at the breadline.

“We need to keep this focus on supply chains and have a collaborative approach to change them... We dodged a bullet with COVID, the supply chains didn’t fall over, but it demonstrated that they could.”

Jim Giles, Senior Analyst and Conference Chair for Food and Carbon Systems at GreenBiz Group speaking in the ‘Future of Food’ webinar

For those of us who work in food systems at Forum for the Future, we wanted to understand how people and organisations operating in the food system are starting to respond to this immense challenge. More than eighty food industry stakeholders shared insights ahead of our first Future of Food webinar – from food & ingredient manufacturing to R&D, to NGOs.  Many were from Europe and North America, but also China, India, Philippines, Thailand, Brazil and Argentina. (As we progress further dialogue, we want to hear many more diverse voices, such as those of producers, or others in Asia and Africa.)

The responses show that we are all experiencing this differently - we are all in a state of personal upheaval, recalibration and reconsidering how we operate going forward. But three different ways of thinking about that future -  ‘mindset modes’  if you like - began to appear from the responses. They range from immediate managerial, to entrepreneurial and visionary:

Managerial: For many organisations in this space, (notably food service) work is essentially ‘on pause,’ with most staff furloughed. Where organisations are battling on, many are in managerial mode, where they have an overwhelming focus on building fundamental resilience. Many people are concentrating on their core activities such as keeping food on the shelves, with some concerned about the relative inflexibility of highly specialist manufacturing setups, as well as managing precarious just-in-time logistics and labour shortages. Keeping things running day-to-day is an exhausting process of cutting unnecessary costs, reducing down to a few key product lines, and carefully managing the chain of payments along the supply chain. In some cases, this managerial mode has meant funding cuts for sustainability and innovation. 

Entrepreneurial: Others have seen the opportunity to move beyond day-to-day concerns into more of an entrepreneurial mode. From some vantage points, the speed and agility with which the food system has shifted to keep supplies on our shelves has been a welcome surprise. For those in this mindset, we’ve seen food delivery and wholesalers adapt their models of operating; closer connection to local food initiatives; retailers collaborating to solve shared challenges; companies offering new levels of support for suppliers; and more direct-to-consumer models emerging. 

Visionary: For those in a visionary mode, people are starting to ask long-term, future-focused and systemic questions:

  • Can COVID-19 be the ultimate reset button for the food system? 
  • What will a new normal look like?… What do we want a new normal to look like? 
  • And how can we learn from this crisis? 

What do these mindsets mean for the future of food through crisis? Every decision made now is setting us on a new path for the food system - but if we can’t collectively hold a new transformative vision in mind, sole focus on the immediate managerial and entrepreneurial needs will only serve the status quo that existed before the COVID-19 crisis.

We captured further insights across the food system during the Future of Food webinar from four outstanding food sector voices
: Jim Giles, journalist and senior analyst for food and carbon systems at GreenBiz Group in San Francisco; Sally Smith, Head of Sustainability at Upfield (the world’s largest plant based margarines, spreads, cheeses and oils company); Christopher Stewart, Global Head of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at Olam, a global company trading commodities worldwide; and Mike Barry, who pioneered UK retailer Marks & Spencer’s groundbreaking Plan A sustainability programme, now leading Mikebarryeco Ltd. 

Some key points emerged during the webinar around the need for deep rather than incremental transformation. Jim noted the fact that while many supply chains were disrupted, we had been lucky - supply chains did not completely collapse. This highlights risks arising from reliance on highly concentrated monopolies and the need for diverse supply chains, while retaining the efficiencies of our current model. Sally spoke of Upfield as a business with genuine societal purpose, and how their focus on sustainable diets had been reinforced during the crisis. Christopher spoke keenly of Olam’s responsibility to workers and farmers: ensuring their safety in the face of COVID-19, enabling supply routes to stay open, but also about fundamentally shifting the viability of farmer livelihoods. 

 "We have a system that has been built for the world we had. What's the system and incentives we need for the future?"

Sally Smith, Head of Sustainability at Upfield

But what does a focus on sustainability mean for what we actually do?
Mike Barry was clear: the food industry has to accept the need to change in the face of the climate crisis; we need to focus on a human-centred as well as environmental approach, and increasing positive social impact, far beyond compliance with basic standards that just remove the worst harms. Mike emphasised the deep complexity of the food supply chain, and how data and traceability will be key to delivering real change. There is huge power in pre-competitive collaboration between businesses to solve deeply entrenched challenges that are greater than any one organisation. But he also looked deeper into what shapes the food system, highlighting the need to reform policy and financial incentives to support transformation, to ensure value gets to the farmers and workers who underpin the food system, and paying farmers for the value they create, such as locking up carbon in soils. 

So this discussion raises huge, pivotal questions.
As we move from immediate crisis toward recovery, our ‘modes' of operating are laying the groundwork for a ‘new normal’. Will we build a better system, or retrench how we interacted with food before COVID-19? Will this deliver a just transition to a regenerative food system that delivers sustainable nutrition for all, or, as often happens under stress, revert to standard practice? Crucially, in all this complexity, how can we move into a visionary mode, where each of us shapes action towards a new vision for the food system, even as we must navigate the daily stresses of managing current challenges? 

In our next blog, we’ll look at how actors across the food system are shifting the way they think and act, what good could look like, and explore how you could help shape that future. 

Three things you can do now:

  • Check out the Future of Food report and webinar
  • Let us know what you think needs to shift in the food system in our survey, and sign up to be part of the conversation here
  • Partner with Forum for the Future to help your organisation navigate its way through these challenging times: contact [email protected] for more information.