Why we can't tackle the food crisis one bite at a time

Sensemaking / Why we can't tackle the food crisis one bite at a time

Sally Uren makes the case for a shared vision of a sustainable future, across value chains and the food sector as a whole.

05 Jul 2012

Sally Uren makes the case for a shared vision of a sustainable future, across value chains and the food sector as a whole.

We know that the food sector as a whole is facing some huge challenges on the path to sustainability.

It’s tempting to think that we should tackle them in turn, being careful not to bite off more than we can chew, as it were. But this would beSally Uren a mistake. We’re talking about a whole system here, and we can’t heal it by picking off particular symptoms in isolation. Instead we have to see how they influence one another within the whole. That means using systems thinking to identify the key interventions we can make which have the best chance of shifting those systemic barriers.

Here is my top three:

1. Whole value chains need to work together

A key driver of the current unsustainability of the food system is the dysfunctionality of value chains. More often than not, producers lose out, and too much power sits with faceless procurement departments.

Tackling this status quo isn’t easy, but movements such as Fairtrade offer alternatives. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil also shows it is possible for the value chain, from producer to retailer, to come together, in this case to switch to sustainable sourcing of this critical global commodity. And in the UK, representatives from across the dairy supply chain have recently published a vision for a sustainable sector: www.dairy2020.com.

From palm oil to dairy, there are two features which make it possible for the value chain to come together in this way: clear boundaries on what is pre-competitive and competitive, and a shared vision for sustainability.

2. We need to reconnect with the food we eat

Millions of people are totally disconnected from where and how food is produced. This in turn can translate into a reluctance to pay the ‘true’ price for food, as well as throwing up to a third of it away. Again, there is no simple answer, but there are some ways forward.

First, brands and retailers should actively engage consumers with how and where their favourite product is made. Tetley Tea’s Farmers First Hand initiative is a great example of how it is possible to engage the non-greens on issues like product origin.

Second, instead of asking consumers what they want now, how about anticipating future needs, and using this insight to innovate new products and services? Forum for the Future’s ‘Consumer Futures’ project showed that, by 2020, sustainable consumption is likely
to have mainstreamed, driven by trends such as resource shortages, and the demand for transparency.

3. The money needs to work for sustainability

A business has a fiduciary duty to maximise shareholder value. And there is increasing evidence that a company’s ability to generate returns is linked to how it responds to environmental and social challenges.

Despite a crystal clear business case, far too many businesses are single-mindedly pursuing short-term profit with no eye on the bigger picture. Rather than wait for these dinosaurs to become extinct, we need to usher in the new wave of businesses that are making sustainability work financially.

The first step in this transition is to align business models with societal needs. By providing health care and hygiene to the millions in the emerging markets, multinationals such as Unilever are securing short-term success and the creation of long-term valuation.

On a smaller scale, the UK-based baby food manufacturer Ella’s Kitchen recognised the needs of parents who wanted wholesome and tasty food for their offspring. Ella’s Kitchen has reached the point where it is now one of the UK’s most successful export stories.

The examples used here are pioneering practice. The ultimate solution will come when we have scaled up this pioneering practice and created a tipping point, which in turn will lead to a new mainstream where sustainable food is the norm.

Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future. @sallyuren

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