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Our Insights 18 Oct 2016

Grow. Eat. Thrive. Imagining a Sustainable Food System.

By Lorraine Smith and Corinne Hanson
Vietnam, February 2016. Image © Siamak Djamei via Unsplash

Vietnam, February 2016. Image © Siamak Djamei via Unsplash

We all talk about “the future we want”, where the successful economy nurtures a thriving society within a healthy biosphere. These are nice thoughts, but it’s important to be as specific as possible to understand the differences between today and that more desirable future, enabling companies to actually do something about it.

Let’s take the food industry for example. Currently, as much as 40% of all the food grown in some regions ends up in landfills while species critical to a healthy food system such as pollinators are dying at an unprecedented rate. Combined with a measurable drop in our food’s nutritional quality and continued food security and access issues, we are clearly still far from the future we want. All of this is within the context of anticipated population growth, adding more pressure to an already stressed system.

As much as 40% of all the food grown in some regions ends up in landfill while species critical to a healthy food system are dying at an unprecedented rate.

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The SustainAbility team recently spent some time considering the desirable future of food and thought we’d share some of what emerged from the process. Perhaps it will challenge you to consider your own actions—professional or personal; perhaps you will shake your head in disagreement and offer challenging feedback (which we welcome).

Leading with Eating

We propose that the successful future of food requires a “Regenerative Global Diet” that puts the eater first, meaning every person on Earth will eat in a way that sustains—even improves—his or her own individual health and wellbeing. In this desired future, by investing in both the production of and the eating of food life on earth thrives.

Leading with eating can ensure the production aspects of food do not create disconnected “sustainability initiatives” separate from, or even counter to, a regenerative diet. Sustainable Development Goal 2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture) hints at this by leading with the notion of ending hunger, but we suggest the desired future is more than not being hungry, it is about creating a system that supports healthy conditions in both the land and the people whom it’s designed to serve. We believe that leading discussions with this regenerative ambition is necessary to shift us in the right direction.

We Have a Global Eating Disorder

Currently we have a “Global Eating Disorder” characterized by significant under-nutrition in some regions and with excessive diets in other places, linked to epidemic-level non-communicable diseases (NCDs). This is directly connected to societal and ecosystem-level issues. This raises the question: how can companies respond to the reality that they’re profiting from this flawed system and instead directly contribute to solving the challenge ahead?

Until now, most industry dialogue has kept these two aspects—healthy eating and healthy producing—relatively separate.

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Until now, most industry dialogue has kept these two aspects—healthy eating and healthy producing—relatively separate. One compelling example that breaks out of this eat vs produce dichotomy is Forum for the Future’s Protein Challenge work that takes a wider system view. Some corporate action suggests there may be a shift towards more effectively making this connection, for example Danone’s acquisition of White Wave indicates a trend towards healthier, more sustainably produced choices within mainstream consumer products companies.

But rarely do we see the scope of the business model shift required to take the full eating value chain into consideration to ensure the way people eat actually promotes a healthy food system over the long term. On the one hand we see foodie influencers like Michael Pollan of “eat food, mostly plants, not too much” fame who, while informing eating choices, offers light and generalized commentary on foods being “sustainably produced”. On the other, we see sustainable production efforts like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil that don’t delve into the question of improving the eater’s health by noting what foods palm oil is used in and whether we should be eating them at all. The kind of shift required for a Regenerative Global Diet is still the stuff of fringe documentaries, while the everyday grocery shopper has to stare down aisles of disconnected labels and logos with virtually nothing to inform them whether the contents of their cart is regenerative.

Mindset Shift:
From Feeding Billions to Billions of Eaters Improving World

Part of the reason we are so far from a better reality is this eating versus producing disconnect. Instead of focusing on a diet that is self-sustaining within a wider food system, some parts of food businesses are targeting the need to satisfy a growing population as efficiently as possible with better production practices (conserving water, energy, and soil for example). Meanwhile, other parts of the same business promote healthy eating either through a shift in their product portfolio and/or better labeling. Yet the eaters’ good health—which is only possible with healthy eating—is what will generate demand for a healthy food system. If the system is functioning well, then the more people eat what companies produce, the better off the system will be. That is what makes it is regenerative. That doesn’t mean food producers (or eaters) can grow larger indefinitely—healthy systems don’t necessarily always get bigger—but it does mean the system will be resilient and self-healing. At the moment, the healthiness of the production (does it contribute to deforestation?) is completely divorced from the healthiness of the eating (will eating this contribute to my well-being?) and this needs to change.

This is a complex set of issues to course-correct, yet we can be certain that continuing to omit the eater’s health and wellbeing in our production decisions will continue to lead us down an unsustainable path. And omitting the producing impacts of healthy eating aren’t much better. How can we get beyond “feeding billions” to a system that by its very existence “nourishes billions of people by sustaining the biosphere”? What role can and should the eater play in said system? And how will companies adapt existing mindsets and reprioritize activities to make healthy eating the central focus of business across multiple points in the food system, even when they’re focused on production? What are their next steps?

We believe the primary and most critical action step is shifting the mindset to understand and work towards this need for a regenerative diet in the first place. Until the goal of the system is understood to be feeding people in a way that heals and sustains the environment that supports them, the processes and management practices applied within the system will fall short.

Beyond this crucial next step of believing in the need to shift the overall paradigm of the system, we will continue to explore this concept in the following post with more specifics on the characteristics of a regenerative diet in Part Two. Meanwhile we welcome your viewpoint and feedback in the comments below.

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