sdgsIt’s late April.  Spring is (finally) in the air, signifying a time for blooming, new life, growth, and change.  I have these thoughts in mind as I look ahead to a number of global events related to innovation and the food system.

One of those events is Seeds and Chips, the world’s leading food innovation Summit, which will span four days in Milan in early May.  This event will pull together a wide range of thought leaders from all across the global food system with the goal of connecting “people, ideas and solutions to shape a better food system.”  The event planners note that food innovation is needed across the entire food chain — from farm to fork — addressing critical issues such as population growth, protein consumption, climate change, resource scarcity, nutrition, environment, water security, waste, responsible consumption and production patterns, equity, security, and more.  In essence, innovation is needed to address all of the Sustainable Development Goals, and urgency is needed.

To me, this event centers global focus on the challenge of feeding 9.6 (let’s call it ten) billion people by 2050 — the most pressing challenge of our time.  Challenge, of course, spells opportunity, and opportunity drives innovation.  A short video on the Seeds and Chips site notes that the world must prepare to feed ten billion people in an environment that is four degrees warmer, with less land, more pollution, and perhaps less food — that is the challenge of feeding our future.

In the run-up to the Summit, the Seeds and Chips team has been posting some wonderful pieces on food system issues, one of which (by founder Marco Gualtieri) focused on “three milestones” from 2015 that changed business and the world.   Gualtieri noted that 2015 was a year in which “a common cause was forged that has transformed our global business practices as well as our shared vision of the future.”   He first pointed to Expo Milano as “a watershed moment in the history of the food system” and “a paradigm shift” from prior history.  Having been at Expo Milano with close to 200,000 other global citizens in its final month, locked in by throngs of excited people seeking to experience the food cultures of as many nations as possible, I tend to agree.  It was impossible not to be impacted by the excitement of the event and the critical importance of the theme (Feeding the Planet, Energy For Life), and it was equally impossible to ignore the sense that we have arrived at a point in which change is no longer optional for the global food system — it must become far more circular and sustainable, requiring innovation, knowledge sharing, collaboration, and shared commitment to environment and humanity at levels not seen before.  Essential change drivers, as Gualtieri noted, included population growth, increasing urbanization, and climate change.

He noted the start of serious change at Expo Milano, with the release of the Milan Charter (calling for the right to food as a fundamental human right) and the launching of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) — the international protocol designed to address food-related issues in urban areas around the globe.  Given that 70% of the world’s population is expected to be living in cities by 2050, it’s timely.  He also noted that Expo Milano initiated the process in which people began to consider the centrality of food regarding meaningful conversations about the future.  And notably, two other key milestones followed Expo — the release of the UN Sustainability Goals in September, and the signing of the Paris Climate Accords in December.

Together, Gualtieri sees these three milestones as the start of a colossal shift in actions, thinking, and norms about the food system.  Again, I tend to agree — the pace of activity around food system innovation and change has continued to accelerate since 2015.  and to his point about the centrality of food to meaningful conversations about the future, I would add the word criticality.

A sustainable food system is central to the security of the planet — without it, people have no choice but to move, and act, in a way to achieve their needs related to food, water, and a livable environment.  The recent migration of tens of millions of people into Europe is a case in point, and the seriousness of the situation led FAO to address it in its 2017 World Food Day theme:  Change the future of migration — Invest in rural food security and development.  This massive wave of global citizenry signals the disruption that will continue to occur between now and 2050 (and beyond) unless the nations of the globe come together to create a more sustainable, circular, equitable food system.  Fortunately, the Sustainable Development Goals provide the framework for the change that must be pursued — change which requires global innovation, global collaboration, and a new level of shared responsibility for ending the conditions of poverty, achieving zero hunger, mitigating climate change, and ensuring health and well-being, clean water, affordable and clean energy, healthy oceans, healthy soils, equality, economic opportunity, and more.  Central to all of them, and critically linked, is the challenge of global food waste.  We are currently losing and wasting between 30 and 50% of the global food supply annually while 800 million remain hungry, and the process of producing (and ultimately wasting) much of that food is an environmental and climate disaster.  Reducing, and more importantly preventing, food waste from occurring at scale is essential if we are to successfully meet the challenge of feeding nearly ten billion by 2050.  In addition to innovation and collaboration, it requires a sea change in the manner in which we value food; we must move away from the culture of abundance which leads to so much indiscriminate waste to a culture of responsibility in which everyday actions (and indeed our systems) are geared toward optimizing precious food resources.

Pope Francis covered this theme in his remarks at the World Food Day event, noting that “We are called to propose a change in lifestyles, in the use of resources, in production criteria, including consumption that, with regard to food, involves growing losses and waste.  We cannot resign ourselves to saying ‘someone else will take care of it.'”  His comments reflect SDG 12, which calls for responsible consumption and production patterns and, more specifically, a focus on cutting food loss and waste in half by 2030.  His comments reinforce the notion that a sustainable food system lies at the heart of the SDGs, and food waste reduction lies at the heart of a sustainable food system.

The SDGs represent an audacious, inspirational platform — and an incredible opportunity — to be embraced by all.  Not only an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed, but an opportunity that can’t be missed.  As Jason Clay of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently noted, “if we don’t get food right, we can shut out the lights and go home.”  That speaks to the centrality, and the criticality, of the global food system.

Expo Milano 2015 was indeed a powerful launch pad.  I’m looking forward to participating in the continuation of the dialog at Seeds and Chips 2018 regarding the confluence of innovation, the food system, and the Sustainable Development Goals — and in finding solutions to drive those Goals forward, with urgency.