One of my favorite discussion themes of the last couple of years has been the importance of recognizing, and harnessing, signals of the need to change our behaviors and actions to positively impact our food system and, ultimately, climate.
It’s important to note: we all receive myriad signals of the need for such change through our daily observations. We see examples of excessive food waste, water waste, hunger and poverty, excessive emissions, plastic waste, chronic overproduction and excessive consumption, etc. The key is to reflect and act on them, rather than simply moving on because they seem to be too daunting for us as individuals to change.
In August, I was pleased to attend the World Food Summit in Copenhagen – a gathering of 350+ thought leaders, government and business leaders, academics, policy makers, and concerned global citizens to discuss much-needed transformational efforts to ensure a healthy and sustainable food system for people and planet.
Set against the backdrop of a stream of high-level reports, Greta’s Thunberg’s voyage across the Atlantic, and September’s Climate Week sessions in New York City, the timing for the conference seemed perfect, and the energy level was high.
Yet at the start of the conference, I was immediately struck by several other issues. Throughout the first day’s morning session, we all noticed the higher-than-normal temperature – and the windows of the main conference room were immediately opened wide. At the same time, one of the major current news stories concerned the excessive melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which created rivers of meltwater flowing into the ocean. Further, extensive fires continued to burn in the Amazon, while Brazil’s President accused NGO’s of setting some of those fires to deflect criticism of his government’s efforts to protect the rainforest.
These are all signals of the need for global collaboration to address climate change – and we need to react to them. And since food is the biggest lever we have to address climate, we would do well to harness our own personal observations of dysfunction in our food system and develop creative ways to lead positive change.
I carried this theme into Climate Week in NYC in September, where I was pleased to speak in the SDG Action Zone at the UN with a talk entitled “From Signals to Solutions: Harnessing the Power of Daily Observations for Sustainable Change in Food and Climate.”
Broadly, this talk was geared toward addressing the world’s most pressing challenge: we must find a way to successfully feed 9.6 billion global citizens in a sustainable manner. That is indeed a daunting challenge, especially when considering that we are not successfully feeding between 800 million and 2 billion individuals today.
And further, we know that we are already seriously over-taxing the planet – consuming more ecological capacity annually than the Earth can replenish, accelerating global warming, depleting water supplies, depleting soils, increasing deforestation, polluting oceans, and advancing biodiversity loss.
In short, we have a food crisis, and a climate crisis, and they are inseparably linked. Together, they threaten not just food security, but global security.
Regarding the need for urgent change, Marco Lambertini of the World Wildlife Fund recently noted that we now have all the information we need, we must choose between responsible action or being the generation that failed to act and let Earth slip away.
A powerful framing indeed.
Similarly, Schneider Electric and the Global Footprint Network just published a white paper entitled “The business case for one-planet prosperity.” The paper addressed the problem of Earth Overshoot, noting that we can only live beyond our ecological capacity for a short time, and that human demand on Nature will eventually be brought in line with what the Earth can provide – either by design or disaster. In other words, we can choose between one-planet compatibility or one-planet peril.
Both Lambertini and the Schneider Electric/Global Footprint team are correct: Humanity is facing a critical choice – and inaction is not an option.
I’ve been working on the challenge of sustainably feeding 9.6 billion for over ten years with a focus on reducing – and preventing – food waste. I’m driven by the fact that food – and therefore food waste — is central and critical to all of the SDGs. By achieving Target 12.3’s goal of 50% reduction, we will also generate an enormous multiplier effect – accelerating progress toward all of the SDGS.
We all receive an enormous number of signals of the need to change culture around food, to properly value our precious food resources and reduce food waste. It is essential that we change behavior to normalize food waste reduction behavior and de-normalize food wasting actions. And we must do this in the face of global meta-trends that make purchasing and wasting more food even easier.
In my ten-year immersion into the food waste challenge, I have experienced numerous powerful signals in daily life that serve as reminders of the need to reduce food waste. Those of us in developed countries receive these signals daily – but we often fail to act on them because they make us uncomfortable, and it is too easy for us to ignore them. We must harness the power of these daily signals, wrestling with the discomfort they cause, and leveraging them to change our behavior – and to inspire change in our peers and in organizations and institutions.
In the UN session, I traced my journey into food waste and food-water-energy nexus issues, and my discovery of the many dysfunctional (and accepted) elements of today’s global food system – many of which are signaled through daily observations. I pointed to the amazing frequency, and power, of those signals, noting that it is amazing what we can see if we simply open our eyes and engage with those signals rather than ignoring them. The drivers of food system change are literally in front of us daily. We need to see them, understand them, wrestle with them, leverage the emotions that they evoke, and act on them – seeking to drive change to minimize the harmful impact of our food system on the environment.
I also pointed to the power of images in driving change for a more sustainable food system, noting that we can all make our observations visible, tangible, and inspirational. By snapping pictures of the many aspects of food system dysfunction that we see each day, and tagging them for others to view and assess, we can inspire action – because once we see these powerful images, we can’t unsee them – we have to act.
To launch this effort, I created the @Image2Action campaign on Twitter, encouraging individuals to capture their powerful food system change points through images – and #JustSeeIt – because our individual actions really matter.
My closing message, which I will continue to push in lectures and talks going forward:
Just see it. Tag it. Wrestle with it. Harness it. Change it.