Earlier this year, Pope Francis noted that when coming out of a crisis like Covid-19, we don’t come out the same, we come out either better or worse than before.

That’s an important frame to consider as we continue to focus on how to reimagineand change – the food system in the wake of Covid-19.  The pandemic is a stark and painful wake-up call that cannot be ignored.  Transformational food system change isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. 

And now is the time to advocate for – and drive – that needed change.

So on Thanksgiving Day, I was pleased to join Sara Roversi of the Future Food Institute and a host of global leaders from diverse fields to explore such change in an engaging, inclusive “fishbowl” discussion session entitled  “Inequalities from Farm to Fork. Where do we start?”

This was part of the Good After Covid-19 series organized by Sara Roversi, Carlo Giardinetti of Franklin University in Switzerland and Kim Polman from Reboot the Future with the specific intent of capturing key learnings from this period to better prepare for life in the post-pandemic world.

This session was incredibly energizing, involving several key themes that emerged from our conversation on change:

  • Embracing the opportunity in crisis
  • Properly valuing food resources
  • Urgency focus
  • Shifting the food system paradigm
  • Action focus
  • Compassion and responsibility
  • Will and leadership
  • Humanistic perspective and connection
  • Collaboration and partnerships

I’ve captured some of the rich content from the session to highlight these themes as a resource, to support and inspire the range of needed, ongoing conversations on transformational food system change. 

Carlo Giardinetti opened the session with a comment on the opportunity in crisis, referring to the bounds that the pandemic has placed on us for so many months and the importance of looking for the good in what we are experiencing – and emerging better – which is in fact the purpose of the Fishbowl conversations.

Thereafter, Sara reflected on the dark period at the start of the pandemic and the realization that the virus was affecting everyone around the world – and that it had the power “to make the invisible visible.”  She noted how Covid-19 immediately highlighted essential human needs (such as connection, care and safety) linked to the central nature of food in our lives – and how food touches everyone on the planet either in a positive or negative way. 

All of these thoughts led to the Good After Covid-19 series and this specific food system-focused session on inequalities from farm to fork.

Sara brought on Anthony Bennett, CEO of Reboot the Future, which seeks to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals through adherence to the Golden Rule – the simple idea that we should do unto others and the planet as we would do to ourselves.  That framing is important, because it is clear that successfully rebooting the future depends upon successfully rebooting the food system.  And in turn, rebooting the food system involves the creation of a more equitable, circular, resilient system without the extensive social and environmental externalities that undermine security and accelerate the potential for pandemics.  

As Anthony noted, with respect to the food system, the Golden Rule demands that we extend respect to the vendors and farmers that produce our food, along with the animals and fields, and that “we treat every part of the food supply chain with honor and dignity.”  In other words, we need to place a higher valuation on our food and the resources and effort involved in producing it – something we have gotten far away from amid the developed world’s growing culture of abundance around food.

Framing our initial discussion, Arne Cartridge of Yara International recommended that as we discuss rebooting the food system, we focus on the importance of how we produce food and what we eat.  He cited three important considerations: how to make our food systems climate and Nature-positive, how to ensure social equity, and how to ensure good health.

He also took us back to the post-World War II food paradigm, which understandably was focused on food security, efficiency, and affordability – bringing the cost of food down in order to sharply reduce food insecurity.  He suggested that we consider that paradigm as having been largely achieved, although in the process we lost our way – specifically with regard to resulting social and environmental externalities such as the high remaining level of global hunger, extensive obesity and diet-related illness, biodiversity loss and climate change.

Cartridge raised the theme of urgency, noting that the food system is broken and is in need of transformative change – and quickly.  As we are already closing out the first year of the Decade of Action for the SDGs, he suggested a new frame to convey the urgency theme – the fact that we have just nine growing seasons left to achieve the needed change. 

And in extolling the need to shift the food system paradigm, he reiterated the initial theme that Covid-19 is both a crisis and an opportunity, and we must embrace the opportunity and treat it as a wake-up call.  He posed a key question to guide the session:  How do we shift the existing food paradigm and quickly – within nine growing seasons.  And how do we do that in an equitable manner, in a way that delivers food security as well as proper nutrition and health?

The answer involves action, of course, which set the stage for Mark Brand – noted chef, entrepreneur, activist, design thinker, and I’ll add “inspirational humanist” – because Mark really cares about all people.

Mark spoke in terms of complexity and simplicity.  He discussed the vast amount of food that he is able to produce on just one acre of land (over 50,000 lbs. annually), while pointing to the many downsides of our current system (excessive land devoted to corn and livestock, as well as high levels of poverty, obesity and excessive food waste). 

He cited some of the business ventures he has created, providing thousands of scratch-made meals for those in need daily, providing jobs and culinary training for those without work, and repurposing tons of food from local grocers that would otherwise go to waste.

Significantly, Brand stressed the need for compassion, noting that “poverty is an act of violence – we choose to participate in poverty by ignoring the systems that create it.”  In other words, we need to care about our fellow citizens and address root cause issues.

He went on, noting that such change isn’t hard, but that we overcomplicate it every day.  He urged us to step back and consider that people need work, they are hungry, and we are wasting far too much good food — we simply need to put all of those elements together to generate triple bottom line wins. 

That’s what Brand does – and he urged us to avoid the perspective that such desperately needed change is difficult.  As he says, “it’s not.”

Pio Wennubst of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation picked up on Brand’s theme, noting that we have the individual and collective responsibility to change inequalities related to food, and this is doable.  He recommended that we avoid getting sidetracked by a fear of failure, and instead project ourselves into the future to achieve change.

We then moved the discussion into how to remove the barriers to change for a more equitable food system.  Silvia Gaiani of the University of Bologna stressed the notion of the pandemic being a wake-up call for the world – an opportunity to be harnessed to create a more sustainable and resilient food system.

Importantly, she noted that such pivotal change can occur if the political will exists – the will to drive sustainable initiatives such as regenerative farming, climate-smart agriculture, and food loss and waste reduction across the entire food supply chain.  

She discussed the need for multiple interconnected solutions and extensive collaboration between institutions, governments, and international organizations, along with a role for continued research.

I couldn’t agree more, and I expressed my belief that at this precise time the most critical item needed for the creation of a more equitable and sustainable food system is leadership, specifically leadership based on caring for our fellow global citizens. 

Citing the wave of nationalism and isolationism that has arisen from the mass migrations of recent years (migrations which stemmed from basic SDG challenges like food security and water security), I noted that we are creating schisms between countries at an inflection point in history – a time when massive global collaboration, the antithesis of isolationism, is needed to improve the state of humanity more than ever. 

With just nine growing seasons remaining before 2030, we have no time for “country first” thinking.  We need leaders who can foster an unprecedented level of global collaboration for a “humanity first” approach to the development of an equitable, sustainable, resilient food system.  Environmental security depends on it.  Global security depends on it, too.

We had more excellent discussion on the importance of leadership and action to create an equitable food system, coupled with themes of compassion and urgency. 

Huub Savelkouls questioned how we could generate the same level of urgency for the climate crisis as we have for the Covid crisis.  Diletta Bellotti cited the reliance on cheap labor in our food system, noting that we need to create respect for the people that grow and harvest our food and break existing power relationships between countries to create truly sustainable economic systems.  I added a point about our responsibility to advance sustainable development initiatives in the developing world through heightened asset, technology, and knowledge transfer, while Mark Brand added another inspirational point about will – and how we as individuals need to challenge existing structures and make change happen.

Father Andrea Ciucci of the Pontifical Academy for Life emphasized the human element, noting that we need to make use of real faces and names, stories and places to show the connection between people and food – and thus combine a humanistic perspective with technology and economic perspectives to drive food system change.   

Key takeaways for future impact

Anthony Bennett of Reboot the Future summed up the session with several poignant takeaways. 

First, putting the session broadly into perspective, Bennett noted that “we are not the first species that has precipitated our own decline and raced toward our own extinction, but we are the first species that has the data and the science-based evidence to know and be conscious of this and perhaps do something about it.”  I agree, and his point brings to mind a similar comment from Marco Lambertini of the World Wildlife Fund – who posited that “we can be the founders of a global movement that changed our relationship with the planet” or we can be the generation that failed to act and let Earth slip away.   

Significantly, Bennett noted that the essential paradigm shift that we are seeking will only be affected through a change in values in multiple dimensions of the food system, involving equity, transparency, and more.  In my mind, at its core, this paradigm shift must be driven by a significant increase in how we value our food resources, coupled with a significant upgrade to the impact of our food system on the health of people and planet.

Third, Bennett noted that the change we must drive will involve cultural elements, enhanced by the power of stories, and the ability to help individuals “imagine themselves into the future.”  That’s a key point – because as individuals we first need to imagine how we can contribute to a more resilient, sustainable food system in order to guide consistent behavior and actions to get there (and importantly, to influence others to do the same).

Fourth, he echoed our discussion of the importance of collaboration with a foundation of caring and empathy, building on several contributions from participants, including my comments regarding the opportunity presented by the end of a completely flawed paradigm in terms of U.S. governance on pandemic management and sustainable development (as I covered in this post), as well as Sara’s comment on the importance of SDG 17 with its focus on partnerships.

Last, Bennett made a critical point as we consider transformational food system change – it takes all of us. He included a great metaphor:  the idea that there’s a table that we are all invited to share.  It’s not just the dining table, it’s the boardroom table – we not only have the ability to drive change through our fork, but also in our interactions with and expectations of business.  Given the central nature of food in our lives, the linkage between the food system and our other economic systems, and the monumental impact of the food system on the health of people and planet – it’s clear that the dining room table and the boardroom table are one – they can’t be separated.

Building on these summary points, Sara Roversi further inspired us to use food diplomacy to drive the change that we need, and to connect and collaborate going forward – reminding us that despite the trials of the pandemic, as we gather over food we celebrate many special things, and with each bite we prepared ourselves for the future – a post-pandemic future that we can make better.

And on a day where many of us celebrated over food with loved ones, that was exactly the right summary chord to strike.