2030 is fast approaching.  And with it, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come due.

To some, that may seem like a long way off.  Let me clarify:  It’s not.

As my colleagues and readers of this blog know, I am continually looking for ways to communicate the need for urgent and collaborative work that will help change behavior and culture to create a more sustainable food system – with a specific focus on meeting the Target 12.3 goal of halving global food waste by 2030.  What signals, stories, imagery, or themes can serve as igniters of change among large segments of people?

And while we entered 2020, the Decade of Action for the SDGs, with much excitement to accelerate progress on food waste reduction, the pandemic has derailed many efforts – paradoxically resulting in increasing levels of waste and hunger. 

As we look with hope toward life on the other side of Covid-19, it’s essential that we recoup our energy and focus on meeting Target 12.3 and building a more regenerative food system.  And to do that, we need inspirational framing to reignite change efforts. 

In a recent Good After Covid-19 session led by Sara Roversi and the Future Food Institute team, Arne Cartridge, Executive Director of IMAGINE, the organization founded by Paul Polman to mobilize business executives to lead transformational change for the Goals, provided a new, inspiring frame to consider.

Cartridge pointed to the extensive externalities associated with the current food system and the need for transformative change to make it climate and Nature-positive, to enhance equity, and to improve health outcomes.  He noted that there is general acceptance of the idea that our food system is broken, and that we must engineer a rapid shift to achieve these outcomes.  Such transformative change requires a new perspective – a deep break from the post-War paradigm of maximizing food yield and availability at lower costs.  Significantly, Cartridge proposed a provocative new framing – the idea that we have just nine growing seasons left to engineer that massive change. 

As soon as I heard that phrasing, I was hooked – and felt a renewed sense of urgency.  I’m confident that those who work with farmers in any capacity will get it too, for farmers have no free time.  Just cornering a farmer for a few minutes of conversation is tough; their days start early and end very late.  They work tirelessly to maximize the benefit of the current growing season, and when it’s over, they are already planning for the next season.  They don’t get any breaks – their seasons are short and they blur together.  Nine growing seasons (i.e. years) go by very quickly, and yet the massive change that we must engineer in our food system is largely dependent on our producers.

That’s why I was so impacted by Cartridge’s phrasing, and I wondered whether this could be an important theme to accelerate urgency and action toward the transformative food system changes that we know must occur in such a short window.  Digging further, I asked several food system experts to weigh in on this important topic as well, and I’ve included their excellent reflections below:

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland and the blog Wasted, really elevates the nine growing seasons theme for us by breaking it down further and making meaning out of each of the three key words: 

“Hearing that there are only nine growing seasons left before the oft-cited 2030 really spurs some thoughts.  Such as: 

Nine. Babies born this year won’t yet have reached their tenth birthdays before our planet’s fate will more or less be sealed.  How incredibly unfair!  If that thought doesn’t prompt us all to change — something…everything — I’m not sure what will.  

Growing.  There’s a growing awareness that now is the time to make lasting changes.  Reaching and empowering young people on the need for climate action will determine how successful and sustainable that movement will be. 

Seasons.  Let this spring be the season to refocus on climate solutions, after years of distracting and damaging political strife.  Our attention is long overdue.”

Dana Gunders, Executive Director at ReFED and author of NRDC’s seminal paper on food waste across the U.S. food supply chain, poignantly highlights the criticality of the time element for maximizing the value of our food resources, noting: 

“Agriculture is bound by biology.  It takes time, thus evolving it takes time.  So trying to make change when you have just nine chances to try things, learn, and improve can be difficult.  But it’s all the more reason for us to be critically conscious of what we do with that food.  We can work to waste as little as possible every day.  We may only have nine growing seasons, but we have 3,285 days to improve our systems to make sure we our putting that food to the highest and best use.  And we need to use every single one of them.” 

Dan Kurzrock, CEO and co-founder of Regrained and co-founder and Board member at the Upcycled Food Association, builds on Dana’s theme of the importance of optimizing the value of our food resources in order to create a more regenerative, resilient food system.  This, of course, is a key premise of the Upcycled Food member companies – creating new, high-quality food products from nutritious food ingredients that would otherwise be discarded: 

“As humans, we have to eat to survive, but exactly what and how we eat is up to us.  More than 40% of food grown each year goes to waste and with it also the water, energy, labor, and nutritional value.  Together we can disrupt the old ways and forge a new path to create a better, more resilient food system, but we don’t have much time left.  With the Upcycled Food movement, we are championing solutions to put nutritious delicious food to its best use – feeding people – using ingredients created from crops that have already been cultivated, harvested, and ‘used.’  This is ‘found’ food – meaning that all the costs and impact have already been absorbed, yielding more from less.”

University of Pennsylvania Professor Zhengxia Dou, creator of the landmark 2014 conference (The Last Food Mile) on food loss and waste in the U.S. and author of several key papers (including this CAST Issue Paper on Food Loss and Waste), injects a circular element.  She builds on the upcycling concept, pointing to the short window for change and the importance of utilizing livestock to convert excess edible food “waste” into new products for human consumption:

“A third of the time window has passed since the UN SDGs were announced.  But progress regarding SDG Target 12.3 has been slow and the world overall is “woefully behind” where it needs to be regarding the ambitious target (Lipinski, 2020).  The remaining time frame – just about 9 growing seasons – is very short considering how much work still needs to be done to implement programs for reduction of consumer food waste at scale.  To me, sustainable solutions must emphasize not only food waste reduction at the source by engaging consumers but also food waste recovery downstream for valorization.  Leveraging livestock to promote a circular food system is a viable option, as animals can help us more effectively utilize and upcycle a wide variety of plant-based biomass including food waste in the production of meats, milk, and eggs.”

Last, Lisa Johnson, Food and Agriculture consultant, leading food loss researcher, and Adjunct Assistant Professor at NC State University, brings unique insight to this theme. Dr. Johnson is an expert in the development of solutions for reducing on-farm food loss, working closely with growers to find opportunities to optimize the value of crop production through measurement, market development, and diversion.  She stresses the need for increased measurement and data to fully understand the scale of on-farm losses, coupled with a more systemic view of the impact of achieving a sizeable reduction of losses:   

“When I hear the phrase ‘only nine growing seasons’ I think of two critical points related to on-farm losses, in particular with fruit and vegetable crops. One thing that is still needed at the farm level is a reliable and accurate baseline measurement of what we are currently losing.  This is challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is the short time period we have.  We can only start without that, knowing losses are somewhere between 20-40% of the yield that is actually marketed and successfully sold from farms.  Is that accurate enough? This number could be higher than food waste at the consumer level, but we just do not have enough data to know.  When these losses happen on-farm, the driver is often elsewhere in the supply chain, so how can we task growers with changing this figure?  It’s on the entire food supply chain to shift the norms.

The other thing that’s important to consider is that if we are somehow able to recover everything that’s lost on farms, or use everything that is grown, will it just be wasted further downstream?  If that healthy, fresh food is ‘pushed’ into the food system, rather than ‘pulled’ by demand, it could cause further detriment.  So, we need to work on demand for fresh produce at the consumer level to really reduce food losses on farms and benefit growers.  Continuing to ask for ‘ugly’ produce may work well because as has been demonstrated by industry stakeholders, when we market and sell ‘ugly’ produce, what actually gets moved is rarely ‘ugly’, rather it is ‘surplus’ or ‘seasonal’ or ‘local’ produce.  Increasing demand in any of these areas should therefore contribute to losing less farm fresh food.” 

These are indeed compelling thoughts from leaders across the food system – touching on important issues of climate, equity, urgency, resource optimization, upcycling, resilience, diversion, circularity, measurement and data, shifting norms, and systemic thinking.  To me, they amplify the need for urgent, transformative change in the short time window that is embedded in Cartridge’s nine growing seasons framing.

To recap, there are many key points for sustainability leaders to draw on here, and this post is intended to inspire critical thinking for urgent food system change.  I’ll start by suggesting three takeaways.

First, we can’t overemphasize the fact that time is short.  We have just nine growing seasons remaining to meet Target 12.3 and the many other targets under the 17 SDGs.  Clearly, that is very little time – and we’ve already lost precious time in 2020.  So how can we as individuals rapidly change our behavior, reducing food waste and the impact of our food choices?  Further, how can we be influencers of others, helping to drive culture change resulting in less food waste and a more sustainable food system?

Second, how can we prompt food organizations to embrace the urgency of that short time window through our choices and expectations – leading them to make responsible commitments to minimizing social and environmental externalities and creating shared value?  How can we get them to set meaningful sustainability targets that contribute to a regenerative food system, and most importantly, ensure that they act on those commitments and report progress in a transparent manner?

Third, what other signals, stories, imagery or themes can we come up with to inspire others and ignite action to create a regenerative, equitable global food system?  What framing can we develop that resonates with many?  As the IMAGINE team notes, how do we lift the roof, raise the floor, and redraw boundaries?

The case for cutting food waste and rebuilding a regenerative, equitable, resilient food system is clear.  The food system contributes more than a quarter of annual greenhouse gas emissions while increasing pressure on scarce water, land and other resources, advancing deforestation and biodiversity lost, polluting oceans, and more.  NASA recently noted that 2020 tied 2016 as the warmest year on record, with the last seven years being the warmest seven years on record.  Further, we waste 30-50% of our food supply annually while global hunger is on the rise (FAO’s recent “State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World” report indicates that roughly 690 million global citizens are hungry).  The pandemic has exposed the fragility and inequity of our tightly-connected food system, and could push 100 million more citizens into a state of chronic hunger.  Last, the Global Footprint Network indicates that humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services is far exceeding Earth’s regenerative capacity, putting us in a deficit position with Nature (which of course is unsustainable). 

Back in April, author Arundhati Roy wrote “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.  This one is no different.  It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Similarly, Pope Francis stated that the pandemic provides humanity with a choice – to emerge from crisis either better or worse.

These two points of inspiration supplement the urgency of Cartridge’s “nine growing seasons” theme.  And hopefully, this post will ignite further points of inspiration for you.

Let’s find inspiration in all of these ideas and themes, drawing on them to embrace opportunity and lead the needed change to rebuild a regenerative, equitable food system – fast.