In April of 2020, National Geographic published a special dual-sided edition focusing on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.  Reading it one way, the title was “How We Saved The World – An Optimist’s Guide to Life on Earth in 2070.”  Flipping it over and reading in the other direction, it was entitled “How We Lost The Planet – A Pessimist’s Guide to Life on Earth in 2070.”  I

It was a brilliant effort to address a question that often is asked of speakers at conferences these days – how optimistic or pessimistic are you feeling about food system transformation, or achieving various SDGs, or successfully feeding 9.6 billion global citizens by 2050, or about reining in global warming to an acceptable level?

I’ve long been a fan of Paul Hawken’s response to this question as expressed in his 2009 Commencement Address at the University of Portland:  “When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.” 

And as readers of this blog know, while it’s important to be realistically optimistic, I believe there’s also an opportunity to harness  responsible pessimism in this area to lead the needed transformational change to our food system and accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.  That said, I know of no better way to spur optimism than by taking tangible action to advance solutions on food system change, sustainability, and climate challenges – particularly in the area of education—because these challenges are so big and so urgent that we must engage everyone at all levels of society without delay.

Fittingly, one section within the Optimist side of the above-mentioned National Geographic edition was entitled “What You Can Do For Our World,” noting that “Individual acts alone can’t fix global ills” but “each of us can do our part to reduce environmental problems and put more energy into the search for solutions.”

That “each of us” phrasing is vital.  It’s a critical mantra for all individuals to embrace, and nowhere is interest in the search for climate solutions more evident than at the Future Food Institute, especially in their Climate Shaper Boot Camps – where motivated, multidisciplinary global students with a passion for environmental and social change engage in experiential learning and hackathon-oriented solution development for sustainability and climate challenges.   

There’s an inspiring air of responsibility among these students – a palpable sense of determined focus – as they fully understand the seriousness of climate and SDG challenges and are passionate about driving positive change with urgency.  They are deeply grounded in the Future Food Institute’s change-focused learning approach which is based on three key themes: Inspiration, Aspiration, and Action.

One of my largest areas of focus is on education, specifically on innovation for sustainability, and thus I was very fortunate to participate with the Future Food Institute team and their inspirational Climate Shapers in a sustainability-focused educational session revolving around the Mediterranean Diet in Pollica, Italy in September. 

The Future Food Institute’s Boot Camps bring together motivated students in experiential learning sessions framed around three goals: 

  1. Protecting the planet (co-designing tangible strategies and actions to accelerate action on climate and the SDGs)
  2. Empowering People (training and inspiring a new set of innovators)
  3. Enabling Prosperity (leaving an impactful legacy to the host communities)

The theme of “regeneration” – and regenerative agriculture – is central to the educational effort of the Pollica Boot Camp, as are the values underpinning the Mediterranean Diet (a lifestyle of coexistence between humans and the environment). 

Over the course of the week, the students toured ancient caves, attended classes on climate change and the SDGs, topics in Mediterranean regeneration, regeneration of soils, food safety and food security, prosperity thinking, dormant resources, technology, and more.  Field learning involved olive oil production, beekeeping, milk and cheese production, anchovy fishing, regenerative agriculture, and a botanical walk.  And, of course, food, cultural issues, and community were celebrated over dinner nightly. 

Student teams were also formed in hackathon fashion to address three key themes – Ecosystem regeneration, Nutrition for All, and the Mediterranean Diet (Lifestyle for a Sustainable Future) – with four projects completed to support local entities. 

I helped to anchor the week, bringing a food systems perspective with a talk entitled “From Waste to Taste: The Regenerative Way” – with a focus on the imperative of reducing food waste in order to drive food systems transformation. 

My talk was framed in 5 parts:  First, we discussed the “what” – a brief overview of the scope and scale of the global food waste challenge.  Second, we covered the “why” – the drivers behind the vast and unsustainable level of global food waste annually which are simultaneously clear signals of the need for change to reduce waste across all levels of our food system.  In this section we reviewed many of the cultural issues in the U.S. and developed world countries leading to excessive food waste, such as expectations of large portions, a misguided focus on “perfect” food, expectations of excessive variety at all times, a focus on low prices (leading to entrenched value offerings based on large quantities), and over-purchasing coupled with confusion over date labels.  We discussed how these many factors perpetuate a wasteful culture of abundance toward food  stemming from, at core, an improper valuation of our precious food resources.  We followed with an exploration of leverage points for change. 

Third, we discussed the “impact” of global food waste by elucidating its direct connection to critical sustainability challenges such as nutrition, plastics, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate.  This included the missed opportunity to provide needed nutrition for billions of global citizens, and the paradox expressed in the EAT-Lancet report that while food is the strongest available lever to optimize human health and planetary health, it is also currently threatening both to a great degree.  We noted the extreme pressure that food production and food waste place on land and ocean systems and climate through plastic waste, water pollution, soil degradation, ocean pollution and acidification, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and GHG emissions.  Given the strong impact between the food system and climate change, we noted that in simple terms, food is climate, and since the world is losing and wasting between one third and one half of annual food production, we can make the extension that food waste is climate, too.

Fourth, we moved into the “how” of reducing this costly system of excessive waste, leveraging opportunities to “move from waste to taste.”  Here, we focused on two of the best things that we can all do to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, regenerative food system.  The first, of course, is to prevent waste from occurring in the first place – and we reviewed how Leanpath’s technology and behavior change focus helps foodservice organizations (which serve billions of meals daily across the globe) cut their food waste in half.  Prevention, or source reduction, is the point of maximum impact on EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, as it avoids all of the environmental externalities that would otherwise occur in the production and distribution of that wasted food. 

Next, we reviewed the exciting opportunities in upcycling – driven by the pioneering work of Jonathan Deutsch at the Drexel Food Lab and a rapidly-growing list of highly innovative companies in the Upcycled Food Association to maximize the value of current excess food resources by converting them into new value-added food products.  These companies, such as Regrained, Matriark Foods, Coffee Cherry Company, and Hidden Gems Beverage Company, are transforming food byproducts from current food operations into creative, healthy new products – and in the process creating substantial environmental and social benefit.  These organizations bring elements of fun, innovation, education, scale, and audacity to the food sector, as covered in this recent article.  Through innovative product transformation, they are advancing food system transformation by engaging consumers and food businesses in the shift to circular processes. 

Last, we brought everything together with a focus on “the big change” – reiterating the strong linkage between food waste and the Sustainable Development Goals, and the imperative to significantly reduce global food waste (as called for in Target 12.3) and create a more circular, regenerative food system in order to rein in global warming to the 1.5°C threshold.  We emphasized that we know what we need to do to transform the food system, and that such transformation is not a choice – it’s imperative – and we must find the collective will.  Further, we discussed the critical need to change our culture to properly value food to de-normalize food wasting behavior, and to harness the many signals of dysfunction that we see to become influencers for a more inclusive, sustainable, and regenerative food system – because we are all essential stakeholders in that system.

There’s no question that the world is at an inflection point on climate and the multiple sustainability challenges underlying the SDGs – and we have little time to change our wasteful ways that reinforce our linear, high-externality food system.   

We’re in the Decade of Action, with just eight years remaining to meet multiple sustainability targets and get the world on track to stem global warming – and we are far behind where we need to be. 

Reversing course requires urgent action, and a constant focus on education and solutions development to drive the needed transformational change. 

I’m inspired by the Future Food Institute’s educational efforts with such a committed group of Climate Shapers, and by the students themselves.  There is a quiet energy among them: they “get” the level of change that is needed, and they’re focused on leading it. 

And referring back to Paul Hawken, when you meet these students and see their commitment, if you’re not optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.

They are change-makers.  And we need more of them.

So whether it’s by education or other forms of tangible action, let’s all do what we can to help shape climate shapers.