Visualizing the Journey: Artwork by Nicoletta Crisponi

We need a “new, radically different food system that heals the planet, restores livelihoods, provides equal access to every human being and nourishes us to become our healthiest selves.”

This was the overarching frame of the Edible Planet Ventures Summit, where several food system leaders from around the globe met in Perugia, Italy last week to collaboratively map out a resilient food system (in other words, to hack the future of food).

It was energizing to be engaged with other participants in this venue (described here by organizer Sharon Cittone), ideating and collaborating on the most critical food system challenges with a focus on developing innovative and effective solutions to transform the food system.    

All of our work from the Summit will culminate in the Edible Planet Charter – an action plan of concrete solutions to drive the needed transformational change to the global food system. 

Throughout the Summit, multiple teams focused on key food system themes such as health and nutrition, regenerative agriculture, climate change and food security, food access and sovereignty, urban and controlled environment agriculture, proteins and biotech, policy and innovation, and more. 

I worked along with several colleagues on the Food Waste and Circularity team, seeking to accelerate progress toward the global goal of cutting food waste in half in tandem with advancing development of a sustainable, circular food system. 

It’s a fitting time for our team, as global hunger numbers are moving in the wrong direction while the food system is driving serious environmental externalities in the from of emissions, water and land depletion, ocean pollution, and deforestation.  Further, two significant days are approaching – the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste (September 29th) and World Food Day (October 16th) – specific days on the UN calendar which focus global attention on the importance of food loss and waste reduction and global food security. 

It is also fitting to hold such an event in Italy, where food is celebrated and so central to national culture.  Where food is valued.

And it is painfully clear that amid the current global landscape of food price inflation, rising hunger and even the weaponization of food, we can’t do enough to address global food system challenges – as they are not only central to food and environmental security, but to overall global security.

Like other Summit teams, our work is an ongoing journey that started before we departed for Italy.  We began by identifying key issues that keep us awake at night – such as excessive food loss and waste, the emissions impact of the food system, related issues of resource consumption, food insecurity, inadequate nutrition and unsustainable diets, water security and drought, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and broad concerns over the non-circular nature of the food system. 

We expressed great concern that food literacy is low, and that food is vastly undervalued in the eyes of many.  Further, we noted that the developed world drives a food system characterized by a reinforcing cycle of overproduction and excessive waste – and that food organizations are disinclined to alter that model.

Working toward Transformational Change

Our operating premise was to go beyond issue identification to develop a plan to solve the following challenge: How to transform the global food system to substantially reduce food waste and increase circularity so that the world can provide sufficient nutritious food for 10 billion citizens by 2050 within planetary boundaries. 

It’s a tall order, especially given that we are failing to provide adequate nutrition for billions of citizens today (at a population of 7.9 billion) while far exceeding planetary boundaries.  As the Global Footprint Network notes, we exceeded the planet’s biocapacity for the year on July 28th, so we are currently operating at a rate of 1.75 Earths.  That’s clearly not sustainable. 

It is also, arguably, the most important challenge that the world faces today.

Successfully feeding the planet in 2050 requires massive change, both in mindsets and action, along with education, innovation, collaboration, investment, modeling and knowledge sharing, partnerships, and a renewed sense of caring for humanity. 

Success will require transformational change as opposed to incremental steps, and it will absolutely require efficiency gains driven by sharp reductions in food loss and waste and broad implementation of circular processes. 

Our team explored several themes in our journey toward a solutions framework, including the need to:

  • Change the culture of abundance toward food
  • Communicate the “true cost” of food
  • Create deep mindset change for food waste reduction
  • Change our relationship with food (increase food literacy)
  • Prioritize the prevention of food waste (drive responsible production/consumption)
  • Change the current retail model to reduce waste
  • Develop a food system that is fundamentally resilient
  • Avoid perpetuating (patching) the existing system (focus on guiding transformational change)
  • Include perspectives from all food sectors, as well as the global South
  • Incentivize producers to take more responsibility to reduce environmental harm
  • Employ smart regulation,  carrots (incentives) as well as sticks (costs)
  • Set targets for waste reduction, anchored by measurement and transparent reporting
  • Move to a more distributed food system to reduce waste

We also discussed the need for urgency.  As one team member noted, we have to communicate that the world is “at the end of the abundance era.”  Another noted, “it’s now or never.”

Further, we engaged in scenario modeling for our topic – describing possible outcomes in terms of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  For our team, the “good” scenario involves transformational change to the food system in which society properly values food, food loss and waste is sharply reduced (in turn accelerating progress toward other SDGs), the food system is much more circular, sustainable, and equitable, and all citizens have access to sufficient nutritious food within planetary boundaries.  In this scenario, overproduction of food is minimal, and we have full valorization of food resources. 

The “ugly” scenario involves no change to the current system, leading to food system failure.  Here, we fail to change our wasteful behavior and linear models, driving continued depletion of the planet’s ability to provide healthy food for citizens.  In this scenario, we see climate shocks, increased food insecurity, regional famine, mass migration, weaponization of food, and significant threats to global security. 

The middle ground, “bad” scenario involves incremental change.  We achieve some minor positives but largely continue business as usual, which ensures that we fail to sharply reduce food loss and waste in accordance with Target 12.3 and that we remain off track on many other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – with the likely eventual transition to the “ugly” scenario involving food system failure.  Basically, we are kicking the can down the road while the planet warms and food insecurity increases. 

Ultimately, it is clear that the “good” option is the only option, and we’d all better get on track to make it happen.

Creating a Collaborative Action Framework

Our interactions with other groups entailed many points of overlap and sharpened our focus.  We recognized the importance of several factors, such as creating a culture that properly values food, education to create mindset change, smart regulation and reporting standards, upcycling, local, decentralized food systems, and the power of storytelling. 

After much discussion over the course of two days, we distilled our work into an action framework of five key pillars to drive food waste reduction and create a more circular global food system, including:

  1. Awareness Raising
  2. Education
  3. Solutions/Model Development
  4. Amplification (Scaling)
  5. Networked Collaboration

At first glance, these pillars may seem basic, in fact, many of them come up often.  But the real magic of food system change is in the doing.

The importance of awareness raising is obvious, for example.  But it is an essential starting point – because despite considerable work over the past decade to elevate focus on the scope and scale of the food waste challenge by many individuals and groups, along with the creation of a specific global goal (Target 12.3) to cut food waste in half by 2020 and reduce food losses along supply chains, we are still not moving fast enough. 

And we need to understand the importance of not moving fast enough

There’s a strong parallel in Greta Thunberg’s recent book, Our House Is on Fire (Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis.”  Commenting on the severity of the climate crisis, Thunberg notes that the first time she heard about climate change and the greenhouse effect she felt that it couldn’t be true, because if it were, humanity would not be talking about anything else.  A significant disconnect exists – since we’re not acting with enough urgency to rein in emissions, we’re obviously not sufficiently aware of the gravity of the challenge.

That same concept of a disconnect in mindset holds true regarding global food waste.  Despite considerable effort over the last decade, coupled with many highly visible negative externalities associated with excessive food waste (hunger, food insecurity, global warming and environmental damage), the world is not on track to meet the global goal of halving food waste by 2030.  By extension, the world is not sufficiently aware of the gravity of the scale and consequences of global food waste and the urgent need to implement collaborative efforts to sharply cut food loss and waste and advance circularity in the global food system.

Thus, we spoke of awareness raising at a much deeper level, recognizing that we must raise awareness of the scope and scale of the food waste challenge among individuals at a much deeper level – making it such a part of core consciousness that they change behavior.  By re-establishing food literacy and communicating the proper value of food, we can change culture such that norms shift from easy waste of food to a focus on wase reduction. 

We must supplement awareness-raising efforts with deep educational efforts – making food waste reduction, sustainable food systems, and circularity a key part of K-12 programs, as well as across sectors such as food retail, food production, foodservice, and the consumer level.  We must also educate business leaders and policymakers to become change leaders. 

There’s an appropriate parallel here in the business sector as well.  In August of 2021, Deloitte announced that it would deploy a climate learning program to educate all of its 330,000 employees “to inform, challenge and inspire Deloitte people to learn about the impacts of climate change and empower them to confidently navigate their contribution to addressing climate change by making responsible choices at home and at work, and in advising our clients.”

This is highly significant.  Deloitte has prioritized educating its employees on climate change to help change their behaviors and to positively influence others – at core, to strengthen the long term viability of its business.

Countries, and food companies, must do the same with food waste and food system issues, prioritizing educational efforts to change behaviors and business models to ensure the long term viability of the planet.  This includes changing our culture around food, moving away from our current culture of abundance to a culture of responsibility which drives behavior to maximize the value of food resources at all levels.

With the above efforts in place to change mindsets and culture, we must support the development of effective solutions and models to cut food losses and waste across the food supply chain, while creating models to convert byproducts from one process into inputs for another (i.e., upcycling).  Further, we must scale such models and connect them through collaborative networks. 

Again, while the pillars may seem obvious, the key is putting them into action at scale. 

Five Additional Framing Takeaways

In addition, beyond these five pillars, I came away with five other takeaways from the Summit regarding efforts to create a more sustainable, circular, and equitable food system.

First, this work is hard.  Even with a group of aligned, knowledgeable leaders from several sectors, our group navigated several points of contention as we attempted to bring structure to our ideation process.

Second, this work should be hard – and that bears acknowledgment.  We’re working to bring structure to one of humanity’s most critical challenges – feeding 10 billion global citizens in a sustainable manner by 2050 recognizing that we are nowhere close to that goal today.  If it were easy, the world would be much further along by now – and the deep ideation and Charter-development efforts organized by the Summit would not be necessary.

Third, this work is essential, and the urgency factor cannot be overstated.  We must change the broader narrative and awaken the world to the urgency of the food waste challenge and the costs of an overly linear food system.

Fourth, linkage means leverage.  Our topic, reducing food waste and increasing food system circularity, is tightly linked to numerous other food system challenges and Sustainable Development Goals.  When we reduce food waste, we simultaneously advance progress toward multiple other SDGs – lowering emissions, easing pressure on scarce water and land resources, reducing packaging and plastics pollution, and reducing deforestation and associated biodiversity loss.  Further, the saved resources can be reallocated to addressing the root causes of food insecurity.  This multiplier effect is a critical point of leverage that merits much more focus.

Fifth, moving up matters.  In addressing food waste reduction, we need to move up the food waste hierarchy to prioritize source reduction (i.e. prevention) efforts.  By preventing the occurrence of food waste in the first place, we maximize environmental and social impact by saving all of the resources and externalities that would have otherwise occurred in the production and distribution of that food.  A prevention focus can serve as the overarching frame for leading a shift to responsible production versus overproduction, and it can (and should) be coupled with redistribution and circular initiatives to optimize the use of existing excess food resources.  It fits with our team’s emphasis on transforming the food system rather than perpetuating unsustainable flows with incremental tweaks.   

Charting an Action Course

Amid a host of serious new food system challenges in the wake of the pandemic and global unrest, the Summit provided an inspirational venue to reignite the global dialog on food system transformation – with an action focus. 

Members of all of the groups ideated, listened, collaborated, and charted the course for food system transformation – setting an example for policymakers and food system leaders worldwide.  We found overlap between the teams in terms of critical themes, priorities, and tactics to advance change,  We reinforced positive ideas and offered new ideas for exploration. 

Perhaps most important, we are completely aligned on the need for big change.

Stay tuned for the compilation of all of our work in the form of the Edible Planet Charter, an action plan for transformational food system change.