What can systems thinking do for food?

Sensemaking / What can systems thinking do for food?

14 Apr 2011

A wide angle view could put food on the fast track to sustainability, says Sally Uren

The global food system is not sustainable. A simple truth: one we’ve known for many years. Yet despite multiple interventions by numerous organisations, progress towards sustainability has been slow.

So, what exactly is the problem? Well, the answer to that is a problem in itself. A diagnosis for the food system spawns a complex, interconnected web of social, environmental and economic issues.

Take the fact that the true cost of food to the average consumer in developed economies has gone down over the last few decades, when the overall cost of living has gone up. For example, 21% of UK household expenditure was on food and non-alcoholic drink in 1970, but by 2008 it had dropped to just 9%. Good news, surely, for families on low incomes? One claim made regularly by the big retailers is that they are, on balance, a force for good, as they have improved access to cheap food for millions.

However, ‘cheap food’ is not great news for growers in both developing and developed markets. They see their margins squeezed as retailers try to keep prices down. Many simply go out of business – a big social and economic negative. The squeeze on price can also mean that large-scale production processes become the only economically viable option, with well documented negative environmental impacts.

As more and more of our food comes to us via mass production, we, the end consumer, lose the connection with the food we buy. We’ve all heard the story of the six year old’s answer to the question about where do eggs come from? “Supermarkets, of course!” There are implications for our health, too. The sheer accessibility of cheap food is a known contributor to an ever-increasing burden of chronic disease, and many developing economies have the double burden of vast swathes of malnourished people living alongside the newly obese.

Another big debate raging right now is the role of GM in helping secure global food security. Many rush to extol the virtues of science and technology as the answer to feeding a burgeoning global population, and indeed such solutions will have a role to play.

But if we focus too much on GM as the silver bullet, we’ll miss another, much cheaper and simpler solution which is already in our grasp: cutting food waste. A huge amount of food is wasted between harvest and the shop, and shameful skip-loads of the stuff are thrown away by consumers themselves: in the UK alone, around 30% of food that people buy ends up in landfill.

These debates, from cheap food to GM, show how interconnected different parts of the food system are. The good news is that by getting smarter about these connections, and not looking at issues in isolation, we could help shift the food system towards greater sustainability. But we need to ask the right questions.

So, how can retailers engage differently with producers to improve financial returns? The fair trade model shows that alternative contracts can work well right down the supply chain: for growers, by guaranteeing income; for manufacturers, by securing supplies; and for retailers, by proving that they are serious about sustainability and giving them more ‘brand glow’.

How can we connect the end consumer (that’s you and me) with the origins of the food we buy? It’s an important question. Because if we were more aware of the direct link between the food in our fridge and the livelihood of the farmer down the road, we might (and it’s a big might) be prepared to pay a little more, or at least not throw a third of it away.

Of course, what better way to connect the consumer with food than to encourage them to produce some themselves? If not by actually getting their hands dirty, then by becoming involved with one of the burgeoning numbers of community-supported farm schemes [see ‘Where skylarks dare’].

The sooner we start thinking about circular value chains, as opposed to long linear ones with the producer at one end far removed from the consumer at the other, the better.

Systems innovation for food gives us an unprecedented opportunity to do three things – reconnect the consumer with the food they buy, redefine the value of food and rebalance the power in global supply chains.

At Forum for the Future, in collaboration with our partners and others in the food system, we plan to get serious about innovation in the food system, in the hope that it begins to accelerate, and stops shuffling, towards sustainability.

Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.

This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition, Tomorrow's food, tomorrow's farms.

Image credits: dlewis33 / istock

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