Thinking through food systems & sustainability: an attempt at categorization

A recent communication design project for one of our clients as well as Zafer's talk at Özyeğin University in December made us re-visit and take stock of the most recent initiatives with regards to sustainability & sustainable food systems.

Sustainability is a theme which runs across many of our projects and which we have engaged with for quite some time. But it still appears somehow difficult to get a thorough overview of all that is going on, left alone, to make sense of the scope & impact (potential & actual) of all these initiatives, to comprehend their connections & interdependencies.

What does seem feasible & worthwhile though is to think of useful ways of categorizing sustainability initiatives and the actors (institutional & other) behind those.

In this think-piece I want to suggest a meaningful & transparent categorization, which might make it easier for individuals & organizations to navigate the wide and potentially confusing field of sustainability.

It may even help turn passive bystanders into actors & contributors.

Before discussing my suggestion for such a categorization a few general remarks might be helpful:

The fact that there is an increased interest in "all things sustainable" and an ever-growing body of work on & around sustainability, can only be a good thing. Still, it most probably is "too little too late", especially when looking at prevalent unsustainable practices and their impact on climate change and pollution.

The primary concern in my work with hep., together with my two partners, is food practices (from production to consumption and everything in between) and food worlds. They are closely tied to questions of sustainability.

A quick look at the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth by the UN makes it immediately clear that current food practices, directly or indirectly, influence progress on almost all of the 17 goals.

A special report of the renowned journal The Lancet together with the EAT-platform illustrates the seriousness & urgency of the topic, as it concludes that:

"Civilisation itself was at risk from the effects of the current food system on both human health and the Earth’s ecosystems. The modern western diet has become a highly damaging thing that needs a complete overhaul if we are to avoid potential ecological catastrophe."

(see: the Guardian's Felicity Lawrence's recent piece "The way we eat is killing us - and our planet")

As Lawrence states: Individual action alone is not going to be enough to reverse the trend or mitigate the risks. But neither will be intergovernmental agreements (as the EAT-Lancet reports suggests among many other strategies) and global conventions alone, such as the SDGs.

What is required to tackle a problem of such magnitude and complexity, is that all actors in the food system(s) think of ways to contribute and to team up for development of strategies and their implementation.

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What I want to do here is to think through actor/initiative categories along their scale(s) and to highlight a handful of initiatives which I came across recently and found particularly interesting. Such examples underline the need for action on all levels, across and between all actor categories.

At hep. we think of food systems as (a) network(s) of individual & institutional actors (producers, consumers, entrepreneurs, NGOs, governments, brands, corporations,...) and their practices (or transactions), such as growing, transport and logistics, consumption, waste etc. Actors and transactions are tied into a network of other, related practices and fields: policy-making, public health, leisure & tourism, education,... with interdependencies abound.

Even the often and rightly criticised World Economic Forum has published a report in early 2018 which recognizes the need for a complete overhaul of our food systems. While it tends to overemphasize the role of technology in doing so, it does call for a systemic approach which engages a wide variety of stakeholders and holds governments and businesses accountable.

Such as systems perspective connects a diverse range of actors with different, often contradicting & sometimes opposing needs & motivations, outlooks, budgets, agendas. What they do have in common is that they all take part in the aforementioned practices & transactions.

If we start from the very bottom (of the chart above), on the global level there are the aforementioned SDGs, a set of 17 laudable goals and 169 targets. Taking into account the current, messy state of global and national politics, one can imagine how difficult it is to monitor, left alone, enforce such a set of goals and targets.

What we do see more frequently though is that corporations use the SDGs as a frame of reference.

One of our clients, the global food producer Danone, has started to annually report on their contribution to the SDGs. It has become the single largest organization aiming for B.Corp certification of its entire organization (across countries and businesses).

Whether such efforts by big, global food producers are due to a sincere commitment to the cause of sustainability or more of a PR/CSR stunt may well be questioned.

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National governments have already more leverage when it comes to implementing and enforcing regulations with regards to food practices: food waste, both in terms of packaging used & discarded along the value chain as well as actual produce that does not comply with the standards of retailers or the hospitality industry or with the taste of end consumers has become the focus of attention for many countries.

France, where people know a thing or two about food, has emerged as a frontrunner when it comes to encouraging (or rather, enforcing) sustainable food practices and curbing the waste of food.

"A war on waste food in France, where supermarkets are banned from throwing away unsold food and restaurants must provide doggy bags when asked, has helped it secure the top spot in a ranking of countries by their food sustainability.

[...] France was the first country to introduce specific food waste legislation and loses only 1.8 percent of its total food production each year. It plans to cut this in half by 2025."

writes Ruairi Casey in a piece for the WEF & Reuters.

The Food Sustainability Index, developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit together with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, ranks countries according to their performance regarding 3 composite criteria: Food Loss & Waste, Sustainable Agricultural Practices, Nutritional Challenges.

While France comes out on top, Austria can be found in the upper third (but way lower than it could perform); Turkey is placed not for from the very bottom of the list which scores the UAE the lowest.

Find the index' customizable tables and heat maps here.

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Cities seem to us the scale where the most exciting & promising initiatives are happening.

There are several reasons for that:

  • Cities are a nexus of social activity: business, education, cultural production & consumption, leisure, tourism, care etc.

  • They are also the space where different communities with diverse identities, agendas, interests,... meet and interact.

  • With the growth of urban populations the need for healthy, nutritious, affordable food becomes central concerns of urban populations and of (some) municipal governments. Topics like resilience, food security & sovereignty, social cohesion & communality come to the fore.

  • Mayors & municipal administrations are also often more progressive and forward-thinking than national governments.

Cities across the globe have started facing up to these challenges and recognize the opportunities, which they then translate into innovative urban food strategies.

Such strategies go well beyond farmers markets, food festivals or patches of urban farming. They dig deep into less sexy but more complex problems of public health, accessibility, education for nutrition, food waste etc.

And it is not only western metropoles & capitals which are at the forefront of this development: yes, London's mayor Sadiq Khan has kicked off the development of London's ambitious, inclusive food strategy; Nordic cities, too, are setting examples with their Nordic Solutions Menu.

But it is also several cities in South America, Africa & Asia which are among the signatories of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and contribute many of the best & some of the most innovative practices to this initiative.

Unfortunately, neither Vienna nor Istanbul seem to show much effort to actively design their sustainable food futures.

Communities play an integral role in the urban food landscape as well as in urban-rural linkages.

They form around shared concerns & practices:

Consumers come together in buyer cooperatives; small producers may form alliances to survive in the competition against agro-businesses; ethnic communities come together around shared dietary & culinary traditions; taste communities around certain food & lifestyle practices.

Not always are such communities engaged in sustainable food practices, but very often they contribute actively to a more inclusive & diverse food system.

Having joined a buyer community myself recently makes me experience the advantages firsthand: access to high-quality produce from small, sometimes artisan Turkish producers; shortening of long supply-chains; packaging reduced to an absolute minimum, which alone and by itself is already a massive improvement in a country (TR) which is enamoured with plastic bags & wrapping. Admittedly, such consumption practices require time and the necessary cash and are thus not a universal solution.

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Then, there is the level of individual food businesses & entrepreneurs; they (farmers & growers, artisans, chefs & restaurateurs,...) contribute significantly to more sustainable food systems.

Obviously, 'big food' (global food brands, big retailers,...) has even more potential leverage, but their role and their commitment to sustainability is highly problematic & controversial (see the EAT-Lancet report mentioned above).

We rather want to highlight the work of one chef for whom his commitment to sustainability is certainly not simply a marketing vehicle but a sincere conviction and an integral part of his self-understanding.

"[Dan Barber] is on a cheerfully insane, one-man mission not only to serve some of the best-tasting food in America, but also to change the way America farms and eats for ever."

writes the Observer's Tim Adams in his portrait of the American chef-owner of celebrated Blue Hills restaurant.

Barber, in his work in his restaurants and with his seed company, in his celebrated book 'The Third Plate' or through his collaboration with farmers & suppliers, argues that 'there is no single bullet', no single solution to what makes us healthy and our food systems more sustainable.

He therefore, first & foremost, believes in diversity.

'The problem in America [and most Western countries] is one of abundance, and it directly inhibits diversity. “In all of my research about healthfulness, everything points to diversity. Because the amazing thing is that we actually don’t know what makes us healthy. It’s probably because there’s a million different things – there is no magic bullet. That’s the great lesson of different cultures that look to their region to develop this correspondence between what the land is telling you it wants to grow according to soil conditions, climate, and your diet.'

(Emma Brockes in the Guardian's Age of Extinction series: 20 years from now you will be eating fast food crickets)

Secondly, Barber believes in the power of hedonism & pleasure as a change-agent. Many of us, he says, expect healthy eating to entail a large dose of sacrifice. This is wrong; food grown in nutrient-dense soil simply tastes better.

While Barber's argumentation is engaging and inspiring and his food apparently delicious, some of his suggestions sound only half-baked:

"Restaurants can become these cathedral of ideas" he is quoted as saying in Emma Brocke's article. It is certainly true that a lot of innovation has come out of restaurants in the last two decades. But the chefs' symposia and conferences, which have sprung up all over the world in recent years, have produced little in terms of a tangible body of knowledge. Neither has the frequent (and frequently copied) pose of the media-savvy chef-as-activist contributed much.

Dan Barber himself come across as a different breed, although he seems to be able to operate his ventures without being much troubled by concerns of financial viability.

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The individual consumer and households seems to have countless options to engage in sustainable food practices and make their choices and decisions accordingly:

Whether to buy from supermarkets, independent retailers or farmers markets;

which products to buy - organic, industrial, artisan;

to pay attention (or not) to ethical sourcing and labour practices in the supply chain;

to follow (or not) the rules of recycling and food waste; where to eat when eating out and what to eat;

to engage in community practices, buyer coops, urban gardening and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately and unless systemic changes are taking hold, not all consumers are free to chose: almost all of these choices are contingent on having the necessary financial means and thus access to sustainable alternatives.

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What's the use of suggested categorization?

Well, the field of sustainability has become relatively, if not yet sufficiently crowded - with initiatives, policies, projects, actor.

Even if we assume that most of these initiatives are well-intentioned, we can be certain that not all will be equally well-planned, carefully carried out, sufficiently funded and thus will produce widely varying impact.

The categorization presented in this think-piece is only one way of doing so, but bringing clarity and structure to the field therefore seems meaningful. It potentially can help to separate the sincere from the superficial, the ambitious from the mediocre, the impactful from those which are a waste of time and resources.

For the moment, the most promising and sincere initiatives seem to happen on the city-scale in the form of innovative urban food strategies and policies. They come across as impactful and manageable at the same time, as they can engage large businesses and SMEs, activists, communities and individual consumers. We want to use our hep.blog to keep on highlighting and discussing them further and offer our very own insights.

Bill Bragg for the Guardian

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