At the end of January, SustainAbility co-hosted a workshop with WWF UK to explore the priority action areas to advance sustainable food systems and diets.
The discussion built on the research we undertook together last year to map the projects and initiatives tacking issues in this space, with participants invited to share reflections on their experience and priorities for future action. Below are our five key takeaways from the session.
Global food and beverage companies, with their vast and complex supply chains, will need to work hard to discover, disclose and remedy human rights abuses to verify that they are not part of the problem.
1. When discussing sustainable food systems, we tend to lose sight of societal issues
It is striking that many of those who are hungry in the world today are also part of the food system, notably small, independent food producers and waged agricultural workers. These imbalances are further exacerbated by climate change, which threatens the ability of entire regions to feed themselves. Future global migration patterns are likely to make this situation even worse.
It is therefore essential to consider how the sourcing, pricing, and wage policies of the commodity buyers, food processors and retailers are aligned with the requirements of the right to food. Global food and beverage companies, with their vast and complex supply chains, will need to work hard to discover, disclose and remedy human rights abuses to verify that they are not part of the problem.
2. We should be encouraging the government to drive better standards
Governments have an important role to play in aligning economic incentives with better sustainability outcomes, by the introduction of incentives that help businesses prioritise action on externalities. They can also support good practices, rewarding the ecosystem services provided by sustainable agricultural production and are in a position to tackle imbalances of power in the food chain. However, as a result of political short-termism, while government intervention is important, it is not enough. Companies and civil society organisations need to come together to become a voice for policy action.
3. There is a need for greater, more proactive collaboration along the value chain
Collectively, we – business, government, NGOs and consumers – need to understand and commit to improving the supply chains that provide the products we consume. Collaboration across landscapes to improve water stewardship serves as a good example of when collaboration can be effective – for example the Doñana Berry Project in Spain, which serves as a successful model for an industry-driven approach for advancing sustainability. However, such collaboration typically only comes about when faced with a serious issue – in this case, water scarcity. Looking ahead, a more proactive approach is needed, one that identifies issues and assembles appropriate actors along the supply chain before it becomes critical.
4. There is a need to break down internal siloes and change behaviours and mindsets
Participants raised the issue of poor internal engagement as a barrier to driving change. Sustainability professionals often find themselves talking “in echo chambers”, with different functions of the business working with a “siloed mentality”. Without engagement and action at every level of the business, you cannot hope to become truly sustainable.
Without engagement and action at every level of the business, you cannot hope to become truly sustainable.
Working closely with procurement and operations colleagues will be key to accelerating change along the supply chain. To enable this, we explored the potential of convening exploratory workshops that bring together both operation and sustainability teams and the importance of talking in their language. Another effective strategy identified for embedding sustainability deeper into an organisation is to identify green champions or ambassadors, employees who can help support new sustainability initiatives. While top down vision and commitment is critical, all employees should be engaged to drive real change. Encouraging such behaviours and mindsets internally can also be a really good way to reach the general public. For example, 1 in 6 people are said to have a relationship with a Tesco employee.
5. Technology will play an important role, but effective governance must be in place to ensure it is ethical
New technologies can present a major opportunity to accelerate food systems transformation. Farmers could use mobile services to gain access to markets; the Internet of Things, in combination with blockchain, could enable real-time product tracking to improve supply chain traceability and shelf life; online marketplaces could link consumers directly to farmers, dramatically simplifying food chains; and advanced precision agriculture technologies could allow farmers to apply the optical amount of inputs for each crop, boosting yields and reducing water use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Though such advanced technology holds extraordinary promise for solving many of today’s food system challenges, without care and appropriate governance, such innovation could further deepen the already existent inequalities in our food chain. New approaches will raise new questions, ethical concerns and potential unintended consequences, ranging from the implications of new products and services, access in developing countries, to who creates and controls them.