To Reimagine or Regress?

Today’s guest post is from Steven Finn, who teaches a class on food waste for the Gastronomy Program. Steven Finn is Vice President for Food Waste Prevention at Leanpath, Inc. and Co-founder and Managing Director for ResponsEcology, Inc.

MET ML626, Addressing Food Waste for a Sustainable Food System, will be offered in the spring 2021 semester. The course is open to graduate students and advanced undergraduates. Non-degree students may also register. Please contact for more information.

By Steven Finn

There’s no question that our global food system is in a state of disruption right now, and that disruption is incredibly painful.

In the developed world, we may be beyond the shock of initial stockouts of many food items due to immediate panic buying, but supply chains have been severely impacted, and producers have limited the breadth of product offerings in the short term to cope.  But one need only look at the hunger numbers to see the very serious impact of Covid-19 to date.  We know that over 800 million global citizens are hungry (and as FAO notes in The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, that number has been rising annually since 2015 after years of progress) – and further, Covid has the potential to exacerbate existing drivers and roughly double the 135 million citizens suffering from acute hunger (see the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, link here).

So we’re a long way from the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger (SDG 2), and with less than ten years until 2030, we are regressing on the hunger front.

At the same time, the speed with which organizations have studied the immediate impacts of Covid-19 on the food system, planned for changing conditions, adapted operations, and pivoted in new directions has been incredibly impressive.  How can we further harness this wave of action?

One theme that has been clear from the start of the pandemic is the opportunity in disruption:  every crisis brings opportunity.  Winston Churchill famously stated “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  And when we think about food, which is essential for our survival, and the food system, which brings our food to us and at the same time is such a critical driver of planetary health – the notion of “opportunity” for change seems much less of a choice, and much more of a requirement.

Back in April in an Earth Day session with Sara Roversi and the Future Food Institute, I mentioned that we were focused on words like rebuild, and re-set, restore, redesign, rethink, reconnect, reimagine, and regenerative.  We’re hearing those words a lot, and they evoke the notion of positive change.

Those last two are especially critical; it has been heartening to see the focus on reimagining a regenerative food system.  And it is essential that our reimagination focus also has an action focus.

Earlier in June, the EAT Forum partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation in a session entitled Reimagining Food Systems: Driving Action for a Post-Covid World, video link here.

The session featured some excellent contributions from individuals such as Massimo Bottura (renowned chef and founder of Food For Soul), Dr. Rajiv Shah, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone – and they are a source of inspiration for the needed action focus.

In a talk revealing his recent emotional journey through the crisis, for example, Massimo Bottura noted that the pandemic has revealed the fragile nature of our food system, pointing out that we all have a “new responsibility to rebuild with beauty, light, color, and dignity.”  He indicated the need for urgency, noting that “there is no time for tears” – and issued a call to action with an equity focus, stating that “we can create a world where anger is no more, we can reduce food waste, but first we need to make room for everyone at the table, there are no more excuses.”  He also noted that while we can crunch numbers, make charts, measure, and count – at the end of the day “nutrition is not mathematical, it’s emotional.”  That comment struck me as particularly poignant given the state of the global hunger numbers.

Next, Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah noted that Covid has created a period of unprecedented crisis for the global food system, exposing its vulnerabilities and injustices, and leading to increased food waste and increased hunger.  He emphasized the “fragile and inequitable” nature of today’s food system, reminding us that even for those getting a sufficient number of calories our food system is driving cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes.

Shah pointed to the opportunity – and need – to make our food system “more equitable, more nourishing, and more sustainable for a planet that is in crisis.”  Referencing the benefits of the Green Revolution in preventing millions from starving decades ago, he called for collaboration in a “renewed revolution” to change the way that we produce and consume food to not only address the immediate crisis, but to benefit human health and planetary health.  His call for action was clear, and spot on.

Last, Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber gave a heartfelt, forward-thinking perspective from the business community on the need for change to the food system.  Faber began by citing the human impact of the pandemic – and the vulnerability we are experiencing as a result of the suddenly-exposed fragility of the global food system.  He immediately noted pressure on companies to revive operations in the quest to return to peak GDP levels at any cost — i.e. without regard for social and environmental externalities.  Impressively, Faber indicated that he feels such a short term focus would be a “huge mistake.”

Faber reminded us that humanity has suddenly been confronted by the fact that our ways of living (and particularly our business operations) have ignored the fact that we rely on Nature to live and thrive.  This gets at the heart of the need for business to focus on creating shared societal value – factoring in impacts of operations on society, the environment, and future generations to create value for all stakeholders rather than simply focusing on profit maximization for a limited number of shareholders.  Business can no longer externalize social and environmental costs, and global consumers should reinforce that expectation.

Faber correctly challenged us to look at the pandemic as the powerful signal of the need for change that it is, suggesting that we imagine that we were back in 2005, with the opportunity to determine the actions we would need to take to avoid the situation that we are in today.  And he reminded us that the fundamental point of any resilient system “is to preserve its non-renewable resources and not pressurize its renewable resources beyond their regeneration ability.”  Citing Agriculture’s massive environmental footprint, Faber called for a more plant-based food system with regenerative practices and market mechanisms to monetize carbon sinking,  He also cited the risk of biodiversity loss and excessive reliance on a small number of crops and limited genetic diversity among animal stocks.

Significantly, Faber noted that there is a “big time” need to reimagine our food systems, and for change that properly prices externalities into business operations.  He reminded us that “maximum intensity, zero-diversity Agriculture is a factor of pandemics”— a theme we must continue to emphasize to drive change (and which I covered in a previous post).  He expressed his hope that the current generation would no longer take food for granted, and also called for education of consumers to reduce food waste for the benefit of natural ecosystems.  He further posited that the value of global brands will be based on their power to serve humanity, while calling for collective action to drive the many needed changes to the food system.

In rapid succession, these three talks by Bottura, Shah, and Faber indicated many of the shortcomings of our current food system (exacerbated by Covid), while emphasizing the importance of 1) reimagining a new, resilient, regenerative system (one that benefits human and planetary health) and 2) taking the necessary actions to achieve it.

There is enormous positive momentum behind reimagining a regenerative food system.  Let’s ensure we couple it with an action focus, for inaction means regression.

As Covid has demonstrated, we have a great opportunity before us — to fix the food system, reverse the uptick and sharply reduce hunger, improve nutrition and human health, reduce biodiversity loss and deforestation, reduce food waste, reduce emissions, and much more — all of which will advance the SDGs.

And at the end of the day, we really have no choice but to create a regenerative food system.


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