The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
The Finalists of the Food Systems Vision Prize were released this month (August 6 2020). Reading them has made me think hard about the opportunities and challenges of a shared universal vision and agenda for food systems. It’s particularly relevant right now given the plans being forged for the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021. The Summit “seeks to energize and accelerate our collective journey to eliminate hunger, create more inclusive and healthier food systems, and safeguard the health of our planet.” I’m excited about the Summit, but also challenged by it: there is such a diversity of stakeholders in food systems, such a diversity of goals, that the promise of a “collective” journey seems distant. While diverse players from the World Economic Forum to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems all agree that a vital first step to food systems transformation is alignment around a vision, actions in the field remain focused on sector-specific visions – reducing undernutrition, tackling obesity, sorting out greenhouse gas emissions, addressing food insecurity, fighting for food injustice, getting sustainable foods to market, reducing gender inequality, etc. There are, moreover, powerful ideological differences about what needs to be done and by whom. Overall, this fragmentation means the tremendous power of these multiple communities to connect and act along a common path is being lost.
That’s why The Rockefeller Foundation, and its partners SecondMuse and Open-Ideo, are hosting this new prize. Envisioning can be a powerful thing. A good vision unites, activates and ignites honest debate. It inspires the question, “How can we get there, together?” Indeed, the motivation behind the prize is to unite “fragmented system of actors” to “source, and support positive Visions for the future of the global food system,” and inspire “actionable solutions.” To be selected as a Top Visionary, collaborative teams were invited to answer the question: What is the regenerative and nourishing food system you aspire to create in your specific place by the year 2050? What would it look like? It proved a compelling question: 1300 teams applied from 110 countries. The Top 10 Finalists, chosen for their potential to inspire “real, positive and bold transformation,” make a compelling read.
In Beijing, China people will “have easy access to healthy, freshly made and nourishing foods with the help of numerous Good Food Hubs.” In India, the food industry will “provide and promote both healthy and tasty options as the norm.” Lima, Peru, will be as “green as the Lima discovered by Francisco Pizarro 500 years ago”; and Treaty Four territory in Canada will be a vision of “swales, creeks, and sloughs… linked by green corridors, the tree-surrounded fields tracing landforms,” rather than the monotonous checkerboard of fields it is today. In South Western Nigeria, farmers will have become “their own kind of celebrity,” and in the Netherlands, citizens will “participate in food policy councils to collectively decide about local food environments.” In the Hudson Valley, New York, Chef Pruitt will don her apron “with the same smile she shared with her coffee” after a day spent at her partner farm and micro-processing enterprise central to the networked, circular food economy that now exists. In the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, the Sicangu people will “get all of their food from the local operations of tribal citizens.” And in Nairobi, Kenya, “dignified, economically empowered and food secure” residents will share the food they have with each other.
These are surely very different visions to the food systems we have today. And, importantly, we can learn from them about the type of vision we need. There are many food systems visions out there, full of words like “sustainable,” “equitable,” “inclusive,” “resilient,” “democratic,” “diverse” and “healthy.” Good words. But what do they actually mean? Well, lots of things, depending on how you interpret them. Easy to say, hard (and complex) to pin down. Everyone can agree on the vision of a sustainable, inclusive, healthy food system – and then promptly disagree profoundly on how to get there. Indeed, people do agree. What’s to disagree with? But the very same people disagree on how to get there. Agroecology or agribusiness? Fortification or indigenous foods? It’s a shared vision. But it’s a superficial one. Everyone can stand up and stake allegiance to this vision, and then carry on along their divergent paths. If it’s a collective journey we are looking for, it won’t get us very far.
That’s why we should learn from the Food Systems Vision Prize: it goes beyond vague aspiration to help us think instead about what the food system will actually look like? It forces us to get real, to make the vision concrete and tangible. We can imagine these Visions in our mind's eye: people sharing food, a marketplace full of fruits and vegetables; fields, surrounded by trees; a chef visiting her own microenterprise. They are visual. They can be seen. And they can inspire action. Do we agree with fields surrounded by trees? If not, we can say so in concrete terms, start a debate about why not. If we do, we can connect with others to make it happen, asking collectively: What do we need to do to get there? Who needs to be involved? How can I help? What's the first step? This picture of possibility belies the need for big, well-intended but essentially hollow words.
So when crafting visions, let’s draw on the power of visualisation, focus on what we want to see. But there is a snag. And it’s a pretty major one. The Prize specifically asked for a Vision in a specific place (that was part of its power). Places look different. They are different. They contain different people. Their context is different. There is no one vision for every place. The Hudson Valley looks very different to New York City not far south. Nairobi is different to the pastoralist communities out in the Sahel. So while a visual vision is the best way forward to inspire real change, it belies a shared, universal agenda. There is too much specificity and context involved. It’s no wonder that probably the most talked about visual vision of food systems transformation of the past few years – the Eat-Lancet diet, depicted on a plate – was derided for being culturally insensitive. When it comes to seeing things differently, people like to see it in their own places. A bold vision of the future it might be, but at least it should meet them where they are.
So for a universal agenda, the temptation is to go back to empty signifiers again – healthy, sustainable, inclusive, etc. - useful, at least, in that they can be applied everywhere.
But there is another way: to step back from the vision and ask instead: what is the food system for? In short, to articulate the purpose of food systems – the “why” that lies behind the vision. The reason why food systems exist. Funnily enough, unlike the call for vision, this question is rarely asked. Perhaps this is because it is obvious. To produce food, right? Well, yes. But is the universal purpose to produce enough calories? Or to support people’s nutrition, health and development? Is it to produce cash? Or is profitability rather a means to an end? Answers to these questions have profound implications for what needs to be done and how. If the purpose of the food system is to regenerate and nourish, this implies a very different food system to one which aims to provide calories and cash. If the purpose of the food system is to feed the world, this means producing more. If the purpose is to nourish people, this means it also has the task of actively enabling and encouraging people to eat well and nourishing the billions who labour in the food system. If the purpose is to regenerate, this has profound implications for every single action taken to produce, transport and sell food in the future.
It’s this shared sense of purpose for the food system that ultimately we need to agree upon. What is the food system for? It’s a universal question that transcends place, population or plate. Unlike the call for a shared vision, it allows for a universal answer.
So this is what I’d suggest for the UN Food Systems Summit: create a universal sense of purpose for the food system and then inspire millions of communities, cities, and countries to build visions in their own spaces of what their food systems would look like if they were to put that purpose into practice. It’s a shared, universal agenda that also allows us to celebrate the wealth of diversity and difference in our food systems around the world.
Disclaimer: I was not involved in the development of the Food System Vision Prize. I have recently signed up as a mentor to support a subset of the Finalist teams.