System Innovation – a Route to a Sustainable Food System?


The global food system is not sustainable, despite multiple interventions by multiple organisations. So, what exactly is the problem? Well, the answer to that question is a problem in itself. The problem diagnosis for the food system spawns a complicated and 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, we pay on average 6% less now for staples such as coffee than we did 40 years ago. 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 such great news for growers in both developing and developed markets – grower’s margins are often squeezed as the retailers try and keep prices down. Many simply go out of business. The squeeze on price can also mean that large-scale production processes can become the only economically viable option, often with associated well documented negative environmental impacts. And 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. Finally, the sheer accessibility of cheap, and sometimes not very healthy, food is a known contributor to an ever-increasing chronic disease burden.


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 ballooning global population, and indeed scientific solutions will have a role to play. But viewing GM as the silver bullet misses the contribution that reducing waste could make to the efficiency of global food production. Massive volumes of food are wasted on the journey from field to shelf, and consumers are responsible for even more – 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, and how complicated the challenges are. So, how can we tackle these complicated, interconnected issues? In the first instance by starting to ask the right questions.


How might retailers engage differently with producers to improve financial returns? The FairTrade model shows that alternative models can work well for growers (guaranteeing income), as well as manufacturers (securing supplies), as well as retailers (brand glow and proof that they are serious about sustainability).


How can we connect people with the origins of the food they buy? If the end-consumer was more aware of the direct link between the food they buy and the livelihood of the farmer down the road, they might value their food more and think twice about throwing 30% away.


System innovation for food gives us an unprecedented opportunity to do three things – rebalance the power in global supply chain, reconnect the consumer with the food they buy, and restore resilience in the food system. In collaboration with our partners and others in the food system, we plan to get serious about system innovation in food, in the hope that the system begins to accelerate, and stops shuffling, towards sustainability.


Originally published on 21st June 2011 by Green Futures.

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