Food systems change and ecosystem design is a long game that calls for enduring relationships among and between food system practitioners, innovators, policymakers, investors, and corporate representatives.
What we grow, how we prepare and eat it, and what we do with the excess has a tremendous impact on our planet. The food systems of today are responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans, according to a Nature Food study published last year. Unless significant changes are made from farming to food manufacturing, we won’t hit crucial climate targets and face a future of extreme weather and devastating food shortages.
But how do we change a globe-spanning, industry-straddling food system? A “solutions accelerator program” held in support of The United Nations 2021 Food System Summit provides a compelling model. SecondMuse, a global impact innovation company, helped implement the 12-week Food Systems Game Changers Lab, organized by The EAT Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation in collaboration with Meridian Institute, IDEO, Thought For Food, Forum for the Future, and Impact 2 Intention.
The program offered coaching, resources and strategic connections to more than 500 participants pursuing a broad range of solutions to food system problems — from the billions of tons of food wasted every year to the millions of children who lack access to nutritious food. What makes this accelerator unique is that they were also teamed up with peers working on similar solutions in other parts of the world.
This collaborative feature centered around the recognition and celebration of the fact that no individual, solution, or institution, alone, has all the answers required for systems transformation. By grouping together strangers with visibility into different angles of a shared food system problem, these teams were able to learn from one another and engage in critical conversations around the cultural and environmental tradeoffs that food system change entails: How might we support a diet transition to healthier and more sustainable options while respecting cultural identity? How might we ensure the real cost of food accounts for harm to human health and environmental degradation, while ensuring people with the least purchasing power have access to nutritious food? How do we reshape the future of animal agriculture and diversity of protein sources in a way that would lead to a more carbon-neutral food future?
Through the accelerator journey, the cohorts worked through these types of questions, shared insights, developed relationships, and committed to working together to advance a specific food system solution, from a global database for promoting soil health, to a global food literacy program.
As implementers with SecondMuse, we worked with these teams on honing their pitches to ensure that any potential scaling partner would see not only the urgency of each solution, but also the human stories they represent — the farmer whose generations-old practices no longer work in a warming world; the mother who can’t afford to feed her children locally-grown, nutritious food.
We were happy to help these cohorts articulate their powerful stories and connect them with potential partners, funders, and experts. But what thrilled us even more were the updates we’ve been hearing, months later, about how many of the relationships we fostered continue to bloom. For example, Sofia Moreno Cesar, a U.S.-based food system-focused management consultant from a cohort focused on mainstreaming True Cost Accounting through procurement specialists, told us that she has maintained a collaborative and highly valuable relationship with core members of her cohort. This group includes a skilled chef and restaurateur from Hong Kong, non-profit managers from the U.S. and U.K., and representatives from multinational companies from France and Brazil. Together, they are developing a platform to help supply chain specialists evaluate the “true cost” of the items they procure.
Members of other cohorts have similarly stayed in touch and continue to hone projects they developed during the solutions accelerator program. While it’s still too early to assess the impact these groups may ultimately have, what we can say for sure is that if it weren’t for the program’s strategic matchmaking, these partnerships would not have been fostered and even these early foundational seeds of progress would not have been sown.
Systems change and ecosystem design is a long game that calls for enduring relationships among and between food system practitioners, innovators, policymakers, investors, and corporate representatives — relationships that go beyond an accelerator program, beyond the duration of a job or political term.
The eager and ongoing engagement we have seen among the hundreds of accelerator participants has shown us that there is a strong appetite for collaboration, but simply not enough avenues for people in this space to explore actionable solutions with global partners.
While there is no operating manual or playbook to reshape our future food systems, what we do know is that any transformation will require collaborative commitment. And more strategic opportunities for “game changers” to come together, learn from one another, and engage other regional actors are the critical first steps.