Turning ambition into action: Five reflections on building sustainable food systems.

Many of us working towards a sustainable food system, whether working for a business, government or an NGO, will have been frustrated by the disconnect between ambition and action and the difficulties confronted when trying to turn good ideas into action. We all want to create great food systems projects or initiatives which result in measurable positive change and impact. How many of us have been gripped by a feeling of despair with regards to the uphill battle of creating food systems fit for the future, in the context of rapidly change world around us recently? Trump, Brexit or unproportionate attention on those few bad apples within organisations like Oxfam, have at times, left me with a feeling that the world is conspiring against those of us working in the world of sustainability – whether that’s food or other issues more broadly. 

I have been lucky enough to work with a number of international organisations that understand the need for a systems approach – working on some fantastic projects such as the Livewell Sustainable Diets programme, the Protein Challenge 2040 initiative or more recent work on regenerative agriculture. Based on my own experience of working on these projects, often in collaboration with many other organisations ( businesses, governments, NGO’s and producer groups), I want to share 5 reflections on some of the barriers and pitfalls on  turning ambition into action. These are five more personal reflections. Some of these may resonate with others and I am sure there are more others would have:

  1. Building Personal Resilience – No change is easy. Much change is resisted and the harder you push for change within the system, the harder those who benefit from maintaining the status quo push back. It was 10 years ago I started working on projects which argued we need to reduce meat consumption for example. In those early days our work was derided by many organisations as too difficult and unrealistic, despite a mounting body of evidence at the time. Today however the need to reduce meat consumption is broadly accepted and recognised, even by some of those working within the livestock sector. For those of us who see the need and urgency of the challenges today its easy to become disheartned by the things going on in the world recently. You just have to look at some of those changes in politics within Europe, the US and other parts of the world, where a more protectionist and head in the sand agenda is taking hold – often it may seem we are working against the tide. And yet there are so many fantastic projects and initiatives happening that really are making such a positive difference. We all have different ways or techniques for building personal resilience and dealing with external challnges  – for me its been about the importance of support networks ( friends, family, work colleagues), time for self reflection ( techniques like mindfulness)  and the ability to connect my head with my heart and hands ( I am a keen vegetable gardener!)
  2. Choose Collaborators with Care– Collaboration is critical to achieving sustainable food systems. However, it has to be collaboration based on trust, openness and with those stakeholders who really are driven to change wider societal outcomes, not just because there is a business case. Food system challenges require stakeholders who are prepared to look inwards at themselves, as much as trying to influence and change the behaviour of others. This often requires new business models, active engagement from the leadership teams (including ideally the CEO) and probably most importantly of all, a commitment of time and resources. Over the last year or two I seen a huge rise in the number of collaborations tackling sustainable food system challenges. Whilst this is great in and of itself, with many having good ambitions (often couched in principles), many still fail to translate this into ‘on the ground’ change and impact.
  3. Create a positive vision for the future – Visioning is a very powerful way to picture of the success of a project at a particular time in the future. It is particularly important when getting organisations (or indeed teams/individuals within an organisation), who on the surface may have different strategies/approaches, to a shared end state. It’s a vivid description of what “success” looks and feels like and what is likely to be achieved. Visioning provides a more positive framing for a project, can create positive energy within a collaboration and moves from pressures and problems to a positive vision and a clear set of goals for the future. Once you have a vision then a clear theory of change should explain clearly how you are going to get there!
  4. Be Experimental and Innovate – How many times have I heard that we don’t have enough evidence to take a course of action – paralysis by analysis! We know the urgency of many of the challenges and have to make some difficult decisions based on the body of evidence we have today. There is always a chance of failure, but some of the most exciting food systems projects are often experimental and cutting edge in nature. We need to transform a broken food system to make if fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century – so radical approaches to experimentation and innovation have to be the order of the day!
  5. Active Learning, Sharing and Adaptation – Don’t be afraid of failure and learn from both success and failures. There should be a culture of learning within any project/organisation and be open and transparent with this learning to the outside world. Above all for any project or organisation to succeed it has to take an adaptive approach.                                                                                                                       I hope by sharing a few of my own learnings that it will be of use to others. I remain positive and hopeful that by taking a food systems approach we really can create a sustainable food system which really does restore planetary and human health

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