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In a year that has challenged almost everyone to think differently about something, SHIFT20, IFT’s Virtual Event and Expo, was framed around questions designed to challenge conventional ways of thinking about the food system. Certainly the theme itself—chosen well before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything—proved to be prescient given the ongoing necessity for individuals, retailers, food companies, and foodservice operators to shift their approaches to product development, manufacturing, supply chains, customer service, and more.
Is our food system the single greatest threat to our environment? How can food be distributed more equitably? What’s the best way to effect change—via policy, technology, or the marketplace? How can we stop wasting waste? What is the role of the individual in bringing about change? Where should we start?
Presentations and discussions built around questions like the preceding sparked animated exchanges as participants shared their thoughts in chat boxes over the course of the three-day event in July. Thanks to a robust virtual meeting platform, SHIFT20 was truly an interactive and global event, generating thousands of comments from registrants around the world.
As the days progressed, certain themes emerged and were echoed in virtual discussions by members of the SHIFT20 community, perhaps none more frequently than the idea of citizen versus consumer. That concept was introduced in the keynote address by author, business advisor, and new economy expert April Rinne. Other terms that quickly became part of the SHIFT20 lexicon include individual agency, regenerative thinking, stakeholder capitalism, and the circular economy.
In this issue, we’ll continue the conversations that began this summer, addressing topics like these via a series of question-and-answer interviews with some of SHIFT20’s most engaged and thought-provoking presenters, beginning with keynoter Rinne.
April Rinne wants the food system to be better—more sustainable, more equitable, more collaborative, and more local. “Our industrial food infrastructure is immense and international,” said Rinne, a business advisor and expert on the new economy who delivered the keynote address at SHIFT20, IFT’s Virtual Event and Expo. “Yet it’s fundamentally unsustainable. It’s both agile and fragile. It’s cost-efficient, yet it’s costing us the planet.”
Bringing about change will require shifting from a consumer mindset to the mindset of global citizen and adopting a regenerative thought process that is focused on continuous improvement, she added. Food Technology followed up with Rinne to learn more about what these ideas mean for the food industry. Here’s what she had to say about consumerism, capitalism, corporate infrastructure, and more.
Q: At SHIFT20, you spoke about the importance of adopting a citizen mindset rather than thinking as a consumer. What’s the difference?
Rinne: Over the past several decades, consumerism has taken root to a degree that we rarely pause to think about what the word “consumer” means. Today, many people simply think of it as a term of art or a generic word to describe people who buy things. However, I believe that referring to people as mere consumers sells each of us, our economies, and our well-being short.
Before marketing got hold of the term, to consume meant to destroy, as in consumed by fire. Today, our job as consumers is to buy, produce, consume, produce, consume—a never-ending and rather sad reality. What about all of the other things we are capable of as humans?
Seeing ourselves and one another as citizens rather than mere consumers tells a different story. To be clear, I’m not talking about citizens in terms of passports and border controls, but rather as members of a community in a given place. Citizens seek to contribute, participate, and help create a better place to live, work, raise their families, and thrive. Whereas a consumer relationship is typically passive (“just buy this”), citizens are proactive and full of agency.
It won’t really be until we see that customers’ primary purpose is not to meet companies’ revenue goals (at the risk of being blunt, our job on this planet is not merely to “buy stuff”) that we can meaningfully shift to a citizen-led approach. I think about REI and Patagonia a lot in this regard, as they literally ask people to “buy less” of their own products.
Q: How do you see this concept playing out in the food industry?
Rinne: The food industry is in a unique position because every person needs food to survive, unlike a range of other consumer-led industries that you could easily imagine doing without. But the food industry, in my humble opinion, has also been one of the most aggressively consumer-focused—so there is a lot it can do to improve.
A consumer-led food marketing campaign has the goal of convincing people to buy more food in order to boost company revenues. The goal is revenue, not well-being. True, a company will advertise when a product is healthy, but will they stop selling or marketing unhealthy products? Typically, no. When we see people as consumers, we don’t care about their health or well-being as long as they keep buying—and the more they buy, the better.
A citizen-led food marketing campaign looks very different. A citizen-led food marketing campaign would first question whether it is responsible to sell unhealthy foods in the first place. Do we really want to sell salty, fatty, addictive products or create situations that are associated with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension? Even if debates rage about causation of such health conditions, if we know we could contribute to such harm, why in the world would we do so? A consumer-led approach has no qualms about this; a citizen-led approach is concerned and takes appropriate responsibility. This can mean many different things: different products, different marketing, different sourcing, and healthier, more authentic customer relationships.
Q: What should members across the food industry do to be more citizen-minded?
Rinne: Start by asking two questions: 1) What language do you and/or your company use today: consumer or citizen? and 2) Would you rather be treated as a consumer or as a citizen? These are often great eye-openers.
Q: You noted in your keynote address that our current food system is on a course toward apocalypse. What are the most significant ways in which our food system is “broken”?
Rinne: Unfortunately, there are quite a few! Of course, many of the systems in play—and at risk of breaking—go beyond food. But given our food system’s global reach and the fact that food powers so much else, we need to look at this bigger picture and its many interdependencies.
Among the most significant ways in which I see our food system as “broken” today are the following:
• Centralized and industrial food systems, at the national level, that make food extremely volatile. Trade wars, financial markets, and transportation: Any one of these factors flaring up could have disastrous results for food production and distribution, both locally and worldwide.
Centralized, industrialized corporate food structures also pose the very real risk of putting small farmers, local/regional farming, and [local] cuisine out of business.
• Consumer-led business models (versus citizen-led).
• Agricultural practices that are extractive rather than regenerative: soil depletion, water contamination, reduction of arable land, etc.
• Lack of integrated policy planning at the local level: Food policy historically has not been deemed within the remit of cities/municipalities.
Q: You observed that the COVID-19 pandemic could be a catalyst for change. How optimistic (or pessimistic) are you about the future of the global food system and why?
Rinne: On the one hand, I am incredibly optimistic because I see solutions all over the place! Honestly, there is no shortage of innovative ideas, bright minds, technologies, and inspiring people who really want to make, and are making, a difference.
My concern stems more from whether we can dismantle and redesign the parts of our current food system that are no longer fit for purpose. How might we help tip our industrial food concerns towards regenerative, distributed, local—and yes, still robustly profitable—solutions?
Whether our food system is able to feed 10 billion people sustainably, seamlessly, and nutritiously will not hinge on whether we come up with the right “solutions.” The solutions exist all around us. We know what to do; the question is whether we have the courage, agency, and collaborative (rather than competitive) spirit to put the solutions into action—undertaking the scary yet thrilling process of transformation.
Q: Given the corporate infrastructure that exists today, and a corporate mindset focused on profitability, short-term gains, and generating shareholder value, is change possible?
Rinne: Absolutely, yes! Change is 1,000% possible today. But I fear that it will not always be this way, and at some point—each day the risk rises—we will lose the privilege of being able to ask this question.
Today’s corporate infrastructure, prioritization of short-term profits over long-term health and well-being, and “shareholder returns above all” run deep. But it hasn’t always been this way; in fact, when seen from the perspective of modern human history, our consumer-led, shareholder-first reality is but a small blip.
To be clear, I do not see capitalism as the problem. Capitalism as originally envisioned is an extremely powerful tool for development, progress, and more. The problem I see is that today’s flavor of capitalism has gone off the rails to the point of being both dangerous and toxic.
Q: You’re a believer in “stakeholder capitalism.” What does that mean?
Rinne: One of the levers of change that many people are talking about is a shift from “shareholder capitalism” in which shareholder return is priority No. 1 to “stakeholder capitalism” in which all stakeholders—including workers, suppliers, customers, and communities served—are included. This is a great step, though much more needs to be done to translate this from words into action. The Business Roundtable [an association of chief executive officers dedicated to promoting the U.S. economy and opportunities for employees through sound public policy] provides a good overview of what this means.
Just recently, I was delighted by an article about how flour might shine a light on better business, period. Thriving flour companies are innovating their corporate structure, status, and ownership to better reflect stakeholder capitalism values. Benefit corporations are required to have positive social impact, not merely financial profits, and are becoming more popular. Zebra companies are providing an alternative to venture-backed startups. The list goes on ... the broader point is that change is already happening, but it’s not enough. And there are myriad ways to get started!
Presenting in a SHIFT20 session on upcycling waste, Sanne Stroosnijder left her audience with an indelible image: a mountainous heap of potatoes on the verge of going to waste when the impact of COVID-19 closed or curtailed foodservice operations in the Netherlands. The potato mountain became a symbol of how the food system is organized in a very linear way, said Stroosnijder, program manager for sustainable food chains at Wageningen University & Research. “And it’s not very agile or responsive to stress situations,” she noted.
Food Technology reached out to Stroosnijder for more of her thoughts on the “Dutch potato mountain” and what it says about the food system.
Q: At SHIFT20 you discussed a potato rescue initiative. Tell us a little about that, including what kind of shifts in thinking it required.
Stroosnijder: In the Netherlands, we have several large potato processing factories and many farmers who produce for them. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown and the closing of many of the out-of-home companies (restaurants, catering, events, etc.), the demand for fries suddenly dropped. Respectively, the demand for potatoes specifically grown for fries also dropped, leading to a significant amount of surplus potatoes. This surplus is estimated at 1 billion kilos—a true mountain of potatoes.
Several Dutch organizations, including Slow Food Youth Network and the Foundation Food Waste Free United, joined forces and started a rescue initiative. We organized a national Potato Mountain Day and saved over 150,000 kilos in 11 cities in the Netherlands. Citizens could save the potatoes by buying a voucher via Too Good To Go, an innovative app to rescue surplus food. Through this creative way, we raised awareness about the problem, rescued a small piece of the mountain, and provided the farmers involved with compensation for their produce.
Q: What are the biggest obstacles to solving the problem of food waste?
Stroosnijder: Of course, this was only the so-called tip of the potato mountain. It is indeed not a large-scale solution, although this was very well organized, and many people came to rescue good food. To be able to prevent wasting these amounts of surplus food, different types of actions are needed. One of the initiatives we tried was to use the surplus potatoes and convert them to disinfection liquid, very relevant in times of COVID-19.
Although many partners were motivated and involved, we did not succeed. Long story short, because the price of the disinfectant would turn out to be a bit higher and there was no market guarantee, the risk for investing in such a supply chain was too big for companies to step in. In other words, there were no direct incentives for companies to step in. The result is that most of the surplus is being sent to animal feed and biogas.
Q: How would you like to see circular economy principles applied within the food industry to help create a more sustainable food system?
Stroosnijder: Our linear business models are focused on cutting costs, not at preventing loss and adding value. If we could find a way to change this, we are on the right track. This will require incentives for both producers as well as consumers to make sustainable choices. We are working on many initiatives in the Netherlands, both at Wageningen University & Research as well as within the Foundation Food Waste Free United, to experiment and innovate to create these incentives. We see very promising initiatives from Dutch companies, who are frontrunners in the domain.
We can all learn from these showcases (and from the failures), so let’s connect, speed up, and above all scale up. In the future, I foresee that a zero-waste policy, which includes effective monitoring of resource use efficiency, will become a right to play for the food industry. Better be ready for it!
Seth Goldman believes you can change the world by changing what you eat. More specifically, says Goldman, dietary choices represent our single biggest opportunity to reduce our environmental footprint. Goldman, who cofounded beverage company Honest Tea a couple of decades ago and later sold it to Coca-Cola, recently established an organization called Eat the Change. That organization operates a nonprofit grants program and also launched PLNT Burger, a restaurant chain focused on plant-based quick-service fare.
Food Technology caught up with Goldman shortly after the SHIFT20 virtual event, where he participated in a panel that explored the environmental impact of the food system. These are some of his thoughts from the event and the follow-up.
Q: There was some discussion at SHIFT20 about how best to bring about change. Eat the Change is partially focused on marketplace solutions. What is the optimal approach?
Goldman: We want to create a movement toward planet-based eating. And it will take efforts from all sectors to make that happen. So while Eat the Change does include marketplace solutions, such as PLNT Burger and Eat the Change branded products, we also are investing in nonprofit partners that are helping to democratize planet-friendly diets.
Q: What are three things that an individual can do to help address the seemingly overwhelming issue of climate change?
Goldman: Voting for the climate is an obvious step. But major elections only happen every two or four years. So we encourage people to be more mindful of the food selections they make several times a day. Every meal presents an opportunity to make a mindful choice. It starts with the center of the plate and shifting away from animal-based protein. But that’s just a first step.
Next, there can be an effort toward organic ingredients and emphasizing diets that support more biodiversity. One of the pillars of Eat the Change for our snack line will be that we will avoid using the six crops that collectively represent more than half of all global crop production. There are more than 500,000 species of plants and fungi, and we can create delicious foods by selecting and supporting a wider selection of ingredients.
Q: What factors did you prioritize in selecting organizations that received Eat the Change Impact grants to promote climate-friendly foods?
Goldman: We funded 33 organizations through our 2020 Eat the Change Impact program. Grant decisions were made based on alignment with the four values of the Eat the Change Impact program: Eating with Intention, Fact-Based Science, Democratizing Access, and Innovation.
The grants cover a range of subcategories within the concept of climate-friendly eating, including plant-based diets, reduced food waste, organic agriculture, biodiversity, and sustainable packaging. We also paid particular attention to the way the communities being served are involved in the design and implementation of each organization’s work, as we know how vital this is to truly democratize access to planet-friendly eating.
Q: What’s the key to getting people to consume a more plant-based diet?
Goldman: A lot of it is branding and marketing, and that’s what I like to think I am dedicating my work to. How do we make these products more accessible [and] as delicious? Certainly, they already were as nutritious, so that wasn’t the issue. It was just, how do we make them more accessible?
So what we saw as an example at a company like Beyond Meat was how we develop a product that we can then merchandise in the meat section rather than put it just in the freezer section. [Goldman is chairman of the board of Beyond Meat.] So in order to cross that hurdle, you had to get a meat buyer to taste the product and say, “That’s good enough, I’ll put it there.”
Q: So where do we start?
Goldman: The word disruption is often overused, but there’s never been a time, certainly not in my lifetime, when our food system, our way of living has been more disrupted than it has been, and I do think this is the opportunity to take people in a different direction. So I think that some of the ingrained ways of thinking [about] our diet are now available to alter.
This sense of connectedness [occasioned by the pandemic] is real. And as much as people try to insulate themselves, . . . we see with COVID that what happens in one part of the world has an impact everywhere. And I’d love to see that thinking extended to diet and to understanding that when you make a dietary choice you are having an impact.
SHIFT20 speaker Tara Garnett, a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, has been thinking about the interrelationships among food, climate, and health for more than two decades. At IFT’s virtual event this past summer and in a follow-up conversation with Food Technology, she offered some ideas for creating a more equitable and environmentally friendly global food system.
Q: The idea of citizen versus consumer was an important theme at SHIFT20. What is the significance of acting like a citizen?
Garnett: There’s research that shows that when you actually refer to people as citizens, they behave in more altruistic ways. We’ve become so used to thinking about ourselves as consumers, it’s colored how we see things, and I think it’s time to pull people up when they use that word, and say, “Hang on a minute, you’re not just a consumer. You’re a mother. You’re a worker. You’re a citizen. You’re a friend.” And that creates a different way of looking at the world.
Q: What impact has COVID-19 had on the food system?
Garnett: I think what COVID is showing is that people who are poor, people who have underlying health conditions—very largely a consequence of our damaging and our health-denying food system—are the people who are going to suffer most. People who are already hit by various forms of socioeconomic deprivation and who therefore may well be working in the lowest-paid jobs, which tend to be in the foodservice sector in the food economy, they are the ones that are hit [hardest] by COVID.
COVID has demonstrated the inequalities that we’re living [with], but COVID also provides an opportunity for us to rethink things. There’s a phrase that is very much going [around] within the United Kingdom, and it may be global—it’s “building back better.” We need to actually see what we can do to not have business as usual. And the food system is a great place to start.
Q: How would you go about creating an improved food system model?
Garnett: If I were to be very simplistic, I would say we need to produce differently and better. We need to consume differently and better, and that will require a substantial reduction—although not an elimination—of animal products. We need to waste less food, and we need to rebalance things. At the moment, we have a world where some people have everything, and the majority of people have almost nothing.
Q: You spoke about the importance of policy coordination and policy changes in order to create a better food system. What kinds of policy changes would you most like to see?
Garnett: Food is a cross-departmental issue. Policy makers in all departments—education, health, agriculture, employment—all need to work together to make sure that policies developed by one are not undermining the goals of another.
The necessary starting point is to see people and the environment as connected through the food they eat. There is no one single thing that will “do the job” on its own. Lots of things need to be done at the same time. These include things like revising national dietary guidelines to take into account environmental sustainability objectives because this will affect what’s eaten in schools, food aid, and so forth; setting high environmental and animal welfare standards in the agricultural sector; restrictions on marketing and advertising; the requirement for food companies to report on their progress in reducing emissions and advancing public health objectives . . . the list is long!
Q: Where should we start?
Garnett: Well, the United Kingdom has, for the last year, been working on the development of a National Food Strategy—a strategy that puts food on the map, so to speak and tries to articulate all the connections among multiple concerns. I think this is a great place to start although, of course, it’s only that—a start.
Q: What’s one thing you’d like to see the science of food community (your SHIFT20 audience) do to effect meaningful change?
Garnett: Question normal in every aspect of your life. All the “of courses” and “taken for granteds” about what we eat, how we get to work, how we spend our leisure. We take a lot of things for granted. It’s what we do because it’s what everyone else does. It’s what we’ve always done. And I think this is the time to start really scrutinizing normal and to start reflecting on our habits and to say, “What things do we need and what things do we not need?”
Jeff Daniel and his team at Blueflux Power, a green energy company where he is president of the products group, are part of a venture that is working to develop a “smart city” that will grow and produce food locally, ensuring that waste streams are handled sustainably. At SHIFT20, he discussed the complexities of creating a community that reflects circular economy principles, and he shared more details with Food Technology after the event.
Q: You’re committed to creating a prototype smart city that operates on circular economy principles. What’s your overarching vision for it?
Daniel: The … thing we think about when we think about a smart city is that it’s as much about creating a dialogue as anything. So it’s education, it’s research, it’s promoting health in the choice of food that’s available—that it’s fresh, that it’s local—and that it’s also creating jobs in our community. So that’s the vision of that smart city idea.
Q: What are some of the ways that a smart city can help address the problem of food waste?
Daniel: We talked about the concepts of macro and micro agriculture. The plan for the smart city would be to implement the “micro” in all the ways possible for that local community. We’ll be evaluating unused properties to upfit for these purposes. That will provide both jobs and healthy food choices for the community at the same time.
Q: How would you describe a circular food system?
Daniel: For the smart city initiative, we are working with plans that will implement the circular economy and food system [principles] to the best of our current ability. [It will include the following characteristics:]
1) Micro food growth in the local city (fruit, vegetable, and fish proteins),
2) Waste from the food processing goes back into the soil and systems that will grow the food, and
3) Implementation of the SMW (Solid Municipal Waste) process that will reclaim the maximum amount of the value from those streams: plastics, metals, and then consumables. The consumables can go into fertilizers or energy.
Q: Is the biggest challenge involved in creating such a system ensuring that it is economically viable?
Daniel: For certain, the biggest challenge is creating the economic viability. When you think of food growth, the most efficient means is to grow one or two items. When you do that, it puts you back in the distribution model. Growing a variety of items locally is what the community needs. However, that is much harder to do. Varying temperatures, moisture content, soil content, and growing patterns come into play for the different items.
For aquaculture, the biggest risk is losing a crop of the fish. If you get a disease, or mismanage your water quality/temperature, an entire lot of fish can be lost. Recovering from that can be devastating to a business plan. The group must start with control to minimize the startup risk.
Q: Are you optimistic that a significant portion of the population is ready to make the commitment to living in a smart city?
Daniel: Anything that is new starts with a hypothesis. The forward-thinking individuals will want to do this just to be a part of it. With that said, this will not be for everyone initially.
Q: You spoke about going from the macro to the micro—do you think that a local food system is inherently more sustainable than one that exists on the macro scale?
Daniel: The big challenge is that the micro approach is perceived to be disadvantaged in cost. I believe that is really the point of sustainability you are suggesting. We must create an economically viable system that can exist naturally without government subsidies to make this work. Anything short of that will fail over time as policies from elected officials will not support propositions that cannot demonstrate viability over a reasonable period of time.
Brett Lutz, vice president of global communications for ADM, wasn’t a participant in SHIFT20 featured panel discussions, but themes like sustainability and food security that dominated those discussions are among the issues the agri-food giant is addressing via its participation in philanthropic programs. Here’s what Lutz had to say about how and why ADM has gotten involved in such initiatives.
Q: What is the focus of ADM Cares?
Lutz: ADM Cares is the philanthropic arm of ADM, targeting three focus areas that align with our purpose: advancing sustainable agriculture, increasing food security, and investing in education, with a focus on agricultural education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Through ADM Cares, we help sustain and strengthen communities by directing funding, volunteerism, and industry knowledge to organizations that are driving meaningful social, economic, and environmental progress worldwide.
Q: How has ADM responded to accelerating issues of food insecurity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Lutz: A recent report from the United Nations estimates that COVID-19 will push up to 100 million people into extreme poverty, unable to afford even the basic nutrition needed to survive. More than 38 million are living with food insecurity just in the United States.
Over the past several months, we have focused our attention on addressing this through both global efforts like our partnership with Concern Worldwide, focused on addressing acute malnutrition in Ethiopia and Kenya, and local partnerships like The Trotter Project and Bigger Table—addressing specific food insecurity needs of children and families across Chicago. We’ve donated our expertise, products, and funds to support immediate needs as well as long-term solutions.
Q: What is Bigger Table? Tell us about its new healthy protein shake project.
Lutz: Bigger Table is a nonprofit focused on battling food insecurity in our local community, led by organizations representing the vast food and beverage expertise of the Chicagoland area. By bringing together the talents and capabilities of companies across the food value chain, as well as community players such as food banks and pantries who have an intimate understanding of the needs of their clients, we have created a truly innovative and collaborative way to address hunger across Chicago.
Member companies across Bigger Table have been able to contribute, whether through formulation expertise, product donation, co-manufacturing, assembly and packing, or logistics. Our first collaborative product—a healthy hot cocoa—was launched in late 2019, and the 10,000 servings went fast! We decided to go bigger in 2020 and just delivered 200,000-plus servings of a low-sugar, high-protein chocolate shake mix to food banks and pantries across the Chicago metro area. From idea to launch, this took only four months, which is lightning fast in comparison to the norm. These initial results are exciting, and we are already planning for our next product launch.
Q: Do you see an opportunity for more collaborative ventures among ingredient and packaged food companies to address food insecurity?
Lutz: Hunger is a complex, multidimensional issue, and at ADM, we think about hunger relief in multiple dimensions: at the local, national, and global levels. And we attempt to address the issues in a multitude of ways: contributing funds, contributing food products, and contributing our thought leadership/expertise. We continuously consider what we can do on our own and where we need to collaborate to have an impact.
Collaboration across the public and private sector has proven the value of working together for years now, as evidenced by our work with nonprofits like Concern Worldwide. Going a step further, organizations like Bigger Table are helping prove that collaboration among industry peers and even competitors has the potential to exponentially impact the fight against hunger. The diversity of perspective and capability found in these partnerships undoubtedly improves and accelerates the work of any organization on its own.