Rebuilding the food system: who do we engage with for a just transition?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

― Buckminster Fuller

This alluring quote from the American inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller has sat uneasy with me in recent years. In 2017, I went from managing a progressive, community-owned food enterprise with impressive social, health and environmental principles, to put a good portion of my energies into work with large, corporate food companies. I made this move partly out of curiosity, eager to learn about the global food supply chains in which I still participated as a citizen. I suppose I also hoped I might have a bigger impact. Rather than complain from the edges, I’ve now had the opportunity to support a number of major food companies as they grapple with complex sustainability challenges, bringing to the table my knowledge and understanding of how they can be a force for good. 

Exciting as this may sound, in the short time I’ve been doing this work, I’ve often found myself feeling restless and frustrated. For decades, we’ve had many warm words and promising commitments from companies, yet overall, progress has been glacial and incremental, with companies regularly missing their targets, or having no targets at all. Even today, despite the widely acknowledged environmental crisis, many large corporates are operating with no commitments around critical issues such as deforestation that exist in their supply chains.

Figure 1. Data from the 2019 Forest 500 assessment, showing the proportion of companies in each region that have no commitments to protect forests in their production or sourcing: they found 140 (40%) of the most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains, including retailer Amazon, Dutch supermarket chain SPAR and luxury fashion group Capri Holdings, do not have any deforestation commitments.

From the fringes, I’ve watched as an industry of CSR has risen-up that self-congratulates itself in award ceremonies, while the world continues to frazzle and in many spheres, such as politics and the internet, can feel more fragmented. In the mainstream of businesses, success still very much centres around increasing sales, profits and market share; and employees often toil with little awareness of the trail of social and environmental damage that is neglected or deprioritised in pursuit of this misguided view of prosperity. 

Last year, at a sustainable agriculture conference in the USA, I listened to the Head of Sustainability from one of the world’s largest food companies comfort the audience by saying: “profit is not a dirty word”. It’s an uncomfortable maxim I hear often in these circles: that “we can’t invest in sustainability unless we’re profitable first”. She then went on to comfort attendees further, some of whom will have been suppliers, that despite their big climate pledge (which is one of those “by 2050” net-zero targets), change will be slow and steady, so that suppliers can move with the times and won’t have any major surprises. If only our Earth systems would also be so patient and obliging.

A post-Covid revolution by teatime?

Thinking about the sense of urgency versus the pace of change, let’s turn to Buckminster Fuller again. Writing about a utopian revolution, Russel Brand also quotes Buckminster Fuller, but suggests his positive vision is perhaps easier said than done:

Buckminster Fuller outlines what ought to be our collective objectives succinctly: “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone”. This maxim is the very essence of “easier said than done” as it implies the dismantling of our entire socio-economic machinery. By teatime.

Russell Brand (2013), On Revolution.

As we fret over the complexity and urgency of safeguarding our planetary health and living within a doughnut, perhaps we should also appreciate that for the most part, radical shifts often only happen when precipitated by economic and political crises. These crises may include civil unrest and it’s the subsequent interplay of new market rules, innovations in business models and practice that creates the new normal. This is the window of opportunity that COVID-19 offers us, not that we should be celebrating a pandemic. 

To help society rise-up and emerge out of this pandemic, much attention has been placed on the response of our governments. In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve seen 17 major economies invest approximately US$3.5 trillion in economic stimulus packages. Despite the many coordinated efforts from investors, business leaders, scientists and NGOs urging governments to seize this opportunity to #BuildBackBetter with a green stimulus, unfortunately, many of the packages do not seem that way inclined, as shown in this analysis from Vivid Economics, where in 14 of the 17 countries considered, potentially damaging flows outweigh those supporting nature:

Figure 2. Analysis from Vivid Economics on the “Greenness of Stimulus Index”.

Why trust in our governments and companies is so difficult

Perhaps governments could cough up a little more towards green measures if companies were more obliging in paying a fair share of taxes – and governments could prevent tax dodging for good. Some multinationals are now so rich and influential, their profits dwarf the entire tax revenues of small countries. As citizens, we must find ways to hold these companies to account, just as we do with our governments. 

How much trust can we have in large businesses to drive the change we need? I ask myself this everyday and I know I’m not alone. There’s many folks that think about this more than me. For example, a debate rumbles on about the authenticity and transformative power of the “purpose paradigm” that has captured many businesses, helping them embed a greater sense of moral fibre. Yet, even the purpose-driven companies still seem intent on operating within a conventional capitalist and at worst, a neoliberal mindset. Until we can move beyond these ideologies, I reckon we’re stuck with some variation of “business as usual”. (I wrote about this a little in a previous blog – see “conscious capitalism”).

I wonder if some of my peers will think I’m being rather negative? Large scale systems change does not happen overnight and trying to write with more positivity, it’s true that there are now so many “net positive” commitments from companies that it’s difficult to keep track of them. There’s also many examples of large organisations looking deep into the future and taking meaningful action to try and shape a more positive trajectory. All of this can be celebrated. But will it ever feel enough? 

For many years, some leaders in industry and government have been committed to a green growth mantra, the idea that we can decouple financial growth from resource consumption. Hard empirical data has recently shown that no meaningful decoupling has ever taken place and that the idea was an article of ‘faith’, devoid of any evidence. It reminds me that over 10 years ago, Tim Jackson’s published Prosperity Without Growth, making clear the need to re-define our definitions of prosperity. But I feel that the environmental movement has struggled to present any attractive, viable pathways towards new, alternative economic models. Or perhaps politicians and the public just aren’t ready to listen yet. 

The spectrum of business models: some observations

In the corporate world, there are a spectrum of business models. They range from those that are highly extractive and stuck in their ways with regards to governance and shareholder primacy, towards more nimble and purpose-driven businesses, as you might find in the B-corp community

We often hear a hypothesis that it’s the purpose-driven, nimble businesses that will prevail, as they are more adept in responding to environmental and social risks, while more traditional corporates will lose significance and fade away. Does this scenario hold certain assumptions about how society and governments will reward or penalise companies in the future? There’s certainly more nuance to this, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time and place.

Another, perhaps cynical observation that I’m interested to test is that the companies with the most impressive sustainability commitments, seem more likely to sell products that are less essential for society, such as fast food, luxury fashion, cosmetics and sugary drinks. Perhaps this is because it helps them to keep their license to operate, but it also introduces some ideological, moral challenges. Many of us enjoy ice-cream, fizzy drinks, steak and booze, but in a civilisation edging closer to the brink of irreversible collapse, should there be more efforts to limit this consumption? How stringent and restrictive should our society be in this emergency?

One fear I have about giving too much energy to working with large incumbents is that they are too stuck in their ways and unable to re-orientate their business models. Is there a danger I am facilitating a slow, managed decline of the outdated business models Buckminster Fuller suggests just need replacing? What if I have been giving some companies a false sense of security, to feel okay about themselves and operate a while longer while they trash the last of our planetary resources? Suffice to say, who we work with (as individuals and as organisations) and on what terms, is a very important question. 

Engaging companies on a just transition towards a regenerative food system

Recently at my work, we’ve been testing an idea that would involve bringing together, in a workshop, people from larger food businesses with those that sit more within the UK’s grassroots food movement. By grassroots, I refer to a fairly broad spectrum of organisations focused on influencing a more sustainable food system, from campaigners and smallholders, to alternative food businesses. The hope is to explore some of the common ground that I believe exists around sustainability ambition and what needs to happen to accelerate us towards these shared goals.

As I’ve tested the idea with friends in the sector, it became apparent that for some in these communities, there would be two key issues to overcome. The first is around trust. For understandable reasons, many working in the grassroots food movement have little trust in “big food” players: around their authenticity and capacity for radical change. There might be a lot of suspicion. Careful facilitation would be required to ensure discussions are constructive, healthy and purposeful.

The other challenge relates to the working hypothesis that people hold about how a transition towards much greater societal sustainability will play out. From my experiences, I know some people working in the grassroots food movement believe we need to “tear down” the existing food system and allow a new community of sustainable food enterprises to rise up. In this scenario, our food system can become much more diverse and nutritious. In the enlightened agriculture vision that’s painted by thinkers such as Colin Tudge, agroecology, food sovereignty and economic democracy are core aims. Communities will have proper control over their food supply and Britain will have a million more farmers, many smallholders, selling direct to citizens and cutting out the “middle players”. Major retailers will presumably be pushed to the fringes and collapse, their businesses no longer viable. 

This scenario depends on some radical enabling policy from our government and I struggle with its realism, especially in the short term. The power and grip large companies yield over politics and our food system should not be under-estimated, and in any case, how many citizens are really on board with this vision?

At the other end of the scale, the more progressive corporates with grand sustainability commitments are struggling to wrap their heads around what the radical transition looks like within their rather inflexible structures. I expect they find it difficult to imagine a scene that’s too far removed from their existing business models, where citizens are offered a seemingly unlimited choice of cheap food.

Figure 3. “Tear it down” (reform) vs “Radical transformation” (rebuild)

For a rapid transition in our food system, what might the realistic version of events be? I suspect there’s a reality somewhere between the “tear it down” version of events, and the unrealistic “radical transformation” of mainstream incumbents. It seems helpful to think of this like some continuum, and for many working in sustainability, this reform vs revolution debate is of course, not new. 

Might it be valuable to bring some of the more grassroots organisations in our food system together with larger food companies to explore major transition pathways? This may – or may not – help us move forwards and depends a great deal on how it’s facilitated. It may rustle some new ideas, partnerships or innovations that are so desperately needed. It might also help us get a clearer view of what a just transition looks like for society. It seems an idea worth testing further.