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The Next Economy
How to Redesign Our Food System for Resilience

At the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent Big Food Workshop, a variety of experts from throughout the food space spoke on the need to radically redesign for circularity and regionalism, to help us heal our broken global food system.

Our global food system is very much based on an extractive industry, yet around one-third of the commodities it produces for human consumption each year goes to waste.

Thinking of food in this way — more as an asset that can be better utilized and distributed to fight global hunger and malnutrition — can help to sharpen thinking and generate momentum when it comes to tackling existing inefficiencies and failings within the system, which was the focus of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) recent Big Food Workshop.

Carolyn Steel, architect and author of Hungry City and Sitopia, said she had a lightbulb moment in April 2000 when she wondered, ‘what would it be like to describe a city through food?’ — in essence, what does it take to feed a city? She since invented a word to describe the many ways food affects our lives in ways we do and don’t see — “sitopia” — which is the basis for her most recent book.

Both Plato and Aristotle talked about the need for cities to remain small — because, the larger they get, the farther they get from the surrounding areas that supply them with food and other resources. In Sitopia, she discusses the idea of “oikonomia” (which roughly translates to “household management”), in which the original idea of cities was for each house in a city to have a corresponding farm outside the city with which it sustained itself — so cities, in theory, could be self-sustaining. We’ve obviously strayed far afield from that idea in practice. On the contrary, Steel noted that our global economy is now largely driven by a concept Aristotle that railed against, chrematistics, which is the pursuit of wealth for its own sake — so, it’s no wonder, really, why our city/countryside ratio is now so off-balance.

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Steel also pointed out that our food system’s problems were essentially created by our worldwide obsession with cheap food.

“Food is the most valuable thing in our lives — food really is life. So, the fact that we’ve predicated our economics, and indeed our politics, on the existence of cheap food – which cannot and does not exist, though we’ve created the illusion of it by externalizing food costs — is, in my view, the problem. What I call ‘sitopian’ economics is the idea that we re-embed the value in food, and base our new economy around it.”

Steel asserted that we need to design cities and country in order to maximize the balance between the two. People having access to both is critical – there are huge benefits to both urban and rural economies, and huge potential to rethink both – and we need to recalibrate a balance.

Harriet Friedmann, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and a longstanding member of the Toronto Food Policy Council, traces the “problem” back to colonial times; when the British, French and Dutch descended on many foreign lands, decimated the indigenous populations, and began planting non-native crops such as sugar — oversimplifying once-complex ecosystems in favor of monoculture, and beginning a now centuries-long reliance of long, distant food supply chains. At the same time, rural areas surrounding cities back then were somewhat marginalized, as they began to move away from their essential role in feeding the cities. The same can be seen today in the rural areas around Toronto, for example — once rich for growing a wide variety of food crops, they have been reconditioned to grow just a few monoculture crops such as carrots and onions, for export. Friedmann says they’ve begun work to reconnect the city and countryside in that region, but a lot of work remains — to say nothing of the issue of urban sprawl, which literally paves over rural agricultural areas.

On the subject of how best to redesign these after the pandemic, Steel stressed the need for a shift back to locality, to finding belonging in a particular place that feeds us. She cites a growing group of examples of new connections between local producers and consumers — these need to be part of a new vision of a Good Life, rather than rampant consumerism.

Re-localizing our supply chains is one way that we can handle another global issue, food waste. Thomas McQuillan — VP of corporate strategy, culture & sustainability at US-based Baldor Specialty Foods — aptly summed it up during a session on some of the latest thinking on circular food systems and how they can be mobilized at scale:

“How many assets under our management do we treat as poorly as food? The very product we spend so much money on discarding … we need to start preserving.”

One key question EMF’s work raises is: How will tomorrow’s food be grown if it is to underpin more restorative systems, while improving the health and wellbeing of society as a whole?

Patrick Holden, founder and CEO of the UK-based Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), also talked of the need to re-localize food systems across the supply chain, from production through processing to distribution. He said farms also need to be restored to health, starting at a cellular level, based on regenerative agricultural practices, and argued that diets should be more aligned to locally and regionally grown food.

“We need to eat differently; we need to cut down on waste,” he asserted. “If we eat seasonally, we can nourish ourselves and be healthier in a circular food system.”

Holden also highlighted the importance of sustainability metrics. He said a common, global system was needed to enable farmers to measure and assess their fields and factories; and called for greater transparency of such data, so that it could be reflected on food labels — enabling consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions.

The SFT is already involved in work with farmers and land managers to develop an internationally recognized framework for measuring on-farm sustainability — a project regarded by Holden as “probably the most important work we are doing.”

He added that such metrics also needed to be multi-dimensional to take into account wider factors such as the relationship between farmers and consumers: “We need to be able to measure not just indicators like soil health; but social, human and cultural impacts, too.”

Once this food is grown, how we eat and experience it in a circular economy will become of increasing importance, especially as more people migrate to cities over the coming years. The role that chefs play, particularly in menu design, will be highly significant — given that their ingredient choices and preparation methods can have enormous positive impacts on the environment and society.

Dan Barber — chef and co-owner of Blue Hill farm and its two namesake restaurants in New York — spoke of how, at an early age, he realized “the power of food to heal” and decided to become immersed in all things culinary in order to harness that power.

Barber’s approach focuses on supporting what he calls “the wholeness of farms.” He creates menus based on crop diversity, enabling him to source more of what is grown on the land by the farmers he works with. So, instead of just buying wheat from a farm, he takes a broader view of what else is grown in the fields — such as rye and barley — and looks to purchase those crops, too.

This reflects well on locality and food provenance, trends which he says are very much in demand.

“A progressive restaurant is defined by how regional and seasonal the menu is. People are now looking for chefs who are hypersensitive to the region.”

This thinking can be taken one step further to preserve the rich heritage of native foods, according to Mokgadi Itsweng, chef and creative director of Lotsha Home Foods — a family-owned African brand based in Johannesburg.

One of Itsweng’s passions lies in reintroducing indigenous foods to people’s plates by incorporating crops such as pearl millet, sorghum and cowpea into her recipes and giving them a modern-day twist.

“In South Africa, a lot of people have moved away from rural areas to cities, and the indigenous food knowledge gets destroyed as people start eating more fast food. Many people living in cities are now also suffering from malnutrition and diabetes,” she said.

The indigenous foods that Itsweng works with contain huge health benefits, having formed part of people’s staple diets for generations; but this nutritional value is often overlooked as in South Africa, as these ingredients tend to be associated with poverty. Itsweng says part of her mission is to make these foods desirable, especially for younger generations.

“My advice for young chefs in South Africa is to learn about what is indigenous in your space. A great place to start is to speak to your grandmother. Our grandmothers have such a wealth of knowledge when it comes to cooking with these indigenous foods.”

How we grow, make and eat food has never been so important. EMF estimates that by 2050, 80 percent of the world’s food will be eaten in cities; yet these urban environments are increasingly giving rise to food inequalities, a trend compounded by COVID-19.

On the upside, several speakers felt the pandemic has given greater visibility to the issues that needed to be addressed; and provided some useful signals of how our food systems might need to be redesigned going forward, to build more circularity and resilience into them.