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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Crowdsourcing the future of food systems

The other day I got up a bit earlier than usual to be part of a zoom call put together by the UN Food Systems Summit. This event was open to anyone in the world with internet access. I guess 13:00 Central European Time works best to get all the time zones involved.

I'm working on a Talk to Me About Food podcast episode about regenerative agriculture, an approach which implies a major disruption in the way our food system currently works, so my antennae have been up for big picture, sustainability-focused resources like this UN-sponsored event.

Top line on the UN Food Systems Summit:

* In their words "The Summit will awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. It is a summit for everyone everywhere – a people’s summit. It is also a solutions summit that will require everyone to take action to transform the world’s food systems."

* The summit will be held in spring of 2021

* 5 action tracks - each with a public forum and discussion starter paper

- Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all

- Shift to sustainable consumption patterns (the one I attended)

- Boost nature-postive production

- Advance equitable livelihoods

- Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stress

* Dialogue sessions along the way to the summit that are open to the public

* A Champions Network anyone can join that provides a starter toolkit

What really strikes me about this campaign is not so much the scope and scale of the UN Food Systems Summit goals - the UN is always about lofty ambitions - but the strategy to directly engage as many people as possible around the world. The UN is trying to crowdsource ideas to fix or improve food systems. They are hoping to create organizers and advocates at every level of engagement who will themselves catalyze this crowdsourcing effort.

This campaign is looking for input on so many fronts. One of the work streams I made note of is focused on improving the product experience of healthy, sustainable food (taste, satiation, price/value, convenience etc.), sparking consumer motivation to eat this way, and enabling consumer capability to make more nutritious and delicious food. Clearly, there are many ways to contribute to this crowdsourcing effort based on your experience and interests.

The day after the zoom call I watched a recorded UN Food Summit Dialogue held in October. It was a four-hour affair that featured people from all walks of life weighing in on the future of food systems. Devita Davison is one example. She works with Food Lab in Detroit. She is a "connector" in this community working to improve consistent, continuous access to quality food. She bubbles with enthusiasm for the "blueprint" they've developed in Detroit.

The UN outreach effort feels genuine. I'm sure it provides a platform for companies and institutions of all stripes to boast about all the good work they're doing, and plan to do in this space. At the same time I felt fresh energy in the voices of optimistic, maybe a bit naive voices being asked to take the microphone and share their screens.

Now that I'm primed, I'm starting to see examples of this effort to more broadly share responsibility or accountability for how we feed ourselves in other places.

Unilever just announced that shareholders will vote at next year's annual meeting on the company's plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030, and to also cut in half the environmental impact of its products. Unilever sells $20 billion of food products every year.

A rancher/farmer/ag consultant I interviewed plainly called the movement to regenerative agriculture a grass-roots effort that will only succeed if each of us demands food grown and raised in this way. He said that the current Farm Bill is a barrier to change but that government policy will not be the change driver. The onus, he says, is more on the farmer and the citizen-eater.

As I think about the sustainability-focused podcasts I've produced I see that they also point to the need for us as consumers to take on more of what it takes to feed ourselves. Whether it's doing more to reduce food waste at home (and making more meals at home from scratch), shopping with reusable containers, or growing some of your own food, these all take time and effort and even a willingness to learn meal preparation skills for some of us. We have to be willing to give up some of the convenience many of us rely on. We will likely have to pay more, at least in the short term, for food that is grown and distributed in a sustainable way.

Are these individual sacrifices worth making to enjoy more nutritious, healthier, better tasting food? For everyone? Not to mention a healthier planet? We're being asked to stand up and be counted, one way or the other. I don't think we can allow ourselves to be on the sideline.

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