Big Food Redesign Challenge: It’s time to redesign food for nature to thrive
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Big Food Redesign Challenge aims to inspire the food industry to...
Over the last four episodes, we’ve heard how we need to change our food system to one that is nature-positive. But how can we scale a circular economy for food to feed the global population, which the UN estimate will reach 10 billion by 2057?
In the final episode of our Redesigning Food series, we hear from Professor Tim Benton, Research Director of the Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and Mikel Hancock, Walmart’s Senior Director for Sustainability Initiatives, about the role policymakers and big businesses can play.
This episode was supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
Pippa Shawley 0:00 At the beginning of this series, we asked the question ‘Is there a better way to produce our food?’ Over the last four episodes, we’ve heard how designing a food system where ingredients are diverse, low impact, upcycled and regeneratively produced, can allow nature to thrive. And while ‘regenerative’ is the buzzword of the moment, there’s still a long way to go until it is the norm. The UN estimates that the global population will have reached 10 billion by the year 2057. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. How can we scale a circular economy for food so that it meets the needs of people, while allowing nature to thrive? Welcome to the Circular Economy Show Podcast. I’m Pippa Shawley. In the final episode of this series, we’ll hear from two guests about the role policymakers and big businesses can play in scaling a nature-positive food system. And of course we’ll also hear from my trusty co-pilot on this series, Reniera O'Donnell, Food Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Reniera says that while there’s no single thing that will fix our current issues around food, it’s vital to work collaboratively on solving the problem. So what do we need to achieve scale?
Reniera O'Donnell 1:10 You know, there is there is a need to make bold and brave decisions, and that's at every part in the supply chain and every part of the food system. Legislators need to make bold decisions, they need to change the way that they have been defining policy across different parts of the globe. Food companies need to make bold and brave decisions about the kinds of food that they are wanting us to eat. We need to make bold and brave decisions about the kinds of food that we buy from our supermarkets.
Pippa Shawley 1:41 Professor Tim Benton leads the Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. As a research director, Tim’s personal work focuses around the interface between climate change, food systems and food security. I asked Tim where politicians and policymakers fit into transforming the system.
Tim Benton 2:02 Well, I could talk for a week about that, Pippa. So let's start from a kind of helicopter view. Politics, politicians, by their nature, can change the rules of the market, through regulation, legislation, putting incentives in and so on. But to do that, they need to be licensed by citizens, voters, to say that's, that's politically sensible. If they do that, then of course, market actors will change because the playing field is changing, etc. And to the fourth kind of constituency are investors who want market players to make as much money as possible within some sort of investment framework. So in a sense, politicians themselves are part of a wider system. And politicians cannot regulate and legislate without that political licence that comes from citizens and the ability of the industry to move.
Pippa Shawley 3:08 As we’ve heard before, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to fixing the challenges of our current food system. We know the food industry needs a redesign, but Tim explains why it isn’t as simple as changing what a country grows.
Tim Benton 3:21 If you think about any country, like the UK, you know, roughly speaking, half our food is imported and half is grown at home. Depends on which which commodities you're looking at. We can't change our food system by changing what we farm, because we will still just continue to import things and actually we'll be a more attractive market, perhaps, to producers that externalise costs onto the environment to produce food more cheaply. So it's very difficult for a domestic government to manage all aspects of its food system, because its food comes from all over the world. So part of the work that I'm doing is in the, kind of, multilateral arena to try and work with a range of governments to try and work together to deliver change. Because recognising this issue that you can't, if you're globally embedded, you can't do everything on your own without affecting your trade relationships. And then WTO disputes and a whole range of other things have to be, kind of, navigated. So all of that means that it's difficult for a government, let alone the the political difficulty, it's difficult for a government to be ambitious in this space. So we need we need the COP process for the UNFCCC and CBD, we need countries to unite, to avoid the first mover disadvantage to countries to unite to say we're all going to move together. And of course, again, the more you get more governments and have, the more tricky it's going to become from a political perspective.
Pippa Shawley 5:03 So this is a huge task. But Tim points to some examples of where policymakers have had success in bringing about change.
Tim Benton 5:10 One example where we have really done well, is dealing with the ozone hole with the Montreal Protocol. And that was very, very simple. To a certain extent, solar PV, and wind generation, or electric vehicles are simple. And therefore, a relatively small range of technologies, theoretically, can get traction, can be invested in, can scale up.
Pippa Shawley 5:40 So what can policymakers do to change our food system? Tim suggests starting with research that can answer some of the concerns around the transition.
Tim Benton 5:48 So research, investments is one thing. Then you've got the, kind of, whole subsidy system. So, you know, we could, with with UK post-Brexit agricultural policy, where we're paying farmers, or at least in theory, we're paying farmers to produce public goods. We could, for example, say, human nutrition is a public good and reward farmers for being more diverse, rather than just producing barley and animal source foods. We could so so the kind of subsidy regime and and how state and public money is used to incentivise farmers.
Pippa Shawley 6:27 Changing subsidies is something that farmer Hollie Fallick, who we heard from in the second part of this series, is keen to see happen.
Hollie Fallick 6:33 One of the main things that we found a struggle to so far is that a lot of the kind of government grants and things available for either diversification on your farm, or um just like helping, there's a few grants available for like helping new retro farmers and that sort of thing. But they're all for too much money. Like all the pieces of kit that they say that you can buy are all like, very mind that you have to come up with 60%, often of the capital. It's like a £60,000 piece of kit. And so when you just starting out, and we're starting out on literally a shoestring, they need to think about, like really small scale producers and and young farmers who haven't come from farming backgrounds and don't necessarily have access to these big lumps of cash. And that seems like quite a lot of infrastructure we need is like a few 100 metres of blue pipe, which is like £1000. So it's not like these big amounts of money.
Pippa Shawley 7:24 Beyond subsidies, Tim has some other suggestions of what governments can do.
Tim Benton 7:29 You've got a whole range of things around regulation of the food system. So whether that is things like sugar tax, and Pigouvian taxes, they're known as in the trade, where you're trying to incentivize people to change their behaviour, that's been quite successful in reducing the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages in the UK, you could imagine a whole wider range of those even things like a carbon tax applied to food to change the relative costs of eating red meat versus other forms of, of meat.
Pippa Shawley 8:08 And what about the role of big business? In 2022, Walmart topped the Fortune 500 list of the largest corporations in the United States for the tenth year in a row, above the likes of Amazon and Apple. With around 10,000 stores worldwide, the supermarket chain has a key role to play, working with its enormous network of partners to create a nature-positive food system. The company’s Senior Director for Sustainability Initiatives, Mikel Hancock, explains how Walmart first realised its ability to influence change after responding to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005.
Mikel Hancock 8:46 We found ourselves in 2005, to where we had a lot of resources, we had transportation, we had logistics, we had supply chain, and all of a sudden we sprang into action. And so coming out of that, what really happened at Walmart is, you know, we said what were to happen if we were to, you know, behave that way all the time?
Pippa Shawley 9:05 The business carried over those learnings into their work on global challenges such as the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
Mikel Hancock 9:12 We're heavily focusing on our work around climate. We're focused in on nature, which we've just already started to go into waste within supply chains, and then people in supply chains. And that's really been the driving force behind how we've moved our work forward today. And the role that we see that we play as a business and implementing those within the products that we sell at Walmart as well.
Pippa Shawley 9:35 Mikel and his team work with producers and suppliers to identify and address some of the key challenges in the current supply chain.
Mikel Hancock 9:43 It really starts with, you know, what are the key issues? What, what are the key boundaries that we see with planetary boundaries, also with where the systematic gaps are that occur, and we find that it's best to have those conversations with our suppliers, because they are closer towards their supply chain and their portion of it, but then also going direct to farmers and ranchers, and those that are actually producing the products that show up on our shelves. And those individuals actually really know more than anybody how best to do it.
Pippa Shawley 10:16 The majority of the people Mikel speaks to support making the changes necessary to create a food system where nature and people can thrive, and the company has developed tools to help enable this.
Mikel Hancock 10:27 The problem that we run into is really more of some of those systematic gaps. And so how do we actually bring tools and resources to life for them to be able to move that work forward? That actually creates a glide path to really implement those within the supply chain, and then bring it to life on the products on our shelves?
Pippa Shawley 10:45 One area where Walmart has applied some of these tools is in its rice supply chain. Rice is one of the four crops identified in the Big Food Redesign Report that provide almost 60% of calories consumed globally. Conventional rice farming is water intensive and is a significant producer of greenhouse gases. Mikel and his team have worked closely with rice producers in Walmart’s home state of Arkansas to develop ways to reduce these issues.
Mikel Hancock 11:13 So what we've done is we've been able to go in and work with implementing partners, technical experts, to bring those to farmers to help educate them on how they can use less inputs, save money in the process, ensure the long term viability and sustainable supply within that supply chain, so that we actually have it for generations to come. And that's critically important work.
Pippa Shawley 11:36 Policy and philanthropy have also played a key role here.
Mikel Hancock 11:40 So within our Walmart Foundation team, they've made investments as well. And then from a policy standpoint, which is really a lot of the things that we need help... you take a look at, you know, there was a $3.1 billion grant that was given within a climate smart ag bill by the government, the US government, and it's been implemented through the USDA. And so one of the beneficiaries of that has been Ducks Unlimited to help him preserve wetlands, which is where rice is being grown, in Arkansas, and they were a recipient of that. And, you know, while we don't receive any of the fundings, it's actually the farmers receive the funding and that's exactly where we need it to go to help implement these strategies. We were able to help add our voice to it, to endorse the need for those programmes so that we do have a sustainable crop and production long term. So if you really take a look at how we engage philanthropically ourselves, how we engage within policy as well to be able to endorse some of those things, and then what we do by leading within our business, that's some of the work that we've done. So rice is a really good one that we've been able to do within our supply chains.
Pippa Shawley 12:49 Another way Walmart has worked to engage with its supply chains on its nature-positive targets, is through its Project Gigaton initiative. Through this, it aims to reduce or avoid one billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from the global value chain by 2030.
Mikel Hancock 13:05 Now it's really about the work that our suppliers are doing. And so we've got six really pathways to be able to get there. And so some of its around energy use, some of its around transportation. Part of it's around nature that we're talking about. Part of it's around packaging that we have within it as well. And so really we meet up with our suppliers. And we provide tools, calculators and resources for them to make commitments, and smart goals that are time bound and actionable that they can then begin working towards.
Pippa Shawley 13:38 The need to address issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation and ocean acidification, is urgent, says Mikel, but to scale it, people and organisations from all levels need to be included in the transition to a nature-positive food system.
Mikel Hancock 13:54 We have to have products that renew, restore and replenish. And really, it's about putting nature and people at the centre of it. And if we can do that, then we're going to be able to lower our cost to allow people to thrive, to allow the planet to thrive, to grow out of horrible economic crisis. And so everybody has to win. So the small farm holder has to win, the producer has to win the some manufacturer and supplier has to win, right? And then ultimately the customer and the communities win. And so, for us, that's what it's really about, is we need a regenerative system that encompasses all those things, that allow us to sustain programmes long term that are efficient and economically viable.
Pippa Shawley 14:47 Reniera echoes Mikel’s view that even a company as large as Walmart cannot act alone, and that collaboration is crucial.
Reniera O'Donnell 14:54 What we hear is that no single organisation can do it on their own, it doesn't actually matter whether they are a massive retailer, or they are a small brand. They can't do this by themselves. And I think what we are starting to hear is companies really understanding that they need to have new parts of the supply chain, they need to make new partnerships, they need to form that new relationship with the farming community, they need to seek out working with brands that are more circular in nature, and are embracing circular design for food. So I think there is something in there around collaborating and forming different types of partnerships. What do they say, if you if you keep asking the same questions and doing the same thing, you're just gonna get the same answers, right? Like, how do we change that?
Pippa Shawley 15:42 At the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we're often asked what individuals can do to help accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Tim suggests that citizens and businesses need to show politicians that this is an important topic.
Tim Benton 15:56 So we need citizens, consumers, we need investment, investors, we need market actors, and we need politicians, largely to all agree that change is good, or change is an opportunity or we need to change. Otherwise, we will get blocking tactics through the system and change will get stopped, whether it's from incumbent power of very big corporations, or whether it's from citizen pushback, or whether it's from political inertia, or whether it is from investors putting all of their investments into the quick returns, and nothing into the long term returns.
Pippa Shawley 16:31 In this episode, we’ve heard how transforming our food system to one where nature is allowed to thrive is a complicated process requiring many organisations at the table. But we’ve also heard throughout this series, that it’s essential to addreSS the devastating biodiversity loss caused by the current system, and the high levels of greenhouse gases it emits. So what’s next? Reniera is back to introduce an exciting initiative the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is launching later this week. .
Reniera O'Donnell 17:00 Over the next 48 hours, we are launching the Big Food Redesign Challenge, which is a challenge aimed at the food manufacturing sector. So companies big and small, to really embrace circular design for food and to either innovate or renovate their existing products, using circular design for food, and creating food products that will help nature to thrive. So we are super excited about this challenge. So yeah, watch our social media channels over the next few days.
Pippa Shawley 17:33 And if you can’t wait until then, the Foundation’s website is full of tools and ideas about how we can redesign our food system, where you can also sign up to get emails about the Big Food Redesign Challenge. Thank you for listening to the Redesigning Food series of the Circular Economy Show Podcast. If you’ve enjoyed it, please share it with your friends and colleagues. You can also let us know what you’d like to hear more about in future episodes by completing our quick listener survey. This episode was supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. This podcast is published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and produced by Skinny Mammoth Media. Thank you to our guests Professor Tim Benton and Mikel Hancock, and to all the contributors to this series. We’ll be back soon with another episode of the Circular Economy Show Podcast, see you then.
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