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Een half jaar lang gaan we met de SFYN Academie op onderzoek door de voedselketen. Door dit lesprogramma ervaren 25 jonge, gemotiveerde deelnemers de complexiteit van onze voedselketen en we kijken samen naar wat we zelf zouden kunnen veranderen op weg naar een meer good, clean en fair voedselsysteem. Daarvoor is inspiratie altijd van harte welkom. Deze week een leestip van SFYN Academicus Mathilde Tournebize voor op de #Checklist.

Manifesto: Let’s unite all the conditions for change towards a sustainable food system, let’s “fake the crisis”?

Mathilde is working in Business Development for open-field crops at Rijk Zwaan, a Dutch vegetable seeds company, after graduating in horticultural engineering in France three years ago. She is also chairing the Slow Food Youth Network group in Rotterdam, organizing actions to make consumers aware of their impact on the food system, but also of their daily power to improve it. “Making things change (for better)” is her motto. She chose “Food” as her “life battle” to apply it. Why? Her passion for agricultural production, appreciation for the cultures and traditions behind foods, food innovations, but above all passion for people. There are indeed plenty of examples that show negative social impacts of our current food system, especially in developing countries.

After 15 years of volunteering for various associations, she now wants to contribute to improving the food system from a commercial level. She is convinced that changes have to happen in a systematic way. That is why she is sharing with us today a part of an intervention strategy which could accelerate change, based on the sayings of her “bible”: “Changing the food game – Market transformation strategies for sustainable agriculture” from Lucas Simons.

“Guatemala, where it all began”

This is the title of the very first chapter of the book where Lucas Simons describes what an eye-opener his first trip to Guatemala has been, as a new manager of a sustainable coffee organization in 2002. It was the journey where he understood “what happens in a global economy when people are only interested in “what’s in it for them” and ignore the longer term effects in their collective behavior” (p4).

This is also a very good title for describing the moment when I got the confirmation that “Food” would be my battle for life. In 2012, I spent my first horticultural internship harvesting coffee in the mountains of the region Alta Verapaz in Guatemala. I always wanted to work with developing countries, learn about tropical crops, and learn Spanish. So I thought that working in a small coffee plantation several months would be an efficient way to do all at once. From the moment I could communicate in Spanish and went on to visit Anacafé, the Guatemalan coffee association, a whole world opened to me.

Guatemala was (and is) still trying to recover from the coffee price collapse, after that the signatory countries of the International Coffee Agreement failed to reach a consensus in 1989. This agreement was previously defining production quotas per country, enabling the maintenance of higher prices paid to the producers and a reasonably stable market situation supporting the interests of the entire coffee sector. After the breakdown of the ICA, producing countries (especially Vietnam and Brazil) increased their own production in order to take profit from the relatively high coffee prices, leading to a worldwide increase in coffee supply. It resulted in falling prices, and created poverty and despair for the 90.000 Guatemalan coffee farmers and their families.

Why do systems fail?

I like to think in systems. Every time I have to deal with a problematic or an issue, I feel the need to get the complete picture in order to understand the relations of cause-effects on the various stakeholders of the system, and the “negative feedback loops” making them stuck in a certain situation. Thinking in systems also enable to identify levers where we can play to move out of such “chicken and eggs” situations.

Lucas Simon’s book is raising food production issues exactly from that perspective, from a theoretical point of view but also through practical examples. This book really enlightened my understanding of certain world issues I care about, but also the pathway to set up strategies to transform current markets into more sustainable ones.

According to Simons, failing systems have 4 principles in common:

  • They consist of self-serving stakeholders looking for optimizing their own short term benefits, creating a “race to the bottom” (have a look at the theory of the “Tragedy of the Commons” from Garret Hardin). Such a race often creates social (like systemic poverty and social inequity) and environmental (like deforestation and climate change) issues and leads eventually in the long run to the collapse of the system. Any attempt to solve the issues gets stuck in complex chicken-and-egg situations. Individual market players feel that they have no choice but continuing to play this short-term win game. As everybody is playing it, nobody feels individually responsible for the end-result.
  • Those stakeholders are externalizing the consequences of their actions in places and/or time (the consequences affect other people now and/or would affect them and/or other people later in time)
  • The authorities in the system (governments….) are failing or ineffective to break this “race to the bottom” and the negative feedback loops, like it can be done by implementing quality or safety standards, and providing enabling conditions for change like financial stimuli, knowledge or infrastructure.
  • The basic conditions for change and for breaking out of the “race to the bottom” are not present. This is where everybody, as citizen, current or future food leaders, can play a role.

Market transformation begins when conditions for change are present 

Change is a slow maturing process. Simons subdivides system change into 4 distinct phases. I recommend you to read the book to better understand it, as I do not want this article to spoil the “end” ;).
Most people (and not only French people ;) ) do not like change, especially companies. If a business benefits from a certain situation, and so does the rest of the sector, it is not likely to change it.

The coffee industry and associated organizations benefited from the collapse of coffee prices as they were able to source cheaper and plenty of coffee. Changing towards more sustainable practices would have meant higher production costs or fewer sourcing options. Furthermore, end-consumers, always looking for the cheapest prices, would also not have been likely to reward those efforts.

Inspiration and desperation are the most usual change drivers. The last one is the most common. Did you hear about the controversial expression “never waste a good crisis”? Crisis can indeed make people aware that the old way of doing business is maybe not the right one (anymore).
Crisis are often the trigger of the first phase of system change: the “awareness and project phase, which raises general awareness in the sector about the problems and elicits an initial response” (p63). A crisis strikes, and change agents like media or NGOs investigate the cause(s), bring it to the light, and build pressure for change on the stakeholders of the system, hurting their brand value. Those change agents must be credible, that is why they are often outsiders to the industry targeted.

The stakeholders often deny the accusations, highlighting that their individual responsibility is limited. “Everybody does it anyway”, “We are only a small part of the value chain”, “There is simply no other way to conduct business”, “This should be the problem of the local government in the producing country”….
In order to protect their reputation, some first-mover stakeholders respond by taking symbolic actions and initiate small projects (research, development of codes of conduct, donations, starting-up foundations, helping rural communities), sometimes even together with the change agents who campaign against them.
For example, the coffee crisis led to campaigns (by media like De Volkskrant or NGOs like Oxfam Novib) that enforced big players in the coffee industry to take actions.
Of course, in this first phase of system change, the projects are mostly meant to have a promotional/ marketing effect. They are not targeting the roots of the problem, and therefore are not solving it… until the system moves towards the next steps of change…

Let’s create the conditions for change, let’s “fake the crisis” together?

As written earlier, “Change” often starts with a crisis, but I believe that we do not need to wait for it to happen in the sectors which did not undergo a strong crisis so far. If we have access to the facts showing how unsustainable a certain system is, we could just fake the crisis.

I am actively involved at Slow Food Youth Network because I believe in the power of Network within the food sector to accelerate systemic and fundamental change(s). I also believe in its power to help pre-competitive sustainable systems moving towards implemented and recognized business practices and standards.

Can you imagine what could happen when younger and older sustainability-believers would get together to highlight a same issue at the same time: journalists, politicians, entrepreneurs, employees and managers of corporations, etc…?
“A well-prepared and -executed campaign can have an enormous impact. It can be an effective catalyst for change.” (P 86).
Can you imagine how we could join our forces to highlight specific issues in a consistent and persistent way (and not letting it drop from the attention of the media after a few days)?
Can you imagine how we could set up a cross-stakeholders calendar of campaign themes? We could tackle every six months a certain systemic issue, using reliable fact-based research from objective institutions. Such issues could be promoted every single day in the media six months long. In the end of this time lapse, independent working groups could maintain the pressure on the stakeholders and ask for a new campaign if needed.

“Faking the crisis” in such a way could enable the creation of first significant conditions for change in some sectors. For others, it could at least maintain those conditions for change, preventing them to disappear and giving time enough for the system to move from the first awareness phase towards the next ones.

Our actions as individuals are NOT drops of water in the ocean, we just need to make a well-timed rain from it.

The Young generation currently entering the business world is often described as an entitled generation who wants to “make an impact”. Yes, we do want to be “useful” to the world we live in. Not to feel better about ourselves, but because we do care about things bigger than ourselves (and if you are reading this article, probably so do you, no matter your age and which generational cliché you are supposed to match). We are just asking “Why?”, looking for the reasons why things work the way they do, and for guidance to improve them. If we are not satisfied with the answer, we are just going to make up our own, all together.
As far as I am concerned, I believe that being active both in a corporate and activist way is one of the right things to do, as the cooperation between big market players and change agents is a driver to success in the first steps of system change.

I would like to thank Lucas Simons for providing us in his book with a structure, a painting frame, and for giving to each individual the freedom to paint its own content. It would be a pleasure to meet you and further discuss your book. I am also looking forward to discuss this article or the book with other readers.

Thanks for reading this manifesto. With this article, I would like to invite all citizens and food leaders to read this book and to add together the next paintbrush strokes to the painting. Let’s raise awareness, let’s join credible change agents in a structured way to build pressure for change. Let’s have a look at which outsiders/change agents (NGOs, associations, media…) are already busy raising attention around a specific issue/system, and let’s join our efforts. How could we implement all together such a calendar of campaign themes? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Mathilde Tournebize

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