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Emerge 2016 – Thoughts on A Broken Food System

Film and TV Producer Leslie Lee was a delegate to this year’s Emerge conference. She shares her insight into one of Emerge 2016’s most popular workshops, ‘Changing Our Broken Food System’.

 

Like many children, I was told not to waste food and to “think of the starving children in China”. It was China because we were Chinese-Americans and so I grew up thinking about every last morsel on my plate. Would it really be enough to feed a starving Chinese child? My mother assured me that it would.

It seemed strange to me there was no correlation between the cost of growing a potato and what it cost to buy one in the shops

As an adult, those early lessons on food waste left a lasting impression on me. I  moved to London, became a television producer and started cooking with a food waste project called The People’s Kitchen in Dalston. Every Sunday, I would help its charismatic young founder/chef Steve Wilson and his hard-working volunteers collect surplus fruit and vegetables donated by local shopkeepers. As if by magic, the dancefloor of a local nightclub would become a makeshift kitchen and the surplus produce became tasty, healthy dishes we would enjoy with members of the local community. Through Steve and The People’s Kitchen, I learned a lot about food waste and the food distribution system. It seemed strange to me there was no correlation between the cost of growing a potato and what it cost to buy one in the shops.

So one of the big highlights at Emerge 2016 for me was the Changing Our Broken Food System workshop, led by Fokko Wientjes, VP Sustainability & Public Private Partnerships at DSM. He explained how he welcomed our input as part of his research for the new EAT – Lancet Commission on diet, human health and its impact on our planet. We sat around large round tables in groups, talking about what we thought were the most important aspects of the food system conversation. More importantly, we discussed what we thought was missing from it.

Fokko Wientjes. Photo by fisherstudios.co.uk

Fokko Wientjes. Photo by fisherstudios.co.uk

Rather than talking about food in the abstract, we shared personal stories at my table. I was especially struck by Robert Boer, an Emerge 2016 speaker and director of UBS and Society, who told us how he became a vegan after his mother’s death from cancer. The connection between food and health is so very important, but yet we Western consumers suffer from ‘food information overload’. These contradictory food studies make it difficult for consumers to maintain healthy diets when even coffee can be both good – and bad – for you.

Of greater concern has been the global shift towards Western eating habits – more meat, dairy and processed foods – which place an enormous burden on the environment. Participants at another table pointed out that in poorer countries, consumers cannot afford to make the same food choices as Westerners can and decide to become vegan, for example. Also, different cultures and customs around the world (Chinese, rice) pose a challenge to transforming the global food system.

Still others wondered if there was a responsibility for retailers to educate consumers. And if so, how?

Workshop: Changing a Broken Food System

Workshop: Changing Our Broken Food System. Photo by fisherstudios.co.uk

With food waste in the news, there was also a discussion about the need for a food industry in developing countries, to help preserve food and prevent waste. Despite growing awareness in the West, Fokko warned, “there’s no understanding [among consumers] of what food costs to produce.” Political incentives like farming subsidies also remain a contributing factor in creating food waste.

The conversation could have lasted for days, but the hour had flown by. Fokko invited our further participation, so we can help the Commission develop a plan towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Change won’t come from food producers or policy makers, it must come from consumers.

Afterwards, I continued my conversation with Mr. Boer, asking him what food entrepreneurs can do to help. He thought that the subject of obesity needed to be addressed in greater depth. “Change won’t come from food producers or policy makers, it must come from consumers. But entrepreneurs need to influence customer demands.”

The best way for entrepreneurs to do this is through storytelling. “Here in Switzerland, we are asking journalists to give feedback on stories from entrepreneurs. If they like them, then you know you have a story that resonates with the media.” Supporting 34 social enterprises this year in their UBS Social Innovators programme, UBS and Society emphasizes the importance of developing an understanding of storytelling, as well as the basics of impact measurement, business models and scalability.

“I firmly believe that connection and collaboration can make a big change in the food systems. We need to bring all these companies together to collaborate and streamline their efforts for greater impact.”

“There was a potential for this [workshop] to actually move this conversation on food systems forward. There are a lot of different stories, cultures and perspectives. Everyone cares.”

About the Author

Leslie Lee

Leslie Lee

Leslie Lee is a London-based film/TV producer who works in documentaries and fact-based drama. As a former print journalist, she joined BBC1’s The One Show in 2007 and her credits include a wide variety of documentary series for Discovery, Channel Four, Syfy, A&E and Animal Planet.

Follow @lesliealee

 

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