Food Systems Transformation

A “Rubik’s” Cube

I have just been at EAT Forum in Stockholm engaging in the debates about how to transform our food systems. It’s clear – the ways we are consuming and producing food is dramatically out of alignment with eating healthily, protecting the planet, and ensuring a fair livelihood for smaller-scale farmers and others working across the food system.

There is clearly no easy solution to the deep structural changes that will be needed. The discussions bounced around about who would drive change: consumer vs business vs government vs civil society. During a discussion I participated in during the Food Systems Dialogue side event the problem seemed very clear. Currently, the health and environmental costs of our food systems are largely market externalities. This creates very distorted incentives for both consumers and business. Internalising the true costs of food will require radical changes to the tax and subsidy regimes that have a big influence on how food is produced, marketed and consumed. But how to bring about such change?

This discussion brought be back to a framework for agri-food transformation I developed some years back (see here for a more detailed ideas paper). I refer to this three-dimensional model as the “Rubik’s cube” of agri-food transformation – reflecting the complexity of real-world change. Its purpose is to map out the different dimensions of innovation needed for food system change.

First, on the Y axis is the common-sense idea that we must take a complete value chain perspective from ‘farm to fork’, and understand the linkages between producing, processing, distributing, and consuming.

Second on the Z axis is the need for a combination of three types of innovation technological, institutional, and political. Changing incentives structures through tax or subsidies is an institutional innovation, but this will only be possible through political innovation in how decisions are made. Technological innovation, for example, can provide all sorts ways for smart monitoring that could enable effective implementation of such incentives.

The third dimension on the X axis is a “three P” process of innovation. The starting point needs to be people and their perspectives. Understanding why people see things the way they do and exploring their values, motivations, and interests is a foundation for then working towards shared visions and common commitments for action. Second, practical solutions to technical and social issues also need to be found – the prospects. These might be climate smart breeding so crops can grow better in times of drought, or apps that help people better manage their diet. Third, pathways are needed to put prospects into use at scale.

Too often our institutions work in isolated “stove pipe” ways, undermining the scope for more effective transformation. Science and policy don’t connect well enough, or we have wonderful technologies but not backed up by the institutional reform needed to deliver optimal social good. Agriculture and health get treated like isolated sectors with little connection between policy objectives. As an agricultural scientist, I reflect that historically a good deal of agriculture development focused largely on creating technical prospects for production – just one of the 27 domains in the ‘cube’ necessary for a more systemic approach to change.

As the EAT Forum highlighted, we now have a pretty good understanding of what the problems are with our current food systems. We know why this matters and have clear indications of the future risks we face. The challenge now is tackling the how of change. For this we are going to have to engage much more deeply in the questions of how change happens in complex systems and how to nudge toward more desirable rather than less desirable directions.

Foresight and scenario exercises, linked with the holistic approach outlined above, can engage stakeholders in asking “what would happen if”. This is potentially powerful way of contributing to the food system transformations that are so urgently needed. Foresight seeks to bring stakeholders into dialogue, supported by good visual information on trends, risks and emerging innovations to explore the future. This helps to create shared perspectives, pathways forward and the political will to act.


Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead