In order to understand the width and depth of the problem, it is necessary to lay out the main ideas and concepts as to what Sustainable Food might mean, and understand the areas of action to address the different issues.
Different organizations and scholars have been studying the problems arising from Food in the modern world scenario, especially considering the challenges we are facing and will soon be facing in relation to environmental issues, being Climate Change, the main one under which most of the rest fall into. To define what we mean by Sustainable food, it is useful to take two main organizations that have been working on these issues for some time. First of all, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has clearly defined what a sustainable diet consists of, which can be summarized as one that with a low environmental impact, ensures accessible food and nutrition security for people to lead healthy lives, yet in harmony with all ecosystems in a fair way.
Sustain (Alliance for Better Food and Farming), has also looked at this definition in depth and has noted the importance of looking at all of the actions involved in the food chain, which include: production, processing, purchase, sale and the very act of eating.
The interesting point to note about considering the actions involved is that recognizes all of the roles involved in it, including consumption, so it relates it to all of us. This organization has also determined seven main areas of work if we are to tackle the issues revolving around food. I have found this definition of the scope of action to be extremely useful, but have adapted it to rename the aspects for clarity and contextualization, and have included an additional area that I have named: Community and Wellbeing. A brief explanation of these areas is provided below.
Moreover, the third aspect to take into account is the perspective from which the problem is looked at, that is what I have called, the lenses. Most authors and approaches coincide that using a 3-tier model where we take into account: humanity, nature and capital (in a broad sense of the term) is what ensures a thorough study and analysis of the issue, and serves as the basic model or framework from within to work in the Sustainability field. Many authors have used this model using different names and terms such as The Triple Bottom Line (economic view), The Tree Ps (broader sense) or the Three Ethics of Permaculture (social and ecological). More details about these models are provided below.
Models and Frameworks used
The development of a new model for the design field:
Because none of the models mentioned above has been produced to be used specifically from within the Design field (creative-thinking and art-based disciplines), some of the terms adopted might not be necessarily appropriate, especially, the mentioned Triple Bottom Line model, that, despite its relevance and similarity, is related to economics and finance mostly. The Three Ps approach, is in many ways similar, with the conflictive use of the word Prosperity that implies the idea of growth despite its broadness of applications (beyond economics). On the other hand, the Permaculture model, being the one that fits closely to the ideas that we use, is still too attached to the worldview presented by this Design Approach (originally developed considering gardening and landscapes). By defining the model to make it more suitable for the Design-thinking field of disciplines and work, we can detach the concepts from specific areas (be that economic, business, agriculture, etc.) and have them be broad enough to apply to any particularity, but most importantly, to the type of work and analysis used during design work.
This model is a work-in-progress idea. There is potential to develop this further to create a model/framework that can be applied without connotations from any other agendas rather than the type of approach needed in design-thinking based disciplines. I took the liberty of renaming it “The S Macroscope”, as a tool to contemplate, analyze and frame the perspective at which any issue should be looked at if we aim at taking the sustainability route.
Mapping directions – the food action map
Definitions of the Areas of work:
Reducing food waste (and waste from food packaging) is needed to lessen energy, resource and financial consumption during production and disposal. Efficiency during production, consumption patterns and waste management are necessary to avoid resource depletion and prevent landfills to be expanded (with the environmental and health problems that include). Composting organic matter is a must.
Better eating patterns including reduction of meat and dairy consumption. This takes into account animal welfare as well as environmental implications. Agriculture is the biggest actor contributing to climate change (CO2 emissions). Promoting the consumption of vegetables, fruit, grains and pulses also reduces health risks like cancer and cardiovascular problems.
Buying local, seasonal and organic food, especially from farms. Choosing organically produced foods ensures the health of soils and the whole ecosystems around them. Buying local and seasonal produce benefits the local economy and minimizes energy consumption during production, transport and storage (reducing food miles and carbon footprint).
Choosing Fair-trade and ethical products. When buying products that are not available locally and we cannot learn about their production process, choosing certified products ensures the process has been done in ethical and fair ways, where producers (usually poor or disadvantaged) can secure a fair wage and improve their livelihoods through their work.
If choosing to consume fish, select sustainable sources such as wild-caught certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Similarly to Fair-trade, they work towards securing the future health of rivers and seas, and the creatures that live there.
Growing our own food should be encouraged as there are many ways in which this can be achieved no matter the space available. Preferably, choose community gardens or allotments that provide a whole experience of reconnection with nature and the nature of food. If growing is not possible, opt to buy from farmers markets, local producers or shops that source their products from such places.
Focusing on the right balance of food intake to ensure healthy diets. It is important to reduce consumption of overly processed and fast foods (that might also contain genetically modified ingredients), and opt for natural, cooked from scratch and raw options. Sugar, salt and fat intake needs to be reduced as they have been associated with health risks and diseases.
The social aspect associated with food consumption is also important. Humans are social creatures by nature and sharing food is deeply rooted in all cultures. It improves the enjoyment of the experience as well as help with general (spiritual) wellbeing of individuals, reducing the likelihood of depression and anxiety.
Reading the map:
Using a map approach derives for two main ideas: the direct reference to finding directions and defining areas or zones to focus on, and secondly, the potential for easy visualization of how the problems interconnect, especially considering modern lifestyles.
The city and outskirts model simplifies the idea of a city, but reflects many models of cities where we can find: the central area characterized by a conglomerate of buildings and businesses, as well as spaces for social interaction (such as parks and squares), a residential area (where houses with more green space available around them can be found), a port and industrial area (where foods shipped from abroad are brought into) and water sources (freshwater or not) that represent other resource sourcing including water and fish. As we head towards the outskirts, we find Supermarkets and large-area retailers, farmers and food production including vegetables as well as animal produce (dairy, eggs, all meats), and finally areas for disposal including recycling, incinerators and landfills in general.
As it can be seen on the map, all areas (defined as 1 to 8) are linked (represented by the roads). This illustrates the idea that when one area is altered in any way, this will eventually affect or touch other areas as well. The understanding that the food scenario is complex and may need to be approached in a holistic way, has been a challenge to try and focus the areas of my work and interventions. Understanding the need to define and reframe the main focus of work to a smaller section of the map, I have decided to focus on Area number 2, that is, working towards the reduction of overconsumption of animal products (mostly meat, dairy and eggs), especially in richer economies. More details on this can be found here.
What is clear, however, is that selecting this area will still have an effect on the others, and, as some authors tend to suggest, there is potential for ideas and changes to have a strong impact on people’s attitudes and have this change spill over to most, if not all, of the other areas that also need urgent action.
Choosing an area of work
A number of organizations have, for a few years, been stressing the point that food production and consumption is closely related, and having a massive impact, on Climate Change. Therefore, actions on this area are urgent, especially because it has not received much attention so far. Even FAO has accepted their lack of attention to this issue in the past:
“In the early 1980s, the notion of “sustainable diets” was proposed, with dietary recommendations which would result in healthier environments as well as healthier consumers. But with the over-riding goal of feeding a hungry world, little attention was paid to the sustainability of agro–ecological zones, the sustainable diets’ concept was neglected for many years. Regardless of the many successes of agriculture during the last three decades, it is clear that food systems, and diets, are not sustainable” – FAO, 2010
On a more recent report from late 2015 in the UK, the direction to take is very clear and straightforward:
“Efforts must be made to develop meaningful, accessible and impactful messaging around the need for dietary change. The overall message remains clear: globally we should eat less meat. ”
Changing climate, changing diets. Report by Chatham House (Chathman House, 2015)
There have been lots of studies addressing the relation between these two issues: overconsumption of meat and climate change, and international organizations have faced the need to start discussing it further and start working on actions. This problem has been discussed in the recent COP21 meeting in Paris and it is now the time to work on tangible actions towards change and dealing with the subject from the three points of action: policy, business and consumers. Because, no matter our level or point of engagement with the problem, we are all responsible – this touches every person’s lives.
Trying to reduce meat consumption: Challenges in sparking change in individuals.
A study performed last year in Scotland (Macdiarmid, Douglas & Campbell, 2015) looked at people’s perception on the environmental impact of foods versus and understanding the challenges when trying to persuade people to reduce meat consumption .
Here is a visual representation of the data and findings, that will help us understand the problem even further and identify a possible action route forwards.
Future scope: comparison
For a detailed discussion related to mapping and framing the problem and where to move forwards, click here.