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Stockholm sets stage for food transformation

Sitting in the darkened auditorium at the start of the EAT Stockholm Food Forum surrounded by 1000 fellow foodies from around the world was an extraordinary experience.

The opening called for everyday heroes to change the trajectory of the food system.

Everyday heroes

The EAT Stockholm Food Forum opening had all the pageantry and hype of a Broadway play with rousing music, a dramatic voice-over and massive images flashed across three screens, all carefully curated to inspire action. The opening sequence framed a story about a planetary emergency calling for skilful warriors to take immediate and transformative action.

For all the glitz, EAT’s flagship, invitation-only event, which brought together 1000 delegates from 80 countries, had a very serious message to convey – the food system which underpins our society is in crisis and we risk both climate and biodiversity catastrophe on the current course.

When the lights came up Gunhild Stordalen, founder and executive chair of EAT, reinforced the message by praising the actions of climate activist and Stockholm local, Greta Thunberg.

She was followed by rock stars of food system science Jessica Fanzo and Johan Rockström who provided an overview of the findings of the EAT Lancet 2019 report, summed up in one line from Rockström: “What is supposed to be nourishing us is killing us.”  

The duo outlined the way forward as a six-step path: 1) strengthening the Global Commons Alliance and Earth Commission; 2) examining the trade-offs and making hard decisions; 3) setting science based targets – translated to local context; 4) getting involved in food system dialogues; 5) measuring the path; and 6) advocacy and mobilisation.

Given that I was there to host a side event (one of 35) on what 10 years of experience with the Southern African Food Lab has taught us about multi-stakeholder processes it was gratifying to see that fourth step – food system dialogues – up in lights

The forum was a masterful example of event management for maximum impact.

An African perspective

As is often the case, what is left out of a report can be as interesting as what is in it. Rockström explained that the report had not set a timeframe because “the time is now” (in fact we’re almost out of time). It also did not delve into the malleability and complexity of stakeholder behaviour and did not explore livelihoods of farmers and others or how the required shift – such as no increase in global meat production or consumption to 2050 – would impact them.

For a delegate from Africa these really were the key unanswered questions of the event.
All the subsequent speakers and panels drilled down into elements of resilient farming or diets or food waste and loss, the three identified tasks in EAT’s proposed integrated systems transition. There was also a fair amount of discussion around translating the science into operational targets, where the earth’s planetary boundaries and human health requirements are adapted to local context but very little exploration of the burning issues of social justice or farmer livelihoods.

A representative from Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Assan N’gombe, spoke briefly of the challenges for smallholders. He was surprisingly optimistic, saying, “I believe that in my lifetime I’ll see a transformation of agriculture and food systems in Africa. Why? Because the knowledge we need is available.”

Besides a few celebrity chefs from Africa who were there under the banner of the Chef’s Manifesto, Africa didn’t really get much of a look in.

It was only Wiebe Draijer from Rabobank who argued that it is farmers who must be the heroes of change but it was not clear how this would be done given their vulnerable status in the global food system. Their silence in this transition was evident in the fact that in the two days there was only one farmer on one panel on the main stage.

The change makers

Rabobank, Mars, Danone and the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) all stood out as change makers to watch, as did the ambitious Pat Brown of Impossible Foods. Brown will go down in history for his ‘bleeding’ vegan burger that looks and tastes like meat but the delegates at the Forum will remember him for his ambition to make the world meat free by 2035.

Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars Food Group, gave hard-hitting presentation where he identified nutritious and safe food as a moral right and social inclusion as a critical underpinning of any transformation. He defined social inclusion not just as gender inclusion or good governance but ultimately where food business profitability is defined by nutritional qualities rather than shareholder profit.

The FOLU Coalitions director, Jeremy Oppenheim called for building resilient rural communities large and small but also acknowledged –  “The system is rigged – it’s dramatically over concentrated, putting risk systematically on the backs of those that cannot bear it”.

The closing echoed the opening with its urgent call for action, now with the King and Queen of Sweden in the audience.

And then it was over

That didn’t deter Fanzo from coming onto the stage singing the Doors song, “This is the end, beautiful friend/ This is the end, my only friend…,” Odd but full credit to her for originality.

This time the scripted interplay between Fanzo and Rockström was undone by a PowerPoint presentation with a mind of its own but their point was well made. Everything we appear to have achieved has been based on the unsustainable subsidies from the planet. Now we’re on track to be above 3 degrees warming by the end of the century, with only one decisive decade ahead of us to bend the curve.
 
We were all encouraged to allow ourselves to think big and do big and be self-critical, as the big question flashed across the screens: What will I do, what will we do now?

Once again we sat in the dark as a disembodied voice informed us that the event was over and we were free to leave. It was probably the first time I felt sorry that a conference was over.

Taking it forward

The EAT message found fertile ground with me.

Much of what I saw and heard confirmed that the work that WWF South Africa has been involved in, particularly through its partnership and support of the Southern Africa Food Lab, is not only cutting edge in design, but offers great value for the rest of Africa and globally in adding to the suite of solutions required to bring about a food system that holds social justice at its core.

There is much to do but, as N’gombe said, we have the knowledge so there is nothing stopping us from doing it faster and better.

Tatjana von Bormann Photo
Tatjana von Bormann, Programme and Innovation Lead

Tatjana manages a multidisciplinary team focused on some of the key challenges at the intersection of society and the environment, among them energy provision, food security and sustainable urban settlements.

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