Food reframed: reflections on systems thinking from Mark Driscoll

Robert Williams
Aug 22 · 5 min read

As an On Purpose Associate, sustainability and systems change are two of the key social and environmental topics that arise frequently in debate and discussion with my cohort and in our wider community.

I believe the way we build food and farming systems has a major impact on the health of people and planet. In the first of a short series of interviews delving deeper into these ideas, I speak to Mark Driscoll. Formerly of WWF and Forum for the Future, Mark is Founder and Director of Tasting the Future, a not-for-profit food systems consultancy seeking to make the food system healthier, fairer and more sustainable.

To start our conversation, I ask Mark for his views on the key players and relationships we need to consider in food systems thinking.

As with any system, it’s about how you bound it. The food system includes a set of core players: producers, processors, retailers, investors and consumers, or citizens. But there are many other players who aren’t necessarily called ‘food systems stakeholders’ who interact with the food system in some shape or form and have the power to influence change. These other players include engineers, health professionals and government actors intervening to provide social protections. In terms of systems change and the relationships between actors, an important question is how to collectively deal with the social, environmental and economic determinants of good ecological and human health. There are structural questions to ask about how we measure societal and economic process, beyond GDP (gross domestic product), and how we reflect the true cost of food.

Can you say more about the concept of the real cost of food?

In the last 50 years the proportion of average weekly household expenditure spent on food in the UK has reduced from 33 % to just 15%. We now have a much wider choice of foods available to us but that comes with huge external costs; both environmental and health-related, rising rates of diet-related obesity being one example. In fact, we pay for our food three times over:

  1. In the price we pay at the supermarket or our local shop.
  2. In subsidies we pay to farmers (driven by post-war policies to address supply issues).
  3. In the healthcare costs we pay as taxpayers for dealing with diseases related to unhealthy diets.

So, what needs to change in our food system to make it healthier and more sustainable for people and the environment?

  • We need governments to really level the playing field and incentivise different sorts of agricultural production; we need more horticulture and more temperate fruit and vegetables and a significant reduction in beef and dairy subsidies.
  • I believe we should move towards a ‘polluter pays’ principle.
  • We should transition from a curative health system to one that’s more preventative.

There needs to be a serious conversation about what’s required to pay for these changes as well as how to protect the poorest in society from unnecessary costs. We can’t ignore social protection schemes and must deal with systemic issues of inequity which often drive people’s unsustainable food behaviours.

If a government policy approach is needed to create equity and sustainability, what role is there for other actors?

We need government to play a leadership role; therein lies a challenge because of the short-term nature of politics. The need to change the attitude of government is absolutely key to getting policy change which is in itself a systemic intervention. But other actors such as food businesses, retailers and manufactures do have a role to play. I’ve seen attitude changes from these actors but there’s still some reluctance for businesses to push and coalesce to get governments to listen to their views. There’s far more that businesses and farmers’ organisations can do to push governments, while also changing their own business models which, I believe, are often not fit for purpose.

What can individual citizens do to impact on food systems change?

Citizens are often considered to be only consumers and the passive ‘receivers’ of food. We need to think more about how citizens can engage with and shape the food system. How to put citizens at the centre of decision-making and reconnect them to food in increasingly urban societies is a systemic challenge. People need to be reconnected with food, so they value and appreciate it; through production, cooking and distribution.

Of course, citizens can also have impact through the food choices they make every day. They can, for example, eat more plant-based foods, buy foods based on their own values, whether around animal welfare or sustainability or products that are certified somehow (Fairtrade, for example), or reduce food waste. But beyond the individual, key to a more sustainable and healthier system is the need for regional or local citizen-led food policy councils, as seen in the US. These councils have citizens at their heart and allow for the lived experiences of those involved, including the most disadvantaged in society, to be brought into decision making.

Can you talk about specific examples of creating different decision-making processes in food systems?

In the US and Canada there is a move towards engaging multiple stakeholders including food policy councils in developing food procurement standards for schools and hospitals. This approach allows local producers and suppliers to be chosen over larger national or international players. In the UK, the integrated food strategy review, recently launched by Henry Dimbleby, has discussed involving citizens in decision-making structures. However, there is often a disconnect between international or national government-led debate and the translation and delivery of those ideas on the ground. That’s a big gap that we need to fill.

Coming back to politics, I ask Mark to talk about the opportunities and risks for the UK food system posed by Brexit.

Brexit gives us the chance to develop a more integrated food and farming strategy instead of the current fragmented approach where policy-making sits across government departments. We need a long-term vision with citizens involved in decision-making. There is a huge opportunity to reframe subsidies so they pay for ecosystem support rather than direct support for production. There is also an opportunity to rethink how we use land strategically so there is also enough space for ecosystems services and the wildlife that underpins food and farming.

My fear is that with the current polarisation in politics, we will instead suffer from the effects of international trade deals struck at any cost and which undermine the sustainability and resilience of the food and farming system. This could mean, for example, the importing of chlorinated chicken and more GM crops and essentially the reinforcing of a broken productivist model of agriculture. Instead we need a new model based on optimising health and nutritional outcomes with ecological forms of agriculture as its foundation. We should move from a produce more, do less harm approach to ecosystem, economic and social regeneration.

It’s about framing the systemic intervention that’s going to build resilience; we have to think big.

Find out about more about Mark Driscoll and Tasting the Future here.

Twitter: @_Rob_Williams

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Robert Williams

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Twitter: @_Rob_Williams

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