Strategic Pathways Navigating the Food Systems’ Change Landscape

In May we met with a group of actors from the Swedish food systems to explore what is changing in the systems at the moment and how this could be strategically navigated to enable a more rapid transition towards healthy and sustainable food systems.

Navigating the change landscape

In transformation theory, crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, are formative moments that could enable whole systems to transition and even transform. To understand how this potential could be seized, four strategic areas for change had been identified, based on the lab’s previous research and scenario workshop. They became the basis for discussion.

You can read more about what we were doing during the workshop and also download audio files that describe the strategic areas in this previous blog. Below we are outlining key findings and strategies built during the workshop with the actors. We recognise that the actors who participated primarily represented Stockholm perspectives and that the results are not representable for Sweden in its entirety.

Rapid Transition Lab: Strategy workshop

A: Self-sufficiency

This group discussed how to strengthen the Swedish food systems capabilities to become more self-sufficient and resilient. The crisis has flashed out Sweden’s great dependency on imports and foreign food. Which may stimulate the national goals of increased resource efficiency and sustainable production methods. Incentives and business opportunities play a vital role, as well as new technologies. The group emphasized that there is a need to increase local production but also to change what is being produced and not necessarily more of the same (for example meat and dairy).

When looking at the change landscape we see that there has been an increased sale of locally produced goods. Some of the small grocery stores in rural areas have increased their sales. The participants had also found that there had been an increased interest in the role that publicly procured food can play for increased health and sustainability. The group elaborated on the fact that the increased prices on fuels and fertilizers both can be seen as an obstacle as well as a hinder. In terms of challenging food systems based on unsustainable use of diesel and chemical fertilizers, there is opportunity to bring in alternative products and increase efficiency.

The strategic moves discussed in the group had a stronghold towards government activities. The government was seen both as a driver for change in procurement of local and sustainable food, as well as creating incentives for change in regulations (like: all school meals should be sustainable products) and incentives for more sustainable production. For example, to use a “carrot and stick” approach to shift fossil fuel dependency in food productions. The group went deeper into the discussion around strategic moves for a circular value chain and specifically identified several activities connected to side stream opportunities and a shift towards mainstreaming biological fertilizers.

B: Regenerative farming

This group focused on how to create a culture of regenerative farming, where the farmers’ job is attractive, generates nutrition, fibers and energy (without waste) and cares for the long-term health of soil, plants and animals. Regenerative practices further include: 1) managing other types of land, such as forests, lakes and waterways, 2) meeting people’s needs within the means of the planet, and 3) providing the farmer with a reasonable income. Some participants highlighted regenerative farming as part of local food systems, whereas others emphasized the need for regenerative farming to be scalable and produce food to many.

When looking at the current change landscape, participants identified movements that could support change towards regenerative farming. Increased costs of diesel and chemical fertilizer could make regenerative practices more feasible compared to conventional ones, as it relies mainly on renewable and domestic inputs. Actors promoting regenerative practices could further connect to the heightened security debate by arguing that a resilient food production is an important part of civil defense. Yet, some actors highlighted the risk of regenerative farming not being able to produce enough food and that there may be a shortage of fertilizer (e.g. manure), especially, if it is implemented too fast.

With this in mind, the group discussed an overarching strategy to make financial resources available to drive the transformation toward regenerative agriculture (regardless of the farm’s size). This would address the lack of economic incentives and capital to make the transition. Several strategic moves were identified to enable this, for example:

  • paying regenerative farmers for their efforts to improve and mitigate climate change (for example carbon sequestration and increasing biodiversity),
  • creating subsidies for the use of low-tilling practices and natural fertilizers,
  • shift the current tax relief for diesel costs for farmers into helping farmers transition to renewable fuels and technology
  • establishing promoters that connect farmers to investors,
  • scaling out Svensk Kolinlagring’s “carbon club” and digital platform to more farmers, investors and other actors,
  • following Norway’s example with lower tax on labor in rural areas, and
  • finding long-term investors such as Swedish pension funds

In addition, the actors discussed the importance to make regenerative farming a prioritized area for research and innovation (e.g. Vinnova’s new innovation environment), to address the difficulty to measure and risk of scaling these practises. Research and development could help assess the outcomes of and define principles for regenerative farming that could be picked up to different degrees by different types of existing farms (e.g. organic, conservation and conventional).

C: Food as preventive health

This group looked at how food can be used for preventative health care. This includes looking at why, what, how and when one eats and its relationship to different bodies’ health defense systems. The participants discussed the potential for it to be building the resilience of the Swedish population in times of crises (such as the pandemic or times of war). Some emphasized the role of public meals and education whereas others had a larger focus on consumption at home.

The group looked at the change landscape and identified movements that could enable the transition towards using food as preventative health care. Grocery stores’ increased demand for locally produced food could become an opportunity to simultaneously ensure that new local products benefit our health defense systems. Sweden’s regulations already ensure products that are better for people’s wellbeing, when compared to many other countries. Similarly, the increased use of delivery services and online grocery shopping could be an opportunity to make it easy to make choices that benefit one’s health.

The success of the Covid-19 pandemic’s communication strategy is another opportunity. It showed how communication can shift behaviors and could lead the way for other health related campaigns; educating people about food’s impact on the body. This aligns with the government’s increased awareness of crises’ physical and mental health consequences. It has generated a larger, yet limited, interest in working more preventatively on a government level.

To navigate these changes the group shaped a strategy including three different strategic moves. It starts with an economic analysis of the adoption of healthier diets across the Swedish population; including direct costs and savings as well as the cost of missed opportunities. With this evidence as a foundation, strategic movement building could start, generating the demand for more healthy foods both commercially and politically. This could include: making food a part of every subject in school, cool role models talking about food’s impact on our health, songs about eating well, information brochures to everyone in Sweden and reporting the health impact of your grocery shopping on your receipt. This would in turn require new representation and collaboration on a government level, driving regulatory and policy changes together with actors in the food systems. This could for example include: establishing a food minister working horizontally across government and setting up policy labs where food systems actors work directly with policy makers.

D: True cost of food

This group reflected on how to price food according to its true cost, hence its impact on human and planetary health. Food systems activities such as production, distribution, consumption etc., and its effects on environmental and human health are not included in current food prices. At the same time, we must consider the affordability of healthy foods and how to make it accessible to all. Participants discussed how our financial model supports our current systems and therefore must change in order to change food systems. Consumers are also lacking basic knowledge around the impact of food and should not be responsible for making the right choices, price indicators could help them make the right ones.

Participants used the change landscape to look for movements that could open up for the opportunity to change the current pricing system. As a result of several recent and current crises (Covid, Energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, Oil prices increase), food prices have increased and continue to rise. This situation has brought light to the discussion around how much food should cost for producers to be profitable and how to make healthy food affordable for all. The Covid pandemic also showed us that we can change both behavior and policy if we have to in the face of a crisis, an opportunity that we could use.

The group brainstormed around a strategy for how to take advantage of the lowered threshold caused by these changes and identified a set of strategic moves. To support a new pricing system in how to determine what is sustainable and healthy or not, a new accounting system is needed. This would entail creating an open database and would require gathering data for all food and evaluating it, also including its social impact. Implementing the new pricing system would require education provided to organizations and a will to engage (potentially driven by economic incentives) amongst businesses. Food deliveries could also be priced according to the impact of the ordered food.

To facilitate for consumers to make the right decisions and navigate amongst all labellings; communication could be standardized and products labeled that are bad instead of the ones that are good. And in order to increase the knowledge amongst consumers of tomorrow, mandatory education about food and its impact should be implemented in school education. And to help children out of food poverty, statutory school breakfast could be introduced using the same mechanisms already in place for school lunches. This could have long term effects on societal welfare and would need to involve school politicians, principals, the Swedish food agency and possibly local stores and producers.

Next steps

Moving forward the lab will sens-make the findings, focused on connections to the change landscape, overlaps between strategies, and relationships with outcomes from the previous scenario workshop and interviews. This will inform the final set of strategies, which will be presented in a report in the fall.

This blog is co-written by My Sellberg and Jenny Norrby at Stockholm Resilience Centre and Linnéa Rönnquist at Dark Matter Labs. It is a part of the project Rapid Transition Lab funded by Vinnova and we invite you to read our other blogs here.

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