Towards healthy, sustainable and just Swedish and planetary food systems

In a post-pandemic world, food is not just our biggest challenge, but also our biggest opportunity for sustainable change.

The ways that food is produced, distributed and consumed have major negative impacts on people and the planet. Food production is the largest human pressure on Earth, causing a mass extinction of species, and accounting for 23% of annual greenhouse emissions. Food is at the core of various social justice challenges such as working conditions, access to affordable good food, cultural diversity and burgeoning food-related health crises of both malnutrition and obesity. This means that many of the broader environmental and social challenges can be addressed if the way that food is produced and managed is transformed. As Johan Rockström, Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in 2016:

If we get it right on food, we get it right for both people and planet.

Food transformations will require a series of fast and slow transitions over the next decades. The world’s governments have agreed on the UN Global Goals for 2030. Here in Sweden the country plans to have net zero emissions by 2045. However, neither the world nor Sweden are on track to achieve these goals, and with every day that passes, impacts accumulate and the challenges grow.

Food is essential and a source of great pleasure. A shared meal can be a ritual or celebration, and a simple everyday pleasure. Food is a rich and meaningful expression of our shared cultural diversity, and the way we make, distribute, and enjoy it, speaks loudly as to what we stand for as a society. Food can be a generator of wealth, in numerous forms, and its cultivation can restore ecological functions. Given that food is the strongest connection humanity has with the biosphere, that most of our food systems are productive but unequal, and that food cultures can either be enriching or destructive, transforming our global food systems represent both a grand challenge and a grand opportunity. If we are able to make a just transition to food cultures that restore the biosphere rather than degrade it, we will not only improve the lives of the world’s people, and enhance the biosphere, but also learn how to become better stewards of the Earth.

Sweden and other Nordic countries are well-positioned to lead the way in the global transformations towards sustainable food systems. It shares many of the world’s problems, while beginning to take action to address them. Current diets in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland are unhealthy, carbon intensive, and harm terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, both in the Nordics and elsewhere. About half the population in Nordic countries is overweight or obese, food waste is a major problem, and meat consumption is well above amounts recommended for health or sustainability.

Sweden is also taking action to change its food system. The Nordic region has world-class dietary guidelines, strict agricultural regulations and emerging innovations to food challenges. In Sweden, diverse innovations are taking place in farming, marketing, logistics and retail. Similarly, many cities, municipalities, and national government are working to develop policy to improve the food system, for both health reasons and environmental objectives. Furthermore, there is widespread public discussion, led in particular by chefs, to build on the success of the New Nordic cuisine [PO1] to create a cuisine that is good for both people and the planet, exploring how to reverse these recent trends towards greater meat consumption and increased environmental damage. As Nordic populations diversify, the various cuisines in the region are enriched accordingly. This means Sweden has the potential to lead global food system transformations.

The unequal and often unplanned impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have highlighted many flaws and fractures in the fabric of everyday life, not least because it moves as a complex system, as opposed to respecting the way Sweden is organised within health, mobility, urbanism, security, governance and other sectors. We believe that the responses to COVID-19 on the Swedish food systems may reveal aspects of the resilience measures needed to meaningfully address the risks and opportunities facing Swedish food systems.

While some of the rapid responses of food system actors to COVID-19 might accelerate a ‘just transition’ towards sustainable and resilient food systems, others may impede it. To better navigate towards sustainability, we want to understand how responses to COVID either built or eroded resilience within the Swedish food system resilience, and whether these responses enhances or reduced the transformative capacities of the Swedish food systems. Such understanding can help us better align existing and future research and innovation activities, in order to enable a ‘just transition’ of Sweden’s complex food systems; systems not defined by its territorial boundaries but the planetary flows that it is interlinked with.

Transformations require significant changes in multiple dimensions of society. These changes must take place at different levels in society, from practices and behaviours, to rules and regulations, to values (financial and non-financial), and world-views. Transformation involves changing the relationships among people, but also profoundly changing the relationships between people and nature. History shows us that crises can create openings for transformation. But while positive societal transformations may arise from crises, the consequences of crises are often not positive. The risk is that opportunities created by the crisis are missed and that crisis response — despite good intentions and innovation — fail to address accumulated problems, and restore a slightly improved or a damaged status-quo. Navigating crises requires understanding of capabilities and capacities that are needed and then developing and mobilizing those capabilities and capacities for change.

Our project aims to learn from the current COVID-19 crisis and support the enabling of capacities for transforming towards Swedish food systems that promote the health, equity and sustainability of people and the planet. The project will identify and map risks and opportunities emerging in the Swedish food systems due to the COVID-19 pandemic through a co-creative process with public, private and civic food system actors. This process will develop understanding and articulate alternative pathways for food system transformations. It will do this through a Rapid Transition Lab.

Rapid Transition Lab

The Rapid Transition Lab will identify opportunities and pathways for Swedish food system actors to engage in a rapid transition, in response to the COVID-19 crisis. It will assess different strategies within the Swedish food systems, and support the design of more transformative strategies, practices, and institutions. Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency who fund this work, plans to connect the learning to multiple related stakeholders in and around policymaking and practice relating to food systems in Sweden.

The Rapid Transition lab will consist of a sensemaking and a futuring project and be structured around three overlapping phases: First, the project will build a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of and the responses to Covid-19 in the Swedish food systems. Second, based on these insights, existing food system scenarios, and through workshops engaging multiple stakeholders, the project will build transformative food system scenarios. In the third phase, the project will use these scenarios to identify strategies and pathways and possible portfolios of experiments for actors to contribute to the transformations of the Swedish food systems. These will be accomplished by developing a process of collective sense-making.

  • Learning from the crisis to reframe food systems: By exploring the interconnected cascading risks and opportunities that have emerged from responses to COVID-19 and the 2018 drought in Sweden, in the context of Swedish food system transformations, we will create broader views of food systems and cultures.
  • Suggesting strategies to support the capacity building for transformations: Building exploratory scenarios, informed by the responses to the COVID-19 crises in the Swedish food systems, can reveal capacity-building strategies that might better enable transformations in the Swedish food systems. The scenarios, will build on previous and ongoing scenarios, to develop systemic, holistic and multidimensional scenarios that will be used to identify a portfolio of pathways and experiments.
  • Input into strategic policymaking and innovation practice: Key stakeholders in and around policymaking and practice relating to food systems in Sweden, will be engaged to actively contribute and learn from these exploratory processes. The analysis of the crisis, and development of the scenarios should be relevant to these stakeholders.

The Rapid Transition Lab will be linked to other ongoing transdisciplinary food system projects that Vinnova or the Stockholm Resilience Centre lead or are partners in. These include MISTRA Food Futures, Nordic Food Policy Lab, Sustainable Finance Lab, and NorthWestern Paths. The Rapid Transition lab will complement these projects by focusing on the responses to Covid 19 pandemic in the Swedish food systems and use these to build scenarios that in turn will be used to develop transformation strategies and identify capacities for change.

Further reading

More on Nordic food system transformations can be found in four policy briefs from the SRC,

What can the COVID-19 pandemic teach us about resilient Nordic food systems?

Who we are

Stockholm Resilience Centre Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) is an international research centre on resilience and sustainability science. The centre is a joint initiative between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy Sciences. Since its launch in 2007, SRC has developed into a world-leading science centre for addressing the complex challenges facing humanity. This project will build upon ongoing work on food, scenarios and transformations within the SRC, which include MISTRA Food Futures, NorthWestern Paths, as well as the Seeds of the Good Anthropocene project. link to SRC Food theme

Dark Matter Labs Dark Matter Labs (DML) is a lab working to transition society in response to climate breakdown and the technological revolution. Collaborating with stakeholders from various contexts we aim to discover, design and develop the new institutional ‘dark matter’ that inhibits movement towards more democratic, distributed and long-term futures. Through the Rapid Transition Lab, our ambition is to move towards a participatory portfolio of experiments that investigate dark matter in the Swedish food systems; systems which is not defined by their territorial boundaries but interlinked in planetary systems.

Vinnova Vinnova is Sweden’s innovation agency. The purpose of the agency is to help build, refine and coordinate Sweden’s innovation capacity, contributing to sustainable growth. The vision is that Sweden is an innovative force in a sustainable world. The work is governed by the Swedish government, and is based on the global sustainable development goals of the 2030 Agenda adopted by the United Nations. The agency identifies areas where its efforts can make a difference and creates opportunities and incentives for organizations to work together to meet important societal challenges. It is an expert authority with 200 employees, and provides funding as well as strategic and system design expertise to the Rapid Transition Lab project.

This blog is co-written by Per Olsson, Garry Peterson from Stockholm Resilience Centre, Alexander Alvsilver, Dan Hill, from Vinnova, Linnea Rönnquist, Aleksander Nowak, and Juhee Hahm from Dark Matter Labs. Rapid Transition Lab is funded by Vinnova, and the project will continue throughout 2021, and 2022. If you want to find out more, please contact us.



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