Plates and Policies Are Best Shared

While few things are simpler than gathering around a table to share a meal, the process of getting food onto your plate is surprisingly complex. People, animals, geographies, institutions, traditions and policies: the interaction between all of these actors and processes results in an intricate ecosystem of food. In my second article for Accidental European, I explore how better understanding this ecosystem can ensure a collaborative approach that will serve up a more sustainable and inclusive ecological future, for food and beyond.

Sara Roversi

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The global pandemic has jolted our food systems and lifted the veil to reveal the extent of its inefficiency, fragility, and unsustainability. Food is the epicentre of this global transition process. It represents the intricate web that connects everything and everyone – from policymakers to businesses, from producers to consumers and, therefore, is precisely the tool for the regeneration we so desperately need.

We need to swing from ego-centric to eco-centric systems, extractive to regenerative, ‘profit-driven’ to inclusive. Efficient policies play a crucial role to pursue this goal.

The first signs of this paradigm shift are from political choices emerging at the national, regional, and international levels. In this direction, the United States is coming back on the scene to take the lead on climate targets. Not only with the stated intention to rejoin the Paris Agreement (from which the U.S. exited in November 2020) but with engagements resulting from the conclusion of President Joe Biden’s Climate Summit on April 22

With 40 heads of state gathered around the table, a shared commitment is expressed to halve U.S. emissions by 2030 and not 2050, as stated in the Paris Agreement. Back to Europe, and more specifically Italy, Mario Draghi’s new Italian government comes with a Ministry for Ecological Transition that plans to make the national economy greener and carbon neutral. 

Though these are all very positive developments, I cannot help but ask what we are concretely doing to create the frameworks and awareness that will propel our desire for change and better policies forward in the most efficient way? 

The resolve for change without mobilisation is like a president without a government. The multifaceted challenges the world is facing (climate, economic, social, and health) require the culmination of three ingredients: a new mindset, purpose-driven leadership, and collective action. 

Let us serve food as the pilot to create this fusion. 

Italy breaks bread with the EU: Leadership with a strong will

To boost this national initiative in the wake of the pandemic, the EU established the Next Generation EU program. Italy is set to receive 27.8% of the total European funds available through this program. This will be managed by the Italian National Recovery and Resilience plan responsible for determining priorities in which to invest. 

Green revolution and ecological transition are key to this plan and among the Italian government’s priorities – along with infrastructure for sustainable mobility, digitalisation, education, research, and inclusion. 

A clear resolve coupled with leadership, structural changes, and funding is fundamental for a genuine and complete ecological transformation. 

However, this opportunity of “will” must now translate into action by embracing the complexity of the ecosystem as a whole. This cannot be tackled alone, within our vertical specialisation bubbles. 

The real challenge will boil down to promoting ecosystemic thinking, an approach that identifies the interaction between different elements of an ecosystem, ensuring that they deliver more than the sum of their parts.

In this sense and with specific reference to Italy, ecological transformation will be both a widespread priority and the collective focus of ministries. Particularly this year, ecosystemic thinking is needed now more than ever given Italy’s position on the world stage – with its presidency of the G20, its co-presidency of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Milan, and its hosting of the Pre-Food Systems Summit in Rome. 

As stressed in our previous article, Apples and Oranges – The Need for a New EU Food Policy published in March, we are at a crossroad of opportunity to promote real changes that will not only propel the Italian system forward by merging efficiency with safety, biodiversity with our wellbeing, food accessibility and quality with environmental protection; but also unite the greatest and most diverse minds to envision the possibility of a Common Food Policy in Europe. 

The “Food for Earth” marathon represented, for us, such an opportunity to create that ecosystemic thinking.  

The ‘Food for Earth’ marathon: tapas of collective possibility

To celebrate World Earth Day 2021, the Future Food Institute, in partnership with FAO’s eLearning Academy, organised a 24-hour Global Digital Marathon on sustainability entitled ‘Food for Earth’. 

Designed as a knowledge-sharing collaborative experience, the ‘Food for Earth’ marathon virtually brought together 150 speakers from 30 countries, giving voice to institutions, government ministers, farmers, chefs, innovators, activists, indigenous communities, scientists, and youth – in essence, all the spokespeople involved in sustainable food systems. 

It was a relay of insight and experience – crossing the G20 countries, developing countries and World Heritage areas – to tackle food from all its different dimensions and lenses. 

Setting forth an approach that enables a human and planet-centered design of better food systems, the marathon levelled the playing field for sharing experiences, thanks to the multi-level, multi-generational, and multi-stakeholder speakers, from regions and continents far and wide. 

This rendez-vous of worldly realities constitutes, for me, a prerequisite to understand the complexity of the food ecosystem as a whole. Better and more relevant policies fundamentally depend on this understanding. For example, the discussions around the Blue Economy benefited from the insights of coastal communities coming from Indonesia, Hawaii and Iceland. While each community is dealing with their local marine issues and are working to design tailored and specific approaches, common concerns and best practices were nevertheless shared on topics such as…

  • boosting innovation,
  • halting seafood waste,
  • tackling food insecurity,
  • addressing gender inequality in the fish sector,
  • rethinking fish discard to create new products,
  • encouraging climate-friendly marine-based meals.

At times, even certain local approaches provided inspiration for other communities in tackling their specific challenges. For instance, Indonesia’s use of Sago starch, a cheap alternative carbon source for fermentation processes attractive from both an economic and geographical perspective, provided some communities with some interesting ideas. Or the Iceland Ocean Cluster initiative, which aims to create value and discover new opportunities by connecting entrepreneurs, businesses and other vectors of knowledge in the marine industries, served as an example for other communities on how to build collaborative frameworks to tackle their specific marine challenges.  

Though this is just to give you an example, the overall point is that fostering a space where a diverse range of perspectives and approaches could be shared is an important precursor to innovation and creating agile and long-lasting policy solutions. 

Take it from an Italian, there is no one way to slice a pizza

To achieve more sustainable food systems, context-specific approaches must also be understood to handle unique but interdependent challenges. This means stepping away from the mindset of a ‘one-solution-fits-all’ approach and solving international challenges through the lens of a specific country or region’s social, environmental, economic, and cultural background. 

This was achieved during the ‘Food for Earth’ marathon by giving space to regional approaches, such as that of the Mediterranean Basin – a sea in the middle of lands as its etymology, Medium Terrae, reveals. 

“There is no EU Green Deal if we don’t take advantage of the sustainability of the Southern Mediterranean. We can give birth to an economy of sharing, rather than competition, and this is not only a task for politics” expressed Grammenos Mastrojeni, Assistant Secretary-General at the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, during the marathon.

The Mediterranean Basin has a lot to teach us, and Cyprus, Croatia, Morocco, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal are living examples of inclusive sustainable development, inherited from ancient wisdom. In terms of legacy, the basin is the result of a shared identity, built through mutual exchange of knowledge and traditions, food expertise and cultures capable of using innovation to expand their traditions. 

The Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem Nexus as seen through the eyes of schoolchild ©EU – Source: https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/science-update/water-energy-food-ecosystem-nexus-mediterranean-seeking-examples-best-practices

One of the most well-known outputs of such approaches, the Mediterranean diet, perfectly summarises the mosaic of diversity kept together by common values. 

The Mediterranean diet represents a way of being (not only living) in complete harmony with the territory and its people – a perfect example of integral ecology. 

The ingredients of the Mediterranean diet – fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans and olive oil – make it a symbol of a planet-friendly diet, given its limited impact on natural resources, sustainable production techniques, and care for seasonality: which comes with beneficial effects on human health. 

Besides the peculiarities characterising the different emblematic communities and the cultural roots in which it is expressed, the Mediterranean diet favours social inclusion and commonality – merging together gastronomic pleasure and celebrating culinary identity. 

These are all aspects that can stand to guide policy makers in fixing the current food system. Policies should consider all dimensions of food within its local context, and the Mediterranean Diet not only represents the integrity of ecosystems, but also of human life. 

I believe our mindset towards future policies should encompass such integrity.  

Like all things, good eating starts with good schooling

A Chinese proverb once said, “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.” 

The marathon saw hundreds of young activists around the world digitally share their climate actions within local communities, symbolising that nobody is too small to make a real change. 

The decision to broadcast the marathon directly from the Italian cradle of the Mediterranean Diet, in Pollica, a town located right at the centre of the (Mediterranean) Basin was not a coincidence. In fact, because of its values and principles that we should strive to emulate, Pollica also represented, for me, an ideal environment to launch our Paideia Campus: an experimental center designed for training, research, experimentation and innovation for a more sustainable agri-food sector. 

This campus has lofty visions for the next generation of food leaders and aims to… 

  • forge strong relationships between environmental protection and human health, 
  • explore and understand the relation between territory regeneration and physical and mental well-being, 
  • establish an understanding of social justice within the scope of climate change. 

Experiential learning is a format that has allowed the Future Food Institute to train more than 200 ‘climate shapers’ in 2020 from over 50 countries, empowering youth to become citizens ready to face the current challenges of our era.

It’s a path that can be replicated at the national and international levels, if leaders and policy-makers are willing to build a common trail with younger generations. 

My dedication to educating the youth comes from my understanding that there is no lasting change without youth mobilisation and education. If we miss the youth, we miss our future. 

A long-lasting transition requires a place to share our meals 

The pandemic has made the invisible visible, by bringing to light the bottlenecks in our food systems. Policies and businesses have realised the damages of profit-oriented practices. 

It is clear that any new agri-food systems and policies designed to be truly regenerative must welcome a diversity of perspectives, and embrace the complexity of being part of a broader ecosystem. 

The ‘Food for Earth’ marathon can be considered as a prototype of what food systems should look like, and what is possible when we come together for a shared purpose.

The marathon’s intersectional approach and the experiential focus of the campus stand as healthy examples of environments capable of building future policies with the potential to tackle complexity. As aforementioned, this is not just limited to food systems, and can be applied to many other ecological challenges we are facing. 

Why? 

Because our world needs wisdom just as much as knowledge. It needs us to listen to our hearts, just as much as our minds. To explore our roots and customs, parallel to technological advancements. To give voice to the less represented actors, and consider adopting solutions on a global scale by taking into account local realities. 

We’re responsible for what we domesticate, eat, buy, and vote. Everything is interconnected and the answers to the world’s food problems can only be resolved collaboratively: leadership, education and collective intelligence are the base ingredients. 

We are in this together. Let’s create a dining hall capable of seating us all so that while we break bread together, we also concoct some innovative and mouth-watering recipes for the future… like a Common Food Policy in Europe. 

That is a dinner invitation that I wouldn’t want to miss. Nor should anyone else. 

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Sara Roversi

As the Founder of the Future Food Institute, a purpose-driven international ecosystem, I catalyze real change to improve life on Earth, through education and innovation in the global food systems. I combine my experience as an entrepreneur, activist, educator, and seasoned growth expert to collaborate with high-profile think tanks on setting the agenda for the sustainable food industry. Described as a game-changer, I have a flair for exploration and prosperity thinking. Over the past 10 years, I have focused on a mission to take food leaders and youth to the next phase of action through education, research projects, and innovation challenges. In addition to my responsibilities with Future Food, I also serve as a director of the Food Innovation Master’s Program, Partner and Board Member of the Food For Climate League.
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