Written by Lauren Tucker, Edited by Trevanna Grenfell and Emma Sacks
Ideas sourced from the work of reNourish Studio in the last year
We live on an incredible verdant planet where life can and should thrive in unique communities worldwide. Yet the way we currently source most food devastates this potential. For nearly two decades I have been searching for how we can effectively shift global food systems. Today, in the face of increasingly dire climate reports and ecosystem destruction, I am feeling more hopeful than ever before– because I finally found a change process that can effectively evolve food systems rapidly.
Our food systems are the basis of our relationships with one another, the living places we inhabit, and the planet as a whole. We must shift how we manage them so that we can support all the imperative aspects supported by food: culture, belonging, health, celebration, and life. As humans, we can play integral roles that support the real potential of our planet to nourish and bring thriving into being.
We are currently doing a lot to try to shift destructive systems globally. But what if shifting our state of being and the processes by which we engage in systems change is more effective than any action we can take?
Some of what we are doing to try to shift food systems:
We launch– Campaigns and initiatives, protest and put pressure on entities we believe aren’t acting responsibly. #MeatlessMondays, #PlasticFree, #BanGMOs
We pledge– “Carbon Neutral by 2050,” and then scramble to figure out how to measure, quantify and complete, often putting pressure on stakeholders to meet targets that our core business cannot.
We force– Food safety standards, restrictions, and diets based on ideals.
We tell stories– Food company marketing campaigns.
We focus, research, simplify, and break things down into measurable parts– Carbon dioxide as a measurement for global warming, soil carbon as an indicator of farm health, science-based targets, studies to prove the efficacy of soil carbon sequestration.
We slander, point fingers, and judge– “Almonds use too much water”, Organic vs conventional, meat and meat-eaters are the#1 problem.
We educate– Documentaries, courses, and curriculum for children.
But are these actions effective at changing the system itself? Are our food systems evolving to care for unique places, enable ecosystems to thrive, provide health, connection and vitality to all communities?
Pause and reflect, what do you think?
My view is no, we aren’t being effective. With all the advocacy initiatives and actions around the edges, we’re putting dents in structures and systems but not transforming them. Our food system is like a train with no driver speeding down a well-worn track. Many of us see that we are traveling in the “wrong direction”, but we aren’t working together to figure out which direction we need to be traveling, and then building the capabilities to divert the train to a new track. Instead, we’re throwing things at the train, poking holes in it, shouting at it, blaming the train, trying to measure it, and on and on. Meanwhile, we are careening towards disaster.
Theory of Change
Our predominant theory of change– that we need to scale our actions and leverage our interventions– isn’t working.
Individual action is important in caring for the planet and should always be encouraged, but it’s insufficient at enabling systems change. Think about your own life. Have you made commitments that are outside of the “norm”? Perhaps you bike to work, abstain from air travel, refuse plastic, or only eat food sourced from farms you know are caring for animals and ecosystems. What happens? Are you always able to keep your commitments? Or are you pressured by larger systems to act out of accordance with your values? Even if we scale individual action to large populations, we’re still not dealing with the underlying systems and structures in our food system.
At first, leveraged interventions seem sufficient. We identify a person or business that holds power in our food system, then convince them to shift and are optimistic that the system will also shift. However, leveraged interventions try to make changes from the outside, often forced, without working with stakeholders within their context as part of their lives and course of business. It’s like jumping off the train and throwing things in front of it, instead of jumping on the train and learning what is happening inside. We need to identify how we can develop whole systems, not swap out parts and hope that they change the system as a whole.
Through our focus on scale and leverage, we tend to judge each other and to fragment and simplify things. Then we feign satisfaction with marginal improvements. What we end up with are many different change efforts that are projections of what we each think are the “right” ways to change systems. These efforts are incremental, often involve a scapegoat or enemy, and are too simplistic. Even valuable certifications like Fair Trade, Organic, Non-GMO, Animal Welfare and others are not enough. We have too many fragmented efforts for change in our food system, while the system itself isn’t changing.
So what does it take to upgrade systems? What if we work in an implicit way- one that seems invisible, but is more powerful?
Through our work in reNourish Studio over the last year, we have identified premises for how to evolve our food system.
- If we intend to evolve a whole system, we need to start with and work with the whole system, not the parts. This requires a shift in perspective, seeing the whole we are within and part of, and taking on a role in service to the evolution of the whole system.
- This requires not judging stakeholders in the communities our food businesses work within, and learning to step into the shoes of others and reconcile, not compromise, our differences.
- To evolve systems, we need a unifying vision that sets direction for the whole and brings forth the system’s real potential. It’s a vision that steers the train down a new track, and allows us all to see motivating roles for ourselves and for our businesses to bring new potential into reality. Usually, this new direction emerges by understanding and seeing what is already “underneath the surface” and revealing it.
- Systems change needs to be place-based with unique visions sourced from unique places, because based on where we are on the planet, the required systems and structures are distinct. There is no “one size fits all solution”.
- The process by which to work on systems change is in our minds. By shifting how we think, learning to perceive and work with the energies that are alive and at work in our living world, we can bring forth new potential for evolution in each living system.
Pause and reflect for yourself. Think about two recent conversations, one that was smooth and joyful and one that was stressful. What were the differences? How were you thinking about each conversation? How did your perception affect them? What does that tell you about how our perspectives change reality, and how powerful shifting the way we perceive the world could be in enabling food systems evolution?
What if food industry leaders were guided by this way of thinking, and stepped into leadership roles as agents of regeneration rather than extraction?
“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” — Albert Einstein
The Influence of Worldview
For most of human history, living systems thinking was the way we viewed the world and what guided our actions. Two thousand years ago in the Western world, idealistic thinking came into being; a worldview where humans are central or even the most important element of existence, and guided by ideals of how we should live and act. For the last four centuries, our thinking has become increasingly mechanized, a process that started with Copernicus and Newton. We try to solve problems by taking them apart and analyzing them, similar to how we would fix a machine. Can you take apart a living entity and fix it like a computer?
Living systems thinking is a way of engaging with our world and our work as alive and capable of transformation.
In this form of thinking we consider whole systems as unique entities and use practices to help ourselves understand them in more complex and dynamic ways, so that we can support them to bring forth their unique potentials for contribution and regeneration. These potentials are emergent and cannot be imagined until we develop our thinking.
I believe that it’s imperative for us to regenerate a living systems perspective, so that we can understand our places and potentials within our living world and evolve in relationship with life at this critical moment in time for our planet. For a deeper dive on the paradigms of thinking for the last 2400 years in the Western world, watch Carol Sanford’s address to the Sustainable Brands conference.
An Example, The Almond Industry
So, what does this look like in practice? Let’s consider almonds, a unique industry I’m working with in The Almond Project.
My thinking has evolved over time. I began with judgements and ideas for projects that would create leverage and scale. Based on the media, I believed that almond farms were draining water resources, spraying cocktails of chemicals, and planting detrimental monocrops. I judged the farmers and the industry. I aimed to convince a large food corporation to fund a soil health study to prove that soil health practices could arrest the disorder of too much water and chemical usage. I aimed to convince farmers to do something that I didn’t know how to do, because I’m not a farmer.
Like an almond tree, the project grew. I began to work with a vertically integrated farm and processor. Day by day, I got to know them and connect with them. I stopped judging them as the almond farmers “who were wasting water and spraying chemicals.” I began to understand how they deeply care about having the ability to farm and live a rural lifestyle in Kern County, California, for generations to come. Previously they farmed cotton, tomatoes, alfalfa, and other row crops. Now almonds are a business that has created an opportunity for success.
Led by the farm and the farmer’s wisdom, we designed a five-year soil health study in order to measure the impact of soil health practices on water, carbon, and nutrient density. This is being done on Organic and conventional orchards and is funded by three unique food brands.
The soil health study is great, but it’s not the core of the work we’re doing now. In our meetings we began to ask really hard questions and sit in the discomfort of not having answers. We are learning a lot about each other. Our current project stakeholders include: a farm and farmers, a processor, a scientist, a technical service advisor, a nonprofit convener, and three brands that purchase almonds. We’re realizing that we all stand behind a shared direction — one that cares about and aims to regenerate Kern County, California so that it can be a thriving agricultural region for generations to come.
We’re beginning to look at what is unique about Kern County. It’s a basin, formerly a seasonal wetland with herds of elk and vernal pools that appeared annually as the snow melted from the mountain range. California aqueducts and canals have radically altered the way water flows in this landscape today. Out of the entire western range, this unique place has the lowest elevation, the warmest climate, and is closest to the Pacific Ocean. It’s a place where nutrients pool and collect, leading to the ability for a unique diversity of life to thrive. Yes, it can grow high yielding monocropped commodities and its ancient carbon can be mined by the oil industry. But because of its innate uniqueness, it also has the potential to become so much more.
Through our time working together, a shared direction that we all align around has emerged. The actions of our businesses can support the thriving of Kern County and the Kern River Watershed. We’ve realized that we can’t do this as outsiders. We have to work from within. We need to have a stake in Kern County and truly care about it. The Almond Project is growing, more stakeholders are joining and we’re raising a fund for farms to experiment with soil health practices like integration of cover crops, compost, and animals into orchards. Our businesses depend on this unique place, and how we work together to develop its capacity to thrive is at our core.
As the community transitions from livelihoods based in the oil industry, there are new capabilities that need to be developed in both how we produce food and how we create new jobs. We see many structures in our food system that are in the way of Kern County thriving. Commodity pricing and the structuring of purchasing contracts, quarterly return demands of companies purchasing agricultural products, state wide canal and water systems, and even food safety laws. We’ll need to build new structures and continue working on how to reconcile the hard questions.
With low commodity prices that have been under the cost of production, how can farms prioritize rehydrating a landscape, working with the unique minerals and climate, and contributing to the health of the communities? What does it take for a brand to sell almonds to customers and have the sale of those almonds be linked to the thriving of this place?
The project is growing with ease because of the process by which we’re working. We share a unified direction, deep listening and authentic care. We aren’t focusing on certifications, campaigns, leverage, or more “doing”.
What would it look like if business could catalyze localized regeneration like this all over the world?
Our food system isn’t broken. It’s fulfilling the purpose that we set it up to fulfill. Caloric delivery at low cost. The system values efficiency and relies on a process of extraction in order to fulfill its goal of providing calories to people. But what do we want our food system to deliver and what do we want it to provide? At its core, what could our food system deliver when it’s expressing its fullest potential?
Think about your favorite memory with food and what made it so special. Did you have a connection to the place where your food came from? Was it unique to the place where you were? Did you participate in it? Was it connected to a culture and a tradition? Were you sharing the food with others? What would it take for our food system to consistently create this feeling and experience?
I am not suggesting we attempt to go back in time to hunter/gatherer cultures or leave the cities to become homesteaders (though there’s value in both)! I’m suggesting we acknowledge our modernity and evolve a food system that cares for people and the planet, as a whole. What would be possible if we align our food system with our sacred connections and deep belonging to place? What if the purpose of our food system was evolving the health of the whole via a process of reciprocal nourishment? That change in direction would lead us to shift all our actions, business structures, and economic systems to be in service to life thriving– instead of in service to producing more “wealth” via extraction and neocolonialism.
A year ago, we launched reNourish Studio to test a hypothesis: that evolving the way we think is the most powerful way to evolve the systems and structures that form our food system. I have had many experiences that led me to believe that shifting our beliefs and perceptions is the most powerful way to change what we do and how we are being. This leads to changes in our actions that have the potential to rapidly change whole systems.
I still wasn’t certain if we could really do this, but now I am. By letting go of our deep attachments to the way we do things–our business structures and offerings, our to-do lists, and our agreements to “business as usual”, we can remember that it’s really the processes of how we work and the nature of how we think that leads to the big changes we are striving for in all our “doing”.
At reNourish Studio, our staff team and the 23 food business leaders who have boldly worked with us through year one of our three-year intensive are changing and seeing opportunities where we once felt stuck in our work. We’re working to find new directions for our businesses and the unique communities of which we are part so that all our efforts can shift the direction of our whole food system. We are disrupting our mechanized thinking from centuries of habit and developing new ways forward.
The imperative of our time is for our economic systems to support life, not for life to be sacrificed in support of our economic systems.
We have to figure this shit out. I’m proposing that we work on a shift in thinking, so we can actually change the things restraining us from unified action in unique places. Let’s change what’s holding us back — and let go of the beliefs we have about how business must work, so that we can enable our businesses to serve different outcomes. We must shift from a food system designed to produce cash to one that is in service to producing nourishment!
Let’s examine our perceptions, build our capacity to sit in the unknown, stop judging one another, and get creative. Just ask a child: they see the absurdity of our systems and wouldn’t waste time working in ways that aren’t working.
Do you feel like the existing constraints of operating a business prevent you from meaningfully contributing to the shifts you know are needed in our food and agriculture systems? Join us. Our second cohort launches in June 2023. Sign up for an interactive zoom to meet our team.