August 23, 2019

The Importance of Systems Thinking in Assessing Food Systems Innovations: Insights from the NASEM Food Forum Workshop

This year’s National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Food Forum workshop in Washington, DC focused on “Innovations in the Food System: Shaping the Future of Food.” More than 30 expert speakers from multiple disciplines shared their views on innovations intended to shape the future of food systems. The workshop explored a diverse range of innovations, including innovative technologies, such as cellular agriculture, drones, and blockchain, along with innovative social approaches to address key challenges, such as food waste, food access, and food insecurity. The workshop was well timed with the recent release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on Climate Change and Land, which provides context for why food systems innovations are urgently needed.

Here are a few topline observations from the workshop*:

Systems thinking is critical in analyzing food systems innovations. Food systems are incredibly complex. They involve diverse supply chains, geographies, stakeholders, food environments and consumer behaviors, all of which have numerous drivers and impact a variety of outcomes, including social, economic, environmental and health-related consequences. Given this complexity, systems thinking is essential when evaluating food systems innovations and their inherent trade-offs.

Technology is not a silver bullet; multiple forms of innovation are needed. Several speakers cautioned against an overreliance on technological innovations. In addition to considering the full range of impacts from new technologies, such as cellular agriculture or the use of drones for food delivery, understanding the root cause of the problem is also essential to identify the best solution. This is where creative problem solving comes in. For some challenges, social innovations may be more effective. For example, behavioral change is critical to drive adoption of innovations and tackle key food systems challenges, such as food waste. Culture must also be considered when evaluating the feasibility of potential food systems innovations.

Reframing the food waste discussion may help accelerate action and impact. Not surprisingly, food waste was a big focus. A new framing of the discussion, however, was recommended by several speakers, including Thomas McQuillan from Baldor Specialty Foods, who advocated for viewing every part of a food product as an asset. Multiple speakers also called for shifting the focus of food waste discussions away from how to sustainably use food waste to instead focus on preventing food loss from occurring in the first place.  Such reframing of thinking can prompt the behavioral changes needed to move the needle on this critical issue.

Both innovation and evolution of food systems are needed. There were multiple calls to not forget history and to revisit approaches that worked in the past that could be leveraged to advance food systems. Opportunities to expand existing potential solutions should be explored, such as farmers markets, which provide a venue to share ideas, or increasing the number of terminal markets to increase the resilience and diversity of food available to consumers.


* Please note: the key themes and takeaways noted below were focus points of discussion/presentations; they do not necessarily reflect FoodMinds’ point of view.

Katie Padilla, MA, is a director at FoodMinds, a division of Padilla. She’s based in Washington, DC.

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