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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Changing the Food Game

Changing the Food Game: 
Market Transformation Strategies for Sustainable Agriculture
by Lucas Simons

ISBN-13: 978-1-78353-231-5

Published by: Greenleaf Publishing, 2014

By 2050, the world's population is estimated to grow to 10 billion. To feed everyone, we will have to double our food production, to produce more food in the next 40 years than in the whole of the last 6,000. Changing the Food Game shows how our unsustainable food production system cannot support this growth. In this prescient book, Lucas Simons argues that the biggest challenge for our generation can only be solved by effective market transformation to achieve sustainable agriculture and food production. Lucas Simons explains clearly how we have created a production and trading system that is inherently unsustainable. But he also demonstrates that we have reason to be hopeful from a sustainability race in the cocoa industry to examples of market transformation taking place in palm oil, timber, and sugarcane production. He also poses the question: where next? Provocative and eye-opening, Changing the Food Game uncovers the real story of how our food makes it on to our plates and presents a game-changing solution to revolutionize the industry.

Lucas Simons says: "The way we produce and trade our food has become a classic example of failing systems on a massive scale, with unprecedented implications for hundreds of millions (in reality more than a billion) of people, for many economies, and for our planet as a whole. Fixing agriculture is probably the challenge of our generation and we will not get a second chance to get it right." His story starts at El Volcán, a mid-sized coffee farm in the Guatemalan Highlands, during the time that Lucas was the manager of a foundation with an ambition to make the global coffee sector more sustainable, creating a new sustainability standard for coffee in the region for use by global brands. This was supported by Ahold Coffee Company in the Netherlands. Lucas's first hand view of the transformation that a responsible and sustainable approach to agriculture can make on people's lives was a defining experience for him. 

The book is in two parts. Part One describes the global challenge and shows the importance of our global food producing systems and the enormous impact it has on our economies, ecologies, and societies. It also explains what goes wrong in the system that drives this negative impact. Part Two introduces an approach to initiate and accelerate systemic change and uses real-life examples of agricultural commodity markets that have gone through, or are currently going through systemic change.

The Global Challenge
The scale of the food industry is all-embracing with more than one billion people who work in agriculture and more than 500 million farmers, of whom the vast majority are smallholders. Another 500 million people work in marine agriculture. Simons tells us that agriculture affects everything, from the way people make a living to the way land is used and transformed to provide food, taking up close to 40% of the world's land surface. This is endangered through desertification and soil degradation which are rapidly eroding fertile land available for agriculture. Increasing global water withdrawal, biodiversity loss, disappearance of natural habitats, chemical pollution, eutrophication are all terms that most of us have heard in connection with sustainability challenges. And let's not forget that agriculture is the third largest emitter (14%) of  total global greenhouse gas emissions, while forestry, deforestation, land clearing for agricultural purposes, and fires or decay of peat soils account for another 17%. All of these issues are taking their toll on current and future food availability and the quality of life for generations to come.

On the social side, "child labor, slavery, hunger and poverty are, in many cases, directly related to agricultural production." Problems of labor exploitation, unsafe working conditions and lack of nutrition characterize many of the conditions in the agriculture sector.

All of this, together with the rising demand for food as the world's population grows, astounding levels of food waste and biofuel demands competing for a share of cornfield output, forms the basis of a compelling case that Lucas Simons lucidly presents for radically changing the food system.

A Rotten System
Lucas Simons takes us through systems change theory, keeping it simple and describing the concepts in sstraightforward terms with supporting illustrations. Bottom line, the current system reinforces unsustainability. Artificial pricing based on government subsidies in Western economies and no subsidies in emerging economies, massaging of supply and demand with little correlation to actual need, externalization of costs, dumping of surpluses etc... all this contributes to an unequal system which perpetuates benefits to rich industries and governments and exacerbates deficiencies and challenges for poor farmers and communities. A system which is designed by those in charge for those in charge keeps us from breaking out of negative loops and creating reinforcing positive cycles that could actually transform global food availability and security for the benefit of all. From coffee trading to the hidden uses of sugar and from destruction of tropical forests to human trafficking, the agriculture sector has not yet seen its best day.

Transformation awaits
"How do you change systems that are caught in negative spirals?" asks Lucas Simons. Lucas then goes on to answer this question by defining four phases of change, underpinned by connectivity, transparency and collaboration between all players.

  • The awareness and project phase, which raises general awareness in the sector about the problems and elicits an initial response. 
  • The first mover and competition phase, which mainly addresses the market failure by creating incentives for the market to compete on doing the right thing. 
  • The critical mass and institutionalization phase, which addresses the lack of conditions for change and involves governments 
  • The level playing field phase, which addresses the institutionalization and legalization of the new normal and new norms.

What's important here is that, invariably, change starts through the catalyzing effect of a crisis. For example, the palm oil fires in Indonesia in 1997 were a wake-up call about the devastation caused by deforestation, with the fires destroying an area the size of Switzerland with regional economic costs estimated at $9 billion and dangerous air pollution effects felt throughout southeast Asia. Ultimately this led to the foundation, with the leadership of Unilever of the RSPO—the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - which drives a sustainable approach for companies buying palm oil. Simons also provides examples from the coffee sector, the cocoa (chocolate) sector and others, demonstrating the degree to which crisis has to be present in order to galvanize entire markets into action. Inevitably, thereafter, there is one major player, often a corporation or an NGO or a government, or a collaboration of two or three players, that makes a disruptive move towards change. Examples from the soy, tea, cut flowers, livestock, sugarcane, tropical timber sectors and more show how, once the horse has bolted, the race for more sustainable standards is on, sector by sector. This eases into the third phase, that of establishing critical mass. A leading example here is the cocoa industry, where sector wide collaboration has created a new platform, CocoaAction, "that brings the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate companies together to sustain the cocoa industry and improve the livelihoods of cocoa farmers through meaningful partnerships between governments, cocoa farmers, and the cocoa industry to boost productivity and strengthen community development in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – the largest cocoa producing countries in the world." (quoted from the CocoaAction website).

Lucas Simons maintains that, although progress has been made, none of the sectors he has showcased in the previous phases of change have so far been able to achieve a leveling of the playing field by "institutionalizing and codifying the new norms". However, egg production, electronic waste and light-bulbs are sectors where new ways of working prescribed by law or prohibition of products or processes backed by law are now in place. As Lucas Simons says: "Sustainability will become a mainstream qualifier." Sooner or later, this will have to work in agriculture too.

Adding perspective
The final part of this book is all about adding perspective through 12 questions (and answers) that people frequently ask about making transformation in markets and behaviors become a reality, and ten examples of "inspirational change-makers" who, in their own way, are creating transformation in different fields. These include a drive to change the way soy farmers use herbicides and pesticides (to prevent people getting sick), creating a new way of handling waste in Indonesia, a movement to halt soil erosion in Turkey and a campaign to stop drunk driving. All are fascinating and inspirational examples.

A wholly informative book
Changing the Food Game way surpassed my expectations. It is immensely readable, in a style that flows easily and is not overburdened with technobabble. It is thoroughly informative, appearing to be well-researched and supported with facts, figures and numerous case studies. While the title focuses on food, the book is really about market transformation and how this happens in a range of sectors, not just in agriculture. I found this book to be an extremely worthwhile read and it taught me much.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better. 

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