Funders are Searching for Food Systems of the Future

by Catherine Cheney, Devex

SAN FRANCISCO — 27 years ago, Roy Steiner was a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation, where he now serves as senior vice president of the food initiative.

He had just finished graduate school, and was tasked with cataloging and analyzing 300 agricultural experiments, as part of an effort to create “a more robust definition of sustainable agriculture.”

Now, Steiner is behind the Food System Vision Prize, which asks organizations from around the world to offer their visions for food systems that will deliver sustainable and nourishing diets in their local area.

“We’ve been so focused on yields, and profitable yields, and so we’ve optimized a food system that delivers very inexpensive calories, but we have not optimized it for environmental sustainability, health, and the flourishing of communities,” he told Devex.

“Who is deciding what products are being marketed to mothers and to children? What regulations are in place in our agricultural systems? What kind of food systems are being incentivized?”— Anna Lappé, food and democracy program director, Panta Rhea Foundation

While the prize will distribute $2 million among the winners, the real impact will come from supporting dialogue at a local and global level, Steiner said. He said he hopes to see the ideas that result from the Food System Vision Prize take the stage at the Food Systems Summit that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said he plans to convene in 2021. The prize is one example of the role philanthropy can play in building the food system of the future, by supporting promising ideas that can scale.

Transforming the current system

In January, the EAT-Lancet report outlined the links between diet, human health, and environmental sustainability. The findings led to further questions about implementation to achieve such an optimal food system, according to Petra Hans, who leads the agricultural livelihoods program at the IKEA Foundation.

“The report gave strategies that described what needs to be done to transform the current system into a healthy and sustainable food system, but the big question is still how to do this,” Hans said.

The EAT-Lancet Diet is unaffordable, but who is to blame? While new criticism of the EAT-Lancet diet focused on its lack of affordability for 1.2 billion of the world’s poorest, researchers say that food and economic systems are to blame, not the diet.

The Food System Vision Prize will engage stakeholders around the world to start thinking about how, she said.

At the Social Capital Markets, or SOCAP, conference in San Francisco in October, Steiner joined Sara Farley, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s food initiative, to announce the prize, with winners to be announced on Sept. 13, 2020.

Farley emphasized the importance of a systems-focused approach: “We look at very isolated parts of the challenge and the solution set and we miss the mess — the interconnections between technology, policy, culture, and environment,” she said.

To build a network between applicants, and inform their own future plans as a funder, the Rockefeller Foundation is partnering with SecondMuse and OpenIDEO, two organizations with experience organizing innovation challenges, on the Food System Vision Prize.

“Everybody talks about participatory development, and too often that’s just rhetoric,” Steiner told Devex. “But it’s hard for groups to say, ‘This is what we really want.’ This is potentially a process by which they’ll be able to communicate their vision in a much more systematic, clear way so that funders can tap into that and say, ‘yep, this aligns with what we’re trying to do.’”

The Rockefeller Foundation also plans to pair winners with storytellers, ranging from visual artists to data scientists to science fiction writers, in order to bring those visions to life and help society to envision a better future.

‘A crisis of democracy’

The most recent U.N. global assessment of childhood nutrition found that 1 in 3 children are undernourished or overweight.

“It’s never been a crisis of productivity,” said Anna Lappé, program director for the food and democracy at the Panta Rhea Foundation, noting that the world produces more than enough calories for everyone each day. “It has been a crisis of democracy.”

Speaking on a panel at SOCAP, she asked: “Who is deciding what products are being marketed to mothers and to children? What regulations are in place in our agricultural systems? What kind of food systems are being incentivized?”

The solution has to do with more people, ranging from indigenous communities to farmers, having a seat at the table to ask questions like these and offer answers, she said.

“When I look at what are some of the most innovative technologies that have the greatest benefits to reducing biodiversity loss, averting the climate crisis, really building healthy food systems, those technological innovations have come out of having all of those people in the room,” Lappé said.

Philanthropic dollars play an important role in testing new ideas, which can then be scaled up along with policies that support them, she said.

All hands on deck

At the IKEA Foundation, the goal is to transform linear, extractive, and exploitative agrifood systems to become inclusive, regenerative, and circular, Hans said.

“We need all hands on deck,” she explained, calling the Food Vision Prize an example of an effort that can mobilize people into thinking and action.

While philanthropy can invest in these ideas at the early stage, official development assistance and private sector capital can support their scale.

Bonnie Glick, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, announced the $35 million Water and Energy for Food Challenge, at SOCAP.

“Part of what this is about is additionality, not replacing where traditional investors will come in, but have us as the ones willing to take that first loss,” she told Devex.

The partnership between USAID, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs will invest in small enterprises that work at the nexus of food, water, and energy, and aims to mobilize $25 million in private investment capital.

While food systems have posed major problems for people and planet, from burgeoning health care costs to greenhouse gas emissions, they can become part of the solution for climate change and global health, Rockefeller’s Steiner said.

“We can sequester carbon in a way no other sector can, we can dramatically reduce health costs using diet, and the other point I like to make is food brings people together,” he said. “We’re living I such a polarized time: How do we use food systems as a way to connect people with different points of view?”

Steiner said he hopes one of the impacts of the Food System Vision Prize will be to ensure that food systems are a source of community flourishing rather than community disintegration.

Originally published by Devex. Header photo by: Aris Sanjaya/CIFOR/CC BY-NC-ND