Food system failures of advancing climate change, endemic farmer poverty and price instability require “outside of the box” partnerships to overcome. The Sustainable Food Lab was launched in 2004 as a non-profit organization to help organizations implement innovations in sustainability in the mainstream food system.
The cornerstones of our approach are:
- Harnessing a long-view and embracing the complexity of the whole system to foster unlikely partnerships;
- Creating a “kitchen table” culture where stakeholders can roll up their sleeves, speak candidly and learn from each other’s perspectives;
- Designing and managing supply chain initiatives and collaborations among food companies, NGO’s, farmer organizations and research institutions.
“Through Food Lab organized activities both Unilever and Oxfam have enlarged our views of each other’s goals and developed practical projects to collaboratively achieve those goals. The Food Lab intentionally cultivates cross-sector leadership, and these leadership capacities benefit our organizations.”
—Jan Kees Vis, Global Director Sustainable Sourcing Development, Unilever
At the core of what we do is Systems leadership. We believe impactful and innovative change must cross boundaries and embrace broad perspectives. Every time we go to a new place or engage with a new agricultural sector, whether it is Australia’s cropping systems, vanilla production in Madagascar or living income efforts for cocoa farmers in Ghana, we are on a journey to uncover why the landscape looks the way it does and how people, the land and economic systems impact each other. It is never a surprise that behind the big stories about losing topsoil, increasing drought, farmer poverty or waterworks being shut down due to agricultural runoff, there is a set of actors who care deeply about their communities and their land.
Sometimes we discover resistance to change, but some leaders across the supply chain are always willing to help unlock real innovation. At a recent field day in Wisconsin, Willie Hughes invited fellow farmers and other food system actors in the room to help him learn. He said to the group of company and extension people who were visiting his farm, “We are living in an interconnected world. I truly believe that farmers work each day to steward their land. The definition of what it means to be a steward is changing and we need to change with it.”
History of the Food Lab
“Sustainable Food Lab brilliantly brings together diverse stakeholders to develop actionable solutions. They strike the balance between realism and idealism, pushing us to stretch our thinking and willingness to collaborate for shared benefit.”
—Anna Swaithes, former Head of Water & Food Security Policy, SABMiller
In 2002 Peter Senge, Adam Kahane, Don Seville, the Food Lab’s current Executive Director, and Hal Hamilton, Food Lab Co-Founder and continued advisor, started exploring the possibility that polarized debates over food system sustainability would benefit from a process to discover common interests and action possibilities. The conversation expanded to include decision makers from Unilever and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. These executives described their ongoing investments in sustainable agriculture projects and their desire to influence the mainstream, but all three expressed a sense that neither the Kellogg Foundation nor Unilever were powerful enough to tackle the challenges alone. They sought an opportunity to work with a diverse set of influential food system leaders.
Rigorously applying an innovative approach, the U-Process, (now more commonly referred to as Theory U), Adam and Hal interviewed over 100 leaders in the global food system. In 2004 they gathered a staff team and convened leaders from 32 organizations in a two-year process. The participants were a microcosm of the larger system—unlikely allies—from private corporations, NGOs, and the public sector, from different backgrounds and countries—from the Netherlands to Brazil, who recognized that creating a healthier and more sustainable food system is highly complex and can only be addressed through a process that is participative, systemic, and creative. Each organization committed to 40 days per person from 2004-2006, and the Sustainable Food Lab was launched. The “operating system,” built on a foundation of trust, open-minded exchanges and the sharing of both successes and challenges, as well as key activities like Learning Journeys, carry through Food Lab work to this day.
During the first two years of the Food Lab, members engaged in action learning activities—learning by doing—that transcended and cut across the barriers between stakeholders. Lab team members visited farms and factories and viscerally experienced the system they desired to shift. They organized learning journeys, retreats, innovation workshops, and initiative prototyping design studios. Through this process, six pilot projects were designed to leverage the interest, resources and expertise of the diverse team members. These projects were launched with the intent to affect issues such as farmer livelihoods and ethical sourcing policies. They were designed to be iterative, so that people from the collaborating organizations would be able to learn from their activities on an ongoing basis and evolve their work according to their learning.
About 18 months into the work, the members realized that the two-year time frame was coming to a close. At that point, the group decided that there was still a need for an organization like the Food Lab to create a space for those involved with large-scale system change in food and agriculture to grapple with the challenges they faced and to work with people representing different perspectives from theirs. It also was a place where members could admit to not having “the answer” or to not even knowing what the answer might be and to get help in exploring possibilities.
The Food Lab’s initiatives, from those developed early in the Lab to those that are continuing and emerging today, target critical systemic leverage points within the global food system that, as they are acted upon, can accelerate change towards greater sustainability. The initial strategies focused on changing certiﬁcation standards to inﬂuence production practices, improving market access and livelihoods of small producers, and reframing the public discourse about food to increase the demand for sustainable products. Some projects finished, others continue. Others were purposely disbanded because they weren’t effective. Being willing and able to let go of an idea when it isn’t generating outcomes is another key learning of the Food Lab. We often get trapped into thinking we need to finish everything we start regardless of whether it makes sense to do so.
Some current projects are in smallholder systems, and some are in more industrialized sectors, including a project to pilot market incentives for US Corn Belt farmers to diversify with crop rotations in order to improve long-term soil health and climate resilience. The Food Lab supports many such multi-organization collaborative projects as well as individual organization strategic planning, choice of measurement tools, and supply chain improvement.
Projects in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic contributed to a body of work that continues in other food supply chains. In Africa, with support that the Gates Foundation provided to Rainforest Alliance, the Food Lab helped create new market opportunities for bean farmers in Ethiopia, cocoa farmers in Ghana, and produce farmers in Kenya and Uganda. This work continues with support of climate resilience in cocoa and coffee regions as well as support of change in the entire Madagascar-based vanilla sector.
As new needs and insights continue to emerge from Food Lab participants, new projects are being initiated. The Cool Farm Alliance (CFA), which the Food Lab initiated and now helps manage, brings together growers with multinational food companies, NGOs, and academics to measure the potential for agricultural practices to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. CFA’s vision is to be a highly credible and capable partner for agricultural GHG management: “credible” through using the best available science and multi-stakeholder processes for methodology development and quality assurance; “capable” through providing leading agricultural GHG management products and services.
Many years, the Food Lab hosts a Leadership Summit that focuses on key questions and geographies of interest. These gatherings give participants a face-to-face chance to grapple with the issues they are working on, forge partnerships with “unlikely allies”, and dive into speciﬁc themes that require further exploration and discovery. Learning Journeys are an important part of these meetings. They catalyze conversations, challenge perspectives, and give participants the opportunity to immerse themselves in the current reality of different aspects of the food system. Food Lab members value this intense time with colleagues in seeing the system afresh. New relationships and new projects frequently germinate from these encounters.
The Food Lab has a small permanent staff that provides ongoing project initiation and support, facilitation, consulting, training, and convening. The partnerships and strong relationships that the staff have with people working “on the ground” are critical to continued success. In addition to fostering the “laboratory” in which living examples of a sustainable food supply can be developed, the Food Lab is also working to institutionalize the conditions needed to support such activities within organizations, conditions that include formal targets and incentives for each function to contribute to meeting those targets. Learn more about what we do.
When the Food Lab began, the average person and the mainstream media weren’t talking about sustainable food, food security, or ethical sourcing. Now, news stories appear almost daily. The tipping point for shifting the food system is within reach. Furthermore, as the Food Lab continues, the knowledge and experience gained from its work will help groups of diverse stakeholders in other areas make progress on effecting systemic change.