Systems Thinking & Leadership are at the core of what we do. Systems thinking–the idea that the big-picture context of landscapes, markets and the diverse perspectives of all the players in a food system are essential for catalyzing change–combined with System Leaders, individuals that can understand the system view and help push it towards meaningful change.
Our work grounds aspirational goals such as addressing climate change, farmer poverty and soil health, with practical solutions such as supporting markets for small grains rotations and GHG measurement tools.
The Sustainable Food Lab was launched in 2004 as a non-profit organization to help organizations test and 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.”