“Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.” – Norman Borlaug
Humanity is facing a daunting challenge that, if not addressed now, will rise to epic proportions. The challenge: Ensure food security while volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) challenges arise at a faster rate than ever expected. If we continue down the same path that we’re operating on today, a food system crisis will cripple our ability to feed Earth’s estimated 10 billion people by 2050. How do we effectively avert this looming crisis while also ensuring a robust, healthy planet for our children and grandchildren?
We must be willing to break boundaries—boundaries that currently exist in our food system that inhibit us from more effectively collaborating, innovating, and discovering better paths to address today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. We must shift from compartmentalized, specialist, and siloed thinking and approaches to embrace a broader food systems mindset. A mindset centered on navigating our roles and choosing our actions within the food system through a holistic lens that promotes better outcomes at the personal and organizational level as well as locally, regionally, and globally for the food system.
VUCA and the World’s Food Supply
To better understand the impact that shifting to a food systems-thinking approach can have on addressing our challenges, it’s important to explore key pressures facing our food system and how VUCA relates to that system. “VUCA” is a term coined at the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world after the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a new world order that required new ways of seeing and reacting. At the simplest level, the concepts of VUCA address rapidly changing conditions that can be positive or negative. When you look at the dynamics of the food system today, they meet the very definition of VUCA.
Volatility, or the nature and speed of change, is increasing in the food system. Many factors affect the volatility of the food system, including consumer preferences and technological innovation. For example, the exponential growth of plant-based meat alternatives and cell-cultured animal proteins in the past year is changing the food landscape. It has also contributed to the pressure on animal agriculture, which when combined with environmental concerns such as extreme weather, global warming, disease, and water stress, creates further volatility (see “Climate Change – A Key Pressure and Challenge Facing Our Food System”). From a different aspect, labor shortages are also driving volatility. With unemployment at historic lows in the U.S., many food producers from farm to retail cannot hire enough labor or may be relying on temporary labor, forcing rapid change in diverse areas from mechanization to training. Overall, volatility and the rapid change in the food system create uncertainty that must be addressed.
Uncertainty, or lack of predictability, in the food system has multi-factorial causes. For example, nutrition has often been highlighted as an aspect of uncertainty within the food system. As nutrition science advances, conflicting messages have been presented to consumers. The headline messages of “eat this, not that” have overwhelmed the basic nutrition guidance of balance promoted by our scientific and governmental authorities. However, when the “eat this, not that” headlines reverse to “eat that, not this,” consumers grow confused and frustrated. The uncertainty of consumer preferences, along with vacillating guidelines and opinions, leaves the industry struggling with ambiguity and the potential for misreads.
Complexity, or the confusion that surrounds issues, within the food system has many interconnected parts and variables. Many of these inter-relationships are potentially predictable, but the volume of information is often difficult to process. One of the simplest examples in the food system to illustrate complexity is the multi-national producer. With business units worldwide, there is a need to hire and develop appropriate resources to address the various regulations and cultural values in its widespread markets. Or one may consider complexity from a product-launch point of view, where the inter-relationships between consumer desire, product formulation, manufacturing parameters, supply chain and procurement of ingredients, and distribution and sales are often well-understood, complex relationships. However, when the volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity of each of those factors are considered, the complexity of a successful product launch grows exponentially.
Ambiguity, or the mixed meanings of conditions, in the food system results when there is no precedent or when cause-and-effect relationships are unclear. Within the food system, policy frequently is an area that struggles with ambiguity. In many policy areas, it’s expected that national governments and local communities can single-handedly ensure food security. However, this expectation does not address the causal relationships that result in food insecurity or identify solutions to address root causes. In some cases, local and state power to influence food supply production and distribution is limited; local efforts to capture food loss and waste may not align with state policy and regulations. Development of solutions to such issues will require a better understanding of not only the causal relationships but also the complexity of the food system and how it affects those relationships.
To solve the big VUCA challenges in the food system, we need to better educate our workforce into thinking beyond their current roles. We must expand and broaden viewpoints of emerging organizational leaders or those being groomed for succession. We must ensure these future leaders understand the food system from interdependent and collaborative perspectives, including primary production, processing, procurement, sales and marketing, food safety and quality, construction, and more. We need to ensure they have skills to problem-solve, communicate, negotiate, think critically, ask the hard questions, and be willing to propose bold solutions to break down boundaries. And most importantly, we need current leaders who will commit to fostering, supporting, and encouraging the development of these future leaders.
Food Systems Thinking to Achieve Better Outcomes
By embracing and understanding the VUCA nature of the food system, future leaders will be able to leverage capacity and build deeper understandings of all components of the food system. A VUCA mindset combined with a food systems-thinking approach promotes a more holistic path to solve problems and provides future leaders with:
• tools to think more broadly and become more effective problem solvers within their organization or across disciplines;
• the opportunity to break boundaries to positively influence how decisions, policies, and unforeseen circumstances ripple across the system to create success to avert the looming food crisis; and
• broader knowledge and understanding of interdependencies across the food system—from the private to public sectors, from farm to fork.
Combining VUCA with systems thinking will better equip the food industry to both meet immediate challenges and create solutions that will avert a food system crisis and achieve a sustainable food-secure future. This change in perspective will require future leaders in the food system to think broadly, keep an open mind, connect and explore new ideas, and challenge existing paradigms. It will allow food security to be achieved while continuing to offer food that is grown locally or overseas, regenerative or conventional, animal or plant based. The combination of approaches means future food system leaders must learn and leverage skills to encourage cooperative and proactive dialogue and collaboration across the food system from farmers and scientists to manufacturing experts and logisticians to sales and marketing executives.
In addition, future food system leaders must also be able to critically evaluate potential solutions to identify unexpected consequences (see “What to Do with 700 Pounds of Turnips?”). To make the challenge even harder, future leaders will need to communicate in a way that builds confidence within a cultural environment where food innovation is feared. In “Why We Fear the Food We Eat,” Jack Bobo explains that food in the U.S. has never been safer, yet consumers are more afraid of their food than ever. The food industry must identify and develop leaders who have potential and desire to communicate with experts outside their field, understand inter-relationships driving important decisions, and create shared values across groups that may not agree with one another. Moreover, food system leaders must understand and navigate the combination of innovation, communication, media presence, and filter bubbles that are present in the food system. On-the-job learning is possible and essential, but it will not occur fast enough to avert the looming food crisis. The VUCA nature and speed of change in today’s food system means that traditional approaches to learning will not be enough.
Building the Path to a Better Future
True impact will be achieved when a food systems mindset is embodied throughout the organizations and stakeholders within the food system. The hurdle to true impact lies with providing opportunities to foster and grow the shift to a food systems approach. To begin that journey, the first action is for current leaders to recognize the need and identify future leaders with desire to lead in the VUCA food systems paradigm. Opportunities for development of the food systems skills will be required for leaders, and many programs already exist to assist in this development.
Many organizations provide training for their next level of managers that are specific to their context. However, to achieve the food-secure future envisioned, an expanded leadership mindset with food systems thinking across roles and departments will also be needed. Organizations should encourage and support expanded food systems leadership training and development opportunities not only to help their next-level managers gain a broader leadership approach but also develop emerging leaders who have demonstrated interest, growth, and desire to promote change.
Continuing education provides one option to access expanded food systems leadership development. There are several programs, courses, and workshops focused on leadership and critical thinking as well as food systems. However, many of these are either too narrow or too general in focus to tackle the complexities of the entire food system. A newer approach is to embed leadership development within a program focused on expanding food systems understanding and thinking.
In addition to the formal training programs within an organization or offered by academic institutions, informal development opportunities are available and play an important role in creating a broader food systems approach. These include industry and professional associations, conferences, and mentors. To promote the broader food systems view, joining and participating in association committees that are outside of role or disciplines will be needed. When attending conferences, intentional selection of sessions outside of an individual’s domain expertise, networking, and asking questions of those in different specialty areas should be encouraged. On a more personal level, discussion with peers and identification of mentors outside of specialty areas will help build and leverage relationships and conversations that can lead to expanded knowledge and sharing across disciplines. Really, it’s about identifying opportunities to think beyond one’s boundaries, becoming involved, and being willing to raise a hand to explore new ways to approach the broader and rapidly changing food system.
Through a multi-pronged approach including both formal and informal food systems leadership development, our future leaders will be able to grow their skills and add near immediate value to their home organizations.
Averting a Crisis and Moving Our Food System Forward
In addition to growing leaders who are fluent in a food systems approach and comfortable with the VUCA nature of the food system, it will take engagement from all stakeholders in the food system to avert a crisis. When thinking about stakeholders, disciplines and sectors are both important, and we must break boundaries and build bridges between them. For example, public-private partnerships, multi-cultural cooperation, and cross-disciplinary innovation will grow in importance. We must be willing to think more holistically and outside of the norm. We must foster a culture of enhanced collaboration that drives discovery and innovation across the continuum of the food system.
Most importantly, we need to work with and instill in our emerging leaders a food system mindset. This will allow us to develop and implement more effective food system solutions, and achieve a more sustainable global future. By fostering and embracing a food systems-thinking approach, which focuses on the inter-relationships and complex interactions found in our multi-faceted food system, we will be able to mitigate negative aspects and promote positive factors that will allow us to avert a crisis.
Let’s break boundaries. Join my quest to shift our orientation to a more holistic, food systems-thinking approach—an approach that will allow us to effectively collaborate, innovate, and discover better paths to address today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. Together, we can ensure a food system crisis is averted so that our children and their children have both a food-secure future and a robust, healthy planet.
Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D., is the director of the Integrated Food Systems Leadership program, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute, and associate professor at the University of Minnesota.
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