“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.

Climate Change – A Key Pressure and
Challenge Facing Our Food System

The recent Climate Change and Land report1 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explores the impact of climate on our food system. Although the current food system feeds most of the world’s population and the per capita global food supply has increased more than 30 percent since 1961, an estimated 821 million people in the world are currently malnourished and more than 2 billion adults are overweight or obese. In addition, the food system supports the livelihoods of almost 1 billion people worldwide. However, climate change is already putting pressures on food security.

Increasing temperatures are affecting crop yields, changing precipitation patterns are affecting growing conditions, and the greater frequency of extreme events only amplifies effects. For example, this year in the Upper Midwest, a very wet spring with late planting followed by early freezes meant that many root crops like potatoes and sugar beets were lost. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the 2019 potato harvest will be 6 percent lower, one of the lowest crops on record,[2] and many farmers in Minnesota lost almost half of their sugar beets.[3] Conversely, higher, and fluctuating, temperatures and drought decreased the 2019 olive harvest by over 30 percent in many regions of Europe, and this follows low production in 2018 affected by a cold snap, heat wave, and severe flooding.[4]

As David Wallace-Wells reports in The Uninhabitable Earth,[5] scientists estimate that for every degree we heat the planet, the yields of staple cereal crops will decline by an average of 10 percent, approximately. If we carry on with business as usual, key staples are likely to collapse by some 40 percent as the century progresses. These changes in production capacity are expected to lead to global food price increases, which will put more people at risk of under-nutrition, especially low-income consumers.

Under normal circumstances, regional food shortages can be covered by surpluses from elsewhere on the planet. But environmental models suggest there’s a real danger that climate breakdown could trigger shortages on multiple continents at once. According to the IPCC report,[1] warming more than 2 °C is likely to cause “sustained food supply disruptions globally.” As one of the lead authors of the report put it: “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing.”

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

What to Do with 700 Pounds of Turnips?
As we face the daunting task of feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050, let’s break it down to a simple user-case scenario of how breaking boundaries via a food systems-thinking approach can have an impact that could have a ripple effect. In this case, it’s a question of turnips, to ensure all edible food reaches consumers’ plates.

Turnips are an easy-to-grow root vegetable related to broccoli, Brussels sprouts, arugula, and kale. Like other vegetables, turnips provide plenty of nutrients and are low in calories. In addition, both the root and the leafy greens of the plant may be eaten.

However, turnips are perishable and need to travel from farm to fork relatively quickly, especially the greens. In the U.S., turnips are not considered a staple food, and many people simply do not know how to cook them. The turnips will most likely remain untouched, rot, and end up in the dumpster.

This was the case for a food bank that recently received a shipment of 700 pounds of turnips.  

Due to the volatility and uncertainty of shipments arriving at food banks, it is possible that the ambiguity in identifying customers and the complexity of finding creative ways to promote consumption of the unexpected foods present boundaries in need of breaking. In addition, the turnip case highlights the perishable nature of food and the time constraints to identify other, more creative solutions such as providing turnips to an industrial-scale composting system to transform the pre-consumer food waste into finished compost for farms.

The turnip scenario begs an important question for food systems leaders to consider: If turnips end up in the dumpster, how many aspects, inter-relationships, and collaborative approaches of the food system must be improved to avoid disposing of good, healthy food that could provide nourishment to people or the land?

For example, in this scenario, the food bank’s supplier donated produce they had too much of and couldn’t sell. The donation provided financial compensation through tax breaks. The consumer demand was not as high as anticipated, and once the donation happened, its perishable nature meant that identifying alternate uses was limited.

What often gets overlooked when finding customers for perishable food is education. That is, how can foods—especially unfamiliar foods—become part of one’s diet? In the case of the turnip and the food bank community, for turnips, or other uncommon vegetables, to be considered an option for the consumers in the underserved community, product information and recipes must be provided. The food bank could offer recipes and how-to sheets to send out to food pantries. For example, did you know that turnips can be:

•    boiled and mashed for a tasty alternative to mashed potatoes;

•    chopped and used as a salad topper;

•    added to soup or stew at the same time as adding potatoes;

•    cubed in a slow-cooked roast; or

•    shredded into a favorite coleslaw recipe, baked, or steamed?

With the wide variety of perishable items arriving at food banks with minimal days left of appropriate food-safe quality, lack of advance notice and time to prepare appropriate education materials for the uncommon donations results in 45 percent root and tubers food loss and waste globally.[6

Although 700 pounds of turnips are a tiny amount in the total quantity of root and tubers food loss and waste—equal to about 1 billion bags of potatoes each year—every little bit counts. Overall, more than one-third of the food produced in the world annually is lost or wasted. This amount alone could feed the expected population increase by 2050. In addition, tackling food loss and waste addresses what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization deems “a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labor, and capital and needlessly produce[s] greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.”[7] This is essential because climate change is also projected to decrease current food production levels due to shifting plant hardiness zones and precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events. As a result, it seems that a more robust, holistic approach to global food distribution, including contingency planning for unexpected surpluses, would help alleviate food loss and waste, like the turnip example, or the thousands of others that happen daily worldwide, and help ensure a more food-secure future.

The example of the humble, nutritious, tasty turnip highlights the boundaries that must be broken to solve everyday challenges happening across the globe.  

This line of thinking leads us back to the local level and how we as individuals can help address food loss and waste. What is the role of the food pantry in the food system? Ideally, it is an arm reaching out to address hunger within the community. Geoff Tansey, author of The Future Control of Food: A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security, suggests “we look where the power lies to see what pushes food through our food system.”[8] Given that lens, we can see that those in need, the underserved, are not the ones asking for large pallets of turnips. But what would it look like to move power in that direction? How would it change the function of the system and the relationships between the food pantries and the retailers?

When we consider that people in need aren’t the ones asking for big deliveries of turnips, might there be other points of redistribution earlier in the food supply chain that convert the turnips into a different form that would be more suitable to the consumer? For example, if the turnips had value to another kind of producer who’d be happy to receive more of them, how might the turnips be redirected, and how might value be captured that becomes funding to support other types of food-based programs or policies for communities in need that gives them the power or autonomy to build what they need? How might we think beyond the examples of what we’ve seen? In other words, how can future food system leaders think holistically to break boundaries, one at a time, to help avert a food system crisis?

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,”[9] 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.

1. www.ipcc.ch/srccl/.
2. Katz, B. 2019. “Poor Potato Crops Could Lead to a North American French Fry Shortage.” Smithsonian Magazine.
3. Nickel, R. 2019. “Frozen Harvest Leaves Bitter Taste for U.S. Sugar Beet Farmers.” Reuters.
4. Cortina, M. 2019. “How Climate Change Has Impacted the 2019 Harvest.” Olive Oil Times.
5. Wallace-Wells, D, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).
6. www.fao.org/3/a-i3901e.pdf.
7. www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/.
8. https://idl-bnc-idrc.dspacedirect.org/bitstream/handle/10625/35059/IDL-35059.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
9. www.ted.com/talks/jack_bobo_why_we_fear_the_food_we_eat.