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The Journal

What the Sustainable Food Future We’re Working Toward Looks Like

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9 minute read

In 2015, we helped IKEA envision the kitchen of 2025. Thinking that far into the future was a visionary move on IKEA’s part. Now, that kind of perspective and action are a requisite.

When it comes to sustainability and the food system, looking ahead five or ten years and making eventual environmental commitments are not enough. There is a limited time to act if we want to head off the worst of what’s to come, from major supply chain disruptions to even higher levels of agriculture-related carbon emissions. That’s a challenging reality in the face of a climate crisis that can feel overwhelmingly abstract and a business environment that has long prioritized what is happening in the next quarter, not the next decade.

IDEO is a future-oriented firm, and over the last decade, we have been working with people, companies, governments, and organizations across the food industry who share our exploratory mindset and growing sense of urgency around addressing climate change. We have partnered with global nonprofits seeking to reduce food loss on farms, helped food brands launch products with better and healthier ingredients, are examining corporate procurement’s role in mainstreaming regenerative agriculture, and are working with food companies to help them achieve their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments. It has left us sure of the food future we’re aiming for: one in which the extractive, linear model is replaced by a circular economy that regenerates the environment, builds thriving communities, and develops more nourishing food and beverage products that everyone can access. Design is a vital tool in getting us there.

Circular design recognizes that each individual, from farmers to food workers to consumers, factors into an interconnected and constantly changing system. It allows us to position the human perspective alongside technological and economic constraints and arrive at ways to make food truly equitable, regenerative, and nourishing for both people and the planet.

As we work toward that climate-positive future using the tools of design, here are three things that are on our mind and directing our actions:

The system has made headway in reducing food waste, but there’s more to be done

Globally, about one-third of food is lost or wasted each year. The loss and waste account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions and are occurring at the same time that 1 in 9 people are undernourished. “Preventing food waste is ... the food sector’s single most important direct climate action,” is how Sodexo CEO Denis Machuel put it.

Within the US, some 40% of food waste is tied to businesses that serve consumers, like hotels and restaurants. That point was driven home when we partnered with The Rockefeller Foundation and Hyatt Hotels to develop novel ways to tackle food waste at the hotel buffet. We found nearly half of the food put out for guests wasn’t eaten, and at most only 15% of that could be donated or repurposed.

The fear of shortage was a driver, with the hotel kitchen overproducing to ensure they would have ample food for guests, and guests overloading plates so as not to miss out. Knowing that allowed us to introduce simple but effective solutions like displaying small sample plates of meat and cheeses that guests can order, rather than laying out extensive platters.

But a third of global food waste occurs upstream, at the agricultural harvest and production stage. Our work with Japanese growers while developing the fudoloop app highlighted one reason why: a disconnect between supply and demand. Agricultural wholesalers were generally in the dark about coming crop volumes and details, which made it harder to negotiate with buyers—resulting in food waste—while the labor-intensive nature of the harvest left farmers without the time and energy to pursue a solution. The app gets crop information from farmers to wholesalers one day in advance to allow for much more effective coordination.

Similarly, when the World Wildlife Foundation asked us to help minimize food loss on farms in the United States, labor availability emerged as one of the main reasons crops are not fully harvested and packed. Together we prototyped a model that connects farms and local people in need of part-time paid work to harvest surplus produce otherwise left in the fields, and tested the concept on a California tomato farm. Under this model, the harvested fruits and vegetables would then be made accessible to those who need them through a virtual platform that matches a grower’s surplus with a food bank’s demand.

Downstream, food banks and pantries serve as a way to mitigate both food waste and hunger, but challenges abound there too. According to the USDA's Household Food Insecurity in the United States in 2020 report, 61% of food insecure Americans do not use them.

In some cases, schedules and transportation are deterrents, which inspired our work with the Northern Illinois Food Bank. We helped them launch a first-of-its-kind digital pantry that allows individuals to order groceries and select a pick-up time and location in advance. The approach gives food bank users agency and choice, eliminating food waste that can occur when individuals are given foods they dislike or that don’t align with their dietary restrictions. It also allows the food bank to track data—a key element to understanding waste—in order to have better supply and demand signaling.

Food companies need to reimagine their product portfolios with biodiversity in mind

For more than a decade IDEO has worked with CPG clients to create food that is healthier. Biodiversity is the next step in the journey, and it’s a particularly exciting one because of the dual impacts to the planet and human health. In a little more than a century the planet has lost 75% of the genetic plant diversity in agriculture, and per a 2020 report, some 20% of countries risk seeing their ecosystems collapse due to the decline in biodiversity.

The linear economy got us here. Prioritizing efficiency and profit brought us to a place where 75% of the global food supply is sourced from just 12 plant and five animal species. Rice, maize, and wheat account for almost 60% of calories all of humanity gets from plants, curtailing consumption of vital nutrients. The monoculture farming responsible for that shortlist of crops makes the food supply more vulnerable. Monocultures are less able to withstand climate extremes and pests. Diversifying these farms is a way of building resilience.

Transforming dietary diversity at scale requires efforts on production, procurement, manufacturing, product design, and consumption levels. In a recent WBCSD & One Planet Business for Biodiversity report, product design is the most commonly cited area of opportunity when it comes to “staple crop diversification along the value chain.” As designers we believe that individual product design decisions about formulation, sourcing, packaging, and branding collectively shape the food system—and have the ability to send positive ripple effects across it.

We have helped CPG clients advance on their path towards using more biodiverse ingredients through product launches that emphasize healthier and alternative ingredients. That has included working with Betterer Foods to design their RightRice brand, based on an ingredient they developed that tastes and looks like rice but is made from rice and vegetables and has more than twice the protein of regular rice; partnering with Green Onyx, an Israeli company that developed an in-home growing method to produce a tiny aquatic vegetable called khai nam; and working with Bitty Foods to find new product innovation for products made with their high-protein cricket flour.

Through our work, we’ve learned that sustainability is often not the driver when it comes to food choices—yet flavor often is. Biodiversity expands the palate for a food R&D team to think about flavors, textures, and ingredients. It also has the potential to make us healthier. The 2020 WHO report on biodiversity noted one risk factor associated with the loss of biodiversity is “increased consumption of ultra-processed foods high in energy, saturated and trans fats, sugars and salts.” Biodiversity won’t inherently make us healthier if we diversify ingredients but continue to put them into highly processed foods. It's important that R&D teams still consider nutrition as they explore a wider variety of ingredients for their products.

Product design alone isn’t enough. Companies must transform their supply chains

A 2019 study of the 50 largest food and beverage companies in the US found that, of those who disclose the data, scope 3 emissions constituted on average 89% of total reported company emissions. Failure to monitor, disclose, and transform operations to lessen these emissions poses “substantial material risk” for the industry—risk that will only increase. The IPCC Report on Climate Change and Land found that without intervention, emissions from agriculture are likely to increase 30% to 40% by 2050.

We understand the heaviness of this challenge for food companies: How do they design an entirely new system while still operating their businesses in the current system? How can they encourage regenerative farming among different stakeholders along the supply chain to reduce their carbon footprint overall?

With the Circular Economy of Food CoLab, we have been able to use collaboration and rapid prototyping to make those questions less daunting and quickly surface potential solutions. The Food CoLab is anchored by member companies Danone, Kroger, and Electrolux and builds on a network of farmers, food companies, startups, NGOs, and experts.

Since 2018, the Food CoLab has built over 30 prototypes that promote a circular food system: where waste becomes a resource, natural systems and farming communities are uplifted, and all materials realize their highest value. A major focus is reimagining how retailers and food and beverage companies source ingredients and products. Today’s commodity-centric model leads to overproduction on farms, reinforces intensive farming approaches, and shifts the risk of diversifying operations to growers. Yet supporting regenerative production and choosing lower impact, upcycled, and biodiverse ingredients has the potential to realize significant emissions reduction and greater profitability for farmers.

Together we are prototyping new procurement models that support regenerative agriculture, with input from farmers and experts in soil health, ecosystem services measurement, and agriculture innovation. We’re exploring ways that design can help food and beverage companies partner with growers to build soil health and biodiversity, equitably collect and share data, and collaborate across industries and supply chains.

While there are new business models and technologies that might help achieve goals around nature-positive food production, it’s important to acknowledge that regenerative farming is not new. The quest for efficiency and the consolidation of power in global supply chains undermines resilient farming models in the United States and many other places around the world. Many people and communities who hold this agricultural expertise have been denied access to land, capital, research, and other support—and now they face the brunt of food insecurity and climate change impacts. It's imperative to help right these wrongs as we seek to design a more climate-positive food system.

**

Addressing these food- and climate-related challenges requires we consider and involve all the players. The cost of reducing food waste, restoring biodiversity, and transforming the supply chain may impact one segment of the food value chain while another segment reaps the benefit. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges to overcome is to realign who makes decisions and who bears the cost. Figuring out how to share both the risk and the reward requires collaboration. Design is a powerful and effective tool to leverage. Human-centered design surfaces the role each player has individually, how they relate to each other, and the amount of influence and power that each has.

The design process enables us to zoom in and out between a potential solution to the challenge at hand and the larger system. It highlights the leverage points, the places where a successful intervention could touch several aspects of the problem, and allows us to quickly start prototyping. We iterate, we learn, we refine the question.

Design is relentlessly optimistic, but it’s also grounded in reality. The climate crisis has gotten where it is because we’ve taken from the earth with little concern for any consequence beyond profit. That’s by design, which means we can also fix it. The redesign can’t wait.

  • Vivian Barad

    Partner and Executive Director, Food & Beverage Portfolio, IDEO San Francisco
    Vivian focuses on helping clients find new business opportunities as well as developing brands that let people enjoy healthier and better food, beverage products, and experiences. She spends a lot of time thinking about the intersection of food and health—from personal health to the health of the environment.
  • Rebecca Chesney

    Director, IDEO San Francisco
    Rebecca Chesney works with organizations to redesign the food system. She leads IDEO's Circular Economy of Food CoLab, which leverages collaboration towards better solutions for people, the planet, and businesses.
  • Jonathan Mueller

    Experience Lead & Illustrator, IDEO Chicago
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