Published 2022-04-07

This post is also available in Swedish

Mistra Food Futures develops future sustainable food systems

Mistra Food Futures is developing a science-based platform that will help achieve a transition to a sustainable and resilient food system. A challenge that is now garnering extensive media interest. An area in which policy instruments risk missing the mark. A research issue that involves many partners with different goals and starting points.

Mistra Food Futures develops strategies aiming to lead to an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable and resilient Swedish food system that supplies healthy food. The research programme started in autumn 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. All interaction, meetings, discussions and seminars have taken place digitally. Nonetheless, it has worked very well according to Programme Director Helena Hansson, who is now looking forward to them all meeting in person at an upcoming programme conference. It has been an eventful first year. The pandemic, the climate debate and the war in Ukraine have put the issue of food security on the agenda.

Helena Hansson, Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Programme Director of Mistra Food Futures.

“The significance of what we are working on has become even more concrete; we’re clearly noticing substantial media interest in our issues,” Hansson explains. “It’s the first time in my career that I have experienced this media interest in food security, resilience and sustainability. We have not changed anything in the structure of the research programme as a result of the world situation, but the war has put the concept of resilience into perspective.” The programme’s eight work packages also got under way in the first year. One of them focuses on scenarios for future food systems. Hansson states that the work concentrates on four scenarios: food as industry, food as tech, food as culture and food forgotten. “The first one consists of continuing according to the current Swedish food strategy. The second involves producing food in more technical ways than in the form of farming. The third constitutes a discourse on the issue of the environment and the impact of food on the landscape with many niche farmers and production in short value chains. And the fourth, sadly, is about the fact that food production is being given less scope in Sweden. The research team working on scenarios will publish a report in the autumn about their work, and the intention is that the other work packages will continue the work on the scenarios. “The scenarios constitute the basis of this work and are a foundation for our future tasks that include evaluating concrete measures to attain net zero emissions and create more sustainable agriculture and food systems,” Hansson says.

Conceptual framework for sustainability

One of the other work packages is . Hansson explains that the starting point is that current frameworks do not clarify the existing hierarchy regarding the three dimensions of the sustainability aspect and that they therefore clash. As a concrete example she highlights the report from the government inquiry about the pathway to fossil-free farming: Vägen mot fossiloberoende jordbruk. “The conclusion was that agriculture should first and foremost be profitable, then it can subsequently become fossil-free. If we only look at the economic aspects and not the relationship with the environmental and social aspects, we will not make progress and will not find long-term measures and solutions. We will get stuck in the endless dispute in which the three dimensions are viewed separately instead of how they are connected and can benefit each other. Here, a conceptual framework is required that provides guidance.”

Different views of what should be achieved

Mistra Food Futures also brings partners together from various parts of the food supply chain that often have different goals and different degrees of emphasis on the three aspects of sustainability. Hansson explains that right from the outset they realised that they would not create a Mistra Food Futures in which all parties had the same goal for their participation in the programme. Nor is it sought-after. Different starting points and views are required. However, it is clear that all the programme participants share the same vision of a sustainable and resilient Swedish food system. “It is also important that there is an awareness that our partners from the business community, public sector and academia embark on the work with different views of what they wish to attain and different views of who should contribute to achieving the goals,” Hansson states. “To clarify this, we launched the programme with a workshop, in which we highlighted our different goals of participating in the programme. The fact that they must be diversified and that our focus is not on reaching a consensus.” Now that the research programme has entered its second year, a great deal of energy will be devoted to strengthening the link between the various work packages. The young researchers who are creating such links play a significant part in this. The dialogue with the programme’s partners will also be deepened. “We want to discuss how the transition can take place at the same time as the ongoing pandemic and war,” Hansson says. “The political proposals we have seen recently concentrate on solving short-term problems even though we need to look ahead and not lose focus on long-term initiatives. Here, more in-depth discussions are required on how we can solve short-term problems while maintaining a focus on the environmental issues.”