Published 2019-03-12

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Mistra’s invitation to join dialogue on sustainable food

What measures are needed for the Swedish food sector to change its course in a sustainable direction? What are the obstacles, and in which areas is more knowledge necessary? Mistra has appointed an international expert group to draw up recommendations for a new call for research proposals on a more sustainable food system.

As part of the expert group’s work, Mistra invited 20-odd representatives of the food sector to Stockholm in early February to hear their ideas and suggestions on the Swedish food system of the future. The participants included representatives from the entire food chain: agriculture, food companies, the retail sector, the environmental movement and government agencies.

One central theme during the dialogue was that cultivation and production of legumes and plant-based proteins must increase. This means challenges, but also opportunities, for the Swedish food sector. Today, much of the plant-based protein consumed in Sweden (mainly processed soybeans) is imported. Topics discussed included which crops are suitable for cultivation in Sweden and the importance of establishing a new domestic processing industry.

Another conclusion from the dialogue is that there is a great need to keep expanding knowledge exchange and cooperation among the various operators. For increased sustainability to be achieved, a system perspective is required. Mistra’s dialogue was itself an important contribution to this, according to one of the meeting’s participants: Agneta Påander, CSR Director at the food producer Orkla Foods Sweden.

‘We in the food sector are mutually interdependent — we really are a system. The more we at Orkla Foods know what’s going on before and after us in the chain, the easier it is for us to contribute to a change,’ Påander says.

‘To answer questions about how we should grow, prepare and consume food in the future, we all need to share our knowledge. By sitting down together at the same table and discussing these matters, we can accelerate the pace of change.’

Many of the dialogue participants also emphasised the importance of consumers for a transition towards greater sustainability. Including consumers and getting them to become a driving force is becoming a key factor. And changing the food system is urgent. It must be done over the next 10 to 20 years, noted Professor Tim Benton, a British member of Mistra’s expert group.

The issue of climate change too, of course, came up during the dialogue: both how the food sector can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and how far the sector can act as a carbon sink and contribute a net absorption of carbon dioxide. Reduced use of chemicals and fertilisers was also highlighted as important, as was farmers’ ability to use new, sustainable agricultural methods, such as precision cultivation.

The international expert group, headed by Chair Johan Kuylenstierna, also participated actively in the dialogue. Among them was Leslie Lipper, who has spent four decades working on global natural-resource issues and agricultural policy, in the past few years as head of the Rome-based Independent Science and Partnership Council.

‘The participants here were knowledgeable and had many innovative suggestions. A lot of the issues we’ve discussed in the working group also came up here today. That made the dialogue a good reality check for us,’ Lipper says.

The conclusions from the dialogue will now form the basis for the expert group’s further work. In mid-February the experts will present their conclusions to Mistra, including recommendations on formulating a new call for proposals. If the Board decides to follow the working group’s recommendations, a call can be issued in April this year, at the earliest. A decision on allocation of research funds could then be taken at year-end 2019 and the programme could start early in 2020.

Thomas Nilsson at Mistra’s secretariat was pleased with how the day went.

‘It’s important to bring clients into Mistra’s research at an early stage. Many of those who were on the spot may also conceivably join a future research programme as non-academic partners.’

Text: Henrik Lundström