Published 2020-10-01

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Paving the way for a sustainable Swedish food system

Mistra Food Futures has now kicked off. The research programme will work out targets for what the Swedish food system needs to achieve by 2045 to be sustainable — economically, socially and environmentally. Here, Programme Director Helena Hansson, Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), talks about international inspiration, feelings and commitment around food and what she sees as the programme’s biggest challenge.

Our current food system is estimated to account for 20–30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Calculations indicate that a third of the world’s cultivated food goes to waste. Moreover, food production and land use lead to biodiversity loss, pollution and harmful environmental impacts on land and water.

At the same time, primary producers in particular have marked problems in achieving profitability. This further limits the potential for innovation and development in the food system. Moreover, malnutrition and obesity, and the associated health costs, are on the rise.

For these challenges to be met, fundamental changes in the ways food is produced and consumed are necessary.

Mistra Food Futures will work out targets for what the Swedish food system needs to achieve by 2045 to be both sustainable — economically, socially and environmentally — and resilient. The programme is also going to identify and develop action plans to enable the Swedish agricultural sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045, and consider effects on other environmental targets and objectives in society.

Helena Hansson, Programme Director, Mistra Food Futures. Photo: Jenny Svennås-Gillner

Helena Hansson is Professor of Economics at SLU with a focus on the economics of the agricultural sector, and Programme Director of Mistra Food Futures.

Now that the programme is starting, what will the first steps be? Can you give some specific examples?

‘We’re now conducting a series of workshops in the consortium. The objective is to create a good and stable foundation from which we can move the programme forward. For example, we’re talking about what (un)equal expectations partners have, the best and most practical ways of connecting business and government partners with the programme’s work packages, and what being a researcher at Mistra Food Futures means. We’re also working on a more detailed communication strategy, and reviewing whether we need to expand the consortium to make sure the whole food system is represented. At the same time, the research activities in the various work packages are also starting.’

Food is an area that arouses many emotions and engages people. How are you going to navigate through all the opinions so that they don’t get in the way of the knowledge you’re generating?

‘That’s an extremely important question. Feelings, views and preconceived notions about what’s what may get in the way. In the consortium, we need to discuss this type of bias constantly. All knowledge obtained within the scope of the programme must, of course, be underpinned by scientific facts and methods. But researchers, like anyone else, can be influenced by their personal inclinations and opinions. Here, ongoing discussion is essential to boost awareness of this influence. We’ll also study more explicitly how, for example, attitudes affect which production methods are chosen. There, too, we’ll be creating knowledge specifically about how choices made in the food system are affected by emotions and opinions that are channelled into actual decisions.’

International perspectives that inspire you?

‘Lots! Like the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement, the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services from the IPBES [Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, ed.] and the EAT-Lancet report on a healthy diet from a sustainable food system, but also the many EU projects now under way in our region. We, the consortium, are involved in several projects ourselves — myself personally in the LIFT and SURE-farm H2020 projects, which are among my sources of inspiration, of course.’

As programme director, what do you think will be the programme’s biggest challenge?

‘That’s hard to say now; we have a wonderful consortium in which all the participants are passionate about the issues the programme focuses on. And in society at large, there’s great interest and commitment to our issues. While the breadth of our consortium is one of the programme’s major strengths, it can lead to challenges too, especially those connected with getting the whole consortium to work in unison. But I’m also fully convinced that this type of collaboration across organisational boundaries and traditional academic disciplines is exactly what we need to really address the complexity of the issues involved in the food system’s transition to sustainability.’

Read more about Mistra Food Futures here.