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Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


As described in 21st March 2017 summary, the Forum discussion revolved around the action required to catalyze change in our food system and global diets, and featured Dr Brent Loken, Professor Theresa Marteau and Professor Tim Lang as the guest witnesses. Reflecting on the discussion, I’ve posed the following questions:

 Who is involved in a multicriteria approach to managing food system change, and how is the approach executed? Professor Tim Lang shared his 6-criteria framework containing the areas where more work is needed in order to make our food system sustainable:

  1. Food quality
  2. Health
  3. The policy environment
  4. Social and cultural aspects of our diets
  5. Economics
  6. Governance

While there was agreement that food system change requires the help of multiple disciplines and the framework offers a good starting point, the lack of discussion about how the various disciplines work together to execute the multi-criteria approach indicates this is an area for future research. 

What are the communication strategies that we might use to catalyze change? Communication was a key theme that emerged throughout the discussion. The ability to speak a shared language was recognized as a determinant of change in general change programs. There is more research required to understand the factors underlying the ability to speak a shared language. Similar educational experience and religion were suggested as examples of such factors.

How do we create policies that appeal to their constituents and achieve the desired outcomes? Professor Theresa Marteau pointed out that interestingly public support is generally higher for policies that are evidenced to be less effective, and lower for policies evidenced to be more effective. How can policies bridge the gap between desired outcomes and constituents’ wishes? It was suggested that more active engagement from constituents during policy design might help to bridge the gap.

What are the cultural factors that drive food production and consumption decisions in the various parts of the world? There is still much to learn with respect to culture and its implications for food system change. Dr Brent Loken shared experiences in which he encountered surprising cultural factors in communities around the world, factors that often overrode assumptions about the feasibility of change programs.

Do nimbleness and experimentation have places in a policy-making framework? There are certain conditions that make change more likely, and instances of disruption might present such conditions. How can we equip policy makers with skills to seize opportunities and enact policies when the conditions are ideal for change?

What other subjects and their wicked problems might offer insight in thinking about a sustainable food system? There was acknowledgement that the ‘food’ in food system could have been replaced with the word water or energy, and a similar conversation would have ensued. Are there examples of internalizing environmental and societal costs in the energy or water sector that might be relevant for the food sector? Are there other sectors that might offer insight?