“Our Dominant Food System Needs to Be Dismantled and Rebuilt”

To feed the world sustainably, the industrial food system needs to change. Ruth Richardson, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, explains what challenges the global community faces and what her hopes for the upcoming “UN Food Systems Summit” are.  

Sabine Fischer | July 2021
A cabbage farmer in Madagascar
International Fund for Agricultural Development

A cabbage farmer on her field in Madagascar

When the terms climate change and food are mentioned in the same breath, many people worry that someone will tell them what to eat in the future. How do you respond to that concern?

There can be no doubt that we all need to be more aware of the food we eat since some of it – for instance industrially produced meat or chemically intensive agriculture – has greater climate impacts than others. However, to me, it’s not about forcing decisions but about creating the enabling environments that facilitate sustainable choices that are context-specific and culturally appropriate. In many parts of the world, people do not have a choice over the food they eat and have access to. For producers, agri-food businesses, funders and others who want to create the conditions where consumers can act sustainably, one way to do this is by adopting a set of guiding principles - like resilience, equity, healthy - and test their actions against these terms. For example, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food has a set of principles that we use as a framework to make choices that shape and inform our day-to-day work and our vision for the future of food.

At the same time individual efforts alone will not solve the problem. Global food systems must be fundamentally transformed, experts say. This is what the "Global Alliance for the Future of Food", an alliance of philanthropic foundations that you lead, is committed to. What are the major challenges we face?

The dominant industrial model we have built is not fit for purpose and has a lot of negative impacts. We are facing significant environmental challenges like the decline in biodiversity. We are experiencing a major crisis in health proportions of diet related diseases like diabetes and obesity. From a sociocultural point of view the dominant food system causes the decline of cultural values. We have done horrible things like kick indigenous people off their land so we can put in palm oil plantations. All of these things are the result of the kind of food system that we have built. This is why it needs to be transformed. And by saying that I mean significant, profound transformation. We need to dismantle and rebuild the system – and we have the ability to do that. 

Headshot Ruth Richardson
Ruth Richardson


Ruth Richardson is the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and brings over 25 years of experience in the philanthropic sector to this role. She also has extensive experience starting new and complex things: These include being the first Director of the Unilever Canada Foundation and the Founding Chair of the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network. She was appointed to serve on the Advisory Committee for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

So how can we make this happen?

Too often we try to solve these problems with a singular solution. This is not going to get us out of this problem. We need a more systemic approach – solutions that have multiple benefits and that are going to help us on multiple fronts. For example: I have had the privilege of visiting a project called “Community Based Natural Farming” in Andhra Pradesh in India. They are trying to support more ecologically based farming and a lot more community cohesion in terms of how farmers work together. In touring this initiative, I started writing down any positive thing that it has had an impact on. And it was everything from “We are using eighty percent less water” to “Our trees are sequestering more carbon” or “The rice we are producing lasts longer in storage.” That is the kind of systemic approach I am talking about. 

The UN Secretary General Guterres has reacted to the seriousness of the situation and is planning for the first time a "Food Systems Summit" (UNFSS) in New York in the fall. What results are you hoping for? 

We are hoping for three things: A set of principles that can guide the world in terms of what food system transformation looks like. In our experience principles are the most important social technologies that we have to lead us through times of disruption and upheaval if you actually use and apply them. The second thing is progress on key issues that we care about. For example: We are hoping to see strong statements on agreocology as a core solution to the future. The third one is a little less tangible, but equally important. We are really hoping for the establishment of critical relationships and connections that will help facilitate food systems transformation. 

Ruth Richardson panel
Global Alliance for the Future of Food

Ruth Richardson at the 2016 "EAT-Summit".

There is also a Champions Network, you are one of the Chairpersons. Can you share some insights from the process so far?

The so-called Champions are multiple actors from different sectors and stakeholder groups who are championing a different, better food system. We are charged with supporting the other summit structures, being a sounding board for early priorities and conclusions emerging and mobilizing actions around solutions. The mobilization process is taking place now. Within these processes it is important to accommodate voices and concerns from civil society, indigenous people and others. I believe the only way we are going to be able to address contentious issues is if we confront them head on and bring in all opinions and perspectives.

As director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food you will take part in a pre-summit in Rome at the end of July. What is it about?

I see the pre summit as a part of the planning process. It is a space and an opportunity for all the stakeholders that are engaged in the summit and input system transformation to come together to determine what they have figured out so far. And more importantly: How do we plan for all the action and activity that is going to be required post summit? This is a long-term agenda

We are in the midst of a series of catastrophic crises. We need uncomfortably bold commitments.

What has to happen so that the results of the UNFSS have an effect in the future and, for example, are integrated in the processes of the Climate and Biodiversity Conventions?

The priorities that need to be focused on cannot be the priorities of any particular actor but need to be the priorities that lead us to systems transformation. We have to really call ourselves to account and challenge ourselves to pick the solutions and priorities that are going to advance the food systems agenda. A second thing that is required are bold commitments: We are in the midst of a number of catastrophic crises and we cannot underestimate this. We need uncomfortably ambitious commitments. Drastically reducing industrially produced meat and ultra processed food for example. The evidence is there. I think we probably know and can agree that we have got to just turn these whole systems around. 

Processes like the UN Food Systems Summit tie up a lot of resources, probably also yours. Are there other ways to move the global community to act fast?

Our theory is that transformation happens when diverse actions, networks and individuals intersect across sectors where they converge around a commonly shared vision and goal. Through that they start to build momentum and critical mass and hit a tipping point. And I think that is our part. Let me paraphrase Wendell Berry who said something like: “This is a situation that is going to call for a lot of patience We have acknowledged that the problems are big. But when you ask “Where's the big solution?” you imply that we can impose the answer. And that is the problem we are in to start with. We have tried to impose the answers and this cannot be hurried. Patience in an emergency is a terrible trial.” And yes, we need people to act quickly, but we also have to be patient and do the hard work of moving this forward – one step at a time.