Footage [00:00:51] From onions in Oregon to green beans tilled under in the fields of Florida to milk dumped in Wisconsin because big customers like schools and coffee shops are closed, large farmers with customers and supply chains shut down have no choice.
Sandeep [00:01:12] You're listening to Food by Design: an IDEO podcast, where we talk to the people who are building the food systems we’ll need in the future, right now. We go where the questions are, looking at the gaps in the current systems and share what we learn, all to find out what's next. We're here to start the conversations that can help make better food systems for every one of us. I'm your host, Sandeep Pahuja.
Sandeep [00:01:45] It's become almost cliché to say our food system is broken. For those passionate about food and the system that surrounds it, these are the problems you'll hear about the most: the loss of biodiversity. The rise in factory farms, chemicals in our soil. And the release of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. When it comes to climate change, our food system is directly responsible for 25 percent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the top contributors to a warming planet. That's why I sat up straight when Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said this.
Ricardo [00:02:24] The food system isn't broken. It is working exactly as it's intended to work. And exactly as it was designed.
Sandeep [00:02:32] Wait. What?
Ricardo [00:02:33] Is working exactly as it's intended to work.
Sandeep [00:02:39] You might be thinking, what exactly is a food system? Well, it's all of the different things that happen to food to get it from the soil to your plate, how you produce, process, package, distribute, sell, consume and dispose of food. Each of those has its own requirements. For example, for production, you need land, access to water, energy, seeds, fertilizers and more.
Ricardo [00:03:07] You need labor to pick what you produce. You need labor in order to process it under conditions that most of us would find unacceptable. You need labor to push the thousands of tons of food onto the grocery shelves or to work in the back of the house and restaurants. And that's where the majority of us encounter food. And that's all we know. We just know it from menus or from nice displays that you see in grocery stores. And to us, it just looks like there is abundance. There's plenty. We just need to pick whatever we want and go off and enjoy it. And that's it.
Sandeep [00:03:41] So what does the food system have to do with climate change? First, there's the emissions from farming. Agriculture by itself would contribute, by our best estimates, about 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and the industrial economy. Then there's the fact that food is processed with heavy machinery shipped on refrigerated trucks driving all over the country and put in probably plastic packaging that you see in grocery stores. That all adds up to a significant energy footprint.
Ricardo [00:04:10] And so those estimates are closer to about maybe a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions due to the food system, not just to the agricultural component.
Sandeep [00:04:20] We need to stop saying that our food system is broken. It's not. It's working exactly how it was intended to, exactly how it was designed, and as a byproduct of those designs. It's a major contributor to climate change. But if it was created this way, that means that we can change it and design new systems altogether. That's what this podcast is about.
Sandeep [00:04:49] I work for IDEO, a design company known for its human-centered interdisciplinary approach to solving problems. We were founded over 40 years ago as a product design firm.
Footage [00:04:59] IDEO has designed everything from high tech medical equipment to twenty five foot mechanical whale for the movie ‘Free Willie’. Smith ski goggles, Nike sunglasses, NBC computer screens, hundreds of products we take for granted.
Sandeep [00:05:13] Since our start, we've evolved significantly from our product design roots. While we still design physical products,uch of our focus now applies design to challenges that are much less tangible. Designing services, experiences, organizations and even entire systems. That last system's part is what we're going to focus on. Here's something our CEO Sandy Speicher wrote in Fortune that inspired me to think differently about systems:
“If you want to design something that takes better care of the planet, you've got to design the supply chain. You've got to design the chemistry involved in the materials you're putting together. There's a whole new set of knowledge and domains that actually need to be considered and that designers can have a role in shaping. We have to understand the diversity of many people's needs in order to change the system. That means working together.”
Sandeep [00:06:12] Over the last 15 years, IDEO has been working with people, companies and organizations across different parts of our food system. We've partnered with governments to help them foster more nutritious eating habits for their youth. We've worked with global nonprofits to reduce food waste at farms. And we've helped many food companies and restaurants, launched new concepts, brands and products. What every passing year working in food has taught us is just how interconnected the system really is. It's not a series of single players. It's an ecosystem. But how exactly do all of these individual parts relate to one another? How can we better understand cause and effect when it comes to climate change?
Karen [00:06:45] Most of us, when we think about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, are thinking about energy and transportation primarily.
Sandeep [00:06:54] That's Karen Leibowitz, who with her husband, Anthony Myint, founded three famous restaurants: Commonwealth, The Perennial and Mission Chinese, all in San Francisco.
Karen [00:07:02] But actually, agriculture is a huge impact. We did a lifecycle assessment at Mission Chinese Food. And I think the most interesting thing we learned from looking at our own restaurant operations was that about two thirds of the impact came from the ingredients. And so then we are thinking like, oh, the difference is not being in a restaurant or being at home. The difference is that the foods that you're eating and how they were grown.
Sandeep [00:07:24] That revelation about ingredients, about how and where food is grown, the soil that's grown in, how animals are raised and what they're fed, led them to take a big leap and found The Perennial, a completely new kind of climate minded restaurant, a perfectly sustainable mini food system of one starting from the bottom and saying, like, let's make everything as sustainable as we can.
Karen [00:07:52] And so we built a restaurant in essentially an empty box.
Sandeep [00:07:56] That's where I come into the story. IDEO is oftentimes trying to inspire its clients to think differently or to imagine what might be possible out in the world. So The Perennial is a perfect place to go and have dinner because Karen and Anthony thought about every detail that could impact the restaurant's carbon footprint.
Sandeep [00:08:13] For example, when you sat down and unfolded your cotton napkin, you may or may not have realized that the napkin wasn't stitched on its edges. That was on purpose. So when the napkin wore out, they could put it in the compost bin and feed the worms. Most of those napkins ended up getting stolen, so they never made it that far. But that's how meticulous they were about minimizing emissions. They thought about the restaurant's carbon footprint down to that level. Like, what do we do with our napkins to reduce waste? And what does that do for our carbon emissions?
Sandeep [00:08:44] Of course, it wasn't just the napkins. They grew some vegetables hydroponically. They sourced unusual grains like kernza, a perennial that acts like wheat but grows like prairie grass. They bought their meat as quarter animals rather than in finished cuts from local carbon ranches. Which is to say, ranches that pay as much attention to nurturing healthy soil as they do to raising cattle. Unfortunately, The Perennial didn't last. One reason it didn't accomplish its mission is that it was just one single restaurant.
Karen [00:09:15] We started to realize that if we were really successful at The
Perennial, we would be driving demand, but that the supply was not really keeping up.
Sandeep [00:09:25] And I think that's the thing we've learned in IDEO. We can't change the system. We're just one company, one entity, one node.
Karen [00:09:32] All by itself, when I think of my own experience of climate change, it is one of disempowerment. I really feel like there's so little that I can do. I think a lot of restaurant people actually want to get more involved.
Sandeep [00:09:46] So Karen and Anthony got even more creative. They started a nonprofit called Zero Foodprint, which is trying to create demand for all of these practices on a much bigger scale than within just one restaurant space. Zero Foodprint and the Perennial Farming Initiative asks restaurants to add a one percent charge to their bills and uses those funds to help battle climate change.
Sandeep [00:10:16] Did I fully understand most of these concepts until a couple years ago? No. It took people like Karen Liebowitz to give me an education. Sure, I bagged groceries and stocked shelves as a teenager. But as an adult, my understanding of food came mostly from what was served to me on plates in restaurants. I was that friend who would take you to the tastiest new spot in town, but would also really annoy you because they wouldn't let you touch the food until they took the ridiculous photos for their Instagram.
Sandeep [00:10:43] My role here will be slightly different over the course of this series. I'll be your guide as we dive into just a few of the problems that exist in our food system. One of the most important things I've learned using the design process is to find inspiration at the edges. In each episode, we're going to speak to people pushing the edges of our food system. People like Ricardo and Karen, some who are taking entirely new approaches, and some who are going back to the past and applying learnings to today. Each of these folks inspires me to see that positive change is not only possible, but it's happening right now. I'll talk with two ranchers who are growing cattle in a climate friendly way, a packaged goods company that is prioritizing sustainable practices. A farmer that is working to reclaim land and restore food justice for black, indigenous and people of color, and even visit the founder of the world's best bar, a bar that cares so much about zero waste that they literally boil down cardboard into an ingredient for their cocktails.
Sandeep [00:11:45] All of this will lead to the driving question of this series. How might we design better food systems?
Sandeep [00:11:52] Together, we'll start to answer it by exploring where our food comes from, what's at stake and where there might be opportunities for design to change our food system for the better.
Sandeep [00:12:01] If this gets your wheels turning and excited to share ideas, thoughts or other questions that you have, visit ideo.com/food And help us create better food systems for everyone.
Sandeep [00:12:12] Thanks for listening. If you learn something and enjoyed this, please send it to a friend. You can really help by leaving a perfect rating and a review. You know the algorithms love that. I'm Sandeep Pahuja. This is Food by Design.
Sandeep [00:12:26] The show was created by Sarah Codraro and me. Today's episode was produced by Evan Roberts and edited by Julia Scott. Mark Henry Phillips composed our original music. Chris Hoff is our engineer. Special thanks to Lauren Yarmuth, Jack Algiere, Tina Antolini, Jayme Brown, Katie Clark, Saige Perry, and Sarah Rich.
This series wouldn’t be possible without Lynda Deakin, Vivian Barad, Alex Gallafent, Stuart Getty, and Alex Pabian.
See you next time. Well, I won't actually see you because, you know, this is in your headphones.