multi-national producer. With business
units worldwide, there is a need to hire
and develop appropriate resources to
address the various regulations and cultural values in its widespread markets.
Or one may consider complexity from a
product-launch point of view, where the
inter-relationships between consumer
desire, product formulation, manufacturing parameters, supply chain and procurement of ingredients, and distribution and sales are often well-understood,
complex relationships. However, when
the volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity of each of those factors are considered, the complexity of a successful
product launch grows exponentially.
VUCA and the World’s Food Supply
To better understand the impact that shifting to a food systems-thinking approach can have on addressing our challenges, it’s important to explore key pressures
facing our food system and how VUCA relates to that system. “VUCA” is a term
coined at the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world after the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union
triggered a new world order that required new ways of seeing and reacting. At the
simplest level, the concepts of VUCA address rapidly changing conditions that can
be positive or negative. When you look at the dynamics of the food system today,
they meet the very definition of VUCA.
Volatility, or the nature and speed of change, is increasing in the food system.
Many factors affect the volatility of the food system, including consumer preferences and technological innovation. For example, the exponential growth of plant-based
meat alternatives and cell-cultured animal proteins in the past year is changing the
food landscape. It has also contributed to the pressure on animal agriculture, which
when combined with environmental concerns such as extreme weather, global warming, disease, and water stress, creates further volatility (see “Climate Change – A Key
Pressure and Challenge Facing Our Food
System,” right). From a different aspect,
labor shortages are also driving volatility.
With unemployment at historic lows in
the U.S., many food producers from farm
to retail cannot hire enough labor or may
be relying on temporary labor, forcing
rapid change in diverse areas from mechanization to training. Overall, volatility and
the rapid change in the food system create
uncertainty that must be addressed.
Uncertainty, or lack of predictability, in
the food system has multi-factorial causes.
For example, nutrition has often been
highlighted as an aspect of uncertainty
within the food system. As nutrition science advances, conflicting messages have
been presented to consumers. The headline messages of “eat this, not that” have
overwhelmed the basic nutrition guidance
of balance promoted by our scientific and
governmental authorities. However, when
the “eat this, not that” headlines reverse
to “eat that, not this,” consumers grow
confused and frustrated. The uncertainty
of consumer preferences, along with vacillating guidelines and opinions, leaves the
industry struggling with ambiguity and the
potential for misreads.
Complexity, or the confusion that surrounds issues, within the food system has
many interconnected parts and variables.
Many of these inter-relationships are potentially predictable, but the volume of
information is often difficult to process.
One of the simplest examples in the food
Climate Change – A Key Pressure and
Challenge Facing Our Food System
The recent Climate Change and Land report1 from the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explores the impact of climate on our food
system. Although the current food system feeds most of the world’s population and the per capita global food supply has increased more than 30 percent
since 1961, an estimated 821 million people in the world are currently malnourished and more than 2 billion adults are overweight or obese. In addition,
the food system supports the livelihoods of almost 1 billion people worldwide.
However, climate change is already putting pressures on food security.
Increasing temperatures are affecting crop yields, changing precipitation
patterns are affecting growing conditions, and the greater frequency of extreme events only amplifies effects. For example, this year in the Upper Midwest, a very wet spring with late planting followed by early freezes meant that
many root crops like potatoes and sugar beets were lost. The U.S. Department
of Agriculture estimates the 2019 potato harvest will be 6 percent lower, one
of the lowest crops on record, 2 and many farmers in Minnesota lost almost
half of their sugar beets. 3 Conversely, higher, and fluctuating, temperatures and
drought decreased the 2019 olive harvest by over 30 percent in many regions
of Europe, and this follows low production in 2018 affected by a cold snap,
heat wave, and severe flooding. 4
As David Wallace-Wells reports in The Uninhabitable Earth, 5 scientists estimate that for every degree we heat the planet, the yields of staple cereal crops
will decline by an average of 10 percent, approximately. If we carry on with
business as usual, key staples are likely to collapse by some 40 percent as the
century progresses. These changes in production capacity are expected to lead
to global food price increases, which will put more people at risk of undernutrition, especially low-income consumers.
Under normal circumstances, regional food shortages can be covered by
surpluses from elsewhere on the planet. But environmental models suggest
there’s a real danger that climate breakdown could trigger shortages on multiple continents at once. According to the IPCC report,1 warming more than
2 °C is likely to cause “sustained food supply disruptions globally.” As one of
the lead authors of the report put it: “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket
failure is increasing.”