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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

The Imperative to Innovate: Keys for Food System Transformation

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

Note: Prepared for presentation at the Food Secure Canada 9th Annual Assembly in Toronto Canada on Oct. 15, 2016.  JI

The word “innovation” is so frequently misused, abused, and confused that people may be tempted to avoid using it. In this respect, it is much like the words “love” or “sustainability.” Although ambiguous in nature, such words are essential to meaningful communication because they represent basic ideas that are fundamental to human life. With respect to “innovation,” I agree with Scott Burken who has researched and written extensively on the subject: “If you must use the word, here is the best definition: Innovation is significant positive change.”[i] Thus, the imperative for innovation in the food system reflect the necessity for significant positive change – meaning a fundamental transformation in the current food system.

The questions posed for this panel include: “As Canada moves towards developing a national food policy, how do we ensure it enables a healthy, sustainable and equitable food systems across the country?” The imperative for food system transformation is the challenge of sustainability which includes health and social equity. In basic terms, sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. Thus, a sustainable food system must meet the basic food needs of all in the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of future generations to meet their needs as well. No civilization or nation that has failed to provide enough food for its people has been able to survive. Given the global nature of today’s society, humanity cannot survive without a sustainable global food system.

Technological innovation in the current industrial food system is widely touted as the only logical means of meeting global food needs of the future. However, this assertion reflects of blind faith in technology and markets that ignores past and present reality. Contrary to popular belief, the industrialization of food systems, while well-intended, has been an absolute failure. It is promoted as the only logical means of providing “food security,” meaning providing everyone with enough good food to support healthy, active lifestyles. However, it is not meeting the basic nutritional needs of many people, if not most, today and it is systematically degrading and depleting the natural and human resources upon which future generations ultimately must depend for food.

Industrial food systems are not sustainable.This bold assertion is confirmed by a 2016 independent study by an International Panel of Experts in Sustainability (IPES). After reviewing more than 350 studies documenting the failures of industrial agriculture described the evidence as “overwhelming.”[ii] The study concluded: “Today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.”[iii]

The challenge of sustainability is a “wicked problem” meaning a problem arising within a complex, interconnected, dynamic system – such as a natural ecosystem and human society. Such a problem can be solved only by choosing a completely different system, which writer/philosopher Wendell Berry refers to as Solving for Pattern. The failures of the industrial food system are consequences of the inherent disharmony between the mechanistic industrial systems of farming and food production and the organismic social and ecological environment within which agri-food systems must function. Systems of farming and food production for the future must function as healthy living organs within the living organisms or organizations of society and nature.

The IPES report agrees: “What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversify­ing farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity, and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.”[iv]

The new post-industrial pattern for food production is already apparent in farming systems such as agroecology, permaculture, nature farming, and holistic management. Organic, ecologic, and biodynamic farming are more common systems in the U.S., and are particularly promising as integral parts of sustainable local food systems. Admittedly, the challenge of agri-food sustainability is formidable, but it is not insurmountable. At critical points of leverage, small, doable actions can lead to large, seemingly impossible effects – like the small “trim tab” that turns the rudder of a ship, can cause the whole ship to change direction.[v]

I believe the first step toward systemic innovation in the food system will begin at community level, in communities that accept the “right to food” as a basic human right. Markets are fundamentally incapable of providing food security. Markets produce food for those with enough money to buy enough good food, which excludes the poor and hungry. Charities and impersonal government programs have never filled the gaps left by markets. I have proposed a “Community Food Utility” as a means of ensuring “enough good food for all.”

Public utilities are established to provide specific “public services.” They are commonly used in the U.S. to provide water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, communication systems, and other essential services. Existing public utilities ensure universal access to essential services. Community Food Utilities would not only ensure universal access to food but would also ensure that everyone has enough good food to meet their basic needs – as an essential public service. A community food utility would no more socialist or anti-American than today’s public water systems, sewer systems, and electric utilities.

Critics of industrial agriculture thus far have focused primarily on the negative ecological and social impacts of industrial agriculture. However, the failure to provide food security is perhaps its greatest failure. The organic and local foods movement also tend to be viewed as elitist. The sustainable agriculture movement will never be taken seriously until begins meeting the challenge to meet the basic food needs of all in the present, as well as preserving equal opportunities for the future. Local commitments to eliminating hunger and malnutrition could well be the public issues needed to bring widespread public support for systemic innovation in the agri-food system. Local commitments to “community food security” could provide the leverage or “trim tab” needed to move beyond agri-food industrialization to sustainability.

However, the persistence of hunger and growing ecological and societal degradation are ultimately reflections of our collective lack of caring. Returning to my third ambiguous but important word, love. If we truly loved our neighbors and our fellow human beings in global society, we wouldn’t be wasting food and burning fuel in our cars that could have fed the hungry. If we believed in the inherent goodness of humanity and the other living things of the earth, meaning if we truly loved the whole of life, we would work together and find ways to protect the things of nature upon which the future of humanity depends. The defenders of the industrial agri-food status quo are economically and politically powerful. The only power on earth strong enough to bring about the essential innovations and transformation in the global food system is the power of love.

John Ikerd

End Notes:

[i] Scott Burken, “The best definition of innovation,” .

[ii] Andrea Germanos, “’Overwhelming’ Evidence Shows Path is Clear: It’s Time to Ditch Industrial Agriculture for GoodCommon Dreams, Thursday, June 02, 2016,

[iii]  IPES – Food, International Panel of Experts on Sustainability, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, June 2016,

[iv] IPES –Food, From Uniformity to Diversity.

[v] John Ikerd, The Economic Pamphleteer, “How do we ensure good food for all?” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. First column, August 2016, – second column, forthcoming.

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