Food Must Fix It: The 2017 EAT Forum

The food systems of the last century were geared toward production output and profit. This century, it needs to be equity and quality. But where can we achieve win-win situations? These were some of the topics discussed at the EAT Food Forum in Stockholm this week. Lawrence Haddad, GAIN’s Executive Director, gave a keynote speech on the importance of tackling nutrition inequalities at the heart of the food system. In his latest blogpost, he shares his key takeaways from this innovative event focused on transforming the food system.

By Lawrence Haddad, GAIN’s Executive Director

The convening power of Gunhild Stordalen is astonishing. The Crown Princess of Sweden, the President of Mauritius, Sir Bob Geldof and a large group of other influential leaders, doers, and thinkers.

This was my first visit to the Forum, although I had worked with Gunhild on a joint newspaper article for the Norway launch of the 2015 Global Nutrition Report and knew how committed she was to making a difference. Her commitment is contagious.

At the Forum, I gave a talk on three inequalities at the heart of the food system that generate poor nutrition outcomes. First, our rather conventional public health attempts to stimulate behaviour change in food choice which focus on “wholesomeness” and “good for you” exhortations and worthy messaging—all in comparison to commercial advertising efforts which persuade us to buy certain foods based on their convenience, deliciousness, crave-ability and status. Second, I noted the stark inability of most of the world to afford healthy diets: 52% of household incomes in South Asia would be needed to buy 5 fruits and vegetables a day. Third, I argued that the lack of information, evidence and data on the impacts of business-government partnerships beyond profits (i.e. on people and the planet) hampers collaboration.

These are three areas where GAIN is working with a wide range of public and private stakeholders to increase the demand for healthy food, to increase the capacity of small and medium and large enterprises to meet that demand and make nutritious food available at a lower price, and to create an environment that enables businesses to do good things for nutrition and discourages them from doing unhelpful things.

My takeaways from the two days (disclosure, GAIN is on the EAT Advisory Board):

– As a newcomer to EAT Forum, I found the fact that I only knew about 10% of the participants to be really refreshing. New organisation, new perspectives, and a fair amount of new thinking. Great.

– Businesses were very present, although mainly European and American ones. It was great that they were there because, as the African proverb goes, “to change someone’s head they have to be in the room”: no engagement means fewer opportunities to influence.

– But, in general, the event was high income country focused. Sure, there were people like me focused on low and middle income issues, but still from a European and North American perspective. If the audience were more geographically diverse it would really accelerate the convergence of the two sets of conversations happening in the Forum: the high income and middle/low income ones. It is clear that the Forum is very much hastening this convergence, but a more rounded and grounded set of perspectives would help us co-create a more unified vision and set of approaches to solution generation.

– A number of the presentations dwelled on the achievements of the presenters and their organisations. This was fine given that were many such fine achievements and the presenters were amazing people and communicators. But, I wanted a bit more on the challenges they faced and how they overcome them—also, what did not work and why? For sure there was some of this (and more than you would find at an academic audience!) but more would have been welcome.

– The focus on the links between food, health and the planet were really strong and quite seamless. But I am a data hound and I would have liked a few shamelessly scientific sessions, although perhaps that would have reduced the uniqueness of the meeting.

– The EAT Forum has been disruptive–in a good way. It has challenged conventional wisdom and now it is rewriting conventional wisdom. So what does it do for a second act? Bob Geldof reminded us that social change occurs when there is an initial disruption, then an amplification of the message around a set of leaders, followed by consolidation and organisation of the movement, and, underpinning it all, a relentless devotion to a cause. So what is the future disruption role of the EAT Forum? Does it just keep going and wait for others to get on the bus, or does it park the bus outside the halls of power and lure them in? I don’t know. I suspect the former. But the disruption question remains.

In many ways the EAT Forum could be more unconventional. It would, for example, be great to get more schoolkids involved to talk about what they think, expect and can do; more journalists talking about what their readers want to read and how that can be influenced; more political activists teaching us about their strategies; and more people from the arts helping us connect outside the policy and business wonkosphere. Perhaps I am being too demanding, but if so that is because the EAT Forum has raised expectations in a world that is desperately lacking the hope and energy of the period just before the global financial crisis—a world where dreams have been harshly dampened by the austerity our politicians have responded with.

The rallying point for the Forum was “food can fix it” whether health, climate, sustainability or access to a nutritious, safe, affordable and desirable diet. This simple phrase was deceptively helpful in providing a focal point and, as Johan Rockstrom, the scientific lead for EAT, said at the end, it really should be “food must fix it”. Agreed.

All in all I found the EAT Forum to be a very refreshing change from the same old meetings where you know everyone and you know what they are going to say well before they say it. Long may it continue to reinvent itself, to keep challenging tired conventional wisdom while catalysing unlikely partnerships that generate ideas and approaches that are truly transformative.

In short, if the EAT Forum did not exist we would need to invent it.


Watch Lawrence Haddad’s talk at EAT Stockholm Food Forum

Download Lawrence Haddad’s presentation here

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Published 16 June 2017