Public lecture highlights need for systems thinking

Public lecture highlights need for systems thinking

“More of the same isn’t going to be good enough”

At the recent IFSTAL public lecture in December, Judith Batchelar OBE showed how the food industry is increasingly taking a systems approach when tackling some of its biggest challenges.

As a member of the government’s Food and Drink Sector Council and Head of Brand for Sainsbury’s, Judith was well placed to deliver an overview of how the food industry is evolving in order to tackle environmental and social challenges head on. In front of a live audience at the SOAS Brunei Gallery, and with livestreams to IFSTAL partner sites at the University of Reading, Oxford and Warwick, Judith look the audience on a whistlestop tour of the big issues, from the impacts of climate change and the role of regulation to ways to achieve sustainability and transparency in supply chains. Along the way she highlighted some of the recent initiatives that aim to address these challenges.

Under the theme ‘collaborating for impact’, Judith explained how industry is picking up the gauntlet, for example by harnessing technology to drive out opaqueness in supply chains. Using the growth in demand for fish as an example, Judith explained that globally 25% of all fish is caught illegally, so it’s not known what type of fish or how fisheries are managed in one quarter of all fish caught. Sainsbury’s is working with not-for-profit organisation OceanMind to commission independent monitoring services in the fishing industry. This project provides information about vessel licensing, fishing methods and quotas to ensure a transparent supply chain. Another project sees the supermarket working with the University of Edinburgh to trial the use of digital imaging technology in order to prevent overfishing.

“The challenge is to understand where we can have a material impact,” she said. “It’s not always where you think.” As an example, Judith explained how the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act has had a significant impact in the issue of transparency. Addressing supply chain issues, she added, requires collaboration with other big brands.

When it comes to driving systemic change, Judith underlined the need for an enabling environment. “Good regulation,” she said, “is part of creating an enabling environment for organisations. If we don’t have good regulation, we drive the wrong behaviours,” She underlined the importance of investment in research and science and stressed the importance of going beyond governance. “Regulation stops us doing the ‘bad stuff’ but doesn’t deliver net positive”, she said. “But [change] only happens if every stakeholder in the system sees the value for them.”

We’re in a fast-moving world where things don’t stand still. “[The things] we are doing today, we won’t be doing in five years’ time,’ she said. “The science and data are rapidly evolving. 90% of data in the world was created in the past two years.” Yes, there were some discouraging facts: we learned that in terms of climate change, what was a one-in-700 years catastrophic natural event is now once every ten years. We also heard how on a global scale at least 20% of food is wasted as a nation and that the UK is in the bottom 25% when it comes to investment into the food sector. In spite of this, the audience came away with a better insight into where positive steps are being taken and what challenges still lie ahead.

After the talk, each site held a festive drinks reception and in London, members of the SOAS audience got a chance to continue the conversation with Judith up close. It was inspiring to hear about these examples of collaboration and see how parts of the food industry is seeking to bring systems thinking into action.

Watch the Public Lecture in full HERE