Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Ruth Richardson, the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Ruth Richardson (RR): My family has a long history in farming. My grandparents were farmers in Southern Ontario, Canada. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time at the farm with my grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, particularly in my middle school years when life was getting more complex. Over the years, I watched my grandparents’ farm shift and change and get more complex itself. That had a very informative influence on me.
The connection to my grandparents’ farm as I started my professional career wasn’t necessarily conscious, but my first “real job” was at Unilever, where I led the formation of the Unilever Canada Foundation and got involved in Unilever’s global work on food and sustainability. After that, I moved to the Metcalf Foundation, where I led the development of its food and agriculture program—the first of its kind in Canada. What began to emerge for me through this work is that food connects us all. The sustainability, security, and equity of food and agriculture systems cut across so many issues, including poverty, public health, the environment, and climate change. It came home to me in a new way that without shifting food and agriculture systems, we won’t make progress on these others issues as fast and effectively as we need to. Now, my work with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food is focused squarely on global systems change, but with my grandparents’ very local farm as a sort of touchstone.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
RR: One of the priorities of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food is to make headway in the area of the economics of food. Through support to projects like Food Tank’s Real Cost of Food and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood), what the Global Alliance aims to do is make the true cost of food transparent and develop new economic frameworks for change. It is only by understanding the true cost of food—including so many currently invisible costs like transportation, land use change, erosion, health, pollution—that we can determine pathways forward for a future food system that is truly sustainable, equitable, and secure.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
RR: The innovations I find most inspiring are systems-based changes. The example that immediately comes to mind is Belo Horizonte in Brazil that launched a campaign aimed at ending hunger by making food a right of citizenship. What was innovative about this campaign is that it wasn’t uni-dimensional—just focused on food aid, for instance—but instead incorporated a holistic approach to local food production, agroecological practices, mutually supportive local and national policies, economic and market development, and the list goes on. This was a systems-based approach initially focused on hunger in one city but that had multiple benefits for the whole country.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
RR: Bryan Gilvesy. I met Bryan through my work at the Metcalf Foundation. Bryan went from traditional tobacco farmer to an exemplary agroecological rancher. When tobacco markets fell, Bryan saw an opportunity to transform his farm and how he does business into an award-winning model for sustainable farming practices: his Texas longhorn cattle are free to roam the prairie grasses, the business is run on solar energy as much as possible, and he’s created fixed habitats for wildlife and a haven for pollinators. Beyond his own YU Ranch, Bryan is a champion of ecological agriculture and has set out to change the hearts and minds of the farmers in Canada. Since the early 2000s, he’s worked with Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS)—a program that pays farmers to “grow public goods.” ALUS recognizes the value of conserving and restoring our natural resources while rewarding farmers financially for their important role in environmental management. Again, systemic change at local, regional, and national levels through interconnected approaches and multiple benefits. I find that inspiring.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
RR: Some of the realities we face globally in terms of hunger, the environment, and climate change are pretty grim, but what I find is that the people working in this space have an energy, hope, and optimism that is infectious. Over the years, my work has connected me with farmers and food activists, policymakers and journalists, corporations and individuals all working towards food systems change. My deep passion for and commitment to food and agriculture issues brought me to this work, but what keeps me going is having what I bring to the table—my skills, voice, hopes, and ambitions—joined together with what other inspiring and committed people bring to the table, to create a powerful shift in how we produce, process, market, and even eat our food for the better of people and the planet.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
RR: The biggest shift—perhaps going back to our great-grandparents—is the sheer complexity of the food system. My great-grandparents didn’t have to negotiate the complex terrain from local fields to international trade agreements and global commodities markets in the way we have to. I have been to Peru to see first-hand programs put in place by multi-nationals to source raw materials from one-hectare smallholder farms; I’ve volunteered on local farms where the farmers are deeply concerned about the impact of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and Europe. Some call this local/global, centralized/decentralized world the great paradox of the current age.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
RR: Fair and transparent food pricing. This is no small feat—perhaps one of the biggest nuts to crack—but until we do we will fail at realizing the positive impacts of our food and agriculture systems (carbon sequestration, pollination services, health) and mitigating the negative impacts (pollution, diabetes, farmworker exposure to toxins, acidification in our oceans). As they often say at TEEBAgriFood, “we cannot manage what we do not measure.” There are many benefits from agriculture but also many costs—all these costs and benefits should not just be fully visible but should be factored into how we as societies plan, support, monitor, and ultimately create our food systems in order to amplify the positive and reduce the negative.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
RR: One small change everyone can make is buying and eating more consciously—to be mindful. Of course, not everyone has the option of buying fresh produce in season and cooking it in a healthy way in their own kitchen. But everyone can be mindful and work to educate themselves on where their food comes from, what impact one choice has over another, and what they can do to make small changes towards supporting food systems that are more sustainable and fair. Wendell Berry once said that “eating is an agricultural act,” which many have been inspired by because it says that eating is not passive. Eating is a deeply active and potentially powerful way to engage as an eater, a shopper, and a voter.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
RR: I cannot stress enough how important it will be to our future well-being to fix the economic distortions in the food system, which begins with doing a true cost accounting of the “external” costs of food—both positive and negative—like the ones I’ve already pointed to above. This is not to say it’s the only thing. There is incredible work being done on farmer training, land use policy, consumer education, conservation of agrobiodiversity—all of this is essential to our collective future of food. But we can’t ignore the fact that the economics of the food system is a powerful engine that has us locked into a way of feeding ourselves. Without opening up the hood and examining that engine, the status quo will prevail, and the status quo is just not sustainable, nor is it healthy or fair.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
RR: The issue I would like the next president of the United States to address—or my own Prime Minister here in Canada for that matter—is to better connect health and food systems. We have a global healthcare crisis in food-related diseases like obesity and diabetes, and these diseases are not just a result of an individual eating too much sugar or fat. These diseases are a result of a whole system—what we grow, how we grow it, how we process it, how we market it, how we price it. We aren’t making these connections despite considerable work and investment in this area. For example, the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines will not include the committee’s recommendation to build food system sustainability into the guidelines. To me, this is not just a missed opportunity but a missed imperative. Perhaps success will require leadership from the highest political office.
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