Changing the Food Game: Prefering the unknown for the known

Changing the Food Game: Prefering the unknown for the known

Jelle Goossens
Jelle Goossens

Changing the Food Game is a recent book by Lucas Simons. It discloses the dynamics behind the unsustainable production and trading system of our food, but also shows a way forward. The book presents the tipping points to a sustainable market transformation that has the potential to change the current landscape of how we do business in the food sector. A recommended read - here’s why.

Mission Impossible?

When we bring all the facts together, feeding a growing world population seems like Mission Impossible. As Simons puts it:

“It is a matter of simple arithmetic. If we already use 40% of our total land surface and 70% of our fresh water to produce our food, if agriculture is already the main driver for deforestation and biodiversity loss, poverty, child labor, and forced labor, then it is self-evident that we cannot simply double our agricultural output while continuing to do business as usual.”

We have to do better in a radically smarter, more efficient, and more sustainable way than ever before. This must happen on the largest systemic scale imaginable... And we have less than 40 years to do it.

It’s a goal too big and complex for one organization to achieve, even if you’re a government or a giant like Unilever or Mars. To a lot of people, that might give the impression that there’s no beginning to the task. That’s not the case. Though it means we need new mechanisms to overcome short term thinking at different levels.


Why are things going in the wrong direction? Our food system is in a crisis because all four principles of system failures are at work:

  • Markets are designed in such a way that all actors are rewarded for seeking short-term benefits;
  • There is a gap between their actions and the consequences of their actions;
  • These markets operate in the context of failing or ineffective government systems;
  • The basic conditions for change are not present, keeping the system stuck in its negative momentum.

It’s exactly what we’re witnessing in the food system.

“Can you blame the farmer for using child labor or cutting down the rainforest? What would you do if you were in his place? It is a matter of survival. (...) It’s the traders’ fault: they don’t pay. What would you do if you were a trader? Your business depends on the principle of “buy low and sell high,” on high volumes and small margins. (...) Of course, you see that farmers don’t have an easy life, but what can you do? If you pay more, you lose your business—your clients are ruthless. (...) It’s the retailers’ and industry’s fault; they are only interested in the lowest price. They do not reward your quality and they do not give you long-term contracts. And don’t forget national governments: isn’t it their job to take care of their own people?”

So who’s screwing our food system? When an entire system fails, the “who is to blame” game, clearly isn’t going to bring us closer to resolution.

How to break out of this gridlock?

Simons makes the case that big changes in complex environments, like the food system, are possible. How?

"Moving toward more sustainable systems is about higher connectability. Overcoming complexity is, first and foremost, overcoming fragmentation and isolation in the system, creating transparency about everyone’s role and contribution, and having actors work together. After all, it is due to isolation, fragmentation, and a lack of transparency that actors can seek and attain short-term gains and get away with it."

For this market transformation to happen, we need to work towards a higher level of connectedness between actors that in turn leads to a higher level of “connectability” within the system. Throughout the book, Simons elaborates on these four stages of market transformation that can gradually fulfill these conditions.

  1. The awareness and project phase: Crisis strikes; something big and ugly is exposed, for example: child slavery in cocoa plantations. NGOs and the media jump on the news. The organizations that are under attack react as expected: they are baffled. Most of them deny the problem or act defensively. This is the phase in which companies start taking symbolic action and initiate projects. They do this partly because it is the easiest thing to do and partly because they do not know what else to do. A project industry is born.
  2. The first mover and competition phase: The projects in phase 1 addressed the symptoms. At this point, first movers start to change their game. If the problem does not go away, then they decide it is better to be the first one to solve it and turn it into a competitive opportunity. With the projects implemented during the first phase, many new and better practices were discovered. This practical experience allows first-mover companies to gain a competitive advantage. When companies are rewarded for doing what is right, and if they are successful, then an “arms race” starts between first, second, and third movers. Think of the committents of big food companies to label a certain percentage of their ingredients with Utz, Rainforrest Alliance or FairTrade.
  3. The critical mass and institutionalization phase: The industry is starting to understand that its old approach no longer works. More of the same competition will not solve the systemic failure. Labels only reach a small portion of farmers. So if the majority still doensn’t get a fairer price, farmers continue to leave agriculture. The central question is changing to “How do we organize ourselves and work together accordingly?” This is the phase of non-competitive collaboration and it takes place on neutral ground. Neutral facilitators help competing and rival forces to work together and share their approaches and experiences. In the marketplace these big multinationals compete fiercely, but behind the scenes they recognize that the industry as a whole has a serious problem and that they have to work together to solve it. Not just with each other, but also with ngo’s, farmers, governments at various levels,... A good example of this phase is the Cocoa Action initiative, which brings all major chocolat companies and other stakeholders around the table to work towards a viable cocoa sector for everyone.
  4. The level playing field phase: Slowly, the interconnectedness and “connectability” in the sector increases, trust starts to grow, and an overarching vision and a compelling end goal start to emerge. This includes clear roles and responsibilities on how to get there. Now a lobby campaign is starting to change legislation and make it part of the industry norms, so that even laggards have to comply. This phase can take a long time, but eventually governments will have to step up and codify what large parts of the industry have already implemented. The desired new standard has now become normal. Currently there is no example yet of an industy in the food sector that reached this phase.

“Once you understand the phases of market transformation, you will see it everywhere”, Simons writes. He applies the four stages on different industries: coffee, cocoa, fine herbes, cattle,...

The key driver: external pressure

Make no mistake, there’s no historical determism at work here. Although the four phases might suggest a linear chain of events towards a sustainable business model, Simons stresses that nothing garantuees that phase 2 progresses into phase 3. The coffee sector, for instance, was once the front runner in sustainablility efforts with the 4C initiative, but it could’nt keep up the pace of its initial efforts.

Then, what is it that keeps things going? Leadership at different levels of the involved stakeholders is important, but in the end, the key driver is external pressure: pressure from society and fear for resource scarcity. It’s because of this mix that currently the cocoa sector is taking substantial steps in the process of market transformation.

Both visionary and practical

What I particularly like about Changing the Food Game, is that Simons doesn’t downplay the enormity and complexity of the global food challenge. But thanks to actual examples such as cocoa, palm oil and coffee, he convinces the reader that things can change, and are already changing as we speak. That makes this book both visionary and practical. Lucas Simons builds his theory upon years of experience with igniting sustainable market transformations in agriculture. First as the director of leading global certification and sustainability standard organization UTZ CERTIFIED and currently as CEO of NewForesight.

Where’s VECO in this story?

When I look at our organization, the four phases of market transformation make it easy for us to situate our own interventions. VECO/Vredeseilanden is not the campaigning NGO in the first phase, that slams companies publicly for their misbehaviour or their lack of action. There are others who’re better at that than us.

No, we’re the guys who want to push leading companies from phase 2 to phase 3 by establishing concrete collaborations on agricultural chains. Through the experience of pilot projects, we aim at forming coalitions to reach stage 4: the level playing field phase, were sustainability becomes the new normal, rather than an expensive option. In that regard, for example, we teamed up with NewForesight and the Cocoa Sustainability Partnership to establish the 2020 Roadmap to Sustainable Indonesian Cocoa.

On the one hand, I feel reassured that we’re making the right strategic choices to push for structural change through multistakeholder approaches, involving farmer organisations, food and retail companies and governments. On the other hand, Changing the Food Game is a sobering read, as it makes clear that there’s no settled pathway, no established checklist. In our work, we’ll always have to prefer to unknown for the known - which is easier said than done.

Jelle Goossens is communications officer at Vredeseilanden/VECO in Belgium