The purpose of the Sustainable Food Lab (SFL) is to create living examples of mainstream, market-based sustainable food supply chains, "from farm to fork" Launched in 2004, this evolving global Social Lab involves food system actors, including business, government, and civil society leaders, from Europe, North America, and Latin America.
Among the elements of the lab are supply chain innovation projects, peer-to-peer leadership networks, global learning events, and measurement tools. In addition to creating a “laboratory” for the development of prototypes, SFL is working to institutionalise within organisations the conditions needed to support sustainable food supply chains. Members are also considering ways to influence policies based on what is happening “on the ground.” New projects are continually initiated as new needs emerge from the lab. Recently, SFL has begun to develop and test ways to measure and incentivise low-carbon agricultural processes throughout the food supply chain.
SFL is “the largest and most promising systemic change initiative I know of,” says leading systems scientist Peter Senge. Consequently, it is creating a model for other large-scale systemic change initiatives.
Reos Partners co-initiated SFL with the Sustainability Institute and provided leadership, process design, and facilitation from its conception in 2002 through the end of its first phase in 2007. We continue to work as part of the SFL Secretariat, providing event design and management and process support.
Build a cross-sectoral community of leaders.
SFL brings together leaders at summits and on Learning Journeys to reflect on what is happening and what needs to happen in food systems.
Pilot value chain innovations.
SFL is developing new business models for sustainable trading relationships, finding ways in which agriculture can mitigate climate change impacts, and discovering how to re-regionalise food supply sources.
Support and strengthen organisational sustainability strategies.
SFL provides in-house training and coaching.
Some of SFL’s initial projects, which focused on framing, commodity standards, and sustainable fisheries, have been completed or have reached a logical end point. Some were “composted” to support other initiatives. Others continue to flourish with the support of the SFL Secretariat.
Sustainable Livelihoods Initiative
One longstanding project is the Sustainable Livelihoods Initiative, which focuses on improving the competitiveness and sustainability of small-scale farming systems. This program continues to identify and address important barriers to the participation of small-scale farmers in national and international food supply chains.
Two areas of emphasis include creating new business models and building market demand for ethically sourced products. Projects in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic are contributing to a body of work that can be replicated in other food supply chains. With support that the Gates Foundation is providing for the Rainforest Alliance, SFL is creating new market opportunities for bean farmers in Ethiopia, cocoa farmers in Ghana, and produce farmers in Kenya and Uganda.
Important new partnerships and processes
In an example of the productive, ongoing nature of SFL, a Learning Journey held almost three years ago in Honduras recently bore fruit through a collaboration among Sysco, Oxfam, CIAT, and the SFL. Partner communities in Guatemala are planting almost four hectares of broccoli and peas as part of an effort to bring high-value markets to poorer Mayan communities around Lake Atitlan. While it sounds like a small start, the partnership is extremely important, and the processes developed can ultimately be replicated and scaled up.
“The necessity of industry collaboration is clear”
“The necessity of industry collaboration is clear as we consider the inherent complexity of managing biology-based production systems. That's why Mars has joined the Sustainable Food Lab.”
—, global sustainability director, Mars Incorporated
“A who’s-who of what’s going on”
“The people who stuck with the lab are a who’s-who of what’s going on. They are people who are way ahead of the curve, and that keeps attracting more such people along the way. I didn’t ‘get’ [sustainability] at all at the beginning, but I am starting to get it now. People saw potential in me and helped me, so now I feel like a convert and have made this my life’s mission.”
—, large food retailer
“The Food Lab is a safe space”
“The Food Lab is a safe space in which we can admit that we don’t have all the answers—which is a prerequisite to allowing new solutions to emerge.”
—, large food producer
“Being part of the Food Lab is also good for our businesses”
“Being part of the Food Lab is the right thing to do, the good thing to do—for the world. It’s also good for our businesses. There’s a competitive advantage for SYSCO to be involved, but we can’t fully realize that competitive advantage without working together with others in this group to mainstream sustainability.”
—, Executive VP, SYSCO
“The largest and most promising systemic change initiative I know of”
—, author of The Fifth Discipline and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning