Back to blog

The Sustainable Food Lab: Eight Years and Counting

Reos Partners
March, 2010


Learn how the Sustainable Food Lab continued to evolve, eight years after its creation, to be a unique, long-term, systemic intervention in food systems.

The global food system is perfectly designed to produce the results it currently produces. In 2002, a group of food system leaders and change agents decided that those results were not good enough. The system was not sustainable for people or for the planet. The group decided that it was a time for change and redesign, and the Sustainable Food Lab (SFL) was born. Now, an eight-year-old project and the first of many large-scale “Change Labs”, SFL is distinguished from other programs by its multi-stakeholder approach, based on action learning and Theory U.

The Sustainable Food Lab was convened to bring corporations, non-governmental organisations, and governments together to accelerate the incorporation of environmental, economic, and social sustainability into the DNA of the mainstream food and agricultural system. To launch the Food Lab, Hal Hamilton and Adam Kahane spent several months interviewing many of the key players of the food system and enrolling them in a new way of working together. In 2004, 32 leaders of organisations representing the Americas and Europe signed on to the project, each committing 40 days of their time over two years. Larry Pulliam, executive vice president of SYSCO, made the following comments about the diverse and unique composition of the Food Lab:

“It’s pretty unusual that fierce competitors like SYSCO and US Foodservice can come together and work for the higher good. The essence, the power, of the Sustainable Food Lab is that we can do one hundred fold, one thousand fold, more together than we can do by ourselves. What we’re doing 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”.

These Food Lab members undertook a series of learning journeys, retreats, and workshops as part of the Change Lab. The process involved action learning and activities that transcended and cut across traditional barriers between parties who do not normally collaborate. The group got out of the meeting room and viscerally experienced the system it desired to shift. Out of this process, the group designed pilot projects to leverage the resources and expertise of the diverse team members. They launched these projects with the intent of having an impact on crucial nodes in the value chain of the global food system, focusing on issues such as farmers’ livelihoods and ethical sourcing policies.

Some of the initial projects, which focused on framing (developing new ways of viewing the food system so that mainstream citizens can connect their values to sustainable agriculture), commodity standards (institutionalising buyer and investor screens for major commodities to drive adoption of better social and environmental processes), and sustainable fisheries (improving market access for small-scale fishermen and developing a model for sustainable aquaculture), have been completed or have reached a logical end point. Some were “composted”, such as the Business Coalition (a partnership of food-related companies formed to identify best practices and to improve the social, environmental, and financial performance of supply chains), to support other initiatives such as the development of healthy value chains. Others continue to flourish with the support of the Sustainable Food Lab Secretariat (Hal Hamilton and Don Seville, directors; Stephanie Daniels, Daniella Malin, and Susan Sweitzer, full time; LeAnne Grillo, Karen Karp, and Joseph McIntyre, part time).

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. In Africa, with support that the Gates Foundation is providing for the Rainforest Alliance, the Food Lab is creating new market opportunities for bean farmers in Ethiopia, cocoa farmers in Ghana, and produce farmers in Kenya and Uganda.

As new needs continue to emerge from Food Lab participants, more projects are being initiated. Recently, the Lab has begun to develop and test ways to measure and incentivise low-carbon agricultural processes throughout the food supply chain.

SFL will shortly host its annual member summit in Costa Rica. Members will explore the impact on businesses of Costa Rica’s commitment to being carbon neutral by 2021, the ecological and social issues in pineapple production, and ecosystem service payment schemes. These annual gatherings give participants a chance to grapple with the issues they are working on in their own organisations face-to-face with “unlikely allies”, to forge partnerships, and to do a “deep dive” into specific themes that warrant further exploration and discovery. Learning Journeys are an important part of each Food Lab meeting. They catalyze conversations, challenge perspectives, and give participants a chance to immerse themselves in the current reality of different aspects of the food system. Lab team members highly value the opportunity to spend intense times with colleagues in seeing the system “from the outside in”; the process often fosters new relationships and new projects.

These collaborative efforts take time, which may, in fact, be one of the reasons the Food Lab is successful. The Lab is an ongoing, long-term, systemic intervention in an age-old system, and while time is not an endless resource, the Lab members are not looking for quick fixes. Just recently, a Learning Journey held almost three years ago in Honduras 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.

In addition to creating the “laboratory” in which living examples of a sustainable food supply can be developed, the Food Lab is also working to institutionalise the conditions needed to support such activities within organisations. Part of the goal is to embed sustainability practices through personal and organisational capacity-building and leadership development. Lab members are also considering ways to influence policies based on what is happening “on the ground”.

The Sustainable Food Lab continues to evolve. Many lessons have been learned about the potential for positive impact of such an undertaking, as well as the challenges that must be overcome. From creating a safe container where people can come together as learners and say “I don’t know”, to building trust and respect across sectors, to taking those first steps and doing something “real” together, to merely developing patience and giving this work the time it needs to fully cook—all of these are crucial to the success of the Food Lab. Peter Senge has called it “the largest and most promising systemic change initiative I know of”.

When the Lab began, the average person and the mainstream media weren’t talking about sustainable food, food security, or ethical sourcing. Now stories appear almost daily. The tipping point for shifting the food system may be within reach. But the impact of the Food Lab goes beyond that one area. As the Lab continues, the knowledge gained from its pioneering work will help illuminate the potential for systemic change whenever diverse groups of stakeholders come together in meaningful collaboration.

Sign up to our newsletter