Food sustainability and the importance of frameworks

Food sustainability and the importance of frameworks

July 28, 2017

Food sustainability and the importance of frameworks

Located at the inspirational Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA), the OXY Conference has been a totally open-minding experience on food sustainability and sustainable agriculture. Joined by more than 200 academics in an inspirational campus on top of Los Angeles hills, OXY has been a truly remarkable experience, proving the existing need of assessing and comparing the level and initiatives for food sustainability and sustainable agriculture through food education.

The conference theme was as broad as fascinating: “Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture” invited us to reflect on and engage with the entirety of the Pacific region.  Different speakers, across the four-day conference, drafted a line across roles of people, places, innovations, food production and consumption in shaping the social, economic and cultural food landscapes.

Interdisciplinary food education

The conference was organized by the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS). AFHVS was formed in 1987 and promotes interdisciplinary research and scholarship on the vales, visions, and structures underlying contemporary food systems, nationally and internationally. ASFS was founded in 1985 with the goals of promoting interdisciplinary approaches to food, society, and culture as well. 

Different themes were tackled during the event. Thirty-five panels a day, talking about the entire chain of sustainable agriculture from the land to the table, focusing on agriculture as well as the role of social media in food sustainability and food landscapes, food design and food education. BCFN attended with a representative of its Alumni: an extraordinary opportunity that the foundation gave to a member of this enriching network, with a role focused on food sustainability, to present BCFN works as well as to attend several talks on the topic. 


Sustainable agriculture through data analysis and frameworks

A specific fil-rouge was devoted to data analysis and frameworks. Frameworks are basic structures underlying a system, concept, or text. They are used to define, measure, compare, replicate: they are made to rationally learn. 

An interesting work presented was the sustainability framework introduced by Kansas State University. The challenge launched was: can small-holder farmers have access and control of sustainable agriculture and intensification that increases equity as well as productivity? The authors presented a project that, although not yet published, is creating a framework for evaluating the sustainability of a system, with a particular focus on food. 

It is compelling to see the overlaps between framework and sustainability. Several papers starting from the Eighties have been pointing out how much assessing lifestyle behaviors and impacts can turn out to be critical in behavioural changes. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance explains the tendency to psychologic stabilization which may lead to behavioral change. Once we have a negative score, an assessment or a data visualization about a specific action related to ourselves, the new information will make us psychologically uncomfortable because its actions no longer fit our beliefs. And it works also in relation with others. This comparison actually increases the strength of the resulting behavioral shifting. This is what experts call benchmarking frameworks. Benchmarking is the art of finding out how others do something better than you do, so you can imitate-and perhaps improve upon their techniques. It is nothing new: incremental innovation lies exactly on that, but it is fascinating to see how those concepts overlap with food and wellness choices.

FSI as a benchmarking framework

BCFN Alumni representative was at OXY to present a benchmarking framework: the Food Sustainable Index (FSI). Developed by the Barilla Center Food Nutrition together with the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Index is one of those qualitative and quantitative frameworks we were mentioning before. Focused on three main sustainability pillars (food waste, nutritional challenges and sustainable agriculture), FSI is the result of 58 key performance indicators, scaled 0 to 100 and weighted in terms of importance. The result is a standardized evaluation framework that can be used for food education and can enable every community to assess its own food sustainability level by visualizing impacts, benchmarking, monitoring and consequently improving.


So far the FSI has been applied to 25 countries (G20 countries + Nigeria, Ethiopia, Colombia, the UAE and Israel) and 16 cities (Belo Horizonte, Berlin, Dubai, Johannesburg, Kyoto, Lagos, London, Mexico City, Milan, Moscow, Mumbai, Paris, San Francisco, Shanghai, Tel Aviv, Toronto). There is much more to be done. 

An interesting point is then than being “overall good” does not mean performing well in all the three areas. France for instance is very highly rated in terms both of food waste and nutritional challenges, given the forefront food policy implemented by the government, but it is still ranked pretty poorly in terms of sustainable agriculture. This means that assessing and benchmarking can concretely show where to focus in order to improve.

Chiara Cecchini, BCFN Alumni

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