Major differences in food system actors’ percpetions of a sustainable food system

What do actors in the Swedish food system view challenges, opportunities, and solutions for a sustainable system? This question was investigated in a new study from Mistra Food Futures. The results show five quite different perspectives, but also several aspects that can contribute to a sustainability transition of the system if they were implemented already now.

With the study, the researchers wanted to highlight whether and, if so, what differences exist and that it is important that research, policy, and actors relate to the differences when questions about what is important in a sustainable food system are being discussed.

We cannot assume that all actors mean the same things when we talk about sustainability in the food system and we need to be transparent about what is meant, says Helena Hansson, program director for Mistra Food Futures and one of the co-authors of the study.

Using the Q Methodology, the researchers first gathered together a number of claims from actors in the food system about what they consider part of a sustainable food system.  The claims were then ranked by the study’s participants, who represented the various parts of the food system.

The researchers then used a statistical method to group the ranking of the claims. From the analysis, the resulting clusters were interpreted as representing different perspectives on sustainability. This yielded five individual perspectives, three of which with key features that can be interpreted, says Helena Hansson.

In the diagnostic perspective, there is a clear focus on reducing the emissions generated by the food system, as well as on reduced meat consumption and waste. In the regenerative perspective, the focus is on biodiversity and diversity in both crops and types of businesses, as well as on quality food rather than on profitability, technology, and global trade. In the fossil-free perspective, emphasis is placed on reducing the dependence on fossil energy, on profitable businesses and on that businesses adapt to climate change.

We also wanted to analyze whether the same type of actors clustered in the same perspective – farmers, process industry, etc. – but this did not happen, says Helena Hansson, and points out that the respondents are not engaged in Mistra Food Futures and have thus not been colored by the program’s way of talking about sustainability, which was important from a methodological perspective.

The study shows that the rankings of the claims differed considerable between respondents. Some of the respondents completely distanced themselves from certain statements and others completely agreed.

If we look at aspects where respondents agree with each other and there is a consensus between the perspectives, those are things that the food system could start with right away. If you do that, this could have an effect quite immediately, says Helena Hansson.

Now the researchers conducts a deeper analysis of the results to develop food system sustainability indicators to assess performance and monitor progress.

Aspects that separate perspectives:

  • The importance of profitability as a basis for sustainability
  • The importance of cultural values of food
  • The importance of livestock production to refine residual products and use resources in areas where it is difficult to achieve profitability in crop production
  • The importance of good opportunities to produce more food with regenerative methods such as those used in organic farming
  • The importance of reducing meat consumption to make Swedish diets more sustainable.

Aspects where there is some consensus in the different perspectives:

  • The importance of reducing the use of soymeal in livestock production
  • The importance of highlighting schools as a key players in teaching about sustainable eating habits
  • The importance of the food system contributing to attractive landscapes
  • The importance of improving food preparedness
  • The importance of focusing on social aspects and water management.

Questions that neither perspective objects to:

  • The importance of more healthy diets
  • The importance of increasing the production of fruits, vegetables and legumes in Sweden
  • The importance of putting more responsibility on the trade to work with the sustainability transition
  • The importance of working with reduced food waste
  • The importance of working with soil health.

Link to scientific publication