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Interdisciplinary research – the key to a sustainable food system?

Changing the way we produce, process and consume food is one of our most critical challenges. Which are the obstacles and opportunities to reach the goal of a sustainable food system? RISE participates in the interdisciplinary research program Mistra Food Futures, studying how Sweden’s food production can be transformed into a sustainable system.

The global food supply accounts for about 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, as the earth’s population is increasing, one-third of the world’s grown food is turned into food waste. Moreover, production and land use lead to an environmental impact on land and water. Therefore, it is urgent to change the entire food industry end-to-end, but how?

The stakeholders in the primary production have pronounced problems to achieve profitability, which limits the opportunities for innovation and development. Who will bear the costs linked to the risk an individual company takes when trying something new? What regulations are needed, what obstacles must be removed, and what are the opportunities to migrate to a resilient system based on existing knowledge?

Research- and industry knowledge gathered in an extensive transformation project

Mistra Food Futures uniquely gathers researchers from many areas: animal science, plant science, medicine, environmental science, ecology, public health science, economics, behavioural economics, entrepreneurship, and technology. For taking a holistic approach to all parts of the food system, there will also be collaborations with authorities, companies, industry organizations and consumers. The goal is to create a platform on existing research, promoting collaboration and innovation in real projects.

No stakeholder or scientific field can do this alone, but together we have unique opportunities!

“By establishing collaborations across several scientific fields and together with the stakeholders, who are all required for the transition, we create a unique opportunity to take a holistic approach to the challenges of the food system,” says Ulf Sonesson, Research and Business Developer at RISE. “Of course, no stakeholder or scientific field can do this alone, but together we have unique opportunities.“

Studying all parts of the food system

As one of three main partners, RISE is involved in several parts of the program and contributes with innovation systems development and leads the early phases of implementations.

“We will work with the entire food system by implementing existing research and knowledge into concrete projects in different parts of the chain,” says Ulf Sonesson.

Some producers have already started conversion projects on their own. For example, Mycorena is building a full-scale plant to produce mushroom protein, Dafgård is investing in a new production line for vegetarian products, Orkla is investing in pea-based products, and Lantmännen is planning a production plant for protein processing. Ulf Sonesson believes, though, that despite those initiatives, more research is required to meet the challenges. For a fundamental transformation to occur, this research must be done in collaboration with all stakeholders.

“In Mistra Food Futures we are using a step by step method which makes it easier for participants from both companies and academia to think outside the box. We are working with different product concepts based on existing knowledge,” says Ulf Sonesson.

Collaboration accelerates change

Maria Hellström, project manager at RISE, works with the implementation part, where knowledge transforms into concrete project proposals. She says that the goal of the projects is to ensure that the transformation towards sustainability begins to get traction in the industry.

“The food chain is so incredibly complex that it´s not possible to implement all the changes at once. The whole system must change, but it must be done piece by piece. However, it is essential to start translating knowledge into action as soon as possible,” she says.

An extensive part of the work is to develop strategies for converting obstacles into levers for system change, for example, policy instruments that already exist or policy instruments that should exist –both within the country and at the EU level. New business models are also needed to ensure that risk and profit are fairly divided during the transition.

“If a Swedish farmer, for instance, wants to start growing soybeans for mince in his fields, it is today the individual farmer who must bear the costs if it turns out that it does not work or the product does not work. An individual stakeholder shouldn’t pay all costs associated with development and conversion. These must be distributed fairly within the system.”

Incentives and tools to do the right things

All partner projects are financed and run by Mistra Food Futures. But stakeholders outside the project can gain access to knowledge by participating in workshops to brainstorm with industry colleagues. For example, the implementation part of the program has worked with a challenge-oriented methodology. Stakeholders from different parts of the food system meet up in small groups and discuss the conditions and requirements that must be met for a specific problem to be solved or a good idea given the conditions to break through. All groups present their identified measures to each other, which means that several different perspectives emerge. Then, together, or individually, they can turn the plans into real projects on their own. The goal is to enable a broader research-based transformation.

“By initiating collaborations and co-creation with both our project partners and external actors, Mistra Food Futures can act as a catalyst to initiate a real change on several levels within the food chain,” says Maria Hellström.

“We can only save the planet if we change what is required for us to have food on the table: breeding, cultivation, industrial processing, packaging, what food choices we make as consumers. I believe and hope that this research program initiates many change processes and gives all stakeholder incentives and tools to do the right things,” Ulf Sonesson concludes

Mistra Food Systems

Core consortium partners

  • Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), program host
  • Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University
  • Research Institute of Sweden (RISE)

Other partners

  • Arla Foods
  • Axfood
  • Coop
  • HKScan
  • Lantmännen
  • Mashie
  • Orkla Foods Sweden
  • Polarbröd
  • Federation of Swedish Farmers
  • Swedish Food Federation
  • Chalmers University of Technology
  • University of Gothenburg
  • Public Health Agency of Sweden
  • Swedish Board of Agriculture
  • Swedish Food Agency
  • Region Västra Götaland
  • Region Östergötland
  • Region Kalmar


Ulf Sonesson

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Ulf Sonesson


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