Michelle Grant: We need to redesign the food system based on solidarity and circularity

Michelle Grant is the founder of The Great Full, a platform that fosters leadership towards just, generative and joyful food systems, communities and lives. She is also part of the Clima Now Spotlight Jury. In the interview she explains what we need to do in order to create generative food systems.

Clima Now   •   06.07.2023

In your opinion, what specific tasks await Switzerland, if it wants to achieve a climate-positive FOODprint? 

We need greater awareness about the connection between food and climate, and we need to move from awareness to action. This shouldn’t focus only on the consumption or production side – I think it is important to understand the food system as what it is: a system.

I see the following as some of the main tasks that await Switzerland when it comes to transforming the food system:

  1. Shifting diets towards the planetary health diet. That means eating in a way that is healthy and nutritious for us as individuals, but also for the planet.  In Switzerland, we have to change a lot to achieve this: we need to eat less meat, along with less dairy products, alcohol and sugar. On the other hand, we need to increase the consumption, and diversity, of seasonal vegetables, legumes, nuts, grains and fruit.
  2. We need more sustainable production systems. This means rethinking what we grow, how we grow it, where we grow it and becoming much more efficient with the resources that we use. And there is no global solution – we have to take the specific local context into account. In Switzerland, for example, we have a lot of permanent grass land, which cannot be used for crop production. If we use that for milk production, how can we make sure to do so in a more regenerative way? How can we make sure that any additional feed needed is not used from crop land that could be used for humans, but from by-products of the food production process, things that would otherwise go to waste? Changing this is also directly connected to shifting consumer demand and to policies that make it attractive to producers to do so more sustainably.
  3. Production and consumption are connected through the food system. We need to redesign the system based on solidarity and circularity. On the social side of the system, we need to understand how everyone involved in producing, processing, distributing, and selling healthy and sustainable food can earn a living wage in the process. Not just here in Switzerland, but as a country that imports so much food, in all the food systems we are connected to. On the natural resource side, we need to think about: how can we go from the linear food system to a circular one? There are studies that show a circular approach can reduce agricultural land use by up to 71% and produce 29% less greenhouse gas emissions per capita, while still producing enough healthy food.

Based on your expertise, what is particularly important if we want to build generative food systems? 

We need to understand it as a system, and a complex one. There are all kinds of interdependencies and if we pull out one thing, we see that it is connected to everything. If we use a specific lens, like CO2 emissions, and we design solutions to tackle this one issue only, it can lead to unintended consequences. For example, negative impacts on social or biodiversity issues. Trying to look through that systematic lens that simultaneously considers both social and environmental aspects can help to transform it into truly generative food system.  That is what I like about approaches like agroecology, that seek to connect these aspects together in both design and management. And we must learn from, and work with, nature. Nature builds generative systems by default, and we humans come along and change that, forgetting that we are actually a part of nature. In nature, we have seasons and cycles. To take an agriculture adjacent example – we sow a seed, it is nourished, it has a period of growth, then comes harvest, then a returning of nutrients to the soil, a period of rest before the whole cycle starts again. This is a circular and cyclical approach. We humans try to live in a linear fashion on a cyclical planet.

We are still working a lot on the surface and not looking at deeper drivers of our unsustainable and unhealthy lifestyles on this planet. If we go down to the roots of the issues we face, it is about reconnect to ourselves, others and the planet and fundamentally rethinking what it means to live generatively for us as humans.

Switzerland is a very rich country. Can it lead the way towards more sustainable food systems? 

In Switzerland, sometimes the discussions make it sound like the country is an island. But it is not – so much food is imported. Around 80% of the land that is used for the food consumed in Switzerland is located outside of Switzerland. More than 70% of emissions caused by the food consumed in Switzerland are emitted outside of Switzerland. We need to use our resources to find a way to take action not only in the country, but also to support systemic transitions where our food is sourced as well.

What would be your message to someone reading this thinking what can I do now concretely as an individual consumer? 

One low hanging fruit is to reduce food waste as much as possible inside our homes, and to compost any compostable waste. This is an easy place to start that can have a big climate impact and a financial benefit. Another is to shift to a diverse, plant forward diet. Those are some individual actions that can also be tasty and joyful. But we need to think beyond individual action, we also need collective action to change the bigger system, as we can’t have sustainability in unsustainable systems.

Where would you like to see systemic change happen? 

I think we have become very accustomed to being able to buy food as cheap as possible. But that price doesn’t reflect the true cost of production – economically, socially, or environmentally. We need to value food differently. We have to appreciate everything that is on our plate and understand that it connects us to people that we are never going to meet, to places that we will never see and to impacts that we may not personally feel. It would help to allocate more time to value and understand where our food comes from as well as to allocate more resources to shift the whole system to understand the real cost of food.

What are you most looking forward to in terms of the Clima Now Spotlight ’23?

Firstly, I was excited to see that it focuses on food, because it is such an important leaver for sustainable change. But I was also excited to see that it focuses on youth. I am looking forward to seeing some fresh, innovative, and optimistic ideas and out of the box thinking, new energy, and motivation in the space. I hope that I can offer some support to help young people bring their ideas to life.

What would you like to share with young people in particular who want to make Switzerland’s FOODprint climate positive?

I had the pleasure to work with a lot of young people, being at the university for so long. Through that, and my own experience, I realized that when we are young, we really have to find that balance between believing in ourselves enough to take bold action and also finding the right support, in the areas we don’t have much experience and can benefit from others.

I have seen a lot of young people with great ideas and motivation, but they also have a lot of doubt in their capabilities and that holds them back from taking action. They wonder if they are missing something or need more experience or validation before acting. In the process of acquiring that they can get disillusioned and their fresh ideas and approaches get worn down.  I think we can bridge this by finding spaces for mutual coaching and mentoring across generations – helping older generations see new ideas and ways to do things, and helping younger generations build the trust and skills they need to be effective in their work to create change.