Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Ruth Richardson of ‘The Global Alliance For The Future Of Food’ Is…

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Ruth Richardson of ‘The Global Alliance For The Future Of Food’ Is Helping To Change Our World

…We need True Cost Accounting worldwide. Simply put, this means understanding the real costs of our food. There are deep and damaging negative externalities of today’s food system that must be addressed, especially from industrial agriculture. These costs are ballooning diet related diseases, environmental contamination, carbon emissions, antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases. We need to address these costs by factoring them into our decision-making, and work to uphold the value that is created when food systems are managed well…

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruth Richardson, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. Ruth was the first Director of the Unilever Canada Foundation, Founding Chair of the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network, Founder and Chair of the Small Change Fund which is a leader in grassroots micro-philanthropy in Canada, and the first Environment Director at the Metcalf Foundation providing a cornerstone to the Ontario sustainable food systems community. As Executive Director of the Global Alliance, Ruth has helped drive the global conversation on food systems transformation, launching a series of seven “calls to action” for food systems transformation. She is playing a critical role advocating for transformative change at the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, held in September virtually and in New York City.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve worked in philanthropy my whole life including work with corporate, community, public, and private foundations. I’ve been blessed to have worked with both new and more established foundations, social profit organizations, and individuals who are deeply committed to developing powerful strategies to tackle some of the most pressing global, national, and local problems of our time. Having established the Unilever Canada Foundation, the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network, and Small Change Fund, I came to join the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

In hindsight the threads that ran through all my various roles were ecological integrity, human well-being, and collaboration with food systems often touching these in important ways. This gave me the skills, experience, and opportunity to join the Global Alliance in 2013. Most of my work had been situated in Canada — from marine conservation to climate change in the context of the Arctic region to our settled southern landscapes — so I was thrilled to be able to take everything I learned here in Canada and apply that to an ambitious global agenda on food systems.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It’s almost impossible to pick the most interesting story, or just one example. Since starting at the Global Alliance, the one thing I would elevate is the incredible array of interesting individuals I have had the fortune to meet and to learn from — everyone from peasant farmers in the high Andes to royal princes and princesses in Europe to inspiring business owners in India to researchers and journalists in Africa. For me, the people I come into contact with are what keep me inspired and motivated.

I would also say that the COVID-19 pandemic has of course had terrible consequences, but our organization recently catalogued a number of food producers that during COVID turned to or doubled down on sustainable approaches and found real success and resilience. Seeing the demand for local, sustainable foods and the way in which small to medium growers and producers have stepped into the breach — that’s been very inspiring.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Fundamentally, we believe that food systems touch and shape every issue facing humanity today. The goal of the Global Alliance is to leverage our resources and networks to help shift food and agriculture systems towards greater sustainability, security, and equity. We believe in the urgency of transforming global food systems, and in the power of working together and with others to effect positive change.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We’re all about systems! So, it’s less one individual and more about overall approaches. Through our work, we connect with people and organizations around the world who are addressing food systems challenges in creative ways. These stories of inspiration point to how initiatives — such as regenerating landscapes, enhancing livelihoods, restoring people’s health and wellbeing, and reconnecting with Indigenous and cultural knowledge — can help us achieve sustainable, equitable, and secure food systems.

I’ll give just one example: we’ve shared the story of Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC), a farmer-led nonprofit based in northern and central Malawi. The organization is unique because it looks at systems and the broader context for how farmers can succeed. In assessing how some villages and food producers are doing compared to others, SFHC looks at agricultural methods. But their genius lies in weaving farmer participation and gender equity with goals of food security, child nutrition, and soil fertility.

They promote something called “agroecology,” which is the application of ecological principles to agricultural systems and practices. But they also address key social and cultural dynamics like questions of power, gender norms, and the uneven distribution of labour in homes. It’s an organization that is focused on sustainable farming, but also on broader related cultural and social contexts.

It’s all about systems.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, we need to start to understand the true cost of our food supply — not just yield per acre or profit for a major food producer, but also the environmental, social, and health impacts of food systems policies and practices in order to inform better decision-making. This includes the overlap between food and issues like climate change, pandemics and even migration.

Second, we need to direct public sector investment and fiscal policy toward ecologically beneficial forms of farming, healthy food, and resilient livelihoods and communities. Areas like “procurement” don’t sound exciting but they are enormously important.

Third, we must increase research for the public good that emphasizes indivisible ecological, health, social, and economic goals. For too long, only research financed by vested interests has dominated thinking about the future of food.

I’ll give two more: We need to unlock investment opportunities in sustainable food systems and align private, philanthropic, and multilateral funders with national food systems actors. And we must ensure inclusive, participatory approaches to governance as a way to address the structural inequities in food systems.

All of these steps are hugely consequential.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. I wish someone had told me about principles! Had I known, and been more adept at determining and applying them, the Global Alliance may have been able to move more quickly toward our collective agenda.
  2. That said, I wish someone had told me not to run too fast. The crises we face are urgent and so we tend to approach them as you would an emergency, which is appropriate. However, sometimes I’ve been working at such a pace I’ve missed the opportunity for deeper learning or important relationship-building.
  3. I wish someone had told me that we will not win because we are right but because we are organized. Tom Brookes, Executive Director, Strategic Communications at the European Climate Foundation, just wrote a brilliant article where he says “It makes sense that most of us think that if we can just communicate our point in a way that someone else understands, then they will accept the fact that we’re right. In reality, however, that does not work (and, indeed, never has). Changing perceptions is more important than winning an argument. A united perception can skip over who is right and who is wrong in pursuit of a mutual objective.”
  4. I wish someone had told me the secret to beating jetlag and moving between time zones effortlessly.
  5. I wish someone had told me how gratifying this work would be, or maybe the gratification is in the discovery. I couldn’t have anticipated how blessed I feel to be able to do the work I do with the people I do it with on issues of such importance at this time in history.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I go back to the third point above — leadership is about being organized, listening deeply, and thinking holistically, for the long-term about how to make change. You can tell I’m all about systems; I believe that effective leadership means building coalitions and working across silos and sectors; changing perceptions and understanding that we’re not going to make transformational change to global food systems overnight.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need True Cost Accounting worldwide. Simply put, as I said above this means understanding the real costs of our food. There are deep and damaging negative externalities of today’s food system that must be addressed, especially from industrial agriculture. These costs are ballooning diet related diseases, environmental contamination, carbon emissions, antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases. We need to address these costs by factoring them into our decision-making, and work to uphold the value that is created when food systems are managed well.

Changing the tools used to assess food systems is an immediate way to take action that promotes human, animal, and planetary health. Simplistic economic productivity metrics like ‘yield-per-hectare’ mean that negative externalities — habitat destruction, soil erosion, water contamination, displacement of Indigenous Peoples, diabetes, and more — go unaccounted for in the final price of food, in policy documents, and on balance sheets (but the price is still paid). This also means that positive impacts — carbon sequestration, insect pollination, resilience to natural disasters, and vibrant communities — are hidden and can’t be enhanced.

​​True Cost Accounting is a systemic approach to measure and value the positive and negative environmental, social, health and economic costs and benefits. It can inform policy making as well as business and investment decisions.

There is an immediate and urgent opportunity to support TCA on a global scale. Late September is the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit, a major global convening focused on food systems transformation. The Global Alliance and our allies have called for a summit outcome and a UNFSS process that commits to measuring the true costs of food and embraces a measurable systems approach with transparency and integrity. We are hopeful we’ll see full and unequivocal commitment to True Cost Accounting at the UNFSS. That would be a big win on a global stage.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve collected quotes and poems since a very young age. One that comes up for me time and again is from the Nigerian storyteller, Ben Okri, who says that “in a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here’s a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”

This has proved true on a profound level both personally and professionally. Our nations are stories, our families are stories, our budgets are stories, our personal goals are stories, our organizations are stories. We live in these stories and, as Okri says, they can give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. So, I always try to observe the stories I tell myself, scrutinize them, and change them if necessary. The life lesson here is perhaps to be careful what you wish for — my kids now call me on this all the time and have been known, repeatedly, to look me in the eye and say, “be careful about the stories you tell yourself.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I am a major fan of the systems-thinker and leading environmentalist Donella Meadows so, if given the chance, I would love to go to lunch with her! Unfortunately, she died young but perhaps we could summon the angels. Her work — especially Dancing with Systems — has held deep relevance for me and my work over the years. She was both a deep systems thinker and an incredibly effective communicator. For instance, she once wrote:

We do not need a computer model to tell us that: we must not destroy the system upon which our sustenance depends; poverty is wrong and preventable; the exploitation of one person or nation by another degrades both the exploited and the exploiter; it is better for individuals and nations to cooperate than to fight; the love we have for all humankind and for future generations should be the same as our love for those close to us. If we do not embrace these principles and live by them, our system cannot survive. Our future is in our hands and will be no better or worse than we make it.”

As relevant in 2021 as it was in 1982. The wisdom and insights imparted through her writing never fail to move and challenge me.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please follow me on @RuthOpenBlue and @futureoffoodorg

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Ruth Richardson of ‘The Global Alliance For The Future Of Food’ Is… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.