What is the role that entrepreneurs have in tackling the challenges facing the global food system and challenging the status quo?

Jun 17, 2019

Here I answer EIT’s question: what is the role that entrepreneurs have in tackling the challenges facing the global food system and challenging the status quo? 

Next week I am delighted to speak and present at the EIT Food Innovation Prize (you are welcome to join!)  and they have asked me to address two burning questions from the European Institution of Food and Technology and StartUp BW:


  1. What is the role that entrepreneurs have in tackling the challenges facing the global food system and challenging the status quo?
  2. Sustainable food business models: how can these entrepreneurs can move forward with purpose and have impact but still make profit


Without out doubt two issues I have questioned myself over many times in my own journey over the years as chocolate maker, cacao farmer and working in sustainable business. In advance of this speech next week, I start to think of the topic and share it with you here today, musing a response about the first question, and would love to see what you think about it.

What is the role that entrepreneurs have in tackling the challenges facing the global food system and challenging the status quo?


‘The role that entrepreneurs…

Firstly, what is an entrepreneur?

I am someone who uses ‘business’ to live my world values and create a meaningful place for my time and effort. Entrepreneur is not a role I chose, rather it is the title given to my choice of tools whereby I choose to bring more goodwill into the world and strive for cacao health, living wage, working conditions, the ability to grow, care for the next generation, growth of organic cacao, a vibrant top and understory in the forest etc.

In the dictionary, I see that entrepreneur is defined by:


When I read this sentence, I see profit akin to achieving the goals I listed above -> goodwill. For me, profit is not defined by the result of revenues minus costs; rather by who and what profits from our collective actions in my business. Looking up the definition of ‘profit’, I find my diamond:


I look at the second meaning first.

It speaks to me most. Profit = advantage, benefit.


Thus, my entrepreneurial pursuits can be in the hope of creating benefit.


What the basic definitions miss, is that YAS factor which we all have in us, the drive to persist as it is never an easy vocation to stick to.

Or as Darren Hardy outlines in ‘The Entrepreneur Roller Coaster’ (ISBN: 0990798623):

'It’s really hard, and you have to do it over a sustained period of time, so if you don’t love it, if you aren’t having fun doing it, and you don’t really love it, you’re going to give up. If you don’t love it, you’re going to fail.'


Thus the element of desire to create this profit / benefit has to be strong.


…tackling the challenges facing the global food system…

There is growing volumes of evidence to suggest that the food system is one of the key levers in climate change. Most notably, the "Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems" detailed the science behind the planetary boundaries and the ‘diets’ in each country that we would need to adapt to in order to feed 10 billion people by 2050.

Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change by contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land-system change. (Willett, Rockström et al. 2019)

What the famed scientist Rockström and colleagues defined was that ‘diets inextricably link human health and environmental sustainability’. It took 19 Commissioners and 18 coauthors from 16 countries in interdisciplinary areas of human health, agriculture, political sciences, and environmental sustainability to co-create important global scientific targets (based on the best evidence available today) for healthy diets and sustainable food production.


When I looked at this, as a food producer, in the field of cacao (for chocolate); I took a heady breath. In fact, I knew it. Life cycle assessments have been completed in chocolate, notably (Konstantas, Jeswani et al. 2018) of the UK confectionary scene and an Italian research  (Recanati, Marveggio et al. 2018) , both pointing to the agricultural aspect of cacao (and sugar and milk) to be the largest contributors to the footprint of a single bar of chocolate (incidentally, mobility via shipping was the second biggest contributor).


The EAT Lancet report indeed caused a giant shift in the industry earlier this year. It pointed out that we need to


1) change our eating habits:

Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, including a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and a greater than 100% increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. However, the changes needed differ greatly by region. (Willett, Rockström et al. 2019)


2) change our farming methods:

With food production causing major global environmental risks, sustainable food production needs to operate within the safe operating space for food systems at all scales on Earth. Therefore, sustainable food production for about 10 billion people should use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

Transformation to sustainable food production by 2050 will require at least a 75% reduction of yield gaps, global redistribution of nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser use, recycling of phosphorus, radical improvements in efficiency of fertiliser and water use, rapid implementation of agricultural mitigation options to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, adoption of land management practices that shift agriculture from a carbon source to sink, and a fundamental shift in production priorities. (Willett, Rockström et al. 2019)


… challenging the status quo.

The EAT Lancet team, who met in a giant event in Stockholm last week https://eatforum.org/ directly appeal to decision makers - from entrepreneurs to influencers. The Lancet team assert that


1) No single actor or breakthrough is likely to catalyse systems change

2) Science and evidence - gathering is essential for change

3) Full range of policy levers, from soft to hard, is needed to leverage it.

 Thus a key point for entrepreneurs to remember is that we need to wrangle not just our own enterprise, however the system at large.  Personally, I experienced this in the last decade. My humble company was organic farming cacao, producing beautiful chocolate bars and selling them at premium price. I achieved the goals quite quickly, however realised that this was a small example of the bigger goals I wanted to achieve. The ‘profit’ as defined by ‘benefit’ above, was a very small sphere in this context. After some years, I realised that for us to create meaningful change, we needed to take our experience in producing the business and actively address broken parts in the system. It was a very conscious decision to keep pushing the boundary from just doing the business of growing cacao and making a consumer product, to digging deeper and creating change in farmer training, village health and living wage in low income areas. Our impact started the grow the moment we went from just making chocolate to sell in a good way, to contributing to science and putting the hard facts around what we had developed in our business experience and offering this as evidence for reasoning to make change. We are still only in the early stages of this. And it is a long journey. After a decade in linear business. Then a decade in social enterprise and now just one year into the world of scientific research for modeling to influence policy; I feel the mountains ahead. Also the difference in just living in our own entrepreneurial world with our own industry and colleagues; to reaching out cross-disciplinary, over different geographies and benchmarking best practices for rice farmer training in South Korea, village upskilling for mulching in pineapple farming in Ghana and the pending climate adaption changes we need to fundamentally make to the whole orientation of how we grow our crop. When I read the advice of the EAT Lancet and found my own self-image in there, I wondered if this was naturally part of the entrepreneurial evolution.  I wanted to go from just influence with my business (we influenced better lives for our farmers with better work conditions, for our customers with high quality food) however I wanted to get into systems change and see this go beyond our hectares and our 100 farmers to looking at what would it take to tip the 5 million people in cacao and chocolate to a better livelihood; and indeed, the consumers who enjoy our product, for a better health?


You know how in life an individual evolves out of ego-centric self interest and slowly into world-view and greater good; I wonder if this is part of the entrepreneurial cycle that can help evolve the status quo? Even if our social enterprises or circular companies are already contributing to ‘benefit’ to earth and social conditions by nature of their existence, to scale it so it contributes to systems change is next level awareness. Perhaps, next-level evolution of the mindful entrepreneur?


In final thoughts, I refer back to 'The Entrepreneur Roller Coaster - by Darren Hardy'   (ISBN: 0990798623) 

'Leadership in the twenty-first century is less about the words that come out of you and more about what exists within you.'


What do you think?

Can business be a force of change in this way?

Do you think that entrepreneurs can grow from their own business view to contributing that experience to world problems?

In my next article, I will answer the second topic posed to me by EIT - 

‘Sustainable food business models: how can these entrepreneurs can move forward with purpose and have impact but still make profit’.

Until then; I would love to hear a first impression from my hypothesis above.

Love to see you in Stuttgart, Germany next week where we celebrate innovations from entrepreneurs bringing positive change to the food  and agri-sector! https://www.eventbrite.de/e/eit-food-innovation-prizes-demo-day-stuttgart-tickets-60861463275?aff=efbeventtix&fbclid=IwAR2slhhPeH8Vbm4qcLfmWcQJW4GVE-f3s8Ya3Wa1UwmDGiGI2aW_uz4U8lg 

Also if you have an event in sustainable business you would like me to support, do let us know. http://www.lyss.land/ 


  • Konstantas, A., H. K. Jeswani, L. Stamford and A. Azapagic (2018). "Environmental impacts of chocolate production and consumption in the UK." Food Research International 106: 1012-1025.
  • Recanati, F., D. Marveggio and G. Dotelli (2018). "From beans to bar: A life cycle assessment towards sustainable chocolate supply chain." Science of The Total Environment 613-614: 1013-1023.
  • Willett, W., J. Rockström, B. Loken, M. Springmann, T. Lang, S. Vermeulen, T. Garnett, D. Tilman, F. Declerck, A. Wood, M. Jonell, M. Clark, L. J. Gordon, J. Fanzo, C. Hawkes, R. Zurayk, J. A. Rivera, W. De Vries, L. Majele Sibanda, A. Afshin, A. Chaudhary, M. Herrero, R. Agustina, F. Branca, A. Lartey, S. Fan, B. Crona, E. Fox, V. Bignet, M. Troell, T. Lindahl, S. Singh, S. E. Cornell, K. Srinath Reddy, S. Narain, S. Nishtar and C. J. L. Murray (2019). "Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems." The Lancet 393(10170): 447-492.