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Fiona Berry’s Journey Towards Sustainable Food Systems

In an insightful conversation with Fiona Berry, Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, Food Futures explored her journey. Revealing her passionate commitment to addressing food waste, dedication to a systems approach, and understanding of the pivotal role played by peri-urban food systems and local entrepreneurs in shaping sustainable food futures.


Figure 1: Northern Rivers participatory food futures workshop in Ballina

 

Exploring the Inspiration: Journey as a Research Principal:

Fiona commenced her career with a focus on sustainability in the corporate sector, leveraging her Environmental Management degree with a Sustainable Development Specialisation. Reflecting on her early career, Fiona noted, "I had a focus on sustainable urban development and green building and worked on projects with private and government clients in this space for engineering firm Arup ". In 2006, after viewing the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, she moved her focus onto the global challenge of climate change leading her to a placement at Arup’s offices in San Francisco, California, where she immersed herself in climate change consulting. It was at this time; she began to join her partner in his backyard vegetable gardening hobby which sparked an interest in food cultivation. Returning to Australia, Fiona joined the University of Technology Sydney at the Institute for Sustainable Futures and developed “a growing interest in how food was grown, the origins of our food, the nuances of growing it yourself and how to do that”. By engaging in community gardens, obtaining a permaculture certificate, and cultivating food on a larger scale when moving to regional NSW, Fiona was guided into her dedicated research on sustainable food systems. This journey deepened her understanding of the nuances of growing food, its connection to nature, it’s ability to grow community and the importance of food literacy. Today, Fiona focuses on food systems research in the disaster-prone region of northern NSW, delving into regional and peri-urban food systems. The unprecedented floods in 2022 highlighted food security issues, inspiring Fiona's recent study ‘Improving Food Security and Community Resilience in the Northern Rivers’.

 

Inspiration and Passion: The Intersection of Local Food Systems and Food Waste:

Fiona highlighted the 2023 FoodBank Hunger report that highlighted rapidly growing food insecurity in Australia. It also documented that “7.6 million tonnes are wasted per year of food which can fill up the Melbourne cricket ground nine times over” demonstrating the magnitude of the issue of food waste in Australia. Fiona was introduced to the extent of food waste during her ISF research projects for the NSW Government’s ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ program which looked at food waste avoidance at farmers’ markets and festivals and in hospitality businesses. Fiona explained she “was amazed to see that a third of food waste is generated in households, so businesses play a role in this, but it’s significantly focused at a household level”. Fiona further explained her involvement in growing her own food and seeing the time and energy required in generating food. “It gives you an appreciation of what farmers go through, such an appreciation for the time and effort to produce even a small amount in someone’s backyard let alone a large quantity of food”. Additionally, through working in community gardens, Fiona’s permaculture studies and composting in her own backyard to “treat food waste as a high nutrient organic source that can be returned to the earth” has reinforced the importance of a “no such thing as-waste” approach, driving her belief in localising food systems and waste management. The co-benefit is the growing of food with those nutrients, and that food then becomes a connector to build community and bring diverse backgrounds together.

 

Crucial Role of Systems Approach in Addressing Food Waste:

Fiona sheds light on the imperative need for a systems approach when addressing the complexities of food waste and building sustainable food systems. In her recent study, the Northern Rivers Food Security and Resilience Scoping Study, Fiona emphasised the significance of examining the entire food supply chain, from production to processing, distribution, retail, consumption, and the inevitable generation of food waste.


Figure 2: Elements of the Northern Rivers food system from the 2023 Northern Rivers Food Security Scoping Study


Fiona highlights, "considering the system is vital because complex issues are linked, and the actors within a food system are all connected, they can't be considered individually". Her insight underscores the interconnected nature of the various elements in the food system, emphasising that issues like food waste are not isolated to just the farm; they permeate the entire process, from the design of farming through to food growing, processing, distribution and consumption in homes and at restaurants. Fiona shares insights of the systems approach from the Institute of Sustainable Futures' Sydney Food Futures study in 2016 that involved a series of workshops, stating, "The workshop brought together a range of food system actors such as researchers, land use planners and farmers”. ISF researchers facilitated a process where these diverse stakeholders delved into the impacts of development on food producing land, overlaying different scenarios to understand potential outcomes.


Another example of a systems approach to food was the recent Urban Agriculture and Food Futures Roundtable held in Ballina in November 2023 supported by the Northern NSW Local Health District which Fiona co-hosted with Sustain: the Australian Food Network, where researchers, students, food businesses, farmers, food relief agencies, community gardens, food non profits and local and state government officers discussed topics related to food security and food system resilience , fostering collaboration among stakeholders spanning the entire regional food system.


Figure 3: Northern Rivers participatory food futures workshop in Ballina


Fiona advocates for integrated solutions and emphasises the necessity of holistic thinking. Recognising that challenges in the food system are multifaceted, she contends that a systems approach is paramount to fostering collaboration among diverse actors. In a world with rapid global changes, addressing food insecurity necessitates a collective and interconnected approach.

 

Effective Strategies for Building Awareness to address Food Waste:

Fiona has undertaken both desktop research and applied research with communities and stakeholders and emphasises that “food waste is a behaviour change problem which is about people shifting mindsets and valuing food waste as a valuable organic resource”. Reflecting on less effective approaches, she highlights the limitations of certain top-down policies, even if well-intentioned, and mentioned the 'Love Food Hate Waste' program, acknowledging its intent but suggesting it may not have fully addressed the core behaviour change needed. Fiona shares insights from her involvement in the 'Zero Waste Leura' project in the Blue Mountains, which involved collaboration with hospitality businesses to conduct audits of their food waste and the implementation of food avoidance actions to avoid generation of waste. A key success factor, according to Fiona, was the presence of a "strong local champion to lead the way" exemplified by a passionate restaurant that invested in a food waste dehydrator, treating all of their food waste onsite, with the resulting composting being sent to a local garlic farm, who then provided garlic back to the restaurant. Fiona underscores the importance of visible examples, such as at the University of Technology Sydney’s Ultimo campus, where dedicated staff members initiated the idea and eventually installation of a large dehydrator as part of the university's sustainability strategy, turning organic waste into a reusable soil conditioner and ongoing implementation of organic waste separation systems at the Ultimo campus. She notes that visibility can significantly impact people's thinking and behaviour such as clear separation systems and the impactful ‘War On Waste’ TV Show, whose impact was assessed by ISF researchers following Series 2.

 

Fiona highlights the need for food growing and literacy education in schools (including food waste and composting) that require bottom up but also top down policy and regulation to create effective changes.  She volunteers at a local school in Northern NSW running their ‘garden club’ with students to help improve food literacy, nutrition and embed in young minds the idea of food waste as a nutrient-rich resource.

 

Enhancing Food Security: The Role of Peri-Urban Food Systems:

Fiona discussed peri-urban and regional food systems as crucial to food security, as highlighted by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. According to the FAO “55% of people in the world live in cities and 79% of the food that’s produced is destined for cities”. Fiona mentions the importance of peri-urban food systems in line with the FAO and the sustainability goals they advocate for. This includes having food grown closer to the dense populations, lowering carbon miles, reducing transportation costs, and making food production more visible including enabling “community supported agriculture and farmers markets”. Further, Fiona explained “the idea of growing closer to urban centres also builds resilience, there is a lot of perishable foods that could be grown closer to cities such as leafy greens, to reduce the length of the supply chains, especially during disaster scenarios when these supply chains are often severed”. Additionally, as suggested by the FAO and explained by Fiona “food being grown close to urban centres gives opportunity to grow food in schools, residential precincts and community spaces on public land which promotes better nutrition, increases food literacy and boosts people’s understanding of their food origins”. Peri-urban food systems give an opportunity to provide greater access to food whilst being equitable and fair by bringing people closer to their food sources, and improving urban environments through urban greening, and enhancing biodiversity. However, increasing urban development poses a challenge to the food systems and local farming. Addressing the conflict between housing and agriculture is urgent and necessary, particularly as food insecurity rates are on the rise alongside the cost of living and the cost of food (supermarket grocery pricing is currently undergoing an ACCC inquiry).

 

Significance of Supporting Local Entrepreneurs in Reducing Food Waste:

Fiona underscores the critical role of supporting local entrepreneurs in reducing food waste. Her insights, drawn from the Northern Rivers Resilience Scoping Study, reveal that large supermarkets dominate the food supply, which does not translate to supporting the diversification of local food options or food entrepreneurism.



Fiona explained “entrepreneurs innovating is extremely important which can be stifled by having the majority of our food come from a large supermarket. This can reduce the opportunity for entrepreneurs to innovate when it comes to tacking tricky food systems problems such as food waste”. Fiona described “value added products are definitely where it is at for food waste and in the agriculture sector”. Fiona sees immense opportunities in agri-tourism, farm-gate sales, and promoting local food options. She advocates for supporting Indigenous owned and led agri-business, to draw upon traditional knowledge that is often missing in food system planning and policy. Her study in the Northern Rivers found that emerging sectors such as native foods had little support for expansion or Indigenous-led business models.  There is an urgent need to document evidence of the rates of food insecurity of marginalised populations such as low socio-economic households, single parents and Indigenous communities. In the Northern Rivers, there is currently no measure of rates of food insecurity to understand the extent of the problem, and therefore the driver for investing in resources to deliver solutions. Fiona recommends “creating entry points to build food system resilience. If we are localising our farming, localising entrepreneurship and building a circular food economy, that is what we need to be resilient to sudden changes and tackle the problem of food waste”. 

 

Fiona Berry's insights bring into sharp focus the necessity for a holistic systems approach to the problems of food waste and long supply chains. Localised farming, supporting entrepreneurial innovation and treating food waste as a resource are the foundations for a local and circular food economy. The Institute of Sustainable Futures food systems researchers and Resource Stewardship research program are available to support research across industry, government, and community.



 

If you, someone you know or a business, share the passion for creating innovative value+ solutions to reduce food waste, utilise upcycled ingredients, byproducts and waste streams from the agrifood sector, consider joining our Circular Value Program.


Visit our website to learn more or apply to join the program here. Stay tuned for more industry insights as we continue our journey toward a more sustainable and waste-free future.

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