Origin Story Interview W/ Mark Driscoll, Tasting the Future

Origin Story Interview W/ Mark Driscoll, Tasting the Future

Brighter Future

 / 

Nov 22, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #foodsystemschange #foodsystems #consciousconsumption #sustainablefoodsystems #SustainableFood #FoodSystems #RegenerativeAgriculture #HealthyEating #GlobalFoodSystem #FoodInnovation

Brighter Future

We’re here with Mark Driscoll, founder of Tasting the Future. His organisation advocates for healthier, more just, and more sustainable food systems.

Thank you so much for joining us, Mark. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your business?

My name is Mark Driscoll, and I’m the founder and director of Tasting the Future, a sustainable food systems consultancy. We aim to support NGOs, businesses, and governments in transforming their food systems to be sustainable, healthy, and fair. I established Tasting the Future five years ago.

Why do you believe your business matters? And why should companies choose you to facilitate sustainability changes?

Our business is at the heart of the environmental, social, and health crises we currently face in the 21st century, with food systems playing a central role.

These systems contribute one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and are among the primary causes of biodiversity loss. Additionally, we’re witnessing a concerning rise in the number of people suffering from hunger, which currently stands at over 800 million. A billion individuals are experiencing malnutrition, and another billion suffer from overconsumption, obesity, and the consequences of unsustainable agriculture and food systems.

When we consider terrestrial and fish farming systems, we realise that the livelihoods of approximately two to three billion people depend on agriculture. It’s clear that a moral, ethical, and financial imperative exists for the food and beverage sectors to prioritise sustainability at the core of their business models.

These companies need to incorporate sustainability measures to sustain their businesses in the coming five, ten, or fifteen years, as they would have compromised the crucial assets and resources they rely on. Consequently, it becomes essential for them to transition from short-term strategies to long-term visionary approaches that genuinely transform the external context in which they operate.

When did you become more aware of environmental issues and our problems for the first time in your journey?

It started when I was very young, during my childhood. I grew up in a rural community on the Devon-Cornwall border in southwest England. My parents lived in a place right in the middle of the woods, surrounded by agricultural farmland.

As a child, I was always fascinated by nature and wildlife. I used to collect wildlife, which sparked my interest in the natural world. Whilst horrible to think of now, I used to collect beetles and set up moth traps to collect moths and butterflies, which I would pin on boards. I was also captivated by the world of insects, so I created miniature ant homes called former terrariums using glasses, allowing me to observe ants and bees and appreciate their community.

My deep fascination with wildlife and the natural world stimulated my interest in the broader environment. Growing up, especially during my teenage years, I became increasingly concerned about our impact on the natural world. This led me to choose natural sciences, particularly environmental and agriculture, as my areas of study.

During my childhood, I started noticing significant declines in wildlife populations. In the past, the winter skies would darken with flocks of starlings, but they seemed to disappear as I entered my later teenage years. I also observed a decrease in the abundance of butterflies. I lived in an area of Devon with very rare Culm grasslands, ideal habitats for lots of rare species, such as the  Marsh Fritillary butterfly. However, even during my teenage years, I noticed a significant decline in their population.

I soon realised that our farmed landscape, characterised by the removal of hedgerows and woodlands, the loss of wildflower rich meadows, and the use of fertilisers and pesticides, were among the main drivers of this loss of wildlife. This realisation led me to pursue a university degree at Wye College, an agricultural college affiliated with London University, where I focused on rural environmental studies.

After completing my degree, I worked as a countryside manager and warden for the National Trust on the North Devon coast, North Norfolk, and in Hampshire for the first five or six years. In these roles, I focused on conservation, tree planting, and environmental education, all aimed at reversing the decline in wildlife and species in our natural world. Following that, I spent three years in Thailand with Voluntary Services Overseas as an environmental education advisor for the Thai Royal Forestry Department.

Upon returning, I reconnected with my passion for food and agriculture. I spent eight or nine years working with the World Wildlife Fund in the UK where I headed their One Planet Food program. This journey took me from being fascinated by wildlife as a child. You could say my journey is from poacher to protector.

What led you to open your own business five years ago?

Since completing my degree, I have spent around 20 to 25 years working with NGOs and civil society organisations. It's been a while, and it shows my age, but I focused mainly on working with WWF for about eight to nine years. During that time, I led their “One Planet” food program, which aimed to address the environmental, social, and economic impacts of UK food production and consumption.

I became aware of the global implications that our food choices have on livelihoods thousands of miles away. For example, our daily food choices contribute to deforestation in parts of South East Asia or South America, as well as the unequal distribution of food and its associated health impacts. Following my work at WWF, I joined Forum for the Future, another UK-based sustainability organisation, as Associate Director of Sustainable Nutrition.

In this role, I focused on the intersection of health, nutrition, and sustainability, recognising the importance of adopting a food systems perspective. Making minor adjustments wouldn't work; we needed a radical food system transformation. During this time, I gained valuable knowledge and had the opportunity to collaborate with remarkable organisations.

After 20 years of working for other organisations and gaining lots of experience in influencing policy and practice, I decided to set up my own consultancy where I could follow my own beliefs and values. I saw a real opportunity to make a difference in the consultancy field by focusing on food sustainability from a systems perspective.

My goal was to encourage organisations to adopt a long-term mindset and shift away from short-term sustainability strategies. Instead, I wanted them to consider the risks, opportunities and envision a sustainable, healthy food system in the next 10 to 15 years. This shift required embedding sustainability into the DNA of businesses or organisations, moving beyond superficial CSR strategies.

I could support businesses and other civil society organisations and NGOs that were increasingly entering the food systems arena over the past five years. Together, we aimed to implement systemic interventions that would benefit planetary and human health. I employed the concept of ‘sustainable nutrition’ as a lens to guide our actions.

Simultaneously, I established a smallholding on the Herefordshire and Worcestershire borders, spanning 30 acres. Apart from my career aspirations, I wanted a closer connection between my mind, body, and soul. I didn't want to only talk about sustainable food systems; I wanted to engage physically with the process. Toward this end I set up a traditional fruit and nut orchard and collaborated with a local farmer to create a wildflower meadow. Additionally, I planted 10 acres of coppice woodland on my land. These tasks allowed me to reconnect with the land using my head, heart and hands.

Is that your first business, or have you set up other businesses?

This is my first business, so I had yet to experience consultancy.

What was your thought process? Was it a big leap for you to start your own business?

It was a big jump for me. For about 20 to 25 years, I had grown used to working within a company framework, knowing that I had a stable monthly income.

I was aware of the risks involved. So many of my friends and colleagues had ventured into the consultancy world, only to find that work didn't come through for various reasons.

But the timing in my life was right to embrace flexibility and seize this opportunity to challenge mindsets, so to speak. The urgency of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and health issues demand more than tweaking the edges.

Continuing with minor adjustments will only lead us toward climate and biodiversity catastrophes. My main focus was to challenge the productivist mindset and narrative that still dominates the discourse on food system sustainability.

Instead of producing more food with slightly less impact, I strongly believe in transforming our food system. It should be centred on regenerative agriculture, restoring soil health, and replenishing more than we take, all while emphasising sustainable nutrition.

A sustainable and healthy food system that achieves sustainability goals and promotes good health outcomes is crucial. Producing large quantities of sugary, salty, and fatty foods sustainably is of no benefit if they are detrimental to our bodies. We must question the production of such items.

Likewise, suppose we produce large amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables but do so unsustainably, using harmful pesticides and fertilisers that fail to support fair income for farmers or harm planetary health. In that case, we must also reevaluate their production.

So, by going freelance, I sought an opportunity to explore these systemic issues more comprehensively. While this path has advantages, disadvantages, and risks, most of my work has come through collaborations with organisations and individuals I've previously worked with.

I do miss being part of a team and the dynamics of managing a larger group. Going freelance is challenging because you don't always have the same space to exchange ideas with creative and innovative individuals. Nevertheless, you must find alternative means and platforms to engage in such interactions as a freelancer.

Like any task, freelance work has its ups and downs. Sometimes, you find yourself juggling multiple projects simultaneously. In those instances, planning and managing your workload more efficiently is essential.

What were the most significant lessons you learned during those five years as a business owner?

If you genuinely believe there is an opportunity and a market for your freelance work, I encourage you to go for it. Follow your dreams, values, passions, and beliefs. But it's crucial to approach it in a well-planned manner and not rush into it. Seek advice from experienced individuals who have already embarked on a similar journey.

Most of my work has come through the existing organisations I had already worked for and through people I already knew. This provided a cushion and stability during my business's initial three or four months of development.

Communication is important. I blog and use social media to interact and bounce ideas off a larger group of people. While this is valuable for feedback and learning, it may not necessarily attract new business. The majority of my clients come from my personal network and professional relationships.

I also believe it’s beneficial to establish an informal network of fellow consultants and freelancers. This community of practice fosters learning, support, and collaboration. In addition, it has provided me with a space to be open and honest.

As a critical friend and challenger to the organisations and businesses I work with, I am not afraid to provide constructive criticism when necessary. Openness and transparency have been key factors in maintaining successful relationships. Sharing both successes and failures is essential, as it prevents others from reinventing the wheel and allows for valuable learning experiences.

Did you have mistakes during the last five years, or any little setbacks you might like to share?

As a freelancer, you are never sure where money will come from, so accepting projects that may not completely align with your passions and values is easy. This becomes quite obvious very quickly. While saying no to something can be difficult when you're focused on finances, it is important not to do so because it becomes evident later in a project.

Another thing is that projects need to be mandated from the top when I work on sustainability, particularly in embedding it within food and drinks businesses. So often, the sustainability advisors or officers are enthusiastic about taking action. Still, unless the senior management team has agreed, a wonderful strategy might become ineffective because it requires significant resources and time investment within the organisation. So it doesn't really achieve anything.

So it’s crucial to be completely sure and have a conversation with the CEO or the senior management team to ensure their full support for any suggested project or initiative.

Has it ever happened to you before that a sustainability officer approached you, but in the end, the entire strategy was not properly implemented or approved by the CEO?

Yes, it has. I can't mention a specific organisation, but it’s happened several times. But that's why now, when I engage in such talks, it's all about embedding sustainability into the very DNA of any organisation. It should not be viewed as an add-on; it must be at the core of the organisational or business strategy. It becomes the responsibility of everyone, not just the sustainability officer, for instance.

Additionally, I'm involved in various projects, not limited to working with businesses. I actively participate in collaboration projects that tackle complex issues, such as promoting healthy and sustainable diets and understanding the role of livestock in the food system. These challenges cannot be addressed by a single organisation alone.

Thus, civil society must collaborate with businesses, governments, and research organisations to effectively address these challenges. We can operationalise sustainable solutions by identifying opportunities for significant change and pooling resources together.

As a consultant, what would you say the most fulfilling aspect of your work is?

Meeting a wide variety and diverse range of people and organisations is particularly fulfilling, especially considering the global nature of my work. It allows me to gain different cultural and geographical perspectives. As a white middle-class male based in the UK, I have my own values and perspectives. But I am aware that a vast range of cultures exists.

Food, in particular, plays a significant role in celebrating cultural and local diversity across different parts of the world. It helps us understand the traditions and customs associated with different cultures. Food is not just about providing energy; it is a bond that brings communities and families together, even during significant events in the Western world. It is a centrepiece where we celebrate family and life, catching up over a nice glass of wine.

Such traditions are embedded in cultures worldwide, and it is crucial to understand them. This understanding leads to diverse solutions since people come from different backgrounds. For example, food is intricately linked to religious practices across various regions globally. We must be cautious not to impose Western-centric solutions. Instead, we should work with communities to comprehend their cultures, traditions, and what resonates with them in their specific contexts. This approach accounts for the beauty and complexity of our food system.

It is important to engage a diversity of voices in this discussion, extending beyond academia and NGOs. We must include individuals with lived experiences, such as those most affected by decisions made by policymakers at a global or national level. This includes involving farmers, indigenous peoples, the poorest, and the most disadvantaged, so they can actively participate in shaping our food system.

Rather than viewing consumers as passive recipients of food, we should consider them as active citizens who have the power to shape and influence the food system, especially in our increasingly urbanised society. With half the global population residing in big cities, there is a growing disconnect between growing and preparing food. As a result, people are treated as inactive consumers.

To address this, we need to reconnect with food and actively engage in shaping our food system somehow. This aspect of my work is what truly excites me.

Have you made any observations regarding the different cultures and their food systems?

Food is the foundation of all cultures. It is used in celebrations to mark milestones and big religious ceremonies. When I lived in Thailand for three years, I noticed that food was absolutely at the heart and centre of their culture. It had the power to bring families and people together. In some cultures, however, there is still a lack of access to food. The number one priority is to provide food to feed families simply. When you speak to anyone, they want food to be healthy and not negatively impact their local environments or contribute to climate change, and so on. Unfortunately, for many, there is no choice. Their focus is on obtaining any food to alleviate hunger.

There is a real opportunity for food to unite people. But the globalised food system has disempowered many individuals from accessing food and is exaggerating the existing inequalities. Just six or seven global companies dominate the trade in 70 or 80 per cent of our global calories. Similarly, only six or seven globally traded crops provide 60 or 70 per cent of global calories. There are 70,000 edible plant and animal species available. We have shifted from localised cultures that celebrate the diversity of food to relying on packaged imported foods within the same cultures. This shift is largely due to the globalised system, which has focused research and academia on crops like wheat, maize, rice, and potatoes, rather than promoting resilient, diversified crops that can support local communities. There's a whole range of issues to consider in this context.

These numbers are incredibly impressive. Six or seven companies controlling the majority of global calories is shocking. How do the solutions you offer differ when working with Western companies compared to Asian companies? Can these solutions be compared, or are they fundamentally different?

That is why you have to consider the local context because they do differ. For most communities, it is about having access to healthy and nutritious food to generate a decent income to provide for themselves and their families. This enables them to afford education for their children and access good healthcare. So, it's essentially about empowering these communities to make such decisions.

There are numerous challenges involved in this process. The global food system relies heavily on six to eight commodities traded globally. Additionally, many countries have become dependent on heavily processed and pre-packaged foods, often perceived as cheaper but with little health or nutritional value. Each context and situation are unique, making it difficult to make direct comparisons.

In your life path or career path, have you experienced significant “Aha!” moments that have shaped your perspective on your current work?

One of the major moments for me, especially during my time at organisations like Forum for the Future, was realising the complexity of food. It became clear that taking a systems perspective was crucial. There is no single solution within our food system, so it's necessary to collaborate with businesses, companies, and other organisations to focus on interventions and help them map opportunities and manage risks. These efforts will have the most significant impact.

But enacting change is not easy. It requires a radical transformation, often involving the development of entirely new business and organisational models. The biggest obstacle to change is often internal. To shape the external context, influence regulatory frameworks, and collaborate with suppliers and communities to change the food system, businesses must align their internal business and organisational strategies. Conflicting strategies can impede progress.

To truly drive change, businesses need to redefine their vision. What does a sustainable food system look like for them in 15 to 20 years? What are they working towards? By starting with their vision and working backwards, they can determine how to create tangible change in the real world. Unless internal organisational barriers are addressed, it will be challenging to effect change externally. These are some of the most significant lessons I've learned throughout my journey.

What future do you personally envision to help create with your company?

Well, as I mentioned, I always focus on positive visions. And I believe that sometimes the sustainability movement can be overly pessimistic. However, we cannot ignore the fact that we are facing a climate emergency. The chances of keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees, as we have heard, are becoming increasingly remote.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't be in this field if I didn't believe we could make a difference. No individual or organisation can afford to sit back and avoid responsibility. Every person, including myself, needs to take action. The choices we make three times a day with our meals can contribute to change alongside farmers, businesses, investors, and governments.

The sustainability movement requires positive visions of the future that unite us while recognising the diversity of cultures and perspectives. If you were to speak to most people, they would agree that they want a healthy planet for future generations and access to nutritious food for themselves and their families. This sentiment is shared across cultures worldwide.

Despite the diversity of opinions, we can all strive for a common goal, a North Star or vision that brings together different people. The challenge lies in the different approaches and perspectives on how to achieve that North Star. I have articulated my own vision, which involves a regenerative, just, and healthy food system that empowers marginalised communities and shifts the focus from consumers to citizens.

Governments play a crucial role in this transformation, and regulatory changes are essential. But unfortunately, the short-term nature of politics often hinders progress in regulatory change. Unlike companies with CEOs who can develop long-term visions spanning 10 or 15 years, governments face the challenge of catering to the demands of their voters, as they change every four or five years.

As citizens, we can influence and change governments through voting and active participation. In summary, positive visions are essential in shaping the future.

What were the biggest compromises you had to make to get where you are today?

In the early days, it revolved around work-life balance. I have three kids, who are now in their late teenage years. At that time, I often had to travel extensively while working for some of the larger NGOs when my kids were younger.

Looking back, I probably regret not being home more during their early years. It's more of a personal regret than a career regret. But apart from that, I don't have any other career-related regrets. We are constantly learning throughout life until we depart from this earth. Life is an ongoing learning journey, as long as we learn from our past and mistakes. It's about finding that work-life balance and connecting more. I want to get more involved in more of the community and local things where I live.

What advice would you like to give young entrepreneurs who are just starting out in the climate space or people considering creating a business in the climate space?

Well, don't be afraid to be visionary and think big. Nothing is impossible. If someone’s interested in this field, my door is always open. I enjoy speaking to students and those who are embarking on their journey. The issue of food sustainability, for example, will be crucial in the future.

We need young entrepreneurs and innovators who can challenge the current paradigm and promote more activism. So, don't hesitate to think big and fight for your future. However, seeking advice and reaching out to organisations already working in this space is also important. I'm always happy to assist individuals starting on their journey.

When I first started, I faced the common concern of not having enough experience. The truth is, you only gain experience by getting involved and working. Consider starting as a volunteer or intern in this field. It's an excellent way to learn and understand the space and discover the values and passions that drive you as an individual.

Also, as I learned later in my career, it's important to connect your head, heart, and hands. Don't limit yourself to intellectual discussions alone. Dive in, collaborate with local communities, understand their challenges and needs, and utilise a holistic approach that engages your mind, emotions, and actions as you move forward.

If you had one lasting message to share with the entire world, what would it be?

We all have the power to make a positive impact. From our food choices to our actions, we can contribute to a better world. To create a sustainable future, I encourage you to prioritise plant-based foods and reduce meat consumption. When consuming meat, choose products that meet high welfare standards, such as pasture-raised and agroecological options.

Additionally, of course, it’s important to aim to waste less and consume fewer processed foods. Align your food choices with your values: opt for fair trade products if you care about working conditions, and support organisations like the Rainforest Alliance to combat deforestation in South America.

We can all make a meaningful difference by making conscious decisions about food and engaging in local initiatives, like joining a food group or growing your own vegetables— even in small spaces like flower pots or old containers.

Finally, let's embrace hope for the future.

This is very sound advice, Mr. Driscoll. Thank you so much for sharing so much of your story and time with us. From all of us at Brighter Future, we hope Tasting the Future is more successful than you ever imagined in encouraging the development of truly equitable and healthy food systems.

If you’d like to learn more about Tasting the Future, please see www.tastingthefuture.com.

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