The definition of food is fundamentally linked to sustainability, since it is consumed to sustain life, recalls Bodo Steiner, professor of food economics at the University of Helsinki. In this sense, he is studying the very fundamentals of life when he researches sustainability in the agri-food chain, in particular how to manage the production, processing and distribution of food and drinks for sustainability.
“Our food chain should be ecologically, financially and socially sustainable, and it is striking that we often have to repeat that all these dimensions are relevant,” says Steiner.
Social sustainability, being the most neglected of the three sustainability aspects, is a particular focus for him. During the past few years, Steiner’s interest has shifted from consumers to food companies and their managers, and particularly to the operations and management issues of companies. He is focusing on the entire chain, from primary production to retail sales.
“We’re trying to better understand relationships in and between food companies in those chains, and what that means for company performance,” Steiner explains.
When we consider a food company with its employees nearby, a vibrant and socially sustainable company should bolster the community in which it operates. This is also in the company’s interests, since a stronger community produces more healthy, happy and efficient employees, who have more initiative.
For example, Steiner has a research project studying the various incentives that companies in the food chain could use to encourage their employees to innovate more, in a more sustainable work environment.
He thinks that three megatrends will continue to radically change food chains: globalisation, urbanisation and, perhaps most radically, an increasing degree of data-driven mass-customisation of products and services.
Steiner believes that the social aspect of sustainability in managing food chains will become increasingly important with rising artificial intelligence and urbanisation.
“Rural areas are falling behind cities in development, and even smaller cities are struggling. However, when we think for example of urban farming, food waste and recycling as opportunities, we need to ask how the food system can contribute to networks and entrepreneurship that helps these areas to remain sustainable”
Networking is also an important part of Steiner’s own research. In his new research group “Food Economics and Business Management for Sustainable Food Systems”, Steiner has begun to focus on varied cooperation with both companies and other research groups.
“One of the benefits of the University of Helsinki is that the walls between disciplines are not so high. We cooperate with health researchers, for example, and we aim to contribute to new University-wide initiatives on sustainability sciences.” says Steiner.
He also wants to emphasise that food economics and business is not just about the things that we eat. Drinks issues are of course equally part of the whole agri-food chain, points out Steiner, who has also studied management and marketing issues in the wine industry.
“Many of the world’s most highly valued food industry brands are related to beverages. They must not be overlooked when we examine the big food chain picture.”