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Bucky Box: Taking Nature's Cues for Creating a Sustainable Food System

The food system is not a machine, but this is how we have treated it in the last 50 years. With the growth of industrial food production, manufacturing and distribution, we have seen a vast range of short-term benefits and a swathe of longer-term challenges. The ramifications of this highly centralised food system can be seen in some of the well-documented symptoms: Nearly 35% of all food grown globally is wasted; we have a billion obese people in the world, and an almost equal number who go to bed hungry; and around 80% of the world’s hungry are involved in food production. Clearly something needs to change.

To understand how we will feed a growing population with decreasing resources and a changing climate, we must shift our mindset to understanding it is a living system. We can identify and create new opportunities for innovation by acknowledging it is a living system, and designing products and services for that reality.

The blueprint for a sustainable system already exists and indeed is all around us: After 3.8 billion years of R&D, nature has already solved many of the challenges we face, so if we can learn to take more lessons from the natural world we can design better solutions for our own society — doing well by doing good.

Various stakeholders of the food system have radically different ideas as to what ‘food utopia’ looks like. Diversity of opinion is always healthy, but for the purpose of this article, let me clarify how we define a sustainable food system:

  • Nutritious food is available, accessible and affordable to all
  • Mainstream agricultural techniques that have a net positive impact to the environment, especially the soils on which future agriculture relies
  • Diversity in the species we grow, which is fundamental to a resilient food future
  • Ownership of seed should never be controlled for profit maximisation
  • Minimal reliance on unsustainable energy resources for production and distribution
  • Resilient distribution networks that are locally controlled and owned
  • Increasing percentage of food produced as close to demand as possible
  • All waste streams are recycled

Taking a metaphor from nature, flora and fauna that stray into previously barren areas are known as pioneering species, and these characterise a Type I ecosystem; we could draw a comparison with early human pioneers who cleared trees, drained swamps and developed farmland. As Type I ecosystems stabilise and use up the available resources, the species develop into less resource-hungry sub-species, more suited to longer growing cycles in Type II ecosystems. These subspecies create unusable waste streams and prove to be unsustainable in the long term, as they will eventually use up available resources. Comparisons have been drawn between Type II ecosystems and our current human society. 

It is only when collaborative relationships develop amongst species  when waste streams are converted back into energy through closed loops and an intra-generational growth pattern is developed  that ecosystems, and indeed human societies, will achieve Type III ecosystem status, or long-term sustainability.

Looking to these mature ecosystems we see that there is great diversity even within one or two species. Whilst they may share the same DNA, they’re shaped by the surrounding environment and will respond and adapt to the local conditions. Applying this insight to the future of how we distribute food, it’s clear that we need more diversity in our distribution models than simply big-box supermarkets and backyard gardening. Food distribution will need to be more complex, yet more efficient and resilient, if it is going to be sustainable for generations to come.

Armed with this insight, we embarked on a social venture, Bucky Box, to build the digital infrastructure for a sustainable food system. We looked closely at how natural ecosystems operate food webs; they are largely characterised by networked, interdependent systems in which control is distributed. We realized an important step in creating a sustainable food system was enabling grassroots distribution, so we created software to tackle this challenge and make it easier for local farmers to distribute their food to their CSA subscribers.

Complexity does not necessarily emerge overnight. Here at Bucky Box, we knew someone needed to spur the establishment and growth of many more local food distributors, globally. So we designed and launched The Local Food Startup Challenge  a collaborative online project that, in its first month has already seeded new food distributors around the world with a variety of models. A simple change in the business ecosystem has enabled a shift in future distribution models.

The collaborative approach of the challenge seeks to weave together the products, services and support that food distributors need to get their business started and profitable quickly  seed funding, small business support, systems and infrastructure to scale, and publicity. Bucky Box sought partners whose values, products and services aligned with the challenge mission and were keen to offer them to these new grassroots ventures. We put forward licenses for our software and a white paper on the day-to-day operations and business processes for a local food distributor, insights we’ve gained from research and development for our software. Together, these form the DNA of these new distributors, with the flexibility and openness to be shaped by local conditions and challenges  much like the pioneering process of flora and fauna.

We believe there are huge opportunities for all sizes of business to use global leadership to create products and services for social impact. With economic, environmental and social challenges abounding, the timing couldn’t be more appropriate to refocus our global efforts on creating products and services of genuine value for society underpinned by environmentally regenerative techniques and processes. We need to begin to act like a Type III ecosystem.

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