By Wil Schoenmakers at PA Consulting

Feeding our planet in a sustainable way presents a complex knot of a challenge – one that’s interconnected and seemingly insoluble. One-third of all produced food is wasted, and yet 800 million people are undernourished. Globally, the food industry is the third largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and yet food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the projected population rise.

How did we get here? Food chains have evolved around value efficiency, not planetary protectionism. Food is optimized for cost, choice, and taste – not nutritional quality. And the packaging often used to preserve hygiene and prolong shelf lives adds to the growing mountain of plastics.

In the face of such challenges, it can seem impossible to make inroads. But as with a tangled knot, a seemingly simple incision can be a powerful path to progress. Beyond education, government incentives, and regulatory frameworks, what’s really required with the sustainability challenge we now face is a new attitude.

A mindset shift is needed so that we can embrace, develop, and scale new technologies to solve these challenges. It demands new partnerships, new manufacturing and conversion processes, new business models, and a shift from waste reduction thinking to more circular and regenerative approaches, including viewing waste as a valuable resource.

That’s not to say this is easy. Moving to a more sustainable model is disruptive. It risks core business. And there are myriad challenges: capital investment costs, material performance, shorter shelf lives, customer expectations and behaviors, and moving from idea to scale – all while remaining competitive and profitable. But it can be done. There are three key steps to transforming how we approach feeding the global population while sustaining the planet.

1. Challenge the status quo – create a shared purpose of a better global food system

The way we have done things can no longer continue. We need to move away from the way we’ve done things for decades, if not centuries. Poll after poll tells us that both consumers and investors are looking for products and companies that have a tangible commitment to sustainability.

To drive change, you need to set a clear and unambiguous direction towards more sustainable nutrition. This laser focus is needed to drive to the next level of development, excitement, and funding. This creates momentum around a single, shared purpose that people can live day to day.

Both start-ups and global brands are already taking action here. They’re keen to set out aspirational sustainability ambitions they can shape their brands and organizations around. Take food company Dole, who we’re helping to realize their bold new vision of “sunshine for all.” Dole is re-building its entire organization around wasting less, preserving more, and making nutritious food more accessible to all.

2. Broaden the value chain – expand your view and start collaborating

While we’re increasingly seeing organizations taking responsibility for progress on sustainability in their part of the value chain, breakthrough progress calls for a much broader view of the value chain: how food is grown, the incentives for farmers, and opportunities to re-use packaging and “waste.” This last one is very powerful – that moment when you realize how waste can be used to create technical materials.

As your view of the value chain expands, you may find you don’t have skills across all areas. So, you’ll need to collaborate with NGOs, competitors, peers, start-ups, and other external organizations to define that future.

We work with PulPac, a Swedish start-up replacing single-use plastic with sustainable, low-cost paper pulp. We developed a turnkey manufacturing solution to scale the technology to build a prototype manufacturing platform for PulPac’s patented IP. Previously, the start-up had lacked the resources to industrialize the technology and meet the huge demand of application development. We provided the platform and resources to take products to market. The start-up has since landed three new global fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers as customers, and plans to have 400 machines operating within five years.

3. Make it easy for start-ups to work with you

No single organization can tackle the issues we face alone. This is where we need disruptors. They innovate, challenge current ways of thinking, and generate new proprietary positions without being sidetracked by existing operations. But they’re also young, impatient, ingenious, and under-resourced. They struggle to get noticed or satisfy engagement criteria. Practical barriers such as procurement issues, terms of business, and wrangling over intellectual property stand in the way. All too often, corporates seem to be looking for a thousand reasons to say no, rather than smoothing the path.

It’s much easier to collaborate when you create a dedicated team, a single point of contact sympathetic to the cause and with the required resources. Our experience with start-ups tells us they want to be smothered with people, not love.

Success hinges upon collaboration between incumbents and start-ups, with both needing to apply a less rigid attitude to how things are done.

Where will this take us?

With this new attitude, we can create a new ecosystem of partnerships between food producers, manufacturers, and innovators to reduce food waste, improve nutrition, and use upcycling and recycling technologies. We can create a new dynamic that can embrace and realize opportunity, supporting each other to untangle the knot and achieve real progress together.

Wil Schoenmakers is global head of the consumer, retail and manufacturing consulting practice at PA Consulting.