Gastronomy and systems thinking are a means to face complex development challenges.

Posted 20 de Mayo de 2022

Photo: freepik.com

The menu of challenges in the territory is varied, as traditional as it is uncertain, with no recipes behind it. At the table, parallel dialogues converge and move away in a movement between agreements and discrepancies that falter until the irruption of complexity. Then, an instant of silence reminds us that the table is served and cannot wait any longer.

This blog, which should have begun with the disclaimer "any resemblance to reality is pure coincidence," aims to share how gastronomy can provide some ingredients (not recipes) to nourish the sustainable development goals, from how to transform a country like Peru by eating to how a group of chefs can work with a mayor and UNDP to keep the peace in Thailand's municipalities.

In an agro-exporting country like Uruguay, agri-food chains, which comprise the actions and organizations involved in primary production, food industry & security, distribution and marketing until final consumers, represent key components of our economy. It is even more relevant when connected with the creative and cultural economy, such as gastronomic tourism, which, according to estimates by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), represents 40% of global tourism spending.

For these reasons, together with the UNDP Strategic Innovation Unit, the Agirre Lehendakaria Center, a group of chefs (IMAGO), and the municipalities of Montevideo and Canelones, we embark on a deep demo process to unpack the complex web of dynamics that underpin the food sector – from the relationship with development and equality in communities, and link with the country’s history and heritage, to the energy/resource footprint of production & distribution, and rethink how the sector might drive a different development paradigm for Uruguay.  In territories such as Canelones, recognized as "the farm of Uruguay," and Montevideo, where the Metropolitan Agri-Food Unit (UAM) has been developed, the largest wholesale marketing park for agricultural foods in the country.

We are keen to start this process by ‘listening’ to stories from the communities themselves as to be able to better understand the dynamics that food systems create and are a part of. For example, while 250,000 people in Uruguay don’t have access to nutritious food (according to the organization REDALCO), some 125 million kg of fruits and vegetables are wasted each year. This contradiction was one of the motivations that led this organization to innovate in the UAM through the recovery of fruits and vegetables that would be discarded for reasons of shape, size, color, or excess production, to reclassify and allocate them to social organizations that work with populations in contexts of greater vulnerability. This example and other grassroots innovation initiatives and innovations demonstrate that critical concerns can also be spaces for experimentation that allow complexity to be addressed from different perspectives that account for the underlying problems, such as a city's waste management.

In the case of Montevideo, the final waste disposal site known as Usina Felipe Cardoso is representative of this complexity, bringing together not only environmental but also social challenges. According to the civil organization CEMPRE, more than 600 trucks are received daily to dump 2,000 tons of garbage in the capital. The social dynamics associated with this environment have certain particularities, which caught the attention of anthropologist Patrick O'Hare, who recently published "Rubbish Belongs to the Poor: Hygienic Enclosure and the Waste Commons," an ethnographic study of Uruguayan classifiers and recyclers in the municipal landfill, which reconceptualizes garbage as a form of modern common goods.

Therefore, we are learning and knowing new connections between development challenges, territory, community initiatives, and the knowledge of local organizations, both in our country and globally. For example, in this process of mapping and exploration, we also discover the potential of digital biofabrication, something that may seem distant in time, almost in the future, but is happening in Uruguay through the Open Innovation Laboratory of the Technological University (we’re also inspired by the work of our colleagues in North Macedonia on biowaste). In this area, biomaterials and biodegradable products for sustainable development are explored. These initiatives show that new approaches are possible, and not only from a technological perspective. For example, we learned about the RemixElBarrio initiative that brings together cooperatives of designers/artisans to transform food scraps from restaurants in the Poblenou neighborhood of Barcelona in Spain towards the development of a local ecosystem of circular economy and shared knowledge. On the other hand, urban laboratories such as Green Labs actively work on challenges related to food, water, and waste in cities. These future tracks account for the importance of gathering different collectives and organizations in a systemic approach, not only from the complexity of the problem but also understanding the diversity of people and organizations that can be involved in collective interpretation, from an ecosystem perspective, where multiple roles, experiences, and knowledge are necessary.

As UNDP's Human Development Report 2020 highlights, "human activity, environmental change, and inequality are changing the way we work, live and cooperate." In this sense, the way we produce, process, and consume food also represents and reproduces relationships with the environment and society and existing inequities and opportunities for social cohesion. In the latter case, an interesting example is "My Migratory Recipe," an initiative supported by UNDP in Uruguay that "informs and demonstrates, through food, that Latin American migration is positive, rich, productive and necessary."

Perhaps the most direct associations lie in understanding gastronomy as an engine of development to generate employment and knowledge; increase opportunities for inclusion; encourage tourism, and rescue cultures and traditions. However, it is also possible to see gastronomy as a means of addressing complexity, where we will have much to learn from the creative thinking of chefs and how they can help us face the challenges of development. Perhaps one of the most outstanding experiences that have managed to transcend the kitchen has been the renowned restaurant elBulli led by Ferran Adrià, currently a foundation that has promoted creative thinking, facilitating dialogue with different disciplines and areas such as science, design, or economics, generating spaces for experimentation that allow finding new ways to solve problems.

Therefore, gastronomy connects us with the 17 SDGs and brings us to the table with common challenges. In this way, we invite you to learn about other experiences of the UNDP Accelerator Labs network where initiatives that connect food with development challenges are carried out, such as in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Bosnia, the Pacific Islands, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, South Africa, and Zimbabwe

Finally, we highlight that this blog is part of a series of publications within the framework of the Deep Demonstration process of the UNDP Innovation Facility 2.0 project managed by the Strategic Innovation Unit and supported by the Government of Denmark. For more information, ideas, or initiatives that you would like to share, you can contact us through the mail lab.uruguay@undp.org

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*The generic use of the masculine in this blog responds to the intention of simplifying the writing and reducing the overload in reading. Therefore, it is not intended to constitute discrimination between women and men, which is a concern for this group.*