David Nabarro, Strategic Director of 4SD Foundation.
I first visited the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, in 2019 to curate dialogues that centred around the unique food systems challenges in Canada. There are complex issues to be tackled when fostering food systems that are beneficial for both people and the planet.
For me, being involved in these dialogues and collaborating with the Arrell Food Institute, led by the charismatic Evan Fraser, has been a transformative experience. So I was delighted to hear, earlier this year, that I had been nominated to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, from the University of Guelph (UoG). I received this degree on Tuesday, 13th June 2023: it was an unforgettable experience and I am privileged to have been awarded the degree. It was the high point in a three-day visit to Canada.
Monday, June 12th
On Monday I was invited by the Arrell Food Institute to curate a dialogue to shape a new project that is exploring the value of innovations in agriculture. Could innovations foster high productivity and nature-positive farming systems that enable both people and animals to have better standards of living?
The dialogue brought together experienced practitioners from different parts of Canadian food systems, including producers of food for different value chains, advocates of agroecology, proponents of biodiversity in farming, and representatives from agribusinesses. It was part of an ongoing series of dialogues designed to encourage the exploration of food systems from diverse perspectives, to investigate the potential benefits and trade-offs of emerging technologies within different food systems, and to assess what is needed to allow for the full potential of technologies to support a more sustainable food system. The dialogues enabled me to appreciate the potential of targeted investments in novel farming systems, especially within farms managed by women from marginalised communities. This reaffirmed, for me, the significance and value of inclusive approaches to food systems dialogues.
Later that day I was interviewed by Evan Fraser for a film about food systems and their transformation. As part of the film, I had an engaging interaction with two senior doctoral students from the University of Guelph, who asked me some hard questions: Emily Duncan, who is a geographer doing research on farmers’ use of technology for sustainable intensification, and Deus Mugabe, who is a Plant Scientist focusing on plant breeding, genetics, and international development. They asked about whether the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit prioritized collective over individual action, and were keenly interested in the potential for integrating systems approaches into scientific education.
In the evening Alice Tamblyn Raine, who is Director of Operations at the Arrell Food Institute, jointly with her twin sons Theo and Thomas, hosted me together with approximately 30 faculty members and students from all over the globe. I enjoyed learning about their different projects, interests, and aspirations. They want to contribute to just, sustainable, and equitable food systems that emit fewer greenhouse gases and are resilient in the face of climate change. It was an inspiring and stimulating evening, setting the stage for my graduation the following day.
Tuesday, June 13th
The graduation ceremony at the University of Guelph on Tuesday involved several hundred women and men. I sensed the grandeur of the occasion as I donned the iconic red robe, and met up with University Chancellor Mary Anne Chambers and University President (and Vice-Chancellor) Charlotte Yates. Chancellor Chambers enthusiastically shared with me the essence of Guelph University’s values, and how both systems thinking and interdisciplinary approaches come naturally to Guelph students and faculty.
Then it was time for me to receive my degree and address the graduating students. I am always apprehensive when giving talks to large groups like this and my nerves were especially active this day. My speech was an opportunity to share my views about the professional skills that are essential for navigating the uncertainties of the future. First and foremost, I underscored the importance of welcoming complexity, and maintaining an exceptional curiosity that drives us to explore, learn, listen, and seek inspiration from the ideas of others. I highlighted the transformative potential of connecting with diverse individuals, as it often leads to the discovery of innovative approaches. I suggested that there really is no alternative to operating collectively and collaborating with others when trying to make things better for all. Then I drew inspiration from the motto of the Guelph Athletics Teams – the Gryphons – and emphasised the importance of caring: the most important characteristic of all.
The graduation ceremony was a joyful and wholehearted affair. Each graduate ascended to the stage to be adorned with an academic hood and be captured in a forever photograph. Witnessing their radiant smiles, I couldn’t help but reflect on the immense amount of hard work and dedication they had invested throughout their academic journeys. It became evident that behind each smile lay a profound sense of accomplishment, reflecting the culmination of countless hours of effort. Throughout the ceremony, I watched as President Yates privately offered a few words of encouragement and support to each student as they graduated. It was a nurturing environment, in which I sensed each graduate was determined to make a meaningful difference: it fostered a sense of belonging with everyone seeking to make a positive impact.
Subsequently, President Yates hosted a reception for the guests at the ceremony. I couldn’t help but admire her genuine concern for the health and well-being of all her students and faculty. I was honoured to be alongside the esteemed Senator Robert Black – with his impressive focus on sustainable agriculture and commitment to completing Canada’s soil survey. I met with Tony and Anne Arrell, who are passionate champions for food security and sustainable food systems. They are the benefactors of the pioneering Arrell Food Institute. Their tireless efforts exemplify the values of the university. Also at the reception was Guelph-based multi-media artist Christine de Vuono whose work celebrates people’s needs for beloved care and lived beauty. Evan Fraser, leader of the Arrell Food Institute, was as warm and welcoming as ever. All these great people left a lasting impression on me: they are powerful and enriching change-makers.
Later on Tuesday, I was interviewed by members of the UK Science and Innovation Network from the British Consulate in Toronto. The interview was conducted by Kathryn Chen, the Head of Science, Innovation and Policy, who was supported by Lucy Whichelo, Media and Public Affairs Officer: they went into the story of my life, the significance of my degree, and work I am doing, at Imperial College, on the impact of climate change on people’s health and wellbeing. Kathryn described her experiences when working with First Nations communities whose lifestyles are being upended by the impact of changing weather patterns. I realized that some of these communities are close to Toronto and directly affected by the devastating forest fires that are burning across the country. As we unravelled the links between climate change and food systems, we realized the urgent need to face up to their meaning and implications.
Wednesday, June 14th
On Wednesday I joined a seminar convened by the Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security in downtown Toronto on ways to help Canadian people tackle food insecurity and alleviate associated health burdens. The programme was well organized by the Centre’s staff: my role was to be the facilitator and I found this to be truly captivating. The focus was on the potential for prescribing food in healthcare settings to reduce the impacts of low energy and nutrient intake on people’s health. The meeting explored options for integrating food prescriptions into federal, provincial, and local health policies.
To ignite the discussion we heard from Jennifer Reynolds, the Co-Executive Director of a group called Nourish. She combines humility with courage: her passionate advocacy for universal food security as a moral imperative in Canada was awe-inspiring. Another starting panellist was Dr Andrew Boozary, the Executive Director of the Gattuso Centre for Social Medicine at the University Health Network. As a primary care practitioner, he was unequivocal about the need to include the option to prescribe food as a component of health care when treating patients who are food insecure. He explained why it is important to tune in to the social and economic determinants of health within Canada. We then had a set of 5 simultaneous facilitated dialogues on issues that need to be resolved if food prescribing is to be expanded. These harnessed the collective energy and ideas of the participants and used techniques with which we are familiar in the 4SD Foundation. It was a constructive and collaborative atmosphere that allowed for meaningful progress in the field of social prescribing.
Big thanks ….
I am super grateful to everyone involved in supporting me on this experience. Special thanks go to colleagues from Guelph, particularly President Charlotte Yates and Chancellor Mary Anne Chambers, as well as Evan Fraser, Alice Tamblyn Raine, Erin Doherty and all the dedicated staff and students from the Arrell Food Institute. The Agri-tech dialogue on Monday 12th June showed great promise. Special gratitude to Erin Doherty who was my guide and support while I was in Guelph.
I am also particularly grateful to Lynda Kuhn, Sarah Stern and Merryn Maynard of the Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security, as well as all the participants in the convening on Food Prescriptions. The meticulous organisation at the event and the Centre’s warm hospitality made my visit a truly memorable and impactful experience. Most of all I thank Faculty and Students at the University of Guelph for such a warm and powerful welcome. I very much hope to stay connected to and collaborate with all of these amazing changemakers and their networks….