''It's bigger than Ben Hur - but somebody's got to make a start on fixing it.''
Helen Darling has never been one to shy away from a challenge: she was the founding chief executive of Oritain, which pioneered commercial food origin systems. Her latest project is Sumfood where she is driving a rethink of the food ecosystem with a vision of achieving integrity of food supply chains.
It is a venture she has been pondering for about seven years, driven by the need for what she saw as a redress of the food ecosystem. Sumfood was a start-up that wanted to ''change the world'' and fix what she believed was a broken food system.
''I think why nobody is tackling it, it's so very, very big. But somebody's got to make a start. That's what we're doing, is making a start,'' she said. Sumfood aimed to provide information, knowledge and resources to consumers and share that information with producers to enable them to make better choices and prevent food waste and illness.
Dr Darling became interested in whether a tool could be developed to both re-engage consumers with food systems, and provide retailers and producers with real-time useful information to help them improve what they do. The problem was no-one was responsible for the food system - and never would be - and yet everybody was, as they all consumed food.
She got together with some ''clever people'' - data scientists, people with tech backgrounds, along with marketing and public relations, so it could be pulled together as a package. It was somewhat of a virtual model: she had an office in Auckland but continued to be based in Central Otago where she and husband Mike own an orchard.
There were nine in the team, but they used other people around the country as well. That was ''quite a cool model'', enabling a broader understanding rather than being focused solely in Auckland. The aim was to build it as a prototype in New Zealand and then go offshore, as the issues were global.
There were a number of different parts, because the problem was so complex, and a solution was needed for each of those parts. A consumer facing app would be next to launch, later this year.
Dr Darling wanted to flip the traditional food system - from the producer through to the consumer - upside down, and tap into that consumer knowledge to build much more robust future food systems.
Speed and independence were critical. The trends being seen, she believed, were related to lack of knowledge, understanding and insight. Dr Darling was very interested in the rise of alternative proteins; a lot of what people were writing arose from emotive feelings. So she questioned who people trusted for good information and where they went for accurate facts about what was happening in the food system.
Food wastage undermined the world's ability to have enough food in the future. It was ''scandalous'' how much food was wasted through contamination, although not so much in New Zealand.
She believed Sumfood would help good producers and hold to account those who were not so good.
From a personal point of view, Dr Darling said she was in a very lucky space. She was a consumer, but she was also a food producer, so understood the frustrations when consumers were unwilling to pay for what something cost to produce.
Then there was also the likes of her other connections, such as her board position on Crown Research Institute ESR. Despite being largely under the radar until late last year, interest was high in Sumfood, Dr Darling said. Seeing it come to fruition was very exciting and she was looking forward to another big year ahead.
''We're working with good people, passionate people and people that are exciting about driving something different and not afraid to give things a go. We need to fix it because somebody's got to,'' she said.
As was published in the Otago Daily Times on 6 February 2019 https://www.odt.co.nz/business/start-taking-big-food-challenge