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Listening and compassion in action to transform food systems

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Reflections on a Food Systems Summit Dialogue

On 21st May, the Listening Inspires team partnered with the non-profit organisation “Reboot the Future” to hold a “Food Systems Summit Dialogue” – a contribution to the preparations of the Food Systems Summit convened by the Secretary General of the United Nations in the fall of 2021. The Food Systems Summit Dialogues provide an opportunity for diverse perspectives to come together and explore how to make our food systems sustainable and equitable, thereby accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The process of listening and connecting that occurs in these events is often transformative.

The theme explored in this particular dialogue was Transforming Food Systems with the Golden Rule: from Listening to Action”.

What is the Golden Rule, which our partner Reboot the Future is actively disseminating?

“Treat others and the planet as you would wish to be treated.

This Golden Rule resonates strongly with the foundations of Listening Inspires – namely the invitation to be listening to one’s Self, others and Nature and the promotion of an SDG on Love and Joy. It therefore felt only natural to engage in this partnership.

The curator, Sara Roversi (President of Future Food Institute), opened the dialogue with enthusiasm, recognizing the uniqueness of its focus: the core values that should underpin food systems transformation, which she called “the essentials”. She reminded us that “food is the nexus of society”; it is “nourishment but also connection”. In his opening remarks, guest speaker Jonathan Porrit (Founder and Director of Forum for the Future), emphasized “how valuable it is to look at food systems with the lens of the Golden Rule because it forces us to look at the values”, and “in particular the values of compassion and empathy”. Myra Jackson (Senior advisor to the Earth Law Center, founder of the Global Freshwaters Summit and member of Listening Inspires’ Advisory Committee) added to Jonathan’s invitation to “expand the circles of compassion” and remember our inherent oneness with Nature by urging us to “recognize we are embedded in the living system of a living planetary being” – “one which is intelligent”. “We are called into restoration”, she said, “restoration of our relationship with the planetary being”.

(You can see highlights of their speeches and the recording of the event on

The dialogue came to life when the 60 participants from all continents - including activists, farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs, members of inter-governmental institutions, professors and others – were broken up into 6 groups to debate with passion and enthusiasm one of the following six topics: care and compassion in food systems; reconnecting to Nature; inter-generational solidarity; education; partnerships and dialogue; and “new citizenship for a life economy”.

The messages that came out of the rich interactions echoed and enriched the calls of the opening speakers. “The predicate for all those working in the food system must be one of empathy.” “We need to find ways of extending love and compassion across all levels of the food system”, from the farmer caring for the land to a cook preparing food with love. Participants aspired to see the “mechanisms of inter-relatedness and inter-connectedness” restored. They called for “community, reconciliation and healing”.

Reconnecting to Nature, education, communication, appreciating true value, locally-grounded approaches, respect and inclusivity were central to the recommendations shared by all groups. We invite you warmly to read the detailed official feedback form here.

As we reflected on these outcomes in the Listening Inspires team, we felt – as many also did in the dialogue – that this was only the beginning of the conversation. The outcomes paved the way for more questions:

“What can lead one to be compassionate and what are the obstacles to empathy?” “How can one reconnect with Nature?” “How does one appreciate true value?” “What makes education and transmission impactful?” “What healing is needed: healing of whom, about what and how?”

We reflected on the role of listening – a theme which did not stand out in the group discussion outcomes. Maybe because when we think of solutions, we think of actions – an outward motion of energy. When we speak of communication we think of emitting information more than receiving it. “Tuning in” still feels like a strange - even esoteric - concept.

But don’t compassion and empathy start with listening? Not just listening to the words or sounds, but listening to the tone of voice, to the emotion; listening with our ears, and senses, our gut and our hearts. Listening in a way in which we allow ourselves to feel.

Ah, maybe there lies the rub. Maybe it’s too painful to hear the cries of a child dying of malnutrition, or the despair of farmers seeing their land scorched by drought; the anger of poorly paid daily labourers, or the roar of chainsaws tearing down the rainforests. Maybe the silence of monocultured fields - stripped of birds and other wildlife – or of poisoned rivers is unbearable. Maybe the dilemmas we face in making impossible consumer choices are too discouraging. Our heads spin, our hearts hurt. It’s tempting to close our ears, and our hearts.

And yet, paradoxically, the healing may come from compassion itself. The Dalai Lama tells us in The Book of Joy, the beautiful recording of discussions with his dear friend Bishop Desmond Tutu: “A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.”

It takes courage to feel compassion and apply the Golden Rule. It is helpful here to remember the etymology of the word “courage” in French, derived from “coeur” – the heart. It entails learning to open our heart, allow its fullness – love - to be expressed towards our self, others and Nature.

The Book of Joy also explains that the Biblical Hebrew word for compassion, rachamin, comes from the root word “womb”, rechem. The Dalai Lama often says it is from our mother’s nurturing that we learn compassion. We can extend this notion of a nurturing maternal womb to the Earth itself – “Pachamama” or “Mother Earth” as she is known is so many indigenous cultures across the globe whose teachings are more fundamental to our healing than ever.

Myra’s opening words resonate again here, as she reminded us that food is just one small part of the nourishment the “Planetary being” provides us.

She inspired participants with hope: “Guess what, it’s happening right now. A part of the gruesome and the glorious. With COVID we have seen how far we have separated from a relationship with the Planetary Being. The glorious part is Earth herself is helping us restore relationship. And in the restoration there are parts of the mind that have gone dormant, and the senses that have gone dormant. Part of the listening is about a re-engagement, a firing up of the innate intelligence we carry as a species.”

This event has inspired us more than ever to share the call to be listening, listening in a way that allows ourselves to be transformed, and thereby transformSo watch this space!

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