Road to Rio

Reading the press coverage of the preparations for the Olympic games in Rio over the last week or so I suppose it is to be expected that the focus is on the sensationalistic bad news stories (the Zika virus, doping scandals, security issues, infrastructure not being ready to name but a few), rather than the fantastic achievement of the teams to get there in the first place never mind be in with a chance of a medal. I mean let’s face it, there’s no news like bad news. And also of course, being a Brit who is lucky enough to live and work near some of London 2012’s venues it probably will feel a little bit flat after the build-up that we experienced back then. That’s despite the best, and somewhat successful, attempts of my friend Jess whose job with the Road to Rio campaign has enabled her to literally be part of the athletes’ journeys and is in Rio as I write. I confess I didn’t watch the opening ceremony live; I can’t do BST-4 and still function the next day, but I have been catching up with it and the events so far on line. I didn’t quite “get” all of the displays, but I don’t expect I was supposed to. It would be a bit like expecting the non-Brits to have understood the significance of the Eastenders drum roll at the opening of London 2012, but I did appreciate the spectacle, the effort and the hard work that must have gone into it. I did, however really love the growing Olympic rings. There was no mistaking the symbolism in that. And then there’s team GB’s performance so far, disappointment for Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome in the cycling (maybe I should’ve shouted louder when they came past me a few weeks ago in a village in France, except I was too busy jumping up and down with excitement!!), still Lizzie Armitstead is there for us with a silver and really chuffed for the swimmers with Adam Peaty not only breaking his own world record in the breaststroke but getting gold too and a silver for Jazz Carlin.

Now where these wanderings are taking me is towards thoughts of change, sustainability and legacies. The London 2012 Olympics has had a lasting legacy of regeneration in key London boroughs with the creation of public sporting venues, enhancement of sports and active lifestyles in primary and secondary schools and funding for elite athletes. For me personally though, the legacy that pleases me the most is the increase in the numbers of ordinary people leading more active lifestyles.

Of course, all this infers that changes have been made and in a sustainable way. With change, and particularly with its onset, comes uncertainty, apathy, cynicism and possibly even fear. None of these are necessarily bad, they make us justify to ourselves and others that the change is good and not just for change’s sake. With the preparations for London 2012 I remember the considerable vocal concerns of the residents of Windsor about the access problems and parking nightmares that would happen as spectators flocked to see the rowing at Eton Dorney, problems which never manifested themselves as it happens.

When I read about Rio and the enormous social and political problems Brazil is facing I can’t help wondering if the promised legacies, the sustainability of improved social well-being, the reduction in crime that was part of their bid can’t even be dreamed of because few permanent changes are actually going to be made.

“So what has all this got to do with the AFTP?” I hear you ask. Well in all fairness, other than a lot of shouting for Team GB from the office, probably very little from the Olympics themselves, but social well-being transformations, sustainability, legacies and change are all our “raison d’ȇtre”. Not only do we have a suite of modules covering sustainability in one guise of another: of supply systems, management practices and social responsibility, livestock production, raw material quality in crops, we have as our vision:

“to educate and challenge food industry professionals to create a culture of sustainable, quality food production that benefits health and promotes a responsible profitable food industry for the future.”

Lovely flannel I suspect some are shouting, but bear with me because actually this comes about from a need to change. You see, I don’t want us to make what we have been doing for umpteen generations sustainable, I want us to do something different. I want us to change. WHAT?

Well, in 2009 there was an enormous piece of work done in which, to cut it really really short, Sir John Beddington reported to the government that

Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food. At the same time, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water….There are dramatic problems out there, particularly with water and food, but energy also, and they are all intimately connected. You can't think about dealing with one without considering the others. We must deal with all of these together."

In other words, business as usual is not an option. If we continue as we are then by 2030 the world cannot feed itself. So we need to implement changes that are sustainable, that have a lasting legacy. The good news is, we are making progress. We in the AFTP (and others too) have been funded to work with the agri-food industry towards making those changes and the signs are that it is already beginning to happen. Not just because of what we teach, but because the industry that we work alongside is putting major effort into listening, talking, suggesting, adapting and most importantly in investing in its people to make these legacies, this sustainability, possible.

Pouco a pouco as the Brazilians would say, but every athlete in Rio was a novice once, some of them not so very long ago, Adam Peaty was once frightened of water and William Fox-Pitt, who is in with a chance of gold in the eventing (the equine equivalent of triathlon), was in a coma 9 months ago.

So while we prepare for the next academic year and eagerly await the new ideas, thoughts, heated debates and exciting small steps that it will bring, we in the AFTP office at least will be shouting loudly for Team GB and the three university of Reading students competing in the rowing, Stewart Innes, Alex Gregory and Sam Townsend, but most of all, hoping that the Rio 2016 games can provide a lasting, positive legacy of social improvement that goes beyond the duration of this year’s Olympic games.

If you are interested finding out more about how diet quality, food production and sustainable practices can benefit health and promote a responsible, profitable food industry then check out these resources.

You can read Professor Sir John Beddington’s “Perfect Storm” report here

Follow Team GB at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games here and read about Sam, Alex and Stewart, University of Reading’s athletes competing in Rio here

Barbara Mason

8th August 2016

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