Foto: zVg

Life is change, ever­y­thing is fluid and intertwined.

Every decision we make about our food on a day-to-day basis has a serious impact on the pace at which our climate is changing. Viktoria Schmidheiny and her son Laurenz Werner are interested in people whose projects can bring about a sea change.

Spon­so­redAVINA Stif­tung

AVINA was foun­ded by your husband Stephan Schmid­heiny in 1994. Why did you choose to refo­cus the foun­da­tion when you took over the reins six years ago?

Vikto­ria Schmid­heiny: My inspi­ra­tion actually came straight from the kitchen. After trai­ning as a chef in London, Laurenz star­ted expe­ri­men­ting with diffe­rent dishes. My husband, Stephan, became inte­res­ted and was deligh­ted to get invol­ved. We quickly reco­g­nised that there was huge poten­tial here and spon­ta­neously deci­ded to refo­cus the AVINA Foun­da­tion. In our eyes, food is the ideal issue to focus on – it’s part of all of our day-to-day lives, and we can enjoy helping make the world a better place by adap­ting our food habits.

If we look back at the story of the AVINA Foun­da­tion – inclu­ding the period before the refo­cus – it’s very noti­ceable that you always wanted to bring people toge­ther. What’s your thin­king behind that?

Laurenz Werner: There are plenty of gran­diose ideas and projects around, but their success always depends on the person running them. First and fore­most, we believe in inspi­ra­tio­nal people who lead by exam­ple. I think that’s vital if you want a project to succeed and have the desi­red impact. To achieve a wide reach, we need enthu­si­a­stic people who can inspire others. It’s crucial to find them, support them and bring them together. 

So our focus is on iden­ti­fy­ing the right people. We are very selec­tive. We are looking for people skills and the right values.

VS: Exactly. Simply asses­sing the projects on paper wasn’t ever an option for me. I like to work with people, meet them face-to-face, get to know them. It’s essen­tial for me, so I can under­stand the project partner’s values.

What are AVINA’s values?

VS: We try to live by values such as joy, enthu­si­asm, soli­da­rity and authen­ti­city as well as origi­na­lity and humi­lity and to support those values in the work of the foun­da­tion. Humi­lity feels parti­cu­larly important to me, because it plays a role in the rela­ti­onship between human­kind and nature. 

LW: Today, in parti­cu­lar, as arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence begins to infil­trate our lives, we need to focus more on people and what makes them tick. I believe we are at a hugely signi­fi­cant turning point, and we should defi­ni­tely streng­then our focus here.

VS: It’s crucial that we reco­g­nise and support our inter­con­nec­ted­ness. It’s important to me that we stop looking at ever­y­thing in isola­tion and begin to under­stand the links between food and nature. What’s good for the planet is actually always good for us too. 

You see your­sel­ves as a plat­form for inno­va­tive minds and pionee­ring ideas. Is your approach a colla­bo­ra­tive one? 

LW: Yes, it is. We always try to support an inter­di­sci­pli­nary approach and encou­rage dialo­gue between our project part­ners. For exam­ple, we orga­nise retre­ats where we meet with our project part­ners. These aim to increase inter­di­sci­pli­nary under­stan­ding so that problems can be exami­ned from diffe­rent perspec­ti­ves and new topics opened up.

VS: We get to see our part­ners in a diffe­rent light and find out more about the people behind a project. Last time, we injec­ted mush­room spores into tree trunks. That inspi­red a lot of imagi­na­tion and crea­ti­vity among all the parti­ci­pants – the whole thing’s meant to be fun too. It’s important that there’s networ­king, dialo­gue and inter­ac­tion. We help provide that.

How do your networks function?

LW: They might grow and deve­lop a little more slowly because quality and trust in our project part­ners is very important to us. We value regu­lar dialo­gue. Because the rela­ti­onships are closer, it means you know a lot more about one another, which makes it easier to provide cont­acts – you can have more confi­dence in the people involved.

VS: And, so far, we’re the only foun­da­tion in Switz­er­land to take a holi­stic view on sustainable food. We’d be deligh­ted if more foun­da­ti­ons were to get invol­ved in this area. It’s so exci­ting, and there’s still so much to do!

«We always try to support
an inter­di­sci­pli­nary approach and encou­rage dialo­gue between our project partners.»

Laurenz Werner

How far are you prepared to go when it comes to new forms of food? Are there red lines, for exam­ple, where gene tech­no­logy is concerned?

LW: We’re constantly lear­ning. It’s a process. Where we are today will only reflect what we’ve lear­ned so far. At the outset, we were looking at the new tech­no­lo­gies invol­ved in crea­ting meat substi­tu­tes – lab-grown meat and precis­ion fermen­ta­tion – as the great hope. I still believe that they’re going to play a role in the future, but my suspi­cion is that we could just be tack­ling symptoms rather than the dise­ase here, and they could lead to other problems and unfo­re­seen conse­quen­ces. We want to support projects that make us feel more like part of our planet again. If we reco­g­nise that we are part of nature, it will be easier for us to make decis­i­ons that bene­fit it. But if we see oursel­ves as a sepa­rate, ‘supe­rior’ part, we will never truly under­stand it and we’ll carry on trying to domi­nate and exploit it.

The media are curr­ently report­ing that a lot of soli­da­rity-based agri­cul­tu­ral projects that came about during COVID have failed. Any idea why people are reluc­tant to engage with an expe­ri­ment like this?

LW: It’s a tricky and complex issue. In gene­ral terms, a lot of plans and insights that came about during COVID simply fizz­led out. We had oppor­tu­ni­ties to create a ‘new’ normal, but the system’s iner­tia got the upper hand again. A lot of people enjoyed the slower pace of life during the pande­mic. People redis­co­vered the joy of home cooking and baking, people had to be crea­tive, and that gave rise to new initia­ti­ves. The pande­mic also showed us how much we need to be around other people and how important that closen­ess is, but that aware­ness mostly seems to have fizz­led out again – I some­ti­mes wonder why that is too.

VS: I think we were distrac­ted and fell back into old habits. Even though that brief standstill, the time to pause and take a breath – to slow down – was so liberating.

Vikto­ria Schmid­heiny is a double specia­list. She studied at Vienna Univer­sity Hospi­tal and ran an oral surgery prac­tice. She is Presi­dent of the AVINA Foun­da­tion Board. Her son Laurenz Werner is a nutri­tion coach, perso­nal trai­ner, chef and pâtis­sier. He is respon­si­ble for rese­arch and deve­lo­p­ment on the Foun­da­tion Board. AVINA is an inde­pen­dent Swiss foun­da­tion focus­sing on nouris­hing people and the planet in a circu­lar and balan­ced way.

LW: Exactly, how did we manage to take so little of that posi­tive insight forward?

VS: I think norma­lity crept back in because we lacked vision. At the moment, we’re living in an extreme comfort zone. Any time, anywhere, we can just press a button and order anything – and, even worse, we’re encou­ra­ged to believe that we don’t have enough. Start­ing from this status quo, any exter­nal change will be asso­cia­ted with sacri­fice, so we need a higher vision – one for which we’re prepared to make sacri­fices. Faced with all the infor­ma­tion over­load, we need a filter so we can see which way we should be heading.

Does that also apply to food?

LW: Yes, of course. And we need to deve­lop this vision toge­ther, with the right inten­tion. We need a criti­cal mass of conscious indi­vi­du­als to drive this issue forward and inspire others to bring about a sea change. I think we can all start with oursel­ves and be an exam­ple to others – the more people we convince, the quicker it will happen.

VS: People tend to stick with what they know. They’re afraid of change. But life is change. Ever­y­thing is fluid and intert­wi­ned. Our focus is also chan­ging and moving forward. At the start, we were focu­sed on protein tran­si­tion, which was very exci­ting back then. But, through our process, we learnt a more holi­stic way of looking at things. Today, we’re on a jour­ney that’s helping to show us the extent to which ever­y­thing is inter­con­nec­ted and how stron­gly, for exam­ple, the health of the soil is linked to our own health. 

LW: I still believe that plant-based meat substi­tu­tes will play a role. But today, I see them more as a way of trea­ting the symptoms rather than the root cause. If we just focus on these products, we’ll miss the oppor­tu­nity to change aware­ness. Rege­ne­ra­tive agri­cul­ture will help change attitudes.

A lot of people have lost touch with nature. They find it hard to picture the produc­tion or supply chain for the carrots on their plate. What can we do about this disconnect?

LW: The author and histo­rian Phil­ipp Blom, who we met recently, tells the story of humankind’s domi­na­tion of nature in his book Die Unter­wer­fung [Subju­ga­tion]. It is only by seeing the earth as a single entity and oursel­ves as part of it that we will be able to make decis­i­ons for the whole. Other­wise, we will always exploit nature in some way or another. I believe that we are brin­ging ideas like this to life through some of our projects. Bene­dikt Bösel is a good exam­ple, show­ing the impact you can make by trying to farm in harm­ony with nature. The effects are tangi­ble and reco­g­nisable and I believe that’s the most powerful lever. It’s about piquing people’s curio­sity and getting them inte­res­ted in the issue. 

Will we succeed in comba­ting climate change with innovation?

VS: To use a medi­cal analogy here, the diagno­sis is lagging behind the current process. So we’re always play­ing catch-up. Of course, we need to treat the symptoms too. But at the moment, we’re miss­ing the bigger picture. 

LW: It would be helpful if, instead of seeing inno­va­tion as the deve­lo­p­ment of new products and tech­no­lo­gies, we see it as a change in our mind­set that leads us to behave in a diffe­rent way. So if climate change leads to a change in aware­ness, then we’ve won.

As a doctor, what’s your moti­va­tion for focu­sing on food? How important is the issue of health in your projects?

VS: I reco­g­nised early on how important eating properly is for our health and I’m still stun­ned how little atten­tion is devo­ted to this issue in medi­cine. Rese­arch into the human micro­biome, for exam­ple, is still in its infancy and is reve­al­ing more and more connec­tions between food and various proces­ses in our bodies. And if you take that further and consider how the soil micro­biome is respon­si­ble for the plants’ immune system and how the subs­tances they produce, in turn, bene­fit our immune system, it is clear that ever­y­thing is dyna­mi­cally connec­ted. Isn’t that incre­di­bly exci­ting? Doesn’t it make you long to know more?

Has there been public funding for rese­arch in this area?

VS: It seems to me that it’s an area that’s slowly gaining public atten­tion, and it is clearly important that state funding is made available. Ideally, it would also be a coll­ec­tive effort. Phil­an­thropy is known for its agility and rapid decis­ion-making and could, ther­e­fore, spear­head the deve­lo­p­ment. That would spare the public sector a long, drawn-out pream­ble before it comes to imple­men­ta­tion and scaling. 

LW: Through AVINA, we can work to pique curio­sity about these issues and raise aware­ness as a result. Instead of wasting even more time carry­ing out yet more rese­arch into our demise, we should be feeding our energy into prac­ti­cal action and finally doing something.

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