If you were taken to a new planet, how would you set-up the Food System? This was the question I was asked in an interview on Sustainable Food Systems. It was in preparation for a report coming out in the months ahead. I liked the simplicity of the question. We know the food systems is complex where the job to transform it is overwhelming, and I have also learnt that the answer becomes even more complex the more stakeholders you talk with.
We could ask lots of questions about the new planet. However, let’s assume we are talking a planet like earth with the same population and resources, otherwise we would start to get off track. Also let’s assume we were working within our own earth planetary boundaries and hadn’t expanded… well not today anyway.
Focus 1. Feed a nutritious diet for 10 billion plus people that embraces the diversity of cultural foods. Primary drivers of a nutritious diet being protein and calories.
The global population is expected to exceed 10 billion by 2050, but the planet does not have the resources i.e., land and water to feed that number of people. This situation combined with the challenge of over-and under-nutrition means that the resources we currently use to produce foods needs to be redistributed: Note, not necessarily produce more but the levels we are producing today should be redistributed. This is especially the case when we look at animal protein consumption and the amount of waste we create.
International trade of foods that was built to achieve efficiency, scale, safety, and quality; primarily focuses on foods for a typical western diet and it’s been hard, without specific intentional efforts, for cultural foods to break through to participate in the food system in any sort of significant scale. This has three impacts 1) lack of diversity, 2) loss of food culture, and 3) the eb and flow of food prices influenced heavily by such a few commodities.
What is a nutritious diet? This is a topic we could debate at the individual level, but at the highest population level we are looking for diets with adequate protein, calories, and essential micronutrients. Also, we must consider populations who need special attention: infants, children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and the elderly. From the food systems perspective the nutrition dietary pyramids, in a broad sense, typically got it right, except for an over promotion of animal-based foods in some countries. It’s worth recognizing that in the 2019 IPCC report that eating predominately plant-based foods are a single mitigating factor of climate change, so ensuring the plant-based portion of diet is adequate is important for humanity.
The problem in today’s food system, which is nearly broken/if not broken already, has been that what is nutritious and essential hasn’t drive trade, agriculture, and fiscal policies. You can readily see this when you look at food promotional funds spent by governments, and incentives given to farmers with the predominate going to meat and dairy industries. Nutrition policy, trade and agricultural policy, as well as environmental policy, needs to be aligned to take a whole of food system approach.
Focus 2. Prioritize preserving nature yet at the same time divide remaining land into fields for food where necessary. Ensure sustainable practices are foundational to the way that food system operates.
This would be the toughest area of choice in going to a new planet – making a choice of what land is needed for food as on a new planet that would require negatively impacting nature. However, here on earth we have done too much destruction of the planet already, and so the question becomes how we use what we have now more efficiently, and sustainably, and how we can restore nature where possible.
Science always continues to evolve, and we have a better understanding today then we did in the past, about how to use the land we have effectively to produce food. From regenerative farming to vertical farming, and other sustainable methods, all these new methods need to be accessible to farmers and be a requirement of food production. The good news is that ensuring land can produce for the long term is a mutual interest for all of us, however, the technology, know-how etc. has not always been made accessible to all farmers who need it.
Finally, on our new planet, and here on planet earth, we should relook at what incentives are based on and whether we in fact are incentivizing the right foods. We need to relook at this model and understand the true value of food, which I know that colleagues from the UN Food System Summit are exploring.
As we are talking about value, we also need to look at the way the food industry is valued by investors, and whether that value is aligned to ensuring a sustainable food system that enables humanity in the future.
Finally on the new planet food waste would not be allowed. According to the UN here on planet earth, we waste over half the fruit and vegetables we produce each year, and over 1.3 billion tons of global food is wasted1. This simply cannot continue.
Focus 3. Introduce a policy system that is not primarily based on the western diet, commodities, and that is not discriminatory. Ensure government policies are aligned.
Famously it has been said “Laws are like sausages. It is best not to see them being made.” However, to build the food system of the future we need to understand both, but let’s stick to laws for now: Food means agriculture and agriculture means trade, which is why the food system is governed by policies of the FAO, WHO and states. Food is also included agreements that are given enforcement power under the WTO to make food trade and agricultural trade easier, high quality and safe. These policies, agreements, and subsequent regulations were inspired by the trade of commodities and primarily a western style diet. In turn, these regulatory frameworks then impact many aspects of foods such as labelling and tariffs.
I will give you two examples where the current system isn’t working from a health and sustainability perspective.
Example 1: Labelling – single ingredient foods are exempt from food labelling. This is ok if we are talking about an apple. However, interest groups who are devising green labelling schemes that are directed at meat and dairy, to show resource intensiveness, unfortunately will discover that in fact mostly meat and dairy are exempt from labelling as these foods, are regarded as single ingredient foods. A good example of how these regulations have misdirected consumer perception is in the classic margarine v butter debate. Hands up if you think margarine has trans-fat? Ok, most of you. However, you may be surprised to know that butter contains trans-fat. Margarine manufacturers had to label the contents of trans fat as margarine is not a single ingredient food, so margarine market leaders have removed trans-fat, but butter manufacturers don’t have to label trans-fat.
Example 2: The WTO tariff scheme has been slow to enable the classification of innovative foods, including new plant-based options. This scheme needs to be revised at pace to align with innovation, plus the tariff model must be broadened to consider resource intensity and responsible sourcing.
Focus 4. Embrace and drive technology across the value chain at pace, whether that’s digital farming, green production technologies, diverse food innovation, delivery systems or consumer access to information.
The hypothetical planet, earth, and humanity will need continuous innovation to maximize the efficient use of resources and to feed over 10 billion people. Ensuring access to innovative technology that has sustainability and nutrition benefits, at pace, is essential. At every stretch along the value chain from farming to production, and from diverse ingredient innovation to consumers access to information; innovation is needed. Funding inclusive groups of pioneers and entrepreneurs is essential to drive the scope of technologies we need in the future. There also needs to be funds available from investors and governments to scale green technology and ideas faster than the planet and humanity requires.
What are some “quick wins”:
Towards the end of our discussion, I was asked what the immediate things we should focus on -here on earth- that would make a quick difference, and this was my list of four:
- 1. Policy evolution and alignment.
- 2. Incentive changes aligned with resource intensity.
- 3. Farmers truly prioritized in transformation efforts.
- 4. Ensure consumers receive transparent and accurate information about all foods.
I smile at the end of my discussion with the interviewer as I am not sure this was the advice they were expecting e.g., labelling discrimination and lack of policy alignment. However, if we cannot speak plainly to what we need to do and talk about the elephants in the room, then we do not have a chance at achieving transformation of our earthly food system for humanity’s sake.
- Accessed 17 March 2022. Worldwide food waste | ThinkEatSave (unep.org)