A new paper highlights five areas of research and action that require more attention if we are to ensure a sustainable food system transformation.
“Food systems have the potential to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability; however, they are currently threatening both.”
This sentence- the opening statement of the EAT-Lancet Report published last year- perfectly summarizes the views and positions of a growing number of scholars and experts in the world.
Food production is indeed the largest current cause of global environmental change. Agriculture occupies about 40% of global land, and food systems are responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse-gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use. At the same time, hundreds of millions of people are food insecure, with wide-scale undernutrition still occurring alongside increasing prevalence of overweight, obesity, and non-communicable diseases; leading many to conclude: “Our food system is broken, we need to fix it”.
However, like with many other major Anthropocene issues (such as climate change), the scale of the challenge is so substantial that we risk turning to technical solutions as the panacea, and seeing technological innovations as the only way to “fix” this food system issue.
In a paper recently published in Nature Food, a group of scientists argue that while technological innovation will indeed be part of the solution, it is important to better prepare ourselves and acknowledge in particular that the difficulties in fixing our food systems may be less about the technicalities of the changes, and more about the political realities and the social challenges attached to these changes.
They identify five areas where more attention and efforts are urgently needed if we want to operationalize the great food system transformation that is required and ensure its sustainability and acceptability.
Economic and structural costs
First, they argue that we must recognize that fixing food systems will incur not just economic but also technological, social and institutional costs and that these costs (e.g. required changes in land use, in food production practices, storage and processing technologies, food environment, distribution and food waste/loss management) are likely to have significant impacts on different actors – with both losers and winners. Some of the possible actions to offset those costs and generate new economic opportunities could include the formulation of national technical guides addressing some of those issues (e.g. safeguarding land tenure rights), or the provision of discounts to low-income households to purchase fruits and vegetables.
Second, they emphasize the need to recognize that, more often than not, powerful players in the food system (so-called “Big Food”) encourage practices which are not driven by health or sustainability concerns, and therefore that the status quo within the food system will have to be challenged. Potentially disruptive innovations involves strengthening civil society action – for example, the push to clarify the consequences of genetically modified crops; or the use of political consumerism practices such as buying local, organic and sustainably labeled food, or promoting vegetarian or vegan diets.
Diversity of cultural norms
Third, achieving sustainable food systems will also require substantial changes in the food habits of millions of people. These changes may conflict with, or diverge substantially from current or even still-to-emerge cultural or social norms. While respecting culinary preferences, it is important to recognize that social and cultural norms may not always align well with health and sustainability. Altering the choice architecture of food environment can be an effective tool to facilitate change in consumer choices towards more diverse and healthier diets.
Equity and social justice
Fourth, the food transformation debate needs to pay more attention to issues of social justice and recognize in particular that, like with climate change, not everyone is contributing to, and will be affected in the same way by the changes required to operationalize the transition, and not everyone is ready or able to change with the same intensity. Yet it will also be important to avoid promoting the message that “changes involve only high-income countries”. Food systems need to become much more efficient, inclusive, resilient and environmentally friendly in all countries, including low- and middle-income countries.
Governance and decision support tools
Finally, the paper concludes that building the capacities of societies and decision-makers to navigate these different challenges may not be easy but it will be necessary. There is in particular an urgent need to equip decision-makers at all levels with knowledge and skills to operate in this complex space. More data is of course needed, but perhaps more importantly, we need more tools to identify, prioritize, evaluate and navigate trade-offs and diverging/competing priorities.