On the menu: Transforming global food systems

Two Steps Forward

On the menu: Transforming global food systems

food systems
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Europe these days is all about food. Not just eating it or shopping for it, but setting the table for its sustainable future.

That’s my assessment from the first half of a two-week European trip. The conversation within organizations and companies I’ve visited suggests that interest and action on sustainable food systems is much riper in Europe than in the United States, and that the next few years will see a rich menu of programs, partnerships and initiatives being launched, not just in Europe but around the world.

For good reason. A mushrooming global middle class — expected to grow from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030, according to the OECD — will be demanding ever-greater amounts of protein and other nutrients. Accommodating them will tax land and water use, especially in a world of an increasingly unstable climate, where reliable croplands stand to become less productive. Modern farming and food production, at least as it is practiced in the United States and other developed nations, is simply too resource-intensive and wasteful to meet the world’s growing needs.

These are longstanding issues, of course, but lately they’ve been getting a fresh perspective. Earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems — which brought together more than 30 leading scientists from around the world to reach a scientific consensus on what defines a healthy and sustainable diet — called for an increase in consumption of healthy foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts) and a decrease in consumption of unhealthy foods (such as red meat, sugar and refined grains) that would provide major health benefits and also help attain some of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The commission’s findings, although not exactly groundbreaking from a nutrition perspective, have been criticized for being founded on outdated science, failing to achieve an international scientific consensus for its dietary targets, and suffering from unrepresentative leadership. Still, the study helped bring much-needed attention to the nexus between environmental sustainability, corporate supply chains and global public health.

So, how do we meet the nutritional challenges of a growing world, and do it sustainably? It will require leaning into a market basket of topics, among them:

  • Climate change, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced by agriculture, mitigating the negative impacts on ag from a changing climate, and ramping up farming techniques that sequester greenhouse gases in soil.
  • Biodiversity, including protecting pollinators and increasing the diversity of food species to increase agricultural resiliency against pests, disease and extreme weather.
  • Food waste, including reducing or eliminating the roughly one-third of food that is lost during production, distribution, storage or consumption.
  • Soft commodities, including achieving net-zero deforestation in producing soy; palm oil; beef; and paper, pulp and timber.
  • Protein diversification, such as consuming more plant-based protein as a means to reduce resource depletion and climate impacts associated with raising livestock.
  • Water, including equitable and affordable access to it, reducing runoff pollution from farming, and accelerating technologies that enable smart water use in agriculture.
  • Nutrition and global health, including reducing obesity, diabetes, heart disease and malnutrition.
  • Improving livelihoods of the 800 million people working in agriculture around the world who live below the poverty line, including many smallholders that are part of the far-flung supply chains of multinational companies.
  • Food equity, including ensuring access to affordable, healthy food for all the world’s people.

To be sure, that’s a lot to bite off. But there’s growing evidence that the world, including both the public and private sectors, has an appetite for change.

Full plate

Case in point: Last week in Geneva, I spent a half-day at both the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Economic Forum. Both groups have made sustainable food systems a centerpiece of its programs.

WBCSD, for example, has a full plate of programs underway, under the umbrella of Food & Nature. Its programs range from circular water management and water-smart agriculture to climate-smart agriculture and FReSH (for Food Reform for Sustainability and Health), an initiative to create a set of business solutions for industry to transform food systems. The organization is also a member of the Soft Commodities Forum, a group of companies committed to eliminating deforestation in their supply chains. 

Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum is focused on Shaping the Future of Food through a range of programs, including New Vision for Agriculture, which aims to bring capacity building and best practices in food and ag to Africa, Asia, India and Latin America. Another program aims to direct the power of technology and innovation towards transforming food systems.

Both organizations see a growing global focus on biodiversity as it relates to agriculture, and both will be increasing engagement with companies, policymakers and allied organizations toward the goal of protecting pollinators and other species that play a critical role in ensuring sustainable food systems.

Circular food systems?

That topic will be a main course at next year’s United Nations Biodiversity Conference — formally, the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP15, in United Nations-speak — taking place in October 2020 in Guizhou, China. Both WEF and WBCSD are working to engage companies and other "non-state actors" at that event — and, possibly, a precursor event as part of September’s U.N. Climate Summit in New York. Other groups likely to play a role are WWF, The Sustainability Consortium and We Mean Business.

There’s also a science-based target for biodiversity being developed by a group called the Science-Based Targets Network, aimed in large part at food and ag companies. More on that in the coming months.

And, later this week, a major initiative on food waste from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and a group of global food companies. Indeed, the circular economy is digging into food issues — and not just waste but also circular and regenerative food system in cities, where roughly 80 percent of food will be consumed by mid-century.

That’s just a taste of what’s on the menu. There appears to be a potential bumper crop of ideas, innovations and initiatives taking root, much of which will affect not just food companies but also those that source other agricultural products, from fibers to oilseeds to resins.

Smart companies will want to be at the table.