Why food systems need to change

Before joining UNEP, I worked in commercial food production and farming in both Europe and East Africa.

The underlying ethos of this work was sustainability within a commercial setting. We had outgrower groups supplying fresh produce for the market. Since joining UNEP, I have seen that while sustainable farming and food production are a fundamental element of a sustainable food future, this is only part of the picture. So, my interest has been in looking at food and agriculture systems as a whole.

Over 820 million people are undernourished. What can we do to improve this situation?

Essentially current food systems are failing us in terms of livelihoods, human health and the environment. We have to look beyond the idea that more food in the world and greater productivity will solve our problems. Local and national food systems need to be strengthened to adapt to the climate crisis and become better equipped to provide diverse diets for consumers in food-insecure communities. Diversity in diets can help farmers diversify their risk, provide markets for food crops, break their dependency on commodity crops, and increase biodiversity and resilience.

While hundreds of millions are undernourished, 672 million people suffer from obesity, and a further 1.3 billion are overweight. How can we change this?

Obesity is an incredibly complex issue. However, there is a clear linkage between current food systems, the food we are producing, its price, and obesity and other non-communicable disease like Type 2 diabetes. What is not helping is that our food systems are dominated by fewer and fewer crops that drive negative food systems’ outcomes. Changing tastes from a growing global middle class, as well as commoditization of our food systems—often shaped by agricultural subsidies—have meant that people are eating less diversely than before. This has resulted in excessive tillage of arable land which is degrading soils, releasing carbon and locking farmers into unprofitable production systems. 

What about agricultural subsidies—are they helping or hindering us?

While science points us in one direction, very often prevailing food and agriculture policies lead us in a different one. The world spends about 1 million dollars per minute on agricultural subsidies that are often driving biodiversity loss and climate change. We see that around two thirds of these subsidies are negatively influencing long-term livelihoods, the environment and our health. We can reprogramme them to regenerate agriculture and restoration, leading to long-term food security and nutrition. There is amazing new technology which helps large funds to help small farmers—through blockchain, for example. So, we have the architecture now to enable even smallholder farmers to access capital, but all kinds of investments are still needed. The unique power of the United Nations is to convene, give very clear policy guidance, encourage market signals and the shifting of fiscal policies.

 How can UNEP help bring about change?

UNEP must advocate for change not only with our traditional partners like environment ministries, but also with other ministries and across the food system, if we want to create “business unusual”. It is no longer enough for one ministry to work in isolation. We have to empower governments to start to look at food and agriculture as something that needs to be addressed by public health civil servants, agricultural policymakers, water and environment ministries, and eventually planning and finance ministries. We are calling this a “food systems approach”. It is easier said than done as people find it easier to work in silos than together. But imagine if food policy was developed by health, agriculture and environment ministries—then the trade-offs and synergies would be immediately spotted and addressed before impact is seen. If we continue to cut away at the nature-based foundation of our food systems through how and what we produce and consume, the human right to food will continue to be eroded.

Developing countries have completely different food systems to developed countries. What does this tell us about global food systems?

Well you would be surprised—while generally developing and developed countries do still have different food systems, the westernization of diets towards more processed and less diverse food is impacting developing countries too. Having said that—yes, these food systems are different: one tends to be highly organized and dominated by large producers, manufacturers and retailers, and the other tends to have mainly smallholders and short supply chains, with more diverse food available in informal markets. However, we have found that analysis of these two food systems can indicate different priorities for action in each country. For example, the priority for food systems action in a developing country might be tackling post-harvest losses and pesticide use, whereas in a developed country it might be land degradation caused by continuous monocropping, or food waste.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food waste costs a global annual average of US$2.6 trillion, or roughly the equivalent of the Gross Domestic Product of France. Halving food waste by 2030 is an objective of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Are there any quick wins in the fight against food waste?

Stimulating better consumer behaviour at home, and while out shopping, coupled with the responsibility to take action by the supermarkets, can have an enormous impact—although I am not sure that can be considered a quick win. 

James Lomax




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