Food system transformation needs everyone at the table, experts say

A busy market in Cameroon. Photo by: UN Women / Ryan Brown / CC BY-NC-ND

BARCELONA — Transformations are needed if food systems are going to weather the impacts of climate change and anticipated population increases, according to a report released this past August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which called for an overhaul of current food systems.

Experts say that will also require a change in the current way we are working. In an interview with Devex, David Nabarro, 2018 World Food Prize winner and strategic director at 4SD, noted that as issues such as overconsumption, environmental degradation, and underproduction become increasingly bigger challenges, and as people get more engaged in tackling the problems within food systems, a multistakeholder approach will be essential.

“The real way that the agenda will shift is if we start connecting with people who we don’t normally connect with and get them engaged.”

— David Nabarro, 2018 World Food Prize winner and 4SD strategic director

“It’s really important that we’re comfortable with not being with our usual family and friends,” he said, referring to those who have been working in the food system sector for years and committed to solving the issues.

“But the real way that the agenda will shift is if we start connecting with people who we don’t normally connect with and get them engaged,” Nabarro said, drawing on his 30 years of experience in public health, nutrition, and development work at the national, regional, and global levels.

The IPCC report echoed this, examining how managing land resources sustainably can help address climate change, providing biomass for renewable energy, conservation, and the restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity. However, “early, far-reaching action across several areas is required,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II in the launch press release.

In the past, much of the climate change literature focused on “how climate change will affect agricultural production, and also how agricultural production affects greenhouse gases,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors of the report.

In an interview at the Climate Crisis and the Future of Food gathering on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Rosenzweig explained that the report was “a more integrated look” at food systems — including supply chains, energy use in both pre- and post-production, and the demand side.

“[Country policymakers] can say, ‘With our production, we’re going to breed heat-tolerant crops, for our supply chains, we’re going to make our transport and processing more energy-efficient, and on the consumption side, let’s take a look at our national health guidelines,’” she said. This has been seen already in shifts in public procurement, with healthy diets in schools, potential educational campaigns, and a focus on food loss and waste, she added.

Nabarro agreed: “It is not just about agriculture and production. There are multiple, interconnected systems.”

Getting everyone to the table

Nabarro noted the wide range of different actors engaging with a “food system transformation,” citing the examples of “The Chefs’ Manifesto,” produced in consultation with over 130 chefs from 38 countries, as well as heads of state who have made a real push for food policy changes. Additionally, Nabarro sees a shift in the funding structure of the current food market.

“There are many investors beginning to ask, ‘Do we really want to invest in stuff that is harming people or harming the environment?’” he said.

But then there is another group, he insists: “the ones who we certainly imagine at first sight are not going to be the slightest bit interested, like some of the fast-food companies who get a lot of negative press, or pesticide companies or fertilizer companies. It’s really important that we engage with them as well.”

Whether due to political or public skepticism, these companies are cut out of these conversations, Nabarro said. This represents a big challenge: engaging with a community of people who traditionally are seen as being a part of the problem.

“You could end up with egg on your face because you misjudged it. You could end up being ostracized because you’re talking to them,” he said.

He added that despite the risks, it is important not to cut such companies out of this dialogue, citing some positive changes being made by well-known fast-food companies — for example, by introducing healthier options such as salads into their biggest-selling meal offers, or ensuring supply chains are more sustainable.

These small changes can help to create a ripple effect, which then means developing a new norm, he said: “When 20% shift, the other 80% will follow.”

A new kind of science

While getting the private sector on board with a transformational approach is one potential piece of the puzzle, the science community must also not be left out.

“The best practice now for science is speed and scale, to not work on our own anymore, but to work with the implementers — countries, companies, and NGOs — and provide the science base for them,” Rosenzweig said. She added that scientists would support and measure how effective implementation is in both reducing greenhouse gases and creating more resilient agriculture and supply chains.

But, she warned, scientists have to be on the team from the beginning. She said their role is to document what the baseline is — such as the commercial agricultural greenhouse gas emissions data — and then analyze what's going on, but doing it all in collaboration with stakeholders in a joined-up approach.

“In order to solve climate change, we must create a new kind of science,” she said.

Nabarro on 3 things to watch for in food systems transformation:

  1. Those negatively affected: As the shift away from red meat in some economies happens we have to remember that there will be people who hurt. We must accompany those people, politically and financially, and not leave them stranded.

  2. Accessibility: Watch out for prices being too high for people. A lot of people say we ought to pay more for food to cover the costs of the environmental services used. Fine, but we need to think very carefully that this does not affect people who are less wealthy.

  3. Reward positive changes: Pay countries, communities, and individuals for their contribution to environmental services and mitigating climate change. If they don’t get rewarded for doing good for the rest of the world, they’re not going to be inspired to do it.

Opportunities ahead in the future of food systems

While there are many challenges in the path toward system change, there are also opportunities. For example, instead of increasing the current 11% of the Earth's land surface used in crop production and approximately 50% of total habitable land for agriculture, we could reexamine how it is used.

“There is no need to increase the area of land under cultivation — it is necessary to make sure that what is currently available is used well and what’s degraded is regenerated,” Nabarro said.

He also called for more investigation into highly intensive livestock production, which currently takes up 80% of global agricultural land. “It seems to me that that may not be absolutely essential to the future of humanity, and it has some pretty awful consequences for the environment if it’s not well done,” he said.

Agroecology — an ecological approach to agriculture — and other sustainable patterns of farming also demonstrate potential, he said. Additionally, the movement for nature-based solutions could offer a promising contribution to food systems transformation and the availability and quality of water for production and consumption, according to a recent report from U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. But further research is necessary in terms of impact.

Nabarro noted that there has been a real push for nature-based solutions recently: More than 30 countries, ranging from Costa Rica to Portugal to Fiji, have come on board for “The Nature-Based Solutions for Climate Manifesto” published in August. He is hopeful that this is just the beginning of countries pledging to put nature at the center of their economies and governments.

Above all, the biggest shift could come about due to a change in demand.

“With people increasingly conscious about what food they’re eating and how it’s being produced, that in turn means that food becomes a political priority beyond the environmental movements and goes into mainstream politics,” Nabarro said.

This change in demand is something that Rosenzweig has noticed already, with people particularly responding to the sections of the IPCC report about healthy diets and lowering food loss and waste.

“Climate change has been almost paralyzing for many people … But [the report shows] here’s something you can actually do,” she said.

So is there hope that a transformation in food systems can take place, and at the pace needed?

Nabarro seems optimistic: “This is systems-change work and systems change is political, and can make you feel uncertain, and can bring you up against a lot of adversity.”

“I’m hopeful, but at the same time no one should think it’s easy. When things are tough, you need solidarity.”

About the author

  • Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is a former associate editor and producer at Devex, focusing on climate change and resilience building as the editorial lead of Devex’s Turning the Tide series, and opinions editor for Devex’s Global Views section. With a background in human rights, migration, and sustainable development and design, Helen has written for a variety of international publications in Buenos Aires and Shanghai before moving to Barcelona to study contemporary migration.