Industries in Depth

We need a food system that works for everyone, and our planet. This is how we can do it

A boy eats an early Thanksgiving meal served to the homeless at the Los Angeles Mission in Los Angeles, California, November 25, 2015.

Image: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Corinna Hawkes
Director, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

The global food system is in need of an overhaul. Corinna Hawkes, Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University in London, and part of the Global Future Council on Food Security and Agriculture, says it is not just a case of producing more food, but producing healthy food, and ensuring it reaches the people who need it most.

Why do we need this council to discuss the future of food security and agriculture?

The main reason is because we need a transformation of food systems. It’s not just about agriculture but about changing the whole food system so it produces healthier, more nutritious diets for all, sustainably and safely. I am co-chair of the Global Nutrition Report which shows that around a half of people in the world today experience malnutrition in one of its many forms.

My own work has been looking at food systems from the healthy eating perspective, whether people are at risk of under-nutrition, or overweight, obesity, and nutrition-related non-communicable diseases. When you start from the perspective of the eater, you see that the problem posed by agriculture and food security is not just about food production, and not just about producing more sustainably, important though that is. It’s about whether that food is healthy and whether it is actually reaching the people it needs to reach in a form which contributes to healthy and nutritious diets.

How is the system of food security and agriculture changing? What are the forces driving those changes?

There are many. One is the tremendous amount of new technology coming into the system. The question is what technology actually gets adopted and who benefits from it.

A second area of change is around the relationship between production and consumption. What people eat – consumer dietary behaviour – is influenced by what the system produces; but people are also living differently, which means they are eating differently. The trouble here is that there is incoherence between policies which are geared towards trying to encourage people to eat healthier, and policies in agriculture still focused largely on producing more, and policies that don’t do enough to disincentivise food businesses from selling too much of the wrong kind of food.

Another aspect is around who has power in the food system. We’ve moved to a situation over the past decade where large agri-businesses have become more powerful in the sense that they’ve become more consolidated and vertically integrated. That’s all about efficiency, it’s about reducing risk in the system, it’s about trying to generate stability in supply chains. That means they can produce a lot, but there is huge contention around this. There has been real division on which is the best approach for agriculture moving forward that needs to be addressed.

Image: FAO

How important is it to address the issue of inclusivity in the agriculture system?

It is fundamental. It is important to be inclusive. What does that mean? First, it means the people who work in our food systems should be treated with dignity. They produce the food the world eats and we need to include their voices when we are making policies and undertaking practices that affect them. Second, it means that healthy and sustainable diets need to be accessible and appealing to everyone, not just the elites.

Third, it means we need to have space to include very diverse systems of production and distribution. We can have large-scale agriculture and small and medium-scale agriculture, but we need to manage that balance and encourage diverse production in all of those systems. We can have large businesses but we also need innovative entrepreneurship that’s going to create real competition – a race-to-the-top for producing healthy sustainable diets. We don’t want to have a system where some players are so powerful that the barriers to entry are too high and there isn’t space for diversity. Nor do we want a backward-looking system, where we all have to go back to the past. We need a forward-looking, inclusive approach.

What needs to be done to ensure that sustainability is central to a future agriculture system?

First of all, we need to agree what sustainability means! It’s a word that is used in different ways to mean different things. There is a clear definition of sustainable development that came out in the Brundtland report in the 1980s, from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, as the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It’s very clear what it means, it incorporates all kinds of sustainability. We need to look to that holistic definition.

How important is it to address the issue of health and nutrition within the context of the agriculture system?

It is critically important. We are not going to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for health and nutrition unless we are looking at how agriculture operates. At the moment we have incoherence between what we want people to eat and the nature of the food supply system. There are incentives built into the supply system which are not supporting the ability to have a healthy relationship with food and to access and consume a healthy and enjoyable diet. That needs to change.

There are lots of suggestions of what needs to be done but the real core issue is how we do it. In the past we have done it by saying “lets produce our way out of this.” But now is the time to start with people – the eater. We need to ask ourselves: ‘How are people affected by the problems of the food system?’ and walk back into the food system from there; trying to solve problems by understanding it from the perspective of lived experience.

It may sound a bit abstract, but it’s actually a practical way of doing business that is fundamentally different. It’s about looking at unsustainable production and consumption from the perspective of people. And it’s about seeing people as more than just “consumers” in the black box of “demand”, but as people who have needs and constraints in their lives that influence what they eat. So it’s taking a more holistic approach.

What will the system of food security and agriculture look like in 2030?

If nothing changes about the way we are doing our business now, we will continue to have a system that pollutes and warms the atmosphere and sucks out water too fast; we will continue to have a system which produces under-nutrition, overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases; we will continue to have a system which produces unsafe food and in which antimicrobial resistance becomes a bigger and bigger problem; and a system which treats its workers improperly. We may have found some solutions around the edges, tweaks which will benefit certain people and that’s to be welcomed, but we won’t have fundamentally changed the way that the system operates.

How do we avoid that bleak future?

There are many things. The first thing is to connect decision making. At the moment, different people in different parts of the system are making different decisions with perfectly legitimate objectives but that conflict with each other. So we need more coherent decision-making, which is going to require different governance for food both at the international, national and indeed at the local level. It also means businesses need to look across their entire business and ask themselves: how does this action, this practice contribute to healthy sustainable diets? And if it doesn’t, they should rethink it.

It’s only when we start to look at it holistically from people’s perspective that we’re going to create an inclusive system. Of course the food system is in theory a wonderful thing. It produces what we need for human life and human enjoyment and pleasure. We need to make it wonderful again.

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