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3 urgent actions to redesign the future of food in 2021

A vegetable seller grabs a handful of indian beans at a street market, in Buenos Aires, Argentina April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian - RC1E29EAF430

Frailties in the production and supply of food have again come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic Image: REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

Sean de Cleene
Member of the Executive Committee, Head of the Future of Food, World Economic Forum
Tania Strauss
Head, Food and Water, World Economic Forum
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  • An additional 130 million people worldwide were facing acute food insecurity by the end of 2020;
  • To overcome frailties in the production and supply of food compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and build "fit-for-purpose" food systems, a systems approach is needed;
  • A more agile and people-first mindset will also help build resilient-ready food systems for this pandemic and beyond.
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At the beginning of 2021, food has found its way back to the centre of the global agenda. The World Food Programme was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the UN Secretary-General’s Food Systems Summit in September 2021 was announced as a people and solutions summit. Yet the looming threat remains that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead us from an economic to a food crisis.

In 2020, the world benefited from a series of good harvests, offsetting major effects on food supply. However, with predictions that an additional 130 million people were facing acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 and with frailties in the production and supply of food increasingly coming to the fore, there is no room for complacency. As we look ahead, it is more important than ever to nurture and scale a portfolio of resilience-ready, healthy and nutritious, inclusive and sustainable solutions for food.

Hunger Map 2020
WFP's Hunger Map 2020 depicts the prevalence of undernourishment in the population of each country in 2017-2019 Image: World Food Progamme

Here’s how:

1. Rewrite the playbook for collective action

The pandemic has shown us the power of unprecedented global action and coordination towards achieving a common goal. Traditional partnerships, while often very effective at addressing specific issues, don’t have the capacity to deliver either the scale of change or to manage the degree of complexity that food systems transition requires.

To build future food systems that are fit for purpose, we need to take a systems approach, develop a multi-stakeholder identity, maintain joint accountability and redesign the incentives and transitional steps to get us there.

The Food Action Alliance (FAA) led by partners from public, private and civil society, farmer and consumer organizations and academia, works to expedite country and region-led partnership platforms in the Americas, Europe, Africa, India and South-East Asia. A multi-stakeholder approach led by local and regional partners allows each partnership to maintain its uniqueness while harnessing the collective capacity of a significantly wider shared outcome at scale.

By embracing complexity and designing for scale, the level of ambition for who can benefit from better functioning, equitable food systems can go from tens of thousands to billions. Think about, for example, the collective power of a hundred million farmers incentivized to adopt regenerative farming practices, not just to reduce the impact on the environment but to undo past damage and allow the sector to be both carbon-neutral and carbon positive. Companies can then drive that as an operating principle through their supply chains and several billion consumers are incentivised to choose healthier, nutritious, zero-waste and environmentally conscious food through a variety of inspiring, transparent and trusted networks and approaches.

2. Move to a smarter, more agile and solutions-orientated mindset

COVID-19 has expedited the need to build resilient-ready food systems. This requires a genuine emphasis on building food chains that benefit everyone, where the risk burden is better shared and assessing how we measure the true cost of food production. Currently, up to 40% of people in rural poverty are directly reliant on food and land use systems for their livelihood and current food and land use systems cause up to 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Overall, hidden environmental, health and poverty costs are estimated at almost $12 trillion while the annualised market value of the global food system is estimated at $10 trillion amounting to a multi-trillion annual loss to society overall.

The pandemic presents a powerful opportunity to redesign food systems so they are genuinely fit for purpose. In this respect, adopting a people-centric, solution-orientated mindset is more important than ever in order to build new forms of dynamic collaboration across sectors. That open and collaborative approach, which reframes the purpose from the outset to problem-solve together in a collective, systemic way and work with and for people, could unleash a new generation of business and organizational models, social/environmental tools and services, as well as individual and institutional systems leadership.

Actions taken to protect and restore food systems will also have to be smarter. The current crisis has underscored the necessity to retool the entire food system to enable digitalization and data-driven transformation. Data from satellite and geospatial operators, ICT and telecommunications providers, e-commerce and logistics companies and finance providers can be brought to bear.

During the onset of the pandemic, for example, the Kenyan government established a cross-ministry and cross-sector data-driven food security war room. This allowed digital tools to be deployed in real-time to collect data which informed the response and recovery to COVID-19 and its impact on food supply, as well as to a series of compounded simultaneous threats, including a disastrous locust plague and extreme weather-induced flooding.


The complex and fragmented nature of food systems is a crucial challenge in itself. Leaders can start simply (or specifically in carbon soil sequestration) but be innovative, agile and bold. This could mean collectively developing a “good enough”, proxy open-data solution and transitional financing mechanism, whereby millions of farmers could initially be rewarded for carbon capture in their soils.

In parallel, a series of comprehensive data enriched science-based methodologies are developed to potentially engage hundreds of millions of farmers in co-creating a new reward and payment mechanism for farmers and even a new asset class in soil. A good example of digital payment services in action as a response to COVID-19 is Mercy Corps AgriFin which, together with a consortium of partners, is coming together to use data to better understand the needs of farmers during this time and enhance and strengthen response offerings using trusted digital channels at scale. AgriFin’s partners are currently reaching 8 million smallholder farmers across Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

These new methods can be linked to dynamic country and regional innovation hubs to ensure the approaches are adaptable, can be tailored to individual countries’ needs and that benefits are being evenly distributed and do not create unintended consequences.

Social innovation can unleash local food system action. In places like Capetown and Nairobi, as well as the UK and US, community action networks sprung into action during the pandemic to feed large numbers of disadvantaged community members. Whilst initially relying heavily on volunteers, as the crisis continues social entrepreneurism is developing viable and scalable business models to sustain the necessary levels of support that those communities will continue to need. This builds solidarity around local food value chains and promotes localized food system resilience, local knowledge and networks.


3. Put people first

Transitions are about people and the principle must be to prioritize social solidarity and rural economic growth over supply chain efficiency; to build greater trust that food systems work for people, not the other way around.

We have a tremendous opportunity to engage the 500 million smallholder farmers and 7.7 billion consumers around the world as change agents and leaders in a food system transition. Demand-driven and inclusive principles need to be embedded in global, regional and country approaches.

The Food Systems Summit Dialogues demonstrates this potential as they undertake an ambitious agenda to host Country Dialogues in as many member states as possible in the lead up to the UN Food Systems Summit. This will support countries to host local discussions, while offering a shared open source platform for independent and global dialogues.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

We need to empower systems leaders, individuals and institutions with systems-thinking capacity, skill sets and tools, as well as the resources and networks to problem solve across silos and provide a positive impact at country and regional levels. The Transformation Leaders Network, led by a group of partners including the World Economic Forum, is curating a community of practitioners to do just this.

People-first also means an opportunity for innovative financing solutions that put people at the centre. As we look to renegotiate post-COVID-19 debt swaps, could we consider aligning those to sustainable food systems outcomes? Could we build innovative financing and de-risking tools that will allow countries to really shape their collective food futures?

To heed the Secretary General’s call for the Food Systems Summit and as we realize the role food system transformation plays in people’s lives during this pandemic, we ask for unparalleled leadership from all sectors.

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