Industries in Depth

5 ways to transform our food system to benefit people and planet

A worker replants a germinating coffee seed at a coffee plantation, in Grecia, Costa Rica May 13, 2019. Picture taken May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate - RC2IIF9K4UUE

Our relationship with food is dangerously imbalanced Image: REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

Petra Hans
Head of Portfolio, Agricultural Livelihood, IKEA Foundation
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • Globally, we waste a third of all food produced and the natural resources involved in its production;
  • A growing global population requires fairer, more resilient and equitable food systems;
  • Regenerative agriculture, a greater voice for farmers and moving from low cost to "true cost" food can build a stronger food systems for people, planet and the future.

Food is essential for our survival, a fundamental requirement of life and the provider of strength, vitality and energy. It is also the keeper of our cultural traditions and indispensable to our social lives – think of any celebration and it will involve food.

However, our relationship with food is dangerously imbalanced. We produce enough food but nearly 1 in 10 people still don’t have sufficient to eat and 3 billion cannot afford a healthy diet. At the same time, we waste one-third of all food produced along with the natural resources that went into its production.

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Our food and agricultural systems stretch planetary boundaries beyond their limits. By valuing quantity over quality and driving farmers to produce monocrops for low prices, we use the natural resources needed for sustained production and degrade the land, leading to climate change and extreme weather events.

As the coronavirus crisis unfolded, we started to understand how fragile our food systems are. We saw news stories of food destroyed, milk dumped and crops rotting in the fields, while consumers faced empty shelves. Our complicated global supply chains couldn’t adapt fast enough to our changing realities.

To mend our damaged relationship with food, there are critical questions we need to answer: how do we produce sufficient food that’s healthy for both the people who produce it and the people who eat it? How do we ensure our food systems are fair, resilient and equitable? How can we feed our growing global population and protect our planet for generations to come?

The share of the world that is undernourished
The share of the world that is undernourished Image: Our World in Data

We have a choice: we can continue to grow our food systems in a linear, exploitative and extractive way; or we can move to a system that promotes biodiversity, regeneration, nutritious food, equity and healthy people.

We believe the decision is clear. We must choose to work with the planet, not against it, for the benefit of the many by following these principles:

1. Harness the regenerative power of our Earth

This is critical to overcoming the biggest challenges of our time: a degrading environment, loss of biodiversity and climate change. Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high quality, nutrient-dense food. It also improves rather than degrades the land and supports productive farms and healthy communities and economies. This helps safeguard farmers’ livelihoods so they can grow the food we need now and in the future.

2. Build stronger local and circular food systems

Building stronger local and circular food systems helps to keep valuable natural resources, minerals and nutrients in the loop. Circular agribusinesses not only provide excellent environmental solutions, they also create jobs and reduce countries’ dependency on imports.

Wastewater, for example, can be treated to extract important finite minerals like phosphates. Food loss and waste can be composted so valuable nutrients return to the soil instead of being thrown away. And organic farm waste can be used for bioenergy to power homes and agribusinesses. New, nature-based technologies, such as the use of black soldier flies to compost waste, can generate multiple useful products including compost, fertilizer and animal feed.

3. Give farmers a voice and support their planet-positive choices

As the world’s population continues to grow, more people than ever will depend upon farmers for food. We must empower farmers to drive solutions and be at the forefront of a global regenerative revolution by making them an integral part of policy discussions. They can help build the system of products and services that are locally relevant and reduce dependency on patented and/or chemical inputs.

4. Move from low cost to true cost

Paradoxically, cheap food is expensive for people and the planet. It keeps us locked into an unsustainable food system that costs the global economy significant amounts of money. The current price of food does not factor in the health bill generated by unhealthy diets or the cost of land degradation and biodiversity loss.

How food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted
How food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted Image: UN

Furthermore, low wages for farmers make agriculture an unpredictable and often unsafe sector. To get back on track, we need greater consumer awareness and public policies that value nutritious diets, a healthy environment and farmers who practise regenerative agriculture.

5. Foster radical collaboration

Though we’re hopeful for the future, we are quickly running out of time. We urgently need to remove the barriers that prevent us from transforming the way we produce and consume food. This involves changing mindsets, trying new things and learning fast.

We don’t yet know all the answers, but we do know that business-as-usual is the problem. We must change course and do it now. This is only possible through collaboration between farmers, consumers, funders, governments, businesses and NGOs.

Together, we can work towards a food system that not only feeds us but also celebrates life – one that nurtures people, adds colour and flavour to our plates and palates and, most importantly, ensures a future for ourselves on this planet.

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Related topics:
Industries in DepthFood and WaterNature and Biodiversity
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