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Let's put food where it belongs - at the centre

For global food systems to be protected, we need a holistic and sustainable approach to production

For global food systems to be protected, we need a holistic and sustainable approach to production Image: Karen Sewell/Unsplash

Geraldine Matchett
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Food systems around the globe are structurally under threat due to overpopulation, urbanization, and climate change.
  • Change can be achieved through sustainable food production, improved access to affordable and nutritious food, and holistic policy decisions.
  • The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit successfully initiated food system dialogues in 100 countries that now need active support from the public sector and civil society.

Fifty years ago, Liza Minnelli sang “Money Makes the World Go Round” - only two years after Milton Friedman had argued that companies are only responsible for the interests of their shareholders.

We now know that both statements are wrong. It takes a lot more than just money to make the world go round, and as someone with a professional background in geography and finance, I would argue that nothing goes right in this world when food fails.

The threat to global food systems

Food is at the heart of every stable and thriving society. When food fails, the entire fabric of society unravels within days. A good example of this is the escalated food prices and the resulting predicted social unrest amidst the Ukraine war. The same is true when food security is put at risk by prolonged droughts - as we saw in the Middle East and Northern Africa - or catastrophic flooding.

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While one may think of these events as only short-term disruptions, in reality, our food systems around the globe are structurally under threat due to increasing populations, urbanization, and climate change. Food and agriculture are not only one of the biggest contributors to climate change and loss of biodiversity, but they are also the biggest victims.

The prolonged failure of countries to ensure that food is affordable, healthy, and sustainably produced inevitably results in increased inequality, loss of livelihoods, escalating healthcare costs, reduced education, and ultimately violence. And unfortunately, this is a reality that our long-standing partner, the World Food Programme, is all too familiar with after witnessing its devastation around the world.


Three steps to accelerate change in global food systems

Now, more than ever, we are reminded that change is urgently needed - and fast. Although many plans are already underway - the first UN Food Systems Summit was held last year, and nature finally became part of the climate debate at COP26 – we are still tackling the problem in an isolated and fragmented rather than a systemic way. Yet it is only by repositioning food at the center of society and addressing all its interlinking aspects, from healthcare costs to economic resilience, that enduring and crucial change can happen.

But where to start? Here are three steps.

Firstly, a more farmer-centric approach is needed. Producing food more sustainably must be rewarded to accelerate the adoption of new practices. This is practicable through, for example, setting new income streams for farmers linked to carbon sequestration, reducing methane from livestock, applying regenerative agriculture, no tilling technologies, or allowing for more biodiversity. The science and technology necessary already exist, and there is increasing evidence that when combined with higher yields and a reduction in food waste, we can ensure the overall affordability of food remains unaffected.

Secondly, consumers need access to affordable, healthy, and sustainably produced food, not only in the developed world but in developing economies too. The relationship between general Health & Nutrition and resilience is critical. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, was a good reminder that those with a lower nutritional status were the most affected in every country. For any government, ensuring the right nutritional content of food and balanced diets is not a luxury but the foundation of a resilient society and manageable healthcare costs - especially when faced with an aging or a rapidly growing population.

Thirdly, all the players in the global food system and beyond need to collaborate. We need coherent, holistic, and aligned policy decisions that benefit the entire food system, and for that, we need everyone at the table. We need policymakers to see food systems for what they are: enablers at the center of society and the economy. And we need the private sector to embrace the challenge of accelerating this change.

Embracing new global food system pathways and dialogues

It all starts with awareness. It was made clear by the COVID-pandemic: as soon as we realized that there was a crisis, the speed at which society reacted in response to the threat - through innovation, new policies, new behaviours, and new technologies - was staggering.

The same should be applied to global food systems before it is too late, and we need everyone on board. The discussion table needs to get bigger and go beyond the usual agricultural supply chain players, connecting the urgency with infrastructure, health, transport, finance, insurance, and digital technologies.

The UN Food System Summit of 2021 proved to be immensely successful in initiating well-embraced food system dialogues in over 100 countries, giving rise to clearer Food System Pathways that now need active support. With the help of the public sector and civil society, we can all put food where it belongs: at the centre.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Forum InstitutionalFood and WaterSustainable Development
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