Food and Water

Building food systems that are fit for purpose – five areas that need more attention

A slew of geopolitical factors is tipping the political scales in favour of real transformation in global food systems.

A slew of geopolitical factors is tipping the political scales in favour of real transformation in global food systems. Image: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

Jamie Morrison
Senior Advisor, Policy and External Relations, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition
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  • A slew of geopolitical factors is tipping the political scales in favour of real transformation in global food systems.
  • However, current policy frameworks are inadequate to improve food systems: more joined-up policies are required.
  • More nuanced approaches to trade strategies, public support, and robust data are essential to combat food crises in the longer term.

A perfect storm of widespread economic downturns and looming inflation, the lingering impacts of the pandemic and the increasingly tangible effects of climate change has underscored the urgency to improve our food systems.

At the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, the imperative to build more resilient food systems, and to deliver healthy diets sustainably, was the basis that galvanised political support for change.

Although the summit's objective was to identify and implement solutions, it is the current geopolitical factors around food systems that could tip the political scales in favour of real transformation. Even among those who have ready access to food, it has become increasingly clear that current food systems are not as sustainable or resilient as they need to be to deliver healthy, affordable diets for all. But every crisis creates opportunity.

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Five areas of focus for improving food systems

How, then, do we harness that opportunity to achieve meaningful change? For me, five points need more attention.

1) Unified thinking

This is where the greatest potential for change is. We must find more effective approaches that include all levels of governance across different sectors.

Current global agreements provide the frameworks within which countries develop policies but have proved inadequate to support food systems transformation as they tend to focus on single areas like trade, nutrition, and climate. Moreover, the implications of changes to these agreements on other components of food systems have been largely ignored, often preventing sensible food policies.

This problem is, unfortunately, recreated at a national level. I have worked closely with several Eastern and Southern African countries where trade strategies unintentionally undermined domestic food staples. A key reason for this was a lack of joined-up policy, with trade strategy typically determined by Commerce Ministries, supported by donors and development partners, and agricultural development strategies developed by Agriculture Ministries with different partners through a separate policy process.

It’s often less challenging at the local level. In supporting several municipalities, including Lima, Dhaka, and Nairobi, we found that once the issue of food is on the city’s agenda – which can be a battle in itself – structures such as food policy councils emerge to help people access affordable, healthy foods.

It isn’t simply internal coordination within each level of governance that is required, but coordination across all levels.

2) Focus on the use of subsidies

Repurposing public support for agriculture in favour of the supply of healthier diets needs to be a critical focus in food systems debates. Flexibility is key. What may be appropriate for the scattering of developed countries that collectively spend billions on public food subsidies will not necessarily work for all developing countries. Any changes to international agreements should not be at odds with national development strategies.

3) Pros and cons of autonomy

We need to refocus on the emerging shift to strategic autonomy, whereby a country or region relies on its resources in tactical areas and cooperates with partners when necessary. The objective is understandable, particularly as the challenges to the global supply chain continue.

However, changes to agri-food systems to facilitate greater diversity in production or allow the scaling of local supply must be balanced against an inevitable erosion of competitiveness. How much of this can be mitigated through changes in trade policies within existing international agreements?

4) Data, data, data

Amazingly, despite living in an information-driven world, we still lack the necessary data on food to underpin evidence-based policymaking.

Robust data is essential when identifying solutions that better account for potential trade-offs and increase transparency in decision-making and is critical to overcoming the political economy impediments to transformation.

For essential tools like True Cost Accounting to be effective, the data and metrics they rely on will need to be appropriate for the country in question. A key lesson from working on food market data in the Pacific Island Countries, for example, is that by demonstrating how evidence can improve policy, the case for investing in data collection and use can best be made.

5) Food systems perspective

Finally, we must prioritise food systems, not just food supply, to avoid repeated crises. A systems approach will give greater attention to the multiple trade-offs policymakers have to face. As we have seen in recent months and years, external shocks are often to blame for chokepoints within the food value chain.

Focusing, for example, on the interlinkages between energy and transportation systems will thus be essential and will help us take a more systemic and broader-reaching approach to the emerging risks to food availability and affordability.

Even with less than eight years to meet the SDGs, there is still enough time for transformative change in food systems if we recognise that the solutions will not always be clear-cut.

But we can no longer continue to overlook the critical governance and political economy constraints that could prevent us from taking advantage of the opportunities for change that the contemporary set of factors has created.

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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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