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19 October 2023
Author: Maria Sköld

10 ways to challenge global food systems

Panel World Food Day

Fanny Sturén in conversation with Mohamed Ahmed, Matilda Baraibar Norberg, Anna-Kajsa Lidell and Malin Flemström.

Photo: Kajsa Lorentzon

With the rallying cry “Challenge the system”, SIANI, The Hunger Project and Reformaten invited a broad range of experts and activists to discuss new ways to transform the food system and fight hunger. The half-day workshop on 12 October resulted in several innovative ideas for transformative action – here are some highlights.

The event Utmana systemet (“Challenge the system”) was held at the Modern Museum in Stockholm on 12 October, in the lead-up to World Food Day. Activities included not only two panel discussions, moderated by Fanny Sturén from Reformaten, but also presentations and many informal conversations between the approximately 70 participants from academia, farming, politics, business, and civil society.

As a starting point for the first panel, focused on Swedish and European perspectives, Pelle Bengtsberg from Reformaten presented the results of a survey with Swedish parliamentarians working on agriculture and environmental issues. Read more about the survey Matbarometern (in Swedish).

The second panel was kicked off by an online keynote from The Hunger Project’s Global Vice President Rowlands Katocha, offering a more global outlook. Noting how world hunger is again growing, he urged everyone to shift their perceptions of hunger and search for bolder solutions.

The participants rose to the challenge – here are 10 key takeaways from the discussions (translated from Swedish):

Recognise the link between hunger and global food systems

“Hunger is the biggest solvable problem of our time,” according to Rowlands Katocha, but he felt that the root causes are often poorly understood. While it is true that climate change, conflicts, inequality, and the corona pandemic are important drivers, the role of global food systems should not be overlooked.

All speakers agreed that current global food systems need to undergo profound transformations, but they offered many different views on what that entails.

Connect the dots between local and global perspectives

The first panel mainly focused on Sweden and the EU but Maria Ölund, from Focali, University of Gothenburg, asked a question about how this can be linked to global perspectives. In response to that question, the panelists concluded that national debates can be misleading as they seldom acknowledge the real importance of food produced beyond national borders. “To be honest, there is no such thing as a Swedish food system, we’re extremely interconnected,” said Olga Grönvall Lund, Secretary-General of Reformaten.

“This is something we pay close attention to, though we may not always talk about it,” commented Annica Sohlström, Director General of the Swedish Food Agency. She stressed that choices made by Swedish consumers often have consequences elsewhere – cravings for Kenyan sugar snaps or Brazilian meat can create incentives for investments in huge monocultures or deforestation of rainforests.

Annica Sohlström and Olga Grönvall Lund

Annica Sohlström and Olga Grönvall Lund

Photo: Kajsa Lorentzon

Unpack the changing role of trade

A related discussion concerns trade, where the panelists took different perspectives. Matilda Baraibar Norberg, Associate Professor of Economic History at Stockholm University, described how current food systems have evolved after the second world war with a clear aim of producing cheap calories to feed a hungry world. That objective was met – so far productivity has risen sharply, outpacing the rapid global population growth. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the world managed to keep churning out food in large quantities. But this should not be seen as testament to the robustness of the current model since it comes at a steep price. Food production has become a major driver of climate change and biodiversity loss, which threatens to eventually undermine food security. Given that at least 30% of food is wasted, Matilda Baraibar Norberg called for more discussions about equality and the fair distribution of food.

Several panelists stressed how today’s global trade regime can create perverse incentives and endanger sustainable local food production. But Anders Engström from AGFO pointed out that trade can also play an important positive role: “It’s not possible to grow food in all parts of the world, and climate change is making that even more challenging in some places. Many countries are not industrialised, and they rely on exporting food,” he said.

Smallholder farmers are change agents

Malin Flemström, CEO of The Hunger Project Sweden, reminded the audience that most farms in the world are in fact very small, and that smallholder farmers have a critical role to play to strengthen food security for themselves and their communities. The Hunger Project reaches 12 million smallholders who are under great pressure to change; the organisation can guide them on how to get access to resources such as training.

Food entrepreneur Anna-Kajsa Lidell described smallholders as change agents. She noted how the Covid-19 pandemic made many farmers see the value of more local and small-scale production, including having a kitchen garden.  “Smallholder farmers in for example India hold the key to a sustainable future, under the right conditions. I see a huge untapped potential,” she said.

Don’t forget water!

Mohamed Ahmed from WWF Sweden Youth echoed that sentiment, but emphasised the need for training among smallholder farmers, drawing on experiences from Somalia and his native Somaliland. Despite the long coastline of Somalia, few people know how to fish, meaning that they miss out on a potential food source. But even more crucial, he felt, was to strengthen knowledge about freshwater. When climate change makes rainfall patterns increasingly erratic, farmers need to harvest rainwater and find new ways to overcome extended periods of drought.

The role of water for food is also the theme of this year’s World Food Day on 16 October, with the theme Water is Life, Water is Food. Leave No One Behind.

Apply local knowledge to boost resilience

The food sector is not very innovative, according to most panelists. At the same time, several emphasised that what we need is not just new solutions. On the contrary, building resilient societies may require the recurrence of traditional ways of doing things. A greater focus on working with nature was also highlighted.

The food entrepreneur Anna-Kajsa Lidell advocated for pragmatism where new technology is combined with local knowledge, and she wanted to learn more from older generations who still remember life before the Green Revolution. Malin Flemström agreed: “We have lost a lot of knowledge about how to grow food for nutritious meals, often because it has not been valued properly, but this is crucial for resilience,” she said.

Pelle Bengtsberg

Pelle Bengtsberg presents the Matbarometern survey.

Photo: Kajsa Lorentzon

Let regulation spur innovation

So, what is the role of politicians and regulation in driving innovation and transformations of food systems? The topic came up after one of the parties declined to respond to the questions in the survey Matbarometern. Respondents to the survey from Moderaterna argued that politicians should leave these issues to farmers who know best what’s needed.

“I appreciate that farmers are given a great degree of freedom, but reality is more complex. Farmers know that we will need to change, but not necessarily how. The transformation can’t be solely the responsibility of farmers,” commented Beatrice Ramnerö, member of the board of the Federation of Swedish Farmers LRF.

A farmer herself from the north of Sweden, she is affected by the current cost crisis which is hampering both farmers’ ability to innovate and consumers’ appetite for ecological food. “Policies at the EU level can help us achieve necessary transformations, but for us in the far north, that may not be a solution. Often, our farming conditions are different from the European norm and are therefore routinely exempt from new regulations,” Ramnerö said.

Anders Engström from AGFO felt that other parts of the food industry would also be open to more of regulations and guidance: “Many companies appreciate guidance since it makes it easier for them to innovate, there is often a cost to being a lone frontrunner.”

Unleash the power of procurements

The parliamentarian Jytte Guteland, representing the Socialdemocrats in the Committee on the Environment and Agriculture, raised the question of public procurement as a means to drive change and asked the panelists about their experiences. In Sweden, the public sector is a major buyer of food for hospitals, school lunches and homes for the elderly. Given the scale of this, procurement requirements can create new incentives and influence local production.

Annica Sohlström from the Swedish Food Agency described the extensive work already being done by several government agencies to ensure that public meals in for example schools are both sustainably produced and nutritious. One lesson, however, is that the system can work to the disadvantage of smaller farmers, which could be offset by new forms of collaboration.

Stand up for change

Are we in the midst of a transformation towards more sustainable food systems? asked the moderator Fanny Sturén as she was wrapping up the day.

“I see two competing trends,” said economic-historian Mathilda Baraibar Norberg. “On the one hand, China is gaining influence which boosts interest in big-scale farming using pesticides. On the other hand, interest in sustainable farming is also growing, for example with a law on agroecology in Uruguay.”

Malin Flemström from The Hunger Project argued that more people need to get involved in the debate about global food systems. “Politicians will act if there is pressure on them to do so. There is growing public awareness, but we need a much more active debate where people dare to ask uncomfortable questions,” she said.

We need more multi-stakeholder discussions

Summarizing the event, SIANI’s Programme Director Madeleine Fogde said that it really demonstrated the gravity of the situation: “Our food systems are broken. They allow that more than 700 million people experience hunger while today’s production, packaging and consumption of food are fuelling the climate crisis, generating greenhouse-gas emissions, extracting natural resources and driving biodiversity loss,” she said. But the discussions also showed that solutions exist: “It is high time for us all to act, and within a food system everyone’s contribution counts. Through respectful dialogues between sectors and disciplines we can learn about new knowledge, innovations, and understand different perspectives.  We see the dialogues as the first step to strengthen collaboration and ignite action.”




Pelle Bengtsberg, head of advocacy and policy at Reformaten

Rowlands Katocha, Global Vice President of The Hunger Project

Panel 1:

Anders Engström, moderator and content strategist at the Swedish food systems network AGFO

Olga Grönvall Lund, Secretary-General of Reformaten

Beatrice Ramnerö, member of the board of the Federation of Swedish Farmers LRF

Annica Sohlström, Director General of the Swedish Food Agency.

Panel 2:

Mohamed Ahmed, sustainability activist from WWF Sweden Youth

Matilda Baraibar Norberg, Associate Professor of Economic History at Stockholm University.

Malin Flemström, CEO of The Hunger Project Sweden

Anna-Kajsa Lidell, food innovator and entrepreneur


Fanny Sturén, Chair Reformaten


Written by Maria Sköld, SIANI.

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