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24 November 2020

Changing minds – changing lives: How do we shift our thinking about food systems?

Photo: Ricky Martin/CIFOR / flickr

The transformation of food systems has been on the agenda for more than a decade now. In 2009, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) of the United Nations and the World Bank was published, with 400 experts from 89 nations who over 5 years had produced the most comprehensive assessment of the state of agriculture globally. In September this year, 40 of the authors looked at the impact of the IAASTD report during the last decadeThe follow-up reportTransformation of Our Food Systems – The Making of a Paradigm Shift, looks at the substantial progress made in some areas, as well as lost opportunities and policy inertia. 

SIANI spoke with Benedikt Haerlin, an NGO member of the board of the IAASTD who co-edited the book together with Hans Herren (who had co-chaired the IAASTD), to learn more about the challenges we have to overcome to transform our food systems. 

Benedikt Haerlin is a philosopher, an activist, a former member of the European Parliament and the initiator of the Berliner 2000m2 project. He has dedicated his work to organic production and alternative food movementsbut soon realized that:

“It’s not about a single technology but about how we do agriculture and how we approach landscapes as a whole.”

“When the IAASTD was adopted in 2009, it was met by fierce resistance from the mainstream, claiming it and was too ideological and too little evidence-based. But the truth is that never before had so many scientists from so many different countries and disciplines reviewed such
an enormous amount of peer reviewed science, scrutinized their assessment so thoroughly and then agreed on such a text,” remembers Benedikt with a peal of slight laughter in his voice. 

It was one of the first reports acknowledging that resilient agricultural systems need to protect the rights of smallholder farmers, that women play a key role in rural areas and the need to adopt agroecological production methods to reduce the dependency on fossil fuels, chemicals and mineral fertilizers. It also was the first UN report to recognize food sovereignty as a means to democratically determine agriculture and food policies 

Change is in the air 

The collection of follow up essays and reports outlines four key actions that need happen for a sustainable transformation of food systems: 

  1. Recognize the planetary boundaries when growing, transforming, transporting and eating food. Only when all food-related activities remain within these boundaries can they be sustainable. 
  2. View food value chains as food systems. A system approach offers many more solutions than a one-viewpoint angle. Take meat consumption for example: If meat consumption is increasing, the production side needs attention. What are the farmed animals fed with? Where does that feed come from? Breaking down the complexity of food systems allows for the emergence of various alternative solutions. 
  3. Acknowledge that advances in technology and their use in agriculture can be both favourable and detrimental. Innovation and new technology in agriculture require caution to ensure that big companies do not gain the upper hand, to understand trade-offs and avoid negative unintended consequences. 
  4. Push for political action. The research and development community have been discussing sustainable food systems for over a decade and provided many solutions. However, policy is lagging behind. For instance, the European Common Agricultural Policy is benevolent towards big landowners and doesn’t adjust subsidies to support agricultural practices that benefit planetary and human health. 

Barriers to transformation 

The main ideas expressed by the IAASTD research team are now more mainstream and accepted. Still, little change is perceived on a global scale. Why is that? What hinders food system transformation? Benedikt suggests there may be a few reasons. 

Firstly, market mechanisms are untamed. Government has little influence on trade. Free trade is the keyword for all governments, that has become synonymous with growth and success. “As long as the food industry determines food policy, we will never have a healthy population,” says Benedikt.

Secondly, political responsibility has deteriorated. The short-term vision of politicians, merely thinking about their next election tour and always wanting to be on the front-line of various debates overshadows the essence of public officewhich is about taking responsibility for responding to people’s everyday concerns. 

Lastly, underlying the above points, there’s a prevalent gap between knowing and doing, even more so in our modern societies. We seem to know it all, to have the perfect solution for a more sustainable way of life, have discovered the ultimate way of growing food with little chemicals, yet we don’t implement it. Food and agriculture are global issues, if we open up our minds to how food is generated and valued (or not) it would open our own consciousness and willingness to make changes,” explains Benedikt. 

Promising beginnings 

The demand for a transformation of food systems is strong and voices from citizens and consumers sound louder. In Germany for example, organic supermarkets toil in order to meet the growing demand of conscious consumers. Another example of the call for a transformation of food systems is the yearly Wir haben es satt (“We are fed up”) rally that brings together farmers, NGOs, consumers and politicians in the streets of Berlin, demanding higher responsibility and a quicker transition to sustainable practices along the entire food value chain. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have strengthened the trend of conscious consumption, and many started to buy more from the local farmers. 

Education and awareness are a step forward, but teaching children about food shouldn’t just be about consumption: “education should lead to re-connection“, as Benedikt formulates it. Food production should be seen as a means to reconnect with the soil, with the plants, with the very beginning of the journey of any food item. Only after understanding the importance of earthworms, pollinators, air and water quality can one pay full attention to food and life choices and make them more sustainable. 

Chemical-free agriculture demands education and knowledge from the farmers as well: “When you give up chemical pesticides: you will need to handle pests in a different way. Farmers need advanced knowledge to handle the diversity and the complexity of weeds, fungi and other factors influencing the growth of a crop,” says Benedikt. This in turn would increase their ownership and pride of their work. 

A global vision with a local understanding of how we interact and connect with nature will be an asset to food systems transformation and enable a paradigm shift not only on our minds, but also in our daily lives. Politics must take this task seriously and respond to the growing demand for more sustainable food systems. 


Reporting by Magdalena Knobel, communications intern at SIANI. She is currently doing a Master’s degree in Sustainable Food Systems programme at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU.