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4 November 2020

Food systems must mainstream sustainability, give agency and bond with nature – a new food policy paradigm

Photo: Daniel Watson/ Unsplash.

The right to food was recognized in 1948, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underscore the necessity to achieve Zero Hunger. Yet, almost 690 million people in the world were undernourished in 2019, a number that’s likely to be higher now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition, the science-policy interface of the UN Committee on World Food Security, has recently published the report “Food Security and Nutrition: Building a Global Narrative towards 2030”, calling for a worldwide change of narrative in food security policy and practice.

HLPE experts argue that a radical transformation of our food systems requires critical shifts in policy and a change in our thinking. Based on the HLPE report, this article provides an outline of three key steps for creating a new theory of change. Let’s take a look at what needs to happen.

1. Expand our food security vocabulary

Expanding our understanding of food security to include agency and sustainability is the first step. These concepts join the four other dimensions of food security: access, availability, utilization and stability.

Agency refers to the capacity of individuals or groups to make their own decisions. In the context of food, agency means making decisions about what you eat, how your food is produced and processed, and having a voice in decision-making and policy about food systems. Marginalized groups, including women, indigenous communities, small-scale food producers and poor people in urban areas have long lacked agency. Not surprisingly, these groups are more likely to be food insecure.

Sustainability is not a new concept. However, it is essential to formally incorporate it into our food security mindset. Why? Because the idea of sustainability implies a long-term perspective, necessary when facing challenges such as ecological degradation, climate change and growing social and economic inequalities. Our food systems need to foster ecological, social and economic regeneration. Only then can food systems be truly sustainable, fulfilling this generation’s food needs without compromising the needs of future generations.

2. Employ a holistic approach

The second step emphasized in the report is to embrace a more sustainable food systems framework, with the right to food as its central principle. Including consideration about access to adequate food and its production for everyone throughout the entire food system, and the systems that support it, would reinforce the connections among ecological, social and economic dimensions. This holistic approach is also valuable for achieving other goals of the 2030 Agenda, as many of them boost each other.

A food systems framework captures the complexity of drivers and feedbacks that come into play when we talk about food. These drivers range from biophysical to technological to social, and beyond. Unsustainable diets drive ineffective and irresponsible food production, leading to environmental degradation. Societal challenges, such as gender inequality, can worsen within food production systems if women are excluded from decision-making processes. A systems approach recognizes these drivers and works towards the right to adequate food, while addressing systemic challenges, ultimately, paving the way to resilient adaptive and just food systems.

A holistic approach is key in a globalized world, where events in one country can trigger global repercussions. The most recent example is the global COVID-19 health crisis, which has disrupted trade, reducing access to food and changing consumption patterns worldwide. A systemic approach can ensure higher preparedness to such events and enable the creation of policy and legislation that support all food system actors, from farmers all the way through the supply chain to consumers.

3. Change policies

The HLPE report also outlines four essential policy shifts that need to happen to achieve the SDG2 targets. Let’s take a closer look at each of them and what it may look like in practice.

First, food systems must move away from the “production at all costs” principle. Instead, food systems need to be focused on quality. Agroecology initiatives offer effective ways of making food systems more regenerative, resource-efficient, and ecologically diverse. Moving towards this mode of operation may be challenging, but it starts with securing land access and insurance for local producers, followed by education and training. The experience from applying agroecology shows improved soil fertility, greater pest resistance and more sustainable livelihoods.

Second, production systems need to be in sync with nature. The two are linked through feedback loops and complex interactions; therefore, they must be mutually supportive. A classic successful example is the rice-fish-duck system in Asia. Fish and ducks planted in rice paddies act as natural pest control and fertilize the soil. The rice provides shade, food and shelter for the animals. The fields become hotspots for biodiversity in contrast to monoculture rice cultivation. This way farmers produce three commodities in the same space, benefitting both food and ecological systems. Identifying climate-smart agricultural techniques for local farmers should be easier in a supportive policy environment.

Third, policy needs to address hunger as well as other forms of malnutrition. Malnutrition manifests in many ways, including micronutrient deficiencies and obesity. Chile has taken an impressive step forward in tackling soaring levels of overweight and diet-related diseases. In 2016, Chile implemented the Law of Food Labeling and Advertising, requiring companies to declare if foods and drinks contain an excessive amount of sugar and are ultra-processed. The law also limits advertising and marketing of these products to children younger than 14. In addition, schools are not allowed to sell these products. The law has changed Chilean’s consumption patterns in a positive manner.

Finally, policy needs to be context-specific because every food system is unique. One of the greatest modern food security challenges is bridging the rural-urban divide. In Brazil’s Belo Horizonte policymakers managed to meet the needs of urban residents’ and regional farmers’ livelihood at the same time.

Since 1993, the Secretariat for Nutrition and Food Security (SMASAN) established restaurants in Belo Horizonte with a serving capacity of 14,000 meals a day. The meals are prepared with ingredients sourced from local farmers who sold their produce directly to the city. All visitors paid the same price, which removed social stigma of visiting these restaurants. This program has also established a network of home, school and community gardens to provide healthy nutritious food within the city limits as well as additional income to disadvantaged groups. The results were impressive: among others, child hospitalizations for malnutrition dropped by 60%. 

How do we proceed?

The report ends with a list of 12 concrete recommendations on how to move forward. These include advice on how decision-makers can learn and progress from the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors of the report recommend that governments support food supply chains to avoid disruptions and increase local production and consumption. UN agencies must also create a rapid response system to help the world’s poorest if we encounter crisis like COVID-19 again. Finally, knowledge, data and experience exchange need to be as open as possible so we can learn as a collective.

Let’s put the pieces together. To drastically change our food systems, we need to integrate agency and sustainability into our food mindset, re-build our food system framework and reach radical changes in policy. Incorporating these factors into our food systems will be challenging. But even though it may seem overly ambitious, these changes are possible. With these tools in hand, we stand a much better chance of achieving the goal of Zero Hunger by 2030.

Written by David Falk, Communications Consultant, SIANI and Ekaterina Bessonova, Communications Officer, SIANI.