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Sustainable Food Systems and Food Security

The following is a report of a session at the AFGDP module Farm to Fork – Sustainability in the Bioeconomy 4-6th April 2017 by  Dr John Ingram of the Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University.

Written by : Sheona Foley (DIT), Morgan O’Sullivan (Teagasc), Liam Hanrahan (Teagasc), Qicheng Hao (UCD)global-food-system-map-2-638

John Ingram’s presentation takes a food system approach to sustainability.  He started off by asking what is sustainability anyway?  Ingram argues it depends on your position in the food system and your world view.  There are many different definitions, any one of which will reflect the needs of the organisation or agenda it represents and whatever definition one adopts is in any event only really aspirational.   Whilst sustainability is not “all” about the environment, “The environment underpins our food systems, clean air and fresh water and a range of cultural and aesthetic considerations.”

We looked back to the FAO’s definition of Food Security from 1996:

“ Food Security exists when all people at all times have physical, economic and social access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (UN-FAO World Food Summit, 1996).

This definition has no mention of agriculture and production and comes from a time when all the focus was on growing enough.  But what is enough food and what is sufficient?  Enough for a particular purpose, the right amount? The idea of nutrition security does not simply include enough food but the right type of food.  Can we be food secure by having too much? Dr Ingram’s approach is to address three concepts i.e. Food Systems, Food Security and Sustainability and he believes this type of analysis will provide opportunities for intervention, the ultimate goal being perhaps a “healthy world”.

What is a healthy world?  With the current food system, global population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050; 1 billion people are still hungry; 2 billion people are lacking sufficient micronutrients (“Hidden Hunger”); poorer regions are spending a greater percentage of their income on food; 30% of our food is wasted at harvesting; over 2 billion people are consuming too many calories (and globally 30% of adults are obese).  More nutritious food has become more expensive, whilst the empty calorie foods are cheaper. Whilst the prevalence of undernourishment is falling relatively, distribution is changing and the prevalence of over nourishment is growing.  We need to look at malnourishment as including both under and over nourishment.  Quantifying it, we can see that more than half the population is suffering from “malnutrition”.

What do we mean by a food system?  How does the food system work?  Food systems are all activities which get food onto the table and include activities such as “growing, harvesting, processing, packaging transporting, marketing, consuming and disposing of food …” and a range of actors e.g. farmers, processors, consumers etc.  Food system activities underpin food security outcomes, such as food access, food availability and food utilisation but also have other outcomes such as environmental and socioeconomic.

A “sustainable food system” must be considered in the context of a growing population and a growing urban population and increasing wealth.  One major outcome of a global food system is the environmental impact leading to environmental change such as depletion of natural resources and Green House Gas (GHG) emissions and biodiversity loss.  Food systems need to adapt to environmental change, minimise further environmental change and think across all food system activities.  Vermeulen, Ingram et al (2012) refer to food systems as contributing 19%–29% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with agricultural production accounting for approximately 80% of this. “The impacts of global climate change on food systems are expected to be widespread, complex, geographically and temporally variable, and profoundly influenced by socioeconomic conditions.”  Environmental concerns are clearly important, but only represent one view of a ‘health world’.  In this context, it also useful to look at Planetary Boundaries, a concept which is attracting major interest in the scientific community and gaining support in the environmental policy world.  Planetary Boundaries refer to the identification of “a set of boundaries, beyond which anthropogenic change will put the Earth system outside a safe operating space for humanity”.

Sustainability is not however, all about the environment.  It is also about affordability, nutrition, environment and enterprise.  Environmentally sustainable food systems have to be viable from an enterprise point of view if any commercial organisation is to embrace it.  There will be trade offs depending on where you are in the system: primary, production or consumer.  Food system activities need to adapt and do things differently.  In order to effect change there is a need for shared vision and commitment by all involved in the global food system together by addressing the issue of food security as a global one.  But how do we bring about systematic thinking and move away the more silo approach.

Who’s in charge of managing our food systems?  Governments, Government Agencies, Politicians, Farmers, NGOs, the Media, Scientists, Private companies, multinational companies, retailers etc.  But probably there are a small number who have the greatest power and a small number of very wealthy investors behind a great proportion of the food companies.  All these stakeholders have different motives and different agendas.  In order to have successful change from a sustainability perspective, we need to understand the interactions between the main drivers and feedbacks from both a socioeconomic and environmental perspective.

Clearly we need to manage food systems better for improved outcomes. But what outcomes do we want from our Food Systems?  Having the right policy and regulation to underpin this objective is a must.  One of the EU’s goal is to strengthen EU food and nutrition security with more sustainable food consumption and production.  The Horizon 2020 funded SUSFANS seeks to identify how nutritional health and food production in the EU can be better aligned. This is a multidisciplinary research team that aims to build the conceptual framework, the evidence base and analytical tools for underpinning EU-wide food policies with respect to their impact on consumer diet and their implications for nutrition and public health, the environment, the competitiveness of the EU agri-food sectors, and global food and nutrition security (FNS).  But does EU policy go far enough?

In summary, Ingram argues that a sustainable food system needs to be at least environmentally sound, socially acceptable, economically and commercially viable.  In terms of a sustainable diet for the global population, it needs at least to have calorie and nutrient density, quality, diversity, safety, affordability and acceptability.

Ingram argues that whilst sustainability is not always simply about the environment, the environment is affected significantly by the food system.  He argues against silo thinking and promotes a food system approach to sustainability on the underlying belief that this will bring about synergies and trade-offs among the four concepts:  environment, food security, enterprise and affordability.

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