Resetting the Food System from Farm to Fork

If the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed anything, it’s that the global food system is fragile and needs to be modernized. Border closures, trade disruptions, and confinement measures have all contributed to the disruption. Meanwhile, the economic impacts of the virus threaten to send millions into poverty, thereby restricting access to healthy diets.

While long-lasting changes from the pandemic won’t be realized for years, if not decades, the immediacy of the need for many around the world presents unique challenges that must be addressed. Under this pretense, researchers from around the world met virtually on December 1 to discuss solutions ahead of the 2021 U.N. Food Systems Summit.

The discussion was hosted by the Barilla Foundation and Food Tank, a global think tank, and resulted in three recommendations by the UN Food Systems Summit Special Envoy at the end of the event.

First, stakeholders should work to align around a shared sense of purpose, that enables all stakeholders to craft their diverse visions for a healthier, more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient food system. Second, move to connect, mobilize, and invite all actors in the food system on a collective journey that leads to a transformed food system. And third, empower citizens to make appropriately sustainable choices as consumers, by fueling a scientifically grounded and action-oriented public discussion.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown not only how interconnected we are to each other, but with the planet as well,” Guido Barilla, chairman of the Barilla Group, said during his opening remarks.

However, Barilla and the other participants noted the global food system must be restructured before these recommendations, or goals can be met. Participants came up with five takeaways that are sure to begin the restructuring.

  1. Producers play a pivotal role in fostering change in global food systems.
    Farmers the skills and knowledge necessary to ensure the strength and vitality of the global food system, but are too often left out of the decision-making process. One recommendation offered by the participants is to ensure farming communities have the support and incentives to shift towards more sustainable and agro-ecological farming approaches.

However, as the Barilla Foundation identified, the key challenge is “provid[ing] equitable access to land, markets, seeds, and technologies to all farming communities, as well as ensuring decent livelihoods for all, especially for the most vulnerable groups such as women, indigenous people, and youth,” according to its website.

  1. Innovation must accelerate the transition of agri-food systems towards equity, resilience, healthiness, and sustainability.

Technological innovation has often failed to benefit farmers, especially the poorest. A dissertation by a Harvard University doctoral student on the subject revealed that technological innovation often benefits the richest farmers “even when policymakers and technologists are explicitly concerned with the needs of the poorest.”

“Reorienting agricultural innovation systems…requires efforts across stages of the innovation system to align the physical and the institutional dimensions of technology with local conditions, in ways that meet the needs of the poorest,” the 454-page document says.

Some of the needs identified by the panel include maintaining the necessary public infrastructure for farming (eg. Water and logistics). One solution includes investing in digital communication infrastructure so farmers from poorer countries have an opportunity to sell their products on a global marketplace.

  1. Sustainably produced, high-quality nutrient-dense foods must be accessible and affordable for all.

No effort to reform the global food supply system will be meaningful without ensuring food security even for the most impoverished, according to the panel. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that 2020 has seen a continuance of a dangerous trend: growing global food insecurity. And the effects of malnutrition and undernutrition on impoverished communities is immense.

“There has been some progress for child stunting, low birth weight, and exclusive breastfeeding, but at a pace that is still too slow. Childhood overweight is not improving and adult obesity is on the rise in all regions,” the report concludes.

Healthy food is fundamental to overall well-being. It is also a necessary component of sustainability. Both communities and the lands they depend on need to eat healthily in order to survive.

The panelists agreed governments should implement food and agriculture-related policies and actions that deliver multiple benefits like poverty reduction and increased equity.

  1. Food businesses across the globe must urgently rethink their strategies and operations on climate change.

One of the main drivers of food insecurity is climate change. It’s become an unfortunate truism that with every discussion of melted ice caps, we neglect to mention flooded farming lands. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) considers the issue “a test of US leadership” with “potentially existential economic, political, and social outcomes for humanity.”

In order to restructure the global food system meaningfully, the panelists said the largest farmers need to acknowledge their part in creating the issue and take steps to reverse the damage done. Large farming operations have been cited for contaminating public waterways and leaving soils unusable once they disband.

The group recommended governments adopt policies that invest in sustainable agricultural practices that also contribute to equitable livelihoods. Other measures include adding performance measures for farms that more closely align with Agenda 230, the UN’s global climate change initiative.

  1. Alliances between chefs and hospitality, producers and consumers are vital to introduce responsible consumer habits, enhance regional food systems, and uncover the true costs of food.

Even though hospitality reflects a small fraction of the food industry, local restaurants will play a large part in the restructuring. Forbes anticipates demand for healthy foods and farm-to-table offerings will continue their upward trend in 2021, a fact that should sit well with any chef willing to dive into the category. Moreover, customers are increasingly demanding locally sourced food, which could help support local food systems and promote food security.

As the panelists said, “chefs can act as key connectors and use their influence to help consumers break cultural, political and economic barriers and shift to better diets and lifestyles through delicious meals and menus.”

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