From rising rates of global hunger to plowed produce and empty grocery store shelves, the headlines from 2020 painted a bleak picture of the world’s food systems, laying bare vulnerabilities and inequities like never before. By the end of 2020, 137 million more people were expected to face acute food insecurity compared to pre-pandemic estimates, many for the first time. What’s more, Covid-19 is a tragic reminder of how poor diets and unequal access to good food put health and lives at risk – diet-related conditions have made people significantly more vulnerable to severe illness and death.
It can be hard to focus on the future in the midst of crisis, but it’s imperative that we do. Throughout history, moments like this one have catalyzed incredible periods of progress. There’s willingness to think outside the box, and energy to take action. As governments are making decisions about pandemic recovery packages and policies, and with planning for the UN Food Systems Summit underway, this is a critical time to embrace innovative ideas and chart an ambitious course toward a more nourishing, equitable, and sustainable food future.
Transforming food systems is no easy feat. The system and its failings are intricately linked with some of the toughest challenges of our time: climate change, poverty, misaligned and outdated policies. Narrowly targeted interventions will not bring about the kind of change we need. To achieve systems transformation, we need to think at the systems level. This means addressing the root causes, consequences, solutions, and interconnected challenges all at the same time. And taking a systems approach is hard, made more difficult by our own institutional structures, biases, and histories. So where do we begin?
We can start by grounding ourselves in five bold aspirations for what our future food systems can and should be. Drawn from the new report “A Nourishing, Regenerative Tomorrow,” a synthesis of visions for the future of food systems from 1300 teams in 120 countries, these aspirations can be our guideposts as we build a food system that nourishes all people and the planet.
Food as Community
The global food system, while highly efficient, has obscured the journey from farm to plate, disconnecting many communities from their food culture and traditions. In the future, communities can be connected to the food system – and each other – through the development of food hubs and education centers. Locally grown, indigenous foods can and should be readily available and affordable to consumers.
Food as the New Economy
The food system has historically put efficiency and profit over the health of people and planet. In the future, the exchange of food-related goods and services can contribute to the vibrancy of our communities in a food economy that values human and planetary health first. That will mean changing the calculus that drives decisions about what food is grown, processed, and sold, ensuring food is priced according to its true environmental and health impact.
Food as Reconciliation
Structural inequities built into our food systems present one of the biggest challenges to building an inclusive and nourishing future. More than three billion people across the globe, many of whom come from marginalized groups, cannot afford a healthy diet. These are often the same people who produce our food. In the future, our food systems and the choices we make within them can help to heal the wounds of the past. They can preserve and promote indigenous practices, reform land ownership policies, and protect human rights.
Food as Medicine
The industrial food system is hurting human health. Over 1.9 billion people are overweight or obese – including a staggering 38 million children under five. Unhealthy diets increase the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and as we’ve seen in the pandemic, make us much more vulnerable to infectious disease too. Our future food systems can be the source of health instead, by incentivizing behavior change for better diets and scaling personalized nutrition programs to protect health and improve health outcomes.
Food as Resilience
Soil erosion, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and industrial farming are some of the biggest factors contributing to climate change today. In fact, global food system emissions threaten to drive warming beyond 1.5 °C. In the future, foods that are good for our planet can be affordable, accessible, and desirable for consumers. This is a double win, because nature-positive food systems that use land more sustainably, promote soil health, and eliminate waste are more resilient to shocks, be it a pandemic or a climate emergency.
When you dig into these aspirations and the solutions that can help us achieve them, your mind starts to shift from despair at the state of the food system to excitement about the future. Some ideas proposed by the food system visionary teams are known but underutilized, like advances in soil health and behavior change strategies for healthier eating. Others are revolutionary, like 3D printed food and ingestible sensors to track nutrients consumed, absorbed, and required to ward off disease. All these things are possible. What’s missing is the commitment to put them to use in the real world.
In the months ahead, the UN Food System Summit will bring together people everywhere with a stake in the food system to align on actions needed to transform it for the future. Conversations will include leaders from science, business, and government, advocates for health and the environment, chefs and farmers, young people and elders. The list is long because the food system touches every single person on the planet.
Together, let’s embrace this unique moment in history to advance big ideas like those the visionaries proposed. There will be many decisions to make as individuals, organizations, communities, and nations on the path to a better food future. If we use their aspirations as our north stars, we will know we are on the right course.
This article first appeared in Food Tank on February 23, 2021, and is reposted with permission.