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Our Food System Is at a Critical Juncture: How Do We Build a Better Food Future?

This World Food Day came at a critical inflection point for our food systems. There is broad recognition that the way we eat now is failing to protect our health and the health of the planet. Despite enough food being produced annually to feed the world, 811 million people still go hungry and 3 billion people do not have access to healthy diets, numbers that were made worse by Covid-19 disruptions. The food system is also one of the largest contributors to climate change, with 25% of greenhouse gas emissions coming from food production. Further, the system does not deliver fair returns to the people who provide our food. In sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers account for 90 percent of food production, yet many farmers barely produce enough food to feed their families.

Despite these sobering facts, we believe that we can forge a path to a better food future. In September, The UN Food Systems Summit, the first of its kind, brought world leaders together to imagine how food systems can better serve all people, and protect the earth, for generations to come. The most valuable outcomes were the collaboration and recognition that food connects to everything in our lives including our planetary, community, and individual health; and acknowledgement by leaders from around the globe that the system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, as part of our Nourish People and the Planet initiative, we are committed to building and supporting a greener, more nourishing, and more equitable future for our food systems. We understand that we cannot create an inclusive food system without each of these priorities working in tandem.

Foods cannot be considered healthy unless they are nourishing for their consumer, produced sustainably to support the land, and provide fair wages and working conditions to the people who make and deliver them.

Today, I wanted to share just a few of the ways we are investing in this vision.

Supporting Greener Supply Networks

A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions stem from the food system. That number is expected to rise in coming years if left unchecked. We are supporting major expansions of distributed renewable energy across Asia, Africa and Latin America. For example, in Ethiopia, we have invested in electrifying and decarbonizing supply chains, supplying small-holder farmers with energy that not only increases crop yields, but also better serves the planet and reduces carbon emissions. These mechanisms include solar pumps for irrigation; solar mini-grids to support local agriculture; and cold storage that helps farmers reduce food loss and waste with improved logistics.

Quantifying the True Cost of Food in the United States

The cost of our food goes far beyond what we pay in stores. Earlier this year, we released the True Cost of Food report, which evaluated all the ways food systems in the United States impact health, the environment, biodiversity, livelihoods, and much more. In 2019, American consumers spent an estimated $1.1 trillion on food, a price tag that does not include the cost of healthcare for the millions who fall ill with diet-related diseases, nor food production’s contributions to water and air pollution, reduced biodiversity, or greenhouse gas emissions. Take those costs into account and it becomes clear that true cost of the U.S. food system is at least three times as big—$3.2 trillion per year.

True cost accounting is necessary to help communities understand the universal effects of the food on the table each day, and to guide decisions about how to reinvent the food system so that it creates value – improving human health, incentivizing greener production, and fostering opportunity for people who work in the food industry. With this in mind, we are investing in solutions that are value generating, including food as medicine and healthier school meals that direct significant purchasing power toward responsibly-sourced ingredients.

Advancing Scientific Understanding of Foods We Eat

One fifth of deaths each year are attributed to unhealthy diets. Despite this, at most about 150 of our food’s biochemical components are measured and tracked in conventional databases, representing only a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of biochemicals in food. This month, we are launching the Periodic Table of Food Initiative, a global effort to create a public database of the comprehensive biochemical composition and function of the most important foods from around the globe, to give us a better understanding of the interactions between our food, our health, and our environment — ultimately allowing us to better support both human and planetary health. We are previewing the Periodic Table at What’s On Our Plate, a virtual event held in conjunction with the World Food Prize’s 2021 Borlaug Dialogue on October 21. I hope you will join us.

Empowering Innovators to Transform Food Systems

Through the Food Systems Game Changers Lab, 24 cohorts of innovators collaborated to create long-term solutions to challenges including empowering women and youth; elevating Indigenous food systems; and upskilling farmers. These cohorts are currently matching with partners around the world who can bring their ideas to scale. We are hopeful that these solutions can pave the way forward for a more inclusive, and just food system.

We are also powering the Food Systems Vision Prize 2050, a platform for organizations, universities, institutions, companies, cooperatives and partnerships from around the world to create inspiring, compelling, and actionable visions of the world’s food systems by 2050. In the face of so many discouraging, dystopian narratives about what our future holds, the food system visions offer an alternative, human-centric narrative for the future of food systems and have the potential to inspire people to rally and unite behind them.

Looking to the future, we are supporting The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Food Systems Fellowship. This unique program, designed specifically for food systems leaders, will support builders embracing a systems-based approach to navigate the complexity of food systems alongside a cohort of peers driving change. Interested innovators can apply here before December 1.

Transforming food systems to be more nourishing and equitable will require bold ideas, collaboration and hard work. The Rockefeller Foundation is honored to work with a wide array of organizations across the globe to support this ambition.

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