These changes to our food systems could improve human and planetary health

Energy

On the recent World Food Day, the clarion call was clearer than ever: We must fix our food systems to improve human health, drive economic growth and save the planet from environmental collapse.

The challenges facing us are wide-ranging. The way the world produces and consumes food causes huge environmental impacts, and yet 3 billion people worldwide are unable to afford a healthy diet, and up to a third of the food we produce is wasted.

What’s more, hunger and micronutrient deficiencies are concentrated among the poorest and most vulnerable — often including those who produce the food we eat.

Meanwhile, the so-called double burden of malnutrition is on the rise: hunger and malnourishment coexisting with overweight and obesity, often in the same countries, communities or even individuals.

Tackling these multiple challenges and threats requires coordinated action from the public sector, private sector, NGOs, civil society, innovators and actors throughout the food value chain. In my role at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (a Swiss-based foundation on a mission to advance nutrition outcomes by improving the consumption of nutritious and safe food for all people, especially the most vulnerable), I am constantly inspired by the passion and commitment of our partners across these sectors.

In particular, young leaders who refuse to accept the status quo are already driving real change and positive impact in food and ag. Over the past two months, I reached outside my usual network to discuss this topic via email with six fellow honorees from the 2020 GreenBiz 30 Under 30, to which I was named in June.

In particular, our exchange explored how food systems can be made healthier and more sustainable as we look to a future in which we’ll need to find a way to produce enough food to nourish as many as 10 billion people while staying within planetary boundaries. We also considered the role of young leaders from the private and public sectors in this essential transformation.

All comments expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of their organizations. Below are excerpts, edited for style and length. If you’d like to discuss these subjects and the future of food systems, join Oliver Camp’s roundtable session Thursday at VERGE 20.

Jennifer Ballen

Jennifer Ballen, head of global market operations, Indigo Ag

What concerns you about the current global food system when it comes to environmental sustainability and human health?

Only eight countries in the world spend less than 10 percent of their household income on food, with the United States spending the least amount (around 6 percent). In contrast, Nigeria spends over half of its household income on food, followed by nine other countries that spend over 40 percent on food. This is not because food is more expensive in Africa than it is in the United States. Au contraire, it is the reverse. The average American spends $2,392 per year on food while the average Kenyan spends $543 per year on food (World Economic Forum, 2016).

The global food system, like many of the world’s Achilles’ heels, is representative of the tragedy of the commons: a renowned economic theory by which individual agents of a system using shared resources act in accordance to their self-interest at the expense of society. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, each additional unit consumed directly harms those who can no longer reap the benefits. The chief impediment is that the gain is private, yet the cost is public. One juicy hamburger for you equates to (about) 600 gallons of water consumed, 0.126 pounds of methane released, 13.5 pounds of cattle feed that could have been consumed by a malnourished human, 64.5 square feet of land and the assuaging of animal species distinction, water pollution and habitat destruction.

My biggest concern is running out of time. Looking back with regret. My grandchildren wondering how our generation let this happen. The world seems to be less nourished than ever before. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), there are almost 60 million more undernourished people now as compared to 2014. In 2019, 690 million people or 8.9 percent of the world population were undernourished. Moreover, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists posit carbon emissions must drop rapidly to 25 gigatons by 2030, or 7.6 percent emissions reduction every year over the next decade (United Nations). Pause and consider how difficult this will be considering the pace at which our population is growing. We must change our relationship with food.

What gives you hope and optimism when you look at the future of our global food system?

The problem is vast. In our world of finite resources, we need to revolutionize the way we produce and consume food to ensure enough nutritious food for 9.8 billion people by 2050. And we need to do so in a way that reduces the environmental devastation on our planet. Awareness is vital to ignite change.

I am optimistic that the world is “waking up” Corporations, governments and individuals are enduring the conversation and mobilizing around solutions aimed at producing enough nutritious food for our growing population in a sustainable manner. We have access to myriad documentaries and books aimed at increasing awareness. I am witnessing the increase in education ignite behavior changes in some communities: less meat; less waste; more conscious decisions. 

People, corporations and governments are seemingly taking action. We’re seeing a variety of interesting solutions and advancements from the private sector such as carbon sequestration on farms, meatless food that tastes like meat, greater access to vegetarian and vegan options and the use of technology to reduce food waste. The public sector is mobilizing around curbing hunger. We’re working with each other, not at each other’s expense. Collaboration is queen if we are to solve this thing.

How can young sustainability leaders play a role in securing a nutritious and sustainable future of food?

Long-lived, profitable habits are hard to change. While some ignore the issue at hand, others point to the food system as “broken.” Both are dangerous vantage points. The chief impediment to the notion that a system is broken is the illusion that a system can easily be fixed. A different point of view is that the food system is not broken, but instead working exactly the way it was built — by and to the advantage of the rich at the expense of the poor. We don’t need small tweaks and improvements: We need a revolution. 

The battle against climate change is vital. The more troops the merrier. Learn, share, act. Sustainability leaders of all ages must educate themselves on the systemic food production and consumption challenges and subsequently educate others.

Sustainability leaders should vote those with strong environmental platforms into office. Leaders should also ‘vote’ with their wallets, supporting companies that are part of the solution and avoiding companies that are part of the problem.

When designing solutions, it’s imperative to understand that the climate crisis and therefore the global food crisis disproportionately affects people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous peoples, who are more likely to live near toxic areas, be inflicted by pollution and climate-related diseases, experience lagging response to emergencies — the list, unfortunately, goes on.

Sustainability leaders must vote at the polls and with their wallets. We need strong public sector commitments to mitigate the global food crisis. Sustainability leaders should vote those with strong environmental platforms into office. Leaders also should “vote” with their wallets, supporting companies that are part of the solution and avoiding companies that are part of the problem. Leaders must lead by example in their own food consumption habits. Is your household dependent on meat? Do you know where your food is coming from and how it is produced?

Charlotte Bande cropped

Charlotte Bande, global head of climate strategy, Quantis International

What concerns you about the current global food system when it comes to environmental sustainability and human health?

I think the first element is how slow we are moving in the right direction. While I understand the complexity of these supply chains and how difficult it will be to fully transition to a more sustainable food system, we are losing critical time in endless debates that are not focusing on action. 

A great example is accounting. Companies often spend months if not years trying to get the accounting perfect, and this can shift the focus away from action as a result. Accounting methodologies are yet to be refined and finalized and, in the meantime, companies need to try to find a balanced way to track progress while also taking action.

Secondly, companies are setting individual targets to try to solve a global challenge. By focusing on reducing their own impacts instead of looking at things holistically, they sometimes end up losing sight of critical pieces and actually driving change. It leads them to focus on optimizing their current business models rather than taking a step back and look to transform it.

To give some concrete examples of what I mean, let’s talk about three major transformations that our food system needs to undertake to become more sustainable, and where we are not seeing the right pace of change.

Deforestation is a critical environmental challenge associated with the food system. It drives most of the food and beverage industry climate impacts, threatens biodiversity and water, as well as habitat for people and animals. While many companies are very aware of this issue, they are working on it in a siloed way, which significantly limits opportunities for improvement. Companies have targets that push them to fix their own supply chain, but this can lead to simply shifting the problem to another company’s supply chain.

Companies are setting individual targets to try to solve a global challenge. By focusing on reducing their own impacts instead of looking at things holistically, they sometimes end up losing sight of critical pieces and actually driving change.

Food loss and waste is another big environmental topic. And like deforestation, it affects much more than the environment alone.

We need to feed 11 billion people in the future, and some studies estimate food loss and waste amounts to up to 50 percent of food production. Food loss and waste is very poorly measured right now, and most value chains are not equipped to understand the extent of food loss and waste that is occurring in their supply chain or at consumer levels. However, this is a topic that brings great economic and social opportunities.

Reducing companies’ food loss and waste not only would help drastically reduce the food system’s heavy impact at the raw materials extraction stage, it also would help reduce costs, as less food would need to be produced to feed 11 billion people in the future. It might even help farmers earn more for what they sell.

Finally, meat consumption. Animal protein production is heavily reliant on feed that is fossil-dependent and contributes to deforestation. To reach a 1.5 degrees Celsius world, we’ll need a paradigm shift in the way we raise animals, and regenerative agriculture practices can and should be a part of the solution. However, in addition to improving practices, there is an opportunity for producers to rally around the idea that less and more sustainable meat options, which will be critical to limit global warming, can still be good for business.

These examples show the importance for every company to take a step back and look at the overall picture, understand what a 1.5 degrees C food system looks like, and define how their business model will need to shift to guarantee not only that we can stay within planetary boundaries, but also to ensure their business’ long term resilience.

What gives you hope and optimism when you look at the future of our global food system?

The first thing is the shift in consumer mindsets. In Southern California, where I live, I can see the explosion of interest in our local farmers’ markets or the appearance of plant-based options on restaurant menus. To me, this really shows a demand from consumers for these products.

On a corporate level, working with companies at Quantis, I have seen a major shift over the past few years. Companies now have a good sense of where their major drivers lie and are seeing the case for some environmental actions. Additionally, they start to better identify where risks associated with a siloed approach might occur and ensure that their identified solutions aren’t simply shifting impacts.

Finally, NGOs like the WWF are working to define what a sustainable food system looks like, and I’m hopeful that bringing more clarity on the level of sector-wide transformation needed will help companies take the transformative actions we need.

How can young sustainability leaders play a role in securing a nutritious and sustainable future of food?

I believe it is our role to make these risks and opportunities more visible. During conversations with companies we work with at Quantis, I always try to bring a more global perspective in our discussions, supporting companies in identifying the questions that will put them on the right path and broadening the conversation towards business model transformation rather than incremental changes. 

It’s also our role to share our knowledge with the people we know. Not everyone works in our fields and has access to the information we have. We should use this to help others make better-informed decisions by helping them learn what we have learned throughout our careers. 

And finally, ask more from our politicians and governments. This is a global challenge that will require collective action. We need everyone on board.

Arturo Elizondo

Arturo Elizondo, CEO, Clara Foods

What concerns you about the current global food system when it comes to environmental sustainability and human health?

I am deeply concerned about our reliance on animals to make our food. From a sustainability standpoint, animal agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector (all the planes, ships, cars in the world combined). And from a health standpoint, it’s the cornerstone of the Standard American Diet directly fueling heart disease as the No. 1 killer in the country.

What gives you hope and optimism when you look at the future of our global food system?

Conscious consumers give me hope. People voting with their dollars. If it weren’t for conscious consumers actively trying to eat more sustainably, pushing companies to source better and more ethical ingredients, and striving to eat less meat and animal products, the sustainable food-tech startups that can scale massively to transform our food system would have a harder time getting off the ground.

How can young sustainability leaders play a role in securing a nutritious and sustainable future of food?

Advocate for plant-based options at your corporate cafeterias, get you and your colleagues at work to do Meatless Mondays, and get you and your friends excited about out all the new plant-based foods that are now ubiquitous. Demand drives supply. A tiny ripple can create a tsunami. It makes a difference.

Alyssa Harding

Alyssa Harding, executive director, Sustainable Food Trade Association

What concerns you about the current global food system when it comes to environmental sustainability and human health?

Our food system as it is today is broken and is disconnected from the needs of its stakeholders. Our planet’s 500 million smallholder farmers tend to be the most impoverished and malnourished groups, not to mention the disproportionate lack of equitable access to healthy, nutritious food that low income, minority communities often face. We need to find sustainable and equitable solutions that provide nutritious food to almost 10 billion people by 2050, and remedy the global food inequity that permeates our communities and supply chains.

What gives you hope and optimism when you look at the future of our global food system?

The global pandemic has illustrated that local, sustainable supply chains are more resilient, and with the rise of regenerative organic agriculture, it is clear that a redefined food system can provide an opportunity for climate impact and environmental justice.

I’ve worked with many brands over the past few years who are intrinsically motivated to find good food solutions and think business as a force for good has a unique role to play in both climate action and social justice. Although sustainable food systems lag behind energy and health when it comes to investment and policy, we are at a critical mass to help push forward sustainable development, focus on equitable food access, and diversify our leadership to better serve our economies, people and planet.

How can young sustainability leaders play a role in securing a nutritious and sustainable future of food?

Many of my colleagues can be considered young leaders, and youth climate activists have been gaining a lot of momentum in terms of educational awareness and producer responsibility. I feel very fortunate to pursue both my personal and professional passions in one role, and I think that young leaders can bridge the gap between industry/sector leaders and bring new technology innovation, research hubs, new financing mechanisms and radical collaboration to our conversations on building a truly holistic food system.

Jose Salazar

José Miguel Salazar, senior specialist, corporate sustainability services, CSRone

What concerns you about the current global food system when it comes to environmental sustainability and human health?

Since the Industrial Revolution, as humanity we have been achieving unprecedented progress in terms of decoupling famine from our living conditions due to advances in technological innovation, science and more efficient industrial practices, among others. However, our modern food systems also have brought a new set of global challenges that require urgent attention and action to fix systemic failures that threaten our way forward.

In terms of environmental sustainability, our current global food system accounts roughly for 12.8 percent of our total global greenhouse gas emissions, and its contribution as a sector to climate change is quite significant. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that roughly a third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted along different stages of the value chain.

If food waste alone were a country, its emissions would rank third in carbon emissions after China and the U.S. Fixing our food system is an important component to address the urgent climate crisis and at the core lies decoupling our reliance on animal-based foods, which overall have a significantly higher footprint than plant-based foods.

We as sustainability professionals have a unique positioning in our organizations, networks and communities to serve as ambassadors or influencers to communicate these challenges and emphasize the opportunities …

In terms of human health, based on the latest estimates from the Global Nutrition Report, globally one in nine people is hungry or undernourished, and one in three people is overweight or obese. These findings indicate that a very significant percentage of the world’s population is affected by malnutrition and at least by one or some of the following health issues: poor child growth; micronutrient deficiencies; overweight and obesity; and non-communicable diseases. These health issues ultimately could bring serious and lasting burden for individuals and their families, for communities and for countries.

The convergence of these challenges creates unprecedented risks for the sustainability of our natural environment and the development of societies and economies. Moreover, we need to keep in mind that our world population is expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050, hence food production would have to be increased to meet growing demands and, of course, we would have to bring innovations along the value chain. In this regard, what concerns me the most is our ability to accelerate the innovation and change at scale that is needed on time and in ways that respect human well-being and the environment.

What gives you hope and optimism when you look at the future of our global food system?

There are several positive signals of change I’ve been observing in the last few years. But I’d like to highlight three in particular:

1. Growing awareness and changing behaviors. Increased access to education and modern communication technologies have brought more attention towards these issues, and rapidly emerging groups of consumers advocate and favor food products that are more nutritious, with lower environmental footprint and that contribute to regenerative agricultural practices. This is still a niche market from the total, however many social enterprises, companies and even multinational corporations are understanding and designing or re-adjusting their operations to meet these emerging needs.

2. Advances in technologies and their applications. Solving these challenges requires addressing a number of gaps (food production gaps, agricultural land area use gaps, GHG mitigation gaps, inequities gaps, nutrition outcomes gaps, etc.) and this requires better collection and analysis of data. Emerging new technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence can help us to understand and identify areas to invest resources and increase positive impact.

3. The rise of multi-stakeholder initiatives. Organizations such as GAIN, the FAO, the Global Nutrition Report, the WEF and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) provide important platforms for different stakeholders to convene and develop system-wide proposals and solutions. These initiatives can be implemented on the ground through the collaboration of governments, investors, business, NGOs, civil society and consumers that have the capacity to accelerate change and scale up the innovations where needed the most while creating shared value. Solving the food systems challenge is an immense task and it could not be addressed by one stakeholder alone.

How can young sustainability leaders play a role in securing a nutritious and sustainable future of food?

Since this is a very complex and systemic challenge, I think there are plenty of areas where sustainability leaders can advance progress. Any sort of innovation brought along the value chain (production, storing, processing and packaging, distribution and consumption) will be important. There is a great report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) that offers a set of five solutions to ensure we can feed 10 billion people by 2050 without increasing emissions, fueling deforestation or exacerbating poverty. I highly recommend everyone interested in the topic to take a look at it.

In my view, anybody can exercise the role of a positive agent of change in these topics and move forward solutions; however, in terms of how and where can young sustainability leaders be most influential, I believe it is through the advocacy of the risks and opportunities from the food system failures internally in their organizations and externally with the wider society and governments.

We as sustainability professionals have a unique positioning in our organizations, networks and communities to serve as ambassadors or influencers to communicate these challenges, but also and most importantly emphasize the opportunities of creating shared-value and proposing practical initiatives that can bring these opportunities forward.  

Katerina Fragos

Katerina Fragos, manager, sustainability and climate change consulting, PwC

What concerns you about the current global food system when it comes to environmental sustainability and human health?

I have three concerns with the global food system. First, a large majority of medical practitioners will tell you that nutrition is not well-covered in medical school curriculum just as several farmers will tell you that regenerative agriculture techniques are not yet well-understood in their community groups. This means that two of the most important stakeholders in our health and food system are missing the knowledge and tools to entrench sustainability within the system.

Second, modern life has decoupled us from the food system, with many of us never visiting a farm or tending to a garden in our lifetimes. A lack of exposure to the various steps in our food system value chain makes it challenging to understand just how damaged the system has become.

Third, the cheapest and most available foods are also often the least healthy and sustainable. We need to start replacing calorie-dense, nutrition-devoid foods with plant-based, nutrition-rich alternatives to make the healthiest foods the most accessible and affordable.

What gives you hope and optimism when you look at the future of our global food system?

I am encouraged by the large number of medical professionals focusing on communicating and simplifying the complex science behind nutrition and health to empower people to make more informed food choices.

There are fantastic sources of information available. To name a few: Dr. Michael Gregger’s NutritionFacts.org and Daily Dozen app as well as Dr. Will Bulsiewicz’s Fiber Fueled. There is also a great deal of momentum around regenerative agriculture with organizations such as the Land Institute, Regeneration International and RegenAg taking the lead.

Interestingly, certain experts, like Dr. Zach Bush, have even begun to triangulate the concepts of health, nutrition and regenerative agriculture through efforts such as the Farmer’s Footprint.

How can young sustainability leaders play a role in securing a nutritious and sustainable future of food?

From a personal perspective, a few actions to consider: transition towards a plant-based diet; aim to grow our own food (start small with herbs) if possible; try to buy from local farmers; look for third-party certifications (RFA, organic, etc.).

From a professional perspective, there are plenty of opportunities to drive action. For instance, aim to influence the spending habits of the organization you work for (catered events, cafeteria options), work for food manufacturers and retailers to help accelerate their transitions to more sustainable and regenerative models; participate in sustainable food advocacy groups or organizations.

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