30 September 2019

Food systems: the outrage deficit

I just completed a trio of meetings in Asia (TICAD), Africa (AGRF) and North America (UN General Assembly) all of which had a strong set of dialogues around food systems, asking how they need to be rebuilt to promote human health, rural livelihoods and planetary health.

I am really optimistic about the potential of food systems to address these issues. 

First, there is a strong and unusual alignment of interests. Gearing a food system towards greater consumer access of nutritious and safe food is obviously good for human health; it is good for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (although less clear on things like water, energy and fertiliser use); and it could be good for livelihoods as high nutrition value crops tend to be higher market value crops. Whenever interests are aligned, the potential for aligned action is great. 

Second, there are many actions we can take within the food system that we know will work to improve these 3 sets of outcomes (health, environment, livelihoods): many recent reports have outlined these, including the very recent FOLU Growing Better report and they include things like realigning food production subsidies and public procurement of food towards nutritious and sustainable foods, reducing food loss and waste, sugar taxes and subsidies for the consumption of fruits and vegetables, stronger regulations on the marketing of food, and incentives to companies small, medium and big to produce more nutritious and sustainable food.

Third, because small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are so important for the consumption, production and marketing of food in lower income countries (in fact they dominate the real food systems ordinary people rely on), there is a chance to make nutritious safe food more accessible through these SMEs - without having to rely on trying to change food multinationals. There may even be the potential to leapfrog western food systems in some countries.

But there are three things that give me pause for thought and temper my optimism. 

First, there does not seem to be a widespread sense of urgency to change food systems. Yes, food systems were talked about in these three meetings, but they were only a small percentage of the topics discussed and you tend to see the same people at each event. Are we generating the sense of urgency that permeates into related issues and sectors? Not yet.  Having a regular drumbeat of data on what the world is eating that resonates across countries would help to build the pressure to act.

Second, for those who already recognise this and want to change food systems, it is difficult for them to know how to prioritise their energy. For example, where to start? Is it in the production, storage, distribution, processing, marketing or retailing parts of the food system? Or is it in the demand generation side with consumers, or targeting the rules, subsidies and regulations of the enabling environment? What are the metrics we should follow and what is the target for transformation? The EAT Lancet report provides some guides on the consumption of different foods, but the targets are controversial on the science and on the idea of universality. We need UN consumption targets and we need food system data and tools for prioritisation to help guide decision makers at the national level.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is an outrage deficit. By generating so much ill health, food systems are bankrupting health systems which are having to mop up the growing expense and suffering caused by poor diets. By generating so many greenhouse gases, food systems are a major contributor to climate change and environmental degradation. Through food waste cause by an underinvestment in infrastructure, food systems are undermining rural livelihoods. For outrage, read the transcript of Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary speech at the UN General Assembly last week. Where are the Greta Thunbergs – of any age—talking about the food system and saying “how dare you pretend this can be solved with business as usual and some technical solutions?”?

There is the challenge for us all. The alignment of interests has not yet gelled into an alignment of urgency, outrage, and action. We need to target our energy against the dysfunctions of food system as a whole, not just be transfixed by the more extreme examples of poor practices. Many of the technical challenges of rebuilding food systems can be solved, and with our many partners, we at GAIN are working on these challenges. But the political mobilisation needed to spark a sense of outrage at the slow pace of change has not yet emerged.

So I call on partners in the civil society space who are so experienced in campaigning to set aside egos and logos, and join forces to create a global, deliberate, organised and ambitious campaign to revolutionise food systems. Everywhere. For everyone.