Grantham Scholar Carolyn Auma reports from this year’s A Sustainable Food Future conference Chatham House, which she attend with members of the Grantham Centre team. Our Director, Professor Tony Ryan, and P3 co-Director, Professor Duncan Cameron, were among the speakers. However, as the conference was held under Chatham House Rules, their comments cannot be directly reported here.
The deliberations at this year’s Chatham House conference on ‘A Sustainable Food Future’ encompassed demand and supply perspectives on the food chain. Discussions on the supply side centred on improving processes at the pre-consumption stage by, for example, increasing food production, particularly in areas where sustaining production is a challenge. Although there appeared to be a consensus at the conference that a sustainable food system would be one in which more is produced with less, one of the strongest themes arising from these supply-side discussions was that a ‘one-size fits all’ approach may not be the best way to achieve this. The fact that there is an array of possible solutions, ranging from no agricultural intensification to more innovative options such as bio-fortification and soil regeneration, suggests that more feasible solutions will have to take contextual specifics into consideration.
Increased production may mean increased food availability. But in order to meet nutritional or health requirements in an environmentally sustainable way, food quality, in the form of dietary diversity, is also paramount. This is where discussions on the demand side become important. To achieve this balance, it is important that we consider moving beyond the four main strategic commodities (maize, soybeans, wheat and rice) on which we currently depend. However, we must also be mindful of changes in global dietary patterns, which are moving away from more traditional diets that are specific to contexts and cultures, and towards a more universal ‘western’ dietary pattern, based largely on the strategic food commodities. From both a nutritional and environmental sustainability perspective, it makes sense to explore the ways in which the strategic commodities that make up the ‘global food basket’ can be diversified. Moreover, if consumption patterns are changed globally then food production will not have to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed a population that is nearing 10 billion (FA0, 2009).
However, it is important to note the arguments that global food production as it stands can cater for 10 billion people. According to this school of thought, the issue isn’t food availability, but the efficiency of the current global food chain. This inefficiency results in about one third of the total food produced, and therefore resources incurred in the production of this food, being wasted (Bond et al. 2013). Of all the food that’s wasted, about a third of all food loss occurs at the point of consumption (consumer stage), and two-thirds occur at the production-distribution stage of the food chain. Losses at the consumption stage are particularly significant in developed countries, while those at the production-distribution stage are a salient issue in low-and middle-income countries, mostly in the form of post-harvest food loss (FAO, 2011). We therefore have to think creatively about how to fix the value chain right from the rural areas, since in many developing country contexts, most food production occurs in these areas.
Unless we address the barriers to achieving a more efficient food-chain, then producing larger quantities of more nutritious and diverse foods (Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (Zero Hunger), and reducing food waste (sub-goal 12.3) will equate to a tiny band aid on a huge wound. With more food being pumped into a broken pipe we can expect even bigger leaks. Food waste cannot possibly be reduced to 0%, because there will always be inefficiencies in any system, but we should be pragmatic about embracing great opportunities to reduce it as much as we can.
Perhaps one of the ways to address food waste would be to encourage widespread adoption of the characteristics common with healthier and low greenhouse gas impact diets proposed by Garnett et al. (2015), particularly the head-to-tail consumption of animals. Of course, it is well known fact that changing dietary habits, even for health reasons, is challenging because the drivers of food choice are manifold and interrelated. It therefore remains to be seen just how willing the public are to, for example, consume ‘unconventional’ cuts of meat in the name of climate change. Efforts to bring about behaviour changes and reduce food waste might be more effective if they were attached to health or nutrition arguments, since these issues is are, arguably, easier for individuals to relate to than environmental sustainability or food loss issues. This highlights the need to prioritise public funds to promote nutrition education, so that it can be woven into the fabric of everyday service delivery.
What is clear to me from attending the Chatham House conference is that inter-disciplinary approaches are paramount to creating a more sustainable food system. There is no silver bullet that can solve everything. However, as we work towards a sustainable system, we should be conscious of how we can communicate scientific research to the public and work with others in the scientific community in a more effective way. In doing this, we can find new solutions to existing problems and fill in knowledge gaps, such as those around individual food consumption patterns. If we cannot understand how and what people eat, how can we produce dietary guidelines that are context-specific, healthy and environmentally sustainable?
Bond, M., Meacham, T., Bhunnoo, R. and Benton, T.G. (2013) Food waste within global food Systems. A Global Food Security report (www.foodsecurity.ac.uk) <Cited as requested>
FAO. (2011). Global Food Losses and Food Waste – Extent, Causes and Prevention. FAO, Rome. <Cited as requested>
FAO. (2009). How to Feed a World of 10 Billion. FAO, Rome
Garnett, T. et al. (2015). Policies and Actions to Shift Eating Patterns: What Works? A Review of the Evidence of the effectiveness of interventions aimed at shifting diets in more sustainable and healthy directions. FCRN, Oxford and Chatham House.