Whose responsibility is it to ensure we have a sustainable food future? That was the theme of this year’s food conference at Chatham House – the Royal Institute of International affairs – at the end of November 2018. The 6 sessions covered the challenges and outlook for food systems; international food trade; sustainable agriculture and the future of land, investment innovation and disruptive technologies, delivering sustainable and healthy diet; and, system inefficiencies food loss and food waste. You can find the programme here.
The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule. This means you can talk about what was said at the meeting but not about who said it or where they where from. The Twitter feed for the meeting – #CHFood – gives a flavour of what was discussed. I interviewed a few of the speakers in the breaks between sessions. It was generally agreed that although agriculture had never produced more, it was neither sustainable nor resilient not did it feed into a food system that provided nutritious diets for all.
Scaling up Nutrition is a global movement to end all forms of malnutrition with a particular focus on a child’s first 1000 days as its coordinator, Gerda Verburg, explained:
Governments ultimately have responsibility for ensuring their citizens have a healthy life and to respect, protect, and fulfil people’s right to food (See talk by Olivier De Schutter, 2nd UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food here). Following the food crisis around 2008, the UN’s Committee on Food Security was reformed to bring many more voices to the table to tackle these issues, as Mario Arvelo, current Chairperson of the committee explained;
For Greg Garrett, director of Food Policy and Finance at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), finding the financing for healthy food businesses is a key focus:
It is in Africa where many of the major farming challenges will come in the future according to Channing Arndt, Director of Environment and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute:
So what about business? For Hendrik Bourgeois, vice president Corporate Affairs of Cargill’s Europe, Middle East and Africa region, new technology can help ensure farmers adopting more sustainable farming practices are rewarded with higher premiums:
One of the interesting ideas discussed in the meeting was de-commodification of food systems so that different farming practices could be rewarded with different prices. While that is good for the farmers, it also offers businesses a better way to segment markets and increase margins on their products – as only a small percentage of the final price of any foodstuff ends up in the farmer’s pocket.
The most devastating critique of our current food and farming systems came at the end of the conference, instead of the beginning. A fundamental change in the way food is produced and what food is produced is needed to address the challenges posed by climate change, biodiversity loss and malnutrition in all its forms. Technical fixes will not work. The challenge was to move out of a vicious circle of a ‘cheap food paradigm’ (see photo) that produces externalities in healthcare and environmental costs that are 10 times higher than global GDP for agriculture. (see also my conversation with Professor Philip James, in which he argues the world’s farming was set on the wrong track after the second world war)
Interestingly, that challenging critique was the starting point for a workshop on Artificial Intelligence for a Sustainable and Healthy Food System I went to after the conference also at Chatham House – more of which in a later blog.