Artificial Intelligence (#AI) and #Sustainable #Food Systems – help or hindrance?

CH-FoodSysIneffLast month, the day after the world’s scientific academies warned that global food systems are failing humanity and speeding up climate change, I was at a workshop at Chatham House on “Artificial intelligence for a sustainable and healthy food system“.

The Chatham house conference on food that preceded the workshop, (see my last blog), ended with the key point that trying to increase the productivity of commodity crops within the dominant cheaper food paradigm – with its feedback loops that reinforced climate change, biodiversity loss, and malnutrition in all its forms – is the wrong vision to pursue. It’s a system that is not designed to deliver sustainable nutrition and promote good health. The total externalised costs of agriculture to health care were far greater than the profits generated from food production.

This workshop began with that challenge.  The key danger was that employing artificial intelligence within the current fatally flawed food systems is likely to make matters worse not better. As another participant pointed out, technologies are not separate from  social problems which are embedded within them. Technology is never value free and always embodies some vision what the future would be like. The need, it was argued, is to move from a business as usual approach to a business unusual approach.


The question was how would artificial intelligence be used in ways that don’t reinforce business as usual but help transform our food systems. We heard about the many ways in which artificial intelligence is being used today – with over a hundred companies working on areas such as robotics and roles, precision agriculture and predictive analytics, farm management software, smart irrigation, plant data and analysis, animal data, and next-generation farms.

There were various examples of how satellite data could be cross-linked with mapping and soils data to optimise applications of agrochemicals, drive robotic machinery, increase efficiency of complex supply chains – the UK imports foodstuffs from 196 countries, ranging from £500 worth of yak milk to £7 billion worth of foodstuffs from the Netherlands – help in differentiating products, and improve response to disasters.

But for me the most interesting piece of work gets to the heart of what drives the way we currently run our food systems and helps in the words of that old adage to “follow the money”. For it’s what people invest in that decides what is grown where. The trase project – Transfer and supply chains for sustainable economies – aims to make transparent who’s investing what throughout our food systems. This helps people and governments understand where to direct money, and shape the rules, regulations and incentives, to make more sustainable farming and food systems possible.

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That needs to go along with better policy-making governance frameworks to tackle the unacceptable levels of malnutrition and promote healthy food production and consumption, as the 2018 global nutrition report, released around the same time as the workshop, points out.

GlobalNutrRep2018Graphic from 2018 Global Nutrition Report

The European Parliament (EP) commissioned a study to look at Precision agriculture in Europe: Legal, social and ethical considerations drawing upon a recent scientific foresight study on “Precision agriculture and the future of farming in Europe“. The EP study warned that the potential misuse of farm-related data could lead to anti-competitive practices including price discrimination and speculations in commodity markets that may affect food security especially in Europe. It also suggests that precision farming, while holding out the prospect of increased efficiency, may also lead to a growing digital division between small and large farms, severe informational asymmetries and a dependence on off-farm service support, abuse of data by agricultural commodity markets, undermine the autonomy of the farmer and local farming structures, and lead to an unprecedented power shift in the industrial farming process.

For all the various promise technological innovation offers, in the end the question is what kind of world we want it to lead to and which scenarios will most clearly lead us to one in which we can achieve sustainable development goals, have more varied diets and farming systems in which less agricultural efficiency, as currently defined, could actually mean more system efficiency and lower waste.

So in the excitement many have about the opportunities artificial intelligence offered we need to be clear about the kind of world we want it to help create.

You might find some of the following links to further reading of interest:

Smith Matthew J. (2018) Getting value from artificial intelligence in agriculture. Animal Production Science

Rob Bailey (2017) Disrupting dinner? Food for the future, Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy

Marco Springmann et al (2018) Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits, Nature, 562, 519-525

Juergen Voegele (2018) Farm and food policy innovations for the digital age, Brookings Institute

World Economic Forum (2017) Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis – Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis

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Taking responsibility for a #sustainable #food future?

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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.

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Phosphorus – friend for crops, foe in the sea

Phil Haygarth’s passion is phosphorus. He’s a professor at the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University (where I’m an honorary teaching fellow). He’s one of the authors of a Nature Communications paper called ‘Major agricultural changes required to mitigate phosphorus losses under climate change

I heard him talk about his work recently when I was at LEC. Afterwards I asked him in this interview to explain why phosphorous is important for food production, where it comes from, some of the problems with it and the risks that much phosphorus that’s locked up in the soil might, with our changing climate, end up in the sea to the detriment of marine life.

You can follow his blog here


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Saving and using Mexico’s fantastic #tomato agricultural #biodiversity

Tomatoes have spread into cuisines around the world but most commercial varieties have a narrow genetic base and only grow well in optimum conditions often in greenhouses. As climate changes and interest in the fruit’s nutritional properties grows, drawing on the huge number of indigenous varieties in Mexico to meet these challenges is hugely important as they grow in a wide range of conditions and have different nutritional properties. That’s a central aim of a project I heard about at Lancaster Environment Centre* earlier this month from Jacob Phelps in a talk on “Charting a future for Mexico’s endemic tomatoes”.

In this interview, he explains more about the importance of Mexico’s significance for the future of tomatoes and the role of the indigenous people in breeding a huge range of varieties and why they need urgent work to ensure they are not lost.

You can read more about his work here and that of fellow Lancaster researcher Dr Gabriela Toledo-Ortiz here

*I’m an honorary teaching fellow at the centre

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#Food’s role in creating healthier, happier #cities for all

Belfast in Northern Ireland is, unfortunately, perhaps best known for the decades of violence, called the Troubles, and as the place where the ill-fated Titantic was built. While the local TV news bulletins were reflecting about how the start of the Troubles could be traced back to events some 50 years ago, they also carried a report about the World Health Organisation (WHO) International Healthy Cities Conference 2018 held in the city from 1-4th October 2018.

Representatives from 60 countries and more than 200 cities – roughly half of them located in the WHO European Region – gathered in Belfast for this. I was asked in a keynote to the final plenary to reflect from a food system perspective on the aims set out in the Copenhagen Consensus of Mayors document, ‘Healthier and happier cities for all – a transformative approach for safe, inclusive, sustainable and resilient societies’.

Addressing the challenges our food systems face is a key element in any strategic approach to delivering on the Copenhagen Consensus’s goals as they touch on every aspect of the people, places, participation, prosperity, planet and peace focus in the document. And turning the aspirations in the declaration to emerge from the Belfast conference (click here to download) into reality requires cities to focus on the role they play in shaping food systems and how those food systems need to change to deliver healthy, sustainable diets for their citizens.

They require cities and urban areas to know their food economy and its impact, to use advisory, regulator and fiscal actions to support fair, healthy and sustainable food systems, to see food as a way to build community connection and enjoyment and to work together with other cities to share best practice and influence national, regional and international policy that support these goals.

Taking the Consensus’s six themes in relation to food, areas to address include:

People – city actions on food accessibility, availability and affordability and ensuring food systems include any excluded communities, with a focus on eliminating household food insecurity.

Places – using the urban environment to grow food and design places where food system and sustainability can be built into the urban environment

Participation – involving people (particularly the vulnerable and excluded) in the food system (for example, through school projects, procurement of catering services from vulnerable groups) and create events that celebrate and connect different cuisines and food cultures.

Prosperity – tackling poverty and its impact on people’s diets and health through the mechanisms at cities’ disposal, including monitoring household food insecurity, as well as measuring urban ‘success’ or prosperity through a food systems lens, including seeing a sustainable food system as a focus for urban economic development

Planet – leading by example and using sustainable procurement for the cities’ own services, and with advocacy for sustainable food systems through city diplomacy and in global networks

Peace – ensuring food security within a city, and contributing to food security beyond the city, which requires measuring household food insecurity and acting to eliminate it, in keeping with Sustainable Development Goal 2, Zero Hunger.

The theme for the Belfast meeting was ‘Changing Cities to Change the World’. Belfast has been involved in the Healthy Cities movement since it started 30 years ago with the creation of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network. And today the city, or at least parts of it, has been transformed. The Troubles are over, although people I spoke to expressed concern that the impact of Brexit could destabilise the area once again. From the waterfront conference centre to Titanic Belfast, a lot of investment has been put into the infrastructure in central Belfast. Indeed, Titanic Belfast has now had 5 million visitors since it first opening 2012, and in its first five years has brought in £160million to the local economy. Participants in the conference went on many site visits to where change had been happening.

As WHO argue, cities have a vital role to play in achieving better health for all and making progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While they occupy only about 2% of total land in the world, cities’ impact is substantial. They account for 70% of the global economy and over 60% of global energy consumption, and produce 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of global waste. Sometimes viewed as the culprit behind many of the most pressing challenges facing the world, they can and must be viewed as the drivers for change and finding solutions to these problems.

The healthy cities movement started in Europe 10 years after the landmark WHO conference on Primary Health Care in Alma-Ata. This adopted the definition of health as being a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. It also called for urgent and effective national and international action to develop and implement primary health care throughout the world and particularly in developing countries – something that has yet to be achieved.

After the European network was established, other healthy city networks grew up in all the other WHO regions. And once again this month WHO has been meeting in Kazakhstan in Astana at which they once again made a commitment to primary healthy care for all. “Today, instead of health for all, we have health for some,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO. “We all have a solemn responsibility to ensure that today’s declaration on primary health care enables every person, everywhere to exercise their fundamental right to health.”

There is an intimate connection between food, health and sustainability. To carry the work forward from both Belfast and Astana, requires making those connections. One step would be to link the healthy cities work to that coming from the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, signed up to by 179 cities with 450 million inhabitants. As that text recognises ‘current food systems are being challenged to provide permanent and reliable access to adequate, safe, local, diversified, fair, healthy and nutrient rich food for all… cities which host over half the world’s population have a strategic role to play in developing sustainable food systems and promoting healthy diets’.

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Future #Food #Sustainability and research needs for the UK and EU facing #Brexit?

I was at an horizon scanning workshop organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics last week to discuss the future of food sustainability in the UK. It was run under the Chatham House rule, which means you can say things about what was said but not who said it. In a summing up at the end of the day for Nuffield, it was felt that  they may be able to help to recognise and integrate the moral claims on food sustainability especially around research and technology. There were a range of principles that were quite widely shared among the broad group of participants. One was that a holistic food system approach was needed with interdisciplinary research including the integration of social sciences at the outset. A multilevel approach in policy was also needed from local to global to landscape. A big question was how diets could be changed and who are the duty bearers to do so. There was an emphasis on recognising the need for nutrition security not just food security, in other words it’s not enough simply to think about calories but how well the diet gives nourishment to those consuming it. The need for equity of access to food linked to climate and social justice was also emphasised.

There were questions on what research was for, what is its focus, who pays and who gets the benefits from it. Where does the money come from for research, what is the institutional structure that makes the most sense in whose interests and what are the opportunity costs of doing research in some areas and neglecting others, such as agro-ecology. There is also a need to recognise that there different ways of dealing with problems that may or may not include technology and, in fact, is there too much focus on increasing production, too few interdisciplinary approaches raising questions about what the appropriate balance is between high-tech and social, economic, political and cultural approaches. Others pointed out the need for a clear appreciation of a range of externalities involved in our food system.

The day began with a presentation that outlined seven areas that had to be addressed. The first was that a great transformation was needed and the enormity of what had to happen is now clear from changing the way we use animals to plants to the ecosystem. The need to deal with biodiversity loss by moving to plant-based diets was understood and the social dimensions of sustainability, which are often underplayed. Food culture is often missing. The UK was not narrowing the evidence gap and is off-shoring its greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption. It needs a one nation approach looking at the whole population in terms of health, social values, quality, quantity, environment, economics and governance. Secondly, food is a key driver of unsustainability of our present system and Brexit illustrates the just-in-time food system we have in the UK. According to report today (see below) the government is planning to suspend all food regulations in the event of a no deal Brexit. The third point was the need for multilevel policy initiatives not just in the UK. Here the sustainable development goals were a useful framework but we need to realise that Britain is in the heartlands of where world food power and capital lie. A fourth point was recognising that companies are very interested in these issues. They are looking long term, seeing Armageddon ahead and working out how to deal with it. However, this tends to be the larger ones and it is not being dealt with by small and medium enterprises.

A fifth point was the need for civil society organisations to take on this broad view and understanding of the food system challenges and how they connect together to deal with them. A sixth point was that three lessons could be drawn from all this. These are that there are three kinds of policy approaches at the moment – first, is sticking to simple points and not trying to deal with the complexity as people find it too challenging. Second is choice editing and the third one was targeting meat and hoping everything else would fall into place. The final point was that we do not have a great food transition the UK but there are throughout the country different interesting democratic experiments going on. While the circular economy was a useful material approach to reduce waste the question was what drives waste. It was not the answer to sustainability. Brexit makes everything harder as the UK is embedded in a Europeanised food system from which 41% of its food comes.

Interestingly, a paper published today Feeding Britain: Food Security after Brexit from the Food Research Collaboration’s Food Brexit Briefings, calls upon the UK government to “Maintain a clear and explicit focus on the potential adverse effects of Brexit on food security in the UK, while negotiating the UK’s future trading relationships with the EU and other jurisdictions” as well as publish “Brexit impact studies on the UK’s agricultural and food system” amongst other things. It also calls for a rethink of the Food Standards Agencies Regulating Our Future programme plans for changing the way food is regulated in the UK.

It is also interesting to see that there is much more discussion in the EU about taking a more food system change approach to rethinking food and farming as shown by the recent publication from the FOOD 2030 Expert Group “Recipe for Change: An agenda for a climate-smart and sustainable food system for a healthy Europe

Many of the issues around research in food and farming are discussed in For whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda, a Food Ethics Council Publication with a collection of articles addressing key questions about how the research agenda is set in food and farming, the dominant research paradigm, and inclusive alternatives to deliver public good.

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A #food tale of two cities – Cape Town and New York grappling to improve their food systems

About 20 people gathered in Cardiff in early June for a workshop on the role of cities in delivering food security and sustainability prior to a public conference on the new urban food agenda of sustainable food cities. In this interview with Dr Jane Battersby and Prof Nevin Cohen, they discuss how both local government and communities in their respective cities – Cape Town and New York – are grappling with the challenges of ensuring food security and sustainability.

You can read more about their work by following the links and references below:

Dr Jane Battersby, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, is Principal Investigator: Nourishing Spaces Project. Her publications include:

Food System transformation in the Absence of Food System Planning: The Case of Supermarket and Shopping Mall Retail Expansion in Cape Town, South Africa

Hungry Cities Partnership Discussion Paper No. 5: Mapping the Informal Food Economy in Cape Town, South Africa’

The Western Cape provincial food security strategy can be found here

Prof Nevin Cohen is Associate Professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Public Health, and Research Director of CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute. His publications include:

Let Them Eat Kale: The Misplaced Narrative of Food Access

Ten Years of Food Policy Governance in New York City: Lessons for the Next Decade

The Park Slope Food Coop in New York is a member-owned and operated food store– an alternative to commercial profit-oriented business. Details of the Paris version are here.

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