Let's do the food system right (Part 2)

Progress Namibia - Let's do the food system right (Part 2)
27 January 2020

Last week I wrote about the current realities of the food system. That, in short, the way we grow, collect, move, sell, buy, and ultimately consume food, is, basically, bad for us, and bad for other life on Earth. It is manifesting itself in our health and our ecosystems and many facets of our economy. If you want to go back and be recapped, you can see last week's story here. This week is more about how we fix this system. A few years ago, a network was seeded that has become relatively global, relatively powerful, and is working to delineate externalisation of agriculture and food value chains. There are many different actors at play, including people who know health, people who know ecosystems, people who know soil, people who understand the economy, and many more, who have jointly been looking at the economics of the eco-agrifood system. A few things are jotted down below based on my review of the TEEB AgriFood body of work.

I mentioned last week that the eco-agrifood system can either cause disease across generations, or provide a pathway to healthy lives. We can create one that actually supports human health.

The other issue was that there is always argument to grow more for a growing population, and therefore we need to increase production with short-term solutions. However, food distribution is much more a problem than whether we have enough of it. We have huge wastage, and huge inequality in our current food system. This is also something we can fix.

Another issue is health. From people affected directly and indirectly by pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides and other chemical inputs, to the fact that our food is causing un-health in society. Today I was speaking to a scientist who supported a study on the externalities in the cacao industry in Ghana and Ivory Coast (which by the way together provide the world with 55% of our global cacao) - and how much sickness and unhealth there is in this industry due to pesticide use - and how such studies like the one he is part of is helping people see the connections here. This can also be fixed. We just grow better, healthier, food. Our health depends directly on the health of our ecosystems. If our soils, our ecosystems are unhealthy, we will be unhealthy. We have evolved together, after all.

Agricultural production systems need to be much more embedded in the ecosystems and human societies in which they find themselves. There has been a rise in farming embedded in systems, including most notably agroecology, but also e.g. permacutlure, biodynamic farming, one-straw revolution, bio-intensive farming, the no-tillage movement, and the food sovereignty movements of e.g. La Via Campesina. These types of farming should be heavily subsidized, making it cheaper, and easier, for farmers to farm sustainably. Those that pollute and use heavy machinery should be disincentivised to do so. Right now, its the other way around.

Key changes would need to include scaling up agroecology, decreasing food losses, reducing feed production, adapting global dietary patterns to the areas in which they live (and for most of the world, this means reduced livestock supply), disincentivizing all fossil-fuel based practices and accelerating adoption of renewable energy through nations' economies. It would also need us to apply a variety of metrics in the agrifood system assessments. What we must be doing is recognizing and strengthening those forms of agricultural production that explicitly enhance ecosystem services and build the natural capital that underpins the food systems, creating regenerative forms of agriculture and a food system that generates multiple externalities. We will only do that if we have the right, and more holistic, metrics.

Food waste needs to be radically reduced - this will not only increase (real) economic returns, but also ensure that more people are fed. Right now, food as a cheap commodity prevails - disposing is cheaper than reusing food in industrialised food chains. Increased investments in financially feasible post-harvest loss technologies need to be made and markets need to internalize the environmental and social costs, so that letting food spoil is no longer economic, nor culturally acceptable.

Technology innovation needs much more regulation, and thus focus on technologies that serve (and do not harm, even in the long-term) humanity. We need an international technology evaluation and information mechanism in place that is based on the Precautionary Principle to strengthen stakeholders capacities to assess the health, environmental, economic and social impacts of new and emerging technologies. Enhanced agro-ecological strategies, coupled with labour-saving equipment and powered by renewable energies need to be focused on in this system of innovation - with the appropriate technology development being in service of producers in the food supply value chain.

Generally, recycling should become the primary form of raw material supply, not extraction.

And ultimately, more people part of the system, including you and I, need to be able to think in systems. Systems thinking will help us see the connections and feedbacks from actions within the eco-agrifood system, and help us understand why it is important to change, and how to go about it as fast as we can.

[Image Source: Measuring what matters in agriculture and food systems: a synthesis http://teebweb.org/agrifood/measuring-what-matters-in-agriculture-and-food-systems/]