The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
New global food reports indicate need for greater human capacity & systems thinking
After a very busy couple of months, I’ve been enjoying catching up on the huge number of reports flowing out of various international organisations. So much material to help make decisions about what to do for better nutrition and food systems. Here are some of my favourites.
The Global Nutrition Report this year includes some super-useful tables on how diets diverge from both health and sustainability. While the dire state of the global diet is well-established, the report packs a punch by setting out the figures in black and white (or, rather, shades of orange) across different foods and regions. There are some pretty shocking numbers here showing exactly how far we are away from where we need to be.
The Food Systems Policy Tool, published by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, is designed to help governments identify what to do to address this divergence. Set up as a series of questions, it encourages users to focus on identifying the diet problems at hand, what is causing them, and where the food systems solutions lie. I hope governments refer to it, even if just to help structure their decision-making about where to take action in their context.
The Foodscapes report from The Nature Conservancy provides the environmental context for such decision-making. It maps what it calls ‘foodscapes’ - terrestrial and aquatic food production areas with distinct biophysical attributes and management patterns. The report identifies a total of 80 (such as semi-arid grazing systems and intensive grain/oilseed systems) pointing out the environmental challenges each present and the nature-based solutions that can fix them. Such solutions, it suggests, can also help achieve nutrition goals, a notable example being diversifying landscapes towards nutritious foods rather than stripping down to cereals, oilseeds or sugar.
Indeed, one of the striking things about this new crop of reports is how they bring together nutrition and sustainability. The WWF Food Manifesto for COP26 goes further by highlighting the “missing ingredient” needed to ensure both are considered: a "food systems approach" which integrates food consumption as part of the solution to climate change as well as changes to production. A clear call for integrated action across food systems. While not the first nor only time this point has been made, it is notable to see the importance of systemic thinking front and centre in a manifesto of such a large and influential NGO.
Next up is the World Inequality Report 2022. This report doesn’t mention food at all. But it speaks volumes for what needs to be done to address dietary inequalities from both a health and sustainability perspective. If, as it shows, “the share of income presently captured by the poorest half of the world’s people is about half what it was in 1820,” then we haven't a hope of getting food systems working for everybody. Such appalling inequalities prevent too many people from acquiring healthy and sustainable diets, even where food systems are doing a good job producing them. Turning this vicious cycle into a virtuous one - by tackling structural inequalities - has to be central to the agenda. To add insult to injury, it is the rich, confirms the report, not the poor, who are causing the climate crisis.
I was glad, therefore, to see the ability of vulnerable households to access healthy diets in face of shocks (like climate change) highlighted in the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture 2021. The report, Making Agrifood Systems More Resilient to Shocks and Stresses, takes readers through resilience issues in production, food supply chains and consumption. In doing so it shines a light on the point of least resilience in food systems made apparent by COVID-19: households vulnerable to economic shocks. Thus efforts to build food system resilience – defined as the dynamic capacity to continue to achieve goals despite disturbances – must include as a priority “guaranteeing economic access to a healthy diet.” Identifying how to do so while considering resilience across the whole system, the report concludes, requires an understanding of "how systems function and interact,” coherence between policies, and the involvement of “government institutions across all relevant sectors and different layers."
Enter the OnePlanet Network’s report National and Sub-National Food Systems Multi-Stakeholder Mechanisms: An Assessment of Experiences. Taking as its starting point the need to “embed a holistic food systems approach into policy-making processes,” the report delves into the workings and contributions of 10 existing food system multi-stakeholder mechanisms of different types and scales. This lengthy tome makes evident that rethinking food systems governance and institutional arrangements is essential to address the interlinked problems of nutrition, environment, resilience and inequalities in livelihoods set out in this range of reports. Food systems multi-stakeholder mechanisms can contribute by providing the space for a wide range of food systems actors to come together, for the networking and connecting between them, and for the leadership needed to balance the power relations and navigate the inevitable conflicts towards solutions.
The most critical challenge to emerge from these reports is how to put the numerous recommendations they provide into practice. This is where I see two things missing.
The first is capacity: inadequate human and leadership capabilities on the ground are holding back the ability to implement real change. Greater human resource for implementation is essential at the local, national, regional and global levels, with needs being particularly great at the all important local level where there is so much unrealised potential for action. Let's hope the US$27bn committed by government and private sector donors at the recent Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit will provide some of this basic sustenance needed to get the job done.
Second are the skills to think and act systemically. While all the reports point to the need for a systems approach, if no-one is there with the ability to embrace the complexity and help implementers work their way through it, these calls will likely come to nothing. Part of the secret to success will, I think, be in ensuring the skills and capacity are there to make the necessary connections, to identify what lies beneath the implementation challenges, and to engage the right people (in the right way) on the pathway of change.
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