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The Road to a Sustainable Food System

It’s the season of conferences, climate talk, and climate action! One major event is, of course, COP27, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, and this year something exciting is happening… COP27 sees the creation of the first-ever food systems pavilion – this pavilion focuses on “innovation, education, entrepreneurship, and public engagement” to achieve sustainable food systems all over the globe. So how do sustainable development and food systems link? Read on to find out more!

Why should we consider food systems?

First, let’s define a food system. According to the Oxford dictionary, a food system is “the complex web of activities that involves the production, processing, transport, and consumption of food.” As food is a necessity of life and is highly related to nutrition, health and wellbeing, and even employment, the sustainability of this system is paramount. We must ensure that our current activities will not sacrifice future generations’ resources.

Food systems engage in all areas of sustainable development. Thinking about the environmental side of things, food systems have a two-way relationship with climate change. On the one hand, food systems serve as a significant contributor to climate change, and on the other hand, climate change threatens the stability and security of food systems. According to a new study of Food Nature, the emissions generated throughout each stage from “Farm to Fork” are responsible for one-third of the global greenhouse gas emissions. The World Bank also has stark data on the food system’s environmental impact; “agriculture, forestry, and land use account for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.” The food system can also cause environmental degradation through unsustainable agricultural practices that result in deforestation, biodiversity loss, and desertification, to name a few. 

The negative impact of climate change can also cause massive damage to the food system regarding yield, nutrition, prices, and security. The World Bank also predicts that our population will reach 10 billion by 2050, so over time, the vulnerability of food systems may cause greater health issues and poverty. 

The circular nature of food systems

A food system is an interconnected, value-added circular system. There is a complex process, from growing crops to consuming food at the dinner table. It can include farming, transporting, packaging, and allocating the right type of food to the right place. At the same time, the interconnected system also means there are multiple approaches to reducing the environmental footprint in this process. For example:

  • Farming: improve the efficiency of watering, fertilizing, and livestock management.
  • Transporting: select transportation with clean energy and ensure safe and good conditions for storage.
  • Packaging: to introduce greater transparency on materials used to combat greenwashing to enable consumers to make informed choices.
  • Allocating: conduct thorough investigations on consumption patterns to reduce food waste.
Leafy crops in a field. Sun is rising in the background causing a bright light across the field.
Sustainable food packaging including paper sachets, glass jars, cardboard all in a cardboard box on paper.
Indoor brick-orange food waste bin. Leafy greens of carrots poking out of the top. Sitting on a wooden surface set against a plain grey wall.

How are policymakers pursuing sustainable food systems?

Globally, the Paris Agreement & Koroniva Joint Work on Agriculture are the two main international agreements making efforts towards a sustainable food system. These policies reflect the joint commitment to achieve a more resilient and sustainable food system. The recognized agreements serve as guidelines to influence food systems worldwide. For example, across global regions, there is an emphasis on localizing food consumption to reduce the distance food travels and encourage the design of distinctive local cuisine culture. Other initiatives help to transform farming practices that harm the ecosystem diversity, like the large-scale, intensive use of chemical fertilizers to produce homogenous crops. You can read more about the problem of monocultures at Challenge.org.

Some regional initiatives also play a significant role. Nation-wide central banks may stabilize food prices, governments might allocate funds for scientific research, and education institutions may actively integrate awareness-rasing contents into their curriculums. From the perspective of international trade, the European Union (EU) requires importers to report emissions of imported goods. The EU aims to impose a carbon border tax to internalize carbon emissions in the open market, although the implications are controversial.

What can I do to make a difference?

It’s not just the governments and businesses in the supply chain that can make a difference. You can make a difference too! Individual and community action to reform the food system can play a big role in influencing the market and public opinion. There are several ways you can increase the sustainability of the food system, but here are two major ones:

  1. Dietary change with individualized plans: humans have a range of nutritional needs to sustain our life and maintain a healthy state. A sustainable diet can be achieved in various ways. After consideration of your cultural tradition, genetic characteristics, and availability in your region, you can make small changes in your diet to lessen your environmental footprint. The EU Food 2030 Pathways for Action suggestions include reducing meat consumption, trying plant-based alternatives, adjusting the proportion of each type of food, and diversifying the offer for proteins in your meal. Everyone’s situation is different so try not to compare your changes to a friend’s; instead, exchange and share ideas, then take the ones that fit your life!
  2. Be a conscious consumer and conscious producer: when you shop with your conscious consumer hat on, you can make smart choices to influence the market and avoid waste. Try shopping locally, cooking instead of ordering takeout, keeping leftovers for later and with others, and also try using a shopping list to ensure you only buy what you need. As farmers, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN suggests that harvesting during the best time and ensuring good storage after harvest can reduce economic losses and improve the efficiency of supply chains. Vote with your dollars in the supermarket by opting for the ‘greener’ packaging when you can – it signals to the producers that improving the sustainability of their products is a worthwhile venture. 

We urgently need a resilient food system for the wellbeing of all. With a combination of systemic change (top-down influence) and individual action (bottom-up influence), transforming food systems is achievable, and we can make the world more sustainable. To learn more, you can check out a range of our other articles, including Invest In Climate Solutions and Save the Earth IV: Make Your Diet Sustainable.

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