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Five key questions to answer about resilient and sustainable food systems

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Food systems are highly complex and interconnected. If our grocery stores and kitchens are to have a future with packed shelves, we need to be able to make our food systems sustainable. Horizon magazine reached out to food system experts with five essential questions.

The growing global population, reducing rural poverty, protecting the environment, climate change and the biodiversity crisis are just some of the challenges currently facing agriculture around the world. But we can do much to improve this situation by rethinking the food production and distribution systems to make them more sustainable. This shift should reflect local needs, culture and conditions, say experts.

Up to now, plans to change the food industry were made on a sector-by-sector basis through say, agriculture, education and health. But this approach fails to recognise the interconnections between food, health and the environment. A systematic approach to change is required.

‘These interconnections must be acknowledged to achieve effective planning and successful policy implementation,’ said Tom Arnold. He chairs the European Commission’s High Level Expert Group on how science and evidence can better support policy making for sustainable food systems.

Food systems

The key to reversing this fragmented approach is to take a “food systems” view. It seeks to identify, analyse and assess the impact and feedback of the system’s different actors, activities and outcomes. This in turn helps to identify possible measures to enhance the security of food and nutrition.

Food systems are a complex web of people, institutions, activities, processes and infrastructure which combine to produce, process, transport, serve and consume food.

The food system not only profoundly influences our bodily health, but also the health of our environment, economy and even our society. When it works well, it is the bedrock of our families, communities and countries.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine it’s clear that much of the world’s food system lacks resilience and is vulnerable to collapse. To address these vulnerabilities, the experts need to consider five key questions about the global food system.

1. How are food systems influencing and being impacted by climate change?

Each activity within the food system generates pollutants and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which cause climate change. Food production usually involves the use of farm machinery, industrial fertilisers and packaging, all of which heavily rely on fossil fuel components. Much food is then refrigerated and travels long distances from farm to fork.

Furthermore, overproduction leads to large amounts of food that is wasted. As it decomposes, food generates methane, a potent GHG. When food is wasted, the emissions generated to produce that food are wasted too.

Climate change directly affects the security of food and nutrition, especially in the Global South. There, many countries are experiencing a shorter growing season, lower crop yields, and decreasing amounts of arable land.

Rising temperatures can lead to water shortages, exacerbating malnutrition. Millions of small farmers (who are often the backbone of food production) are going out of business to be replaced by large-scale operations that produce food for export, not for the local population.

2. What are European policymakers, scientists and citizens doing to transform food systems?

The EU’s 2019 Farm-to-Fork Strategy acknowledges the challenges facing sustainable food systems. Its goal is to ensure that the benefits of the transition towards a green economy are experienced by everyone in society.

‘This is an important step in developing policies that recognise the complexity of food systems together with other complex systems like ecosystems, welfare, the economy and climate change,’ said Roberta Sonnino, Professor of Sustainable Food Systems at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey.

‘In addition, Member States must deliver on the commitments made at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and form a vital link between global and local policy actions,’ she said.

Member States should also work closer with ordinary people to improve food systems policy making on the regional level.

Specific measures to transform the food system vary from place to place. For example, the planning system, with its land use plans and zoning laws, could open new avenues for change.

Innovative investment schemes and business models based on the interactions between food, health and inclusion could emerge. 

Sustainability reforms were a big part of the new Common Agricultural Policy 2023-2027 for example, while the European Green Deal (EGD) reflects this changed approach.

The EGD plans to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. This ambition covers strategies relevant to the food sector, like the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity strategy for 2030.

Notwithstanding the current progress, it is complex work. There is no “silver bullet,” claims Arnold. ‘Each country has its own distinctive food system, based on its natural resource base, climate, production patterns, eating habits and history,’ he explained.

3. What’s the best way to connect top-down (global) and bottom-up (local) measures to transform food systems?

One way is for global and local initiatives to be connected at the national level. ‘We need investment by national governments to develop the infrastructure for sustainable food systems like wholesale markets, farmers’ markets, food hubs and other food distribution channels,’ said Prof. Sonnino. This action would encourage cooperation between the players in the industry.

National and regional governments also have the capability to use their regulatory and legislative powers to create a more supportive environment for transformative agendas.

Targeted price, tax and advertising policies, combined with the setting of national decarbonisation targets are also necessary to address situations in which food environments are designed by market considerations only. Unfortunately, this is often the case in deprived areas.

‘The 2021 Food System Summit concluded that transformation of the global food system will require a particular focus on science, research and innovation.’ said Arnold. In keeping with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the aim is to implement change through financing, data, governance and trade, and support healthier, more inclusive and sustainable food systems.

‘This includes building on good practice such as indigenous food systems and engaging all people, particularly women and youth, indigenous peoples, businesses and producers,’ he said.

4. Why is it difficult for cities and regions to address the relationship between food, health and inclusion?

Cities and regions operate within a fragmented administrative environment, which is still dominated by historically “siloed” ways of working. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to develop policies that initiate and sustain change. Food system innovators often find themselves working in isolation.

While it’s one thing to set in motion transformative strategies that build on the connections between food, health and inclusion, it’s another thing to sustain the transformation agenda and achieve scale.

‘To enable and support local initiatives, we urgently need to address the fractured nature of food systems across multiple vertical (global-local) and horizontal (sectoral and territorial) levels of governance,’ said Prof. Sonnino.

5. Are there any examples of European cities or regions that could act as role models for transforming food systems?

There are many examples of European cities working to make the food system healthier and more inclusive through the adoption of a “place-based” approach. With its emphasis on “places”, the Food 2030 Research & Innovation programme has been instrumental in helping cities builds on specific local conditions to address local needs in innovative ways. There is always a balance to be struck between different sustainability objectives at different scales.

An important mechanism that can be employed by local government at the city level is the Food Policy Council, which actively engages citizens in local food policies and governance.

Food Policy Councils are currently well established in cities such as Vienna, Amsterdam, and Berlin, to name a few. Other cities are using their food procurement powers to develop public food systems that provide healthy food to vulnerable citizens like schoolchildren, hospital patients and the elderly residents of nursing homes. This means working with those food producers and catering services that respect the environment.

One of the best examples in this regard is Copenhagen, where the tendering process is driven by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

‘But I can’t think of a single city yet that has managed to thoroughly reform its food system,’ said Prof. Sonnino.

‘Best practice examples tend to emerge within very specific areas and are, therefore, quite rare and fragmented. We currently lack examples of completely integrated food policy agendas – at the urban level and beyond,’ she pointed out.

The impetus to make sustainable food systems the norm will have a positive impact on job creation and local economies. It will make local communities more self-reliant and sustainable, eventually benefiting all of us. 

Global coalition for food systems

On 23 March 2022, the European Commission announced that it is stepping up support for global action to transform food systems via eight Global Coalitions.

Concerns about food security is front-of-mind in Europe and all over the world at the present moment with high prices and acute supply issues, the situation has the potential to be disastrous.

The double whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have hit at the heart of global food security and resilience. By engaging in eight global Coalitions for Action, the European Union will work together with global partners to improve food security.

The EU will actively engage with and support action on food production to improve diet and nutrition, sustainability, resilience and productivity to help mitigate and avert food crises on a global basis through the Coalitions.

In a statement, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, said: “The scientific contribution and engagement by the Commission have been pivotal in the preparation of the Coalitions … (We have) established a high-level expert group to explore the needs and options to strengthen the international science policy interface for improved food systems governance, whose recommendations will be finalised by May 2022.

To learn more about the EU’s role in international action to transform food systems via eight Global Coalitions, follow the link to the press release below.

Food security: Commission steps up support for global action to transform food systems via eight Global Coalitions

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Environment

China will aim to plant and conserve 70 billion trees by 2030

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Xie Zhenhua, China’s Special Envoy for Climate Change announced the country’s active response to the World Economic Forum’s 1t.org initiative, the platform supporting the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The World Economic Forum and China Green Foundation will actively echo and support the contribution to be implemented in China. This initiative will encourage society-wide stakeholders, including enterprises, individuals, and local governments at all levels to commit with actions to plant, conserve, restore and manage 70 billion trees in China by 2030.

1t.org was launched at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting two years ago to support the growing momentum around nature-based solutions by mobilizing the private sector, facilitating regional multi-stakeholder partnerships, and supporting innovation and ecopreneurship on the ground.

During his speech at the Forum’s 2022 Annual Meeting in Davos, Xie Zhenhua said: ‘China’s forest cover and forest stock volume have been growing in the last 30 years, and China accounts for more than 25% of the world’s new green areas. China responds actively to contribute to the 1t.org initiative from the World Economic Forum, and I am announcing here that China aims to plant and conserve 70 billion trees within 10 years to green our planet, combat climate change, and increase forest carbon sinks.’

In support of this bold contribution, Chairman Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum said:

‘We appreciate China’s effort in supporting the 1t.org initiative of the World Economic Forum and relevant UN initiatives, we highly appreciate China’s practices upholding relative international commitment such as the Paris Agreement and Biodiversity target through Nature-Based Solutions.’

China’s Bold Action

In the past decade, China has regrown more than 70 million hectares of forest cover. The country has benefited greatly from solutions in biodiversity conservation, sustainable usage and climate governance, resulting in wetland and forest restoration that also combats desertification.

China’s 14th “Five Year Plan” has a stated target of increasing forest coverage to 24.1% by 2025, and forest stock volume up to 19 billion cubic meters. Science-based greening efforts and inter-ministerial cooperation have provided the key vehicle for forest ecosystem restoration.

China’s contribution will encourage the 1t.org initiative to collaborate more closely in the local context to fulfill this contribution and will stimulate collective community actions at large scales and empower Chinese organizations and individuals to make contributions. China’s active response to 1t.org displays the nation’s capacity and strong commitment to safeguard the Paris Agreement and post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

How Trees Can Play Their Part

China’s land restoration and afforestation projects provide fundamental support to the country’s poverty reduction targets of elevating 20 million people out of poverty, with the lives of 3 million people already improved through increased household income. Healthy and resilient forests are also part of people’s expectations for better living qualities according to China’s strategy. During the period of China’s13th Five year plan, the Chinese forest tourism industry grew substantially with an annual average of 1.5 billion tourists visiting national forests.

Mobilize Society-wide Action, Plant Future Trees of Hopes

China’s active response to the 1t.org initiative encourages all stakeholders to promote solutions and activities to meet climate and nature targets. These include emission reduction policies for committed companies and individuals; guiding local governments to promote climate adaptation activities such as afforestation and ecological restoration, engaging scientific organizations, think-tanks, and civil societies to promote accountable and credible tools and evaluation frameworks; creating digital environments and crowd funding opportunities for innovation solutions; and adding afforestation and carbon storage incentives.

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More Industrial Hubs to Accelerate Their Net-Zero Transition

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Four leading industrial clusters in the Netherlands, Belgium and the US today announced that they are working together with the World Economic Forum to reduce their carbon emissions faster through the Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net Zero initiative.

Launched at COP26 in November 2021, the initiative aims to accelerate the decarbonization of hard-to-abate industrial sectors, while maximizing job creation and economic competitiveness. The approach focuses on building cross-industry and cross-cluster partnerships to better implement low-carbon technologies – as in the case of the regionally developed Basque Hydrogen Corridor – and on accessing public funding and blended-finance options for clusters’ decarbonization projects.

Under this initiative, the World Economic Forum, working closely with Accenture and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as knowledge partners, connects private and public stakeholders to assess how to meet individual and collective decarbonization goals, fosters new enabling policies and provides guidance and support for local community engagement.

Industrial clusters are geographic regions where industrial companies are concentrated, making them an attractive target for impactful emissions reduction strategies. Since industrial assets are located in close proximity of each other, sharing of infrastructure (such as CO2 and hydrogen pipelines or renewable energy assets), financial and operational risks, and natural and human resources becomes possible. This also provides opportunities to deploy and scale new green technologies, such as hydrogen and the capture, utilization and storage of carbon for industrial applications, enabling a systemic approach to emissions reduction.

The clusters joining the initiative are:

· Brightlands Circular Space, together with Brightlands Chemelot Campus, Chemelot, and the Chemelot Circular Hub in Geleen, Netherlands. It will help accelerate the energy transition and circular economy.

· H2Houston Hub, formed through the Center for Houston’s Future and encompassing more than 100 organizations and companies. It will leverage the Houston area’s position as the US’s largest hydrogen producer and consumer, and use innovation and scale to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen and emissions.

· Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance, with approximately 100 corporate, governmental and community organization members. It will lead the region’s campaign to establish a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, US.

· Port of Antwerp-Bruges, Europe’s second-largest port. It will drive the circular economy and energy transition.

These four large industrial emissions centres, involving oil and gas extraction and processing, shipping, heavy-duty transportation, chemicals and other sectors, currently account for CO2 emissions of 296 million metric tonnes per year – greater than the annual emissions of Poland. They employ more than 470,000 people and represent an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of $135 billion.

“Supporting industrial clusters and corporate partners in the development and implementation of their net-zero strategies is at the heart of what we do,” said Roberto Bocca, Head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Platform, World Economic Forum. “We are proud to leverage our collaborative platform and expertise in partnership building to grow the clusters initiative as well as other decarbonization efforts we support, such as the First Movers Coalition, Mission Possible Partnership and Clean Hydrogen Initiative.”

The four new clusters join four others in the UK (Zero Carbon Humber and Hynet North West), Australia (Kwinana Industries Council) and Spain (Basque Net-Zero Industrial Supercluster), which were part of the initial launch of the initiative. Based on metrics provided by each cluster, all eight clusters could potentially save more than 334 million tonnes of CO2 – more than the equivalent annual emissions output of France. They could also create and protect 1.1 million jobs and contribute $182 billion to regional GDP.

“The Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance seeks to locate a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, leading to the eventual decarbonization of much of the transportation, electricity, industrial and heating sectors,” said Kirt Conrad, Co-Founder, Ohio Clean Hydrogen Alliance and Chief Executive Officer, Stark Area Regional Transit Authority. “Investment into a clean hydrogen hub in Ohio will help create massive economic, environmental and health benefits for the state and its citizens.”

“With our focus on becoming the premier circular ecosystem in Europe, it is of upmost importance that we foster competitive collaboration between the companies in our cluster as well as with other global clusters,” said Lia Voermans, Director Brightlands Circular Space, “We believe that this initiative provides a gateway to access the best practices and processes supporting industrial decarbonization.”

The new clusters are already actively advancing their decarbonization journey. For instance, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges is starting to convert hydrogen into sustainable raw materials and fuel for the port’s chemicals sector, whereas the Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance has developed hydrogen fuel cell buses which tour around the US, educating transit authorities on the potential and viability of clean transportation. However, to achieve net-zero emissions, these efforts must be scaled up. Often, financial mechanisms, rather than technology, are the main roadblock, and policy frameworks to support valuable future technologies are lacking. As value chains are transformed, the creation of new partnerships will be key.

“The Houston region has the talent, expertise and infrastructure needed to lead the global energy transition to a low carbon world,” said Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future. “Clean hydrogen, alongside carbon capture, use and storage are among the key technology areas where Houston is set to succeed and can be an example to other leading energy economies around the world.”

“The Port of Antwerp-Bruges hosts Europe’s largest chemical cluster and supports the European Green Deal to become climate neutral by 2050,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, Chief Executive Officer, Port of Antwerp. “To reach this goal we will all have to work together with respect for individual company needs, industry characteristics and timing. The Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net-Zero initiative is a means to inspire and incentivize companies to share best practices in our common pursuit of staying well below 2°C.”

In addition to the eight clusters currently involved in the initiative, more than a dozen in the US, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region are also in the process of joining. The aim is to build a community of 100 global industrial clusters to accelerate industrial decarbonization.

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Global Food Crisis Must Be Solved Alongside Climate Crisis

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Instability in Ukraine is threatening to intensify an already precarious global food security outlook. Increasing prices of fertilizers and inaccessibility of Ukrainian exports have made a delicate situation potentially dire, as 800 million people now go hungry each night. Russian blockades of Ukrainian ports have further intensified world leaders’ focus on worsening food insecurity.

“Failure to open the ports is a declaration of war on global food security,” said David Beasley, Executive Director, United Nations World Food Programme. The pandemic had already complicated global efforts to reduce famine and food insecurity, and those challenges have only intensified with the conflict in Ukraine. “We’re taking food from the hungry to give to the starving,” said Beasley of the recent conditions.

Food insecurity is a problem not only for public health but also for geopolitics and security. “Hungry societies break down wherever you are in the world,” said Julia Chatterley, Anchor, CNN.

There is a risk that short-term efforts to combat food shortages could come at the expense of meeting climate and sustainability targets given the interconnection between agriculture and climate change. Global food production contributes more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and efforts to ramp up food supply could worsen emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

Innovation technologies and regenerative techniques can improve agricultural productivity. “Agriculture has to be part of the solution to climate change and the solution for food security,” said J. Erik Fyrwald, CEO, Syngenta Group. The goal must be growing more food on less land and, to do so, farmers can employ best practices from both organic and conventional farming. He advised that EU food policy reforms that shift away from a focus on organics towards targets on productivity and emission reduction could better address the current crisis. Techniques such as crop rotation and covering land in winter better protect soil and help farmers increase yield with less fertilizer.

Africa can play a major role in improving global food security, but the continent faces multiple challenges to unlocking agricultural productivity. Already, famine has intensified social and political turmoil in several countries. “If we don’t silence the guns, it’s not going to work,” said Philip Isdor Mpango, Vice-President of Tanzania, regarding the goal of increasing agricultural productivity. He pointed to the continent’s young population – with roughly 70% of the population aged 25 or younger – and the need to include youth in improving agricultural productivity. “We must strategize so we have the youthful population involved in agricultural value chains.”

Another challenge relates to post-harvest losses. Approximately one third of the continent’s food production is lost after harvest due to poor infrastructure, storage and other challenges. Investing in irrigation, transport infrastructure and storage facilities can improve Africa’s contribution to global food security.

Viet Nam is experiencing the current food crisis alongside intensified effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion. The nation has a plan to become a “food innovation hub in South-East Asia,” said Le Minh Khai, Deputy Prime Minister of Viet Nam. Doing so requires a holistic approach that balances short-term and long-term strategies and involves multinational organizations, entrepreneurs, investors and farmers.

Both wealthy and developing nations have a key role to play, particularly given that food production must increase more than 60% by 2050 to feed the world. “Solving the global food crisis is everyone’s business,” said Mariam Mohammed Saeed Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, United Arab Emirates.

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