Five key questions to answer about resilient and sustainable food systems

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.