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“We need a strategy that focuses on the transformation of food systems”

Spore exclusive


Interview with Frederike Praasterink

Professor Frederike Praasterink is a lecturer in sustainability and future food systems in the Netherlands. She strongly believes that leadership at the local level is needed in the strategy for transforming food systems.

There is no time to lose. The global population is increasing and climate change is impacting on the world’s ability to feed itself. At the same time, nutrition problems remain with too many people malnourished and many others over nourished and obese. It is time to rethink the global food system. Professor Praasterink gives her insight into what she feels needs to be done.

The world faces a huge challenge to feed a growing population in a time of climate change and environmental degradation. Surely, without a healthy world, it is not surprising that too many have unhealthy diets?

That is right, and the increases in food production needed to feed a growing and wealthier population cannot be achieved by simply extrapolating our current production and consumption trends. This would undermine the very resource base on which the food system itself depends. If you look at the world’s strategies for food production, we have been focusing quite a bit on sustainable intensification and still do, which concerns producing more with less and the efficient use of resources etc. But intensification has brought biodiversity loss and soil degradation, and this, in the face of a global malnutrition problem where one in every three citizens worldwide suffers from one of its forms: too much, too little, or the double burden of too many calories but too little micronutrients.

So now the world is slowly becoming aware that, in addition to sustainable intensification, we also need a strategy that focuses on transformation of food systems toward a sustainable and resilient state. Preserving our ecosystems as well as the health and wellbeing of people, and reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, really are dependent on a structural transformation of the food system – making it ‘net positive’ rather than ‘less bad’.

I am pleased to see that a growing number of organisations, including FAO, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and also our own Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, have adopted, or have programmes and activities on, the strategy of transforming food systems.

How do you define and describe transformation of food systems?

Our team of the Future Food Systems professorship, a research group at HAS University of Applied Sciences, has been working for some years on defining the transformation of food systems. We work on this in collaboration with a Dutch foundation called the Transition Coalition Food – an organisation of more than 150 businesses, NGOs, governments, and knowledge and education institutes. The coalition was formed about 3 years ago, and is actually a ‘bottom-up movement’ based on a collective feeling of urgency that something needed to be done in addition to what we already do in the ‘usual’ innovation programmes.

So, we have defined transformation of food systems in a number of transition paths; one focuses on redesigning agricultural production systems towards more diversified agro-ecological production systems that are climate resilient, for example, growing polycultures (a diversity of crops) rather than monocultures to regenerate soils and biodiversity. And circular production, for example, by using food waste streams as feed for animals, or by using edible insects like black soldier fly larvae that upcycle organic waste to high quality proteins and fats.

Another transition path is on food consumption, which involves moving towards sustainable diets that consist of much more plant-based foods, including plant proteins. These sustainable diets should also help work towards more preventive healthcare, through food, the food environment and lifestyle.

We also work on business models based on true cost accounting, which includes the hidden cost of our food, cost for loss of biodiversity, CO2 emissions, and healthcare costs due to unhealthy lifestyles. A team of seven of our students are currently undertaking a very interesting assessment of the perceptions in our agrifood sector on true cost accounting and how it can be applied.

And what exactly do you mean by a systems approach?

With our systems approach we look at the food system as a whole, not just chains, to define intervention strategies that would help reduce specific problems, such as food waste and losses. We have developed a number of steps, and usually work with groups of people that are involved in the field to make a food systems analysis. We look at the priority issues, the patterns of behaviour that cause them, the underlying structures and the paradigms that make the problems persist. This sounds all a bit conceptual but, in fact, it is very practical when applied to a specific situation or theme. This results in a series of interventions that could be applied in the short, medium and longer term.

For example, we organised a masterclass at the beginning of 2019, with highly motivated students from different courses as part of an honours programme and in cooperation with a national foundation on food waste. Instead of looking at food waste as the problem, we looked at food waste as the symptom of an unsustainable system. So, instead of focusing on what to do with food waste, we looked at why food waste happens again and again – what are the structures, patterns, models and paradigms of the food system that continue to cause food waste at various levels. This lead to an intervention that did not just target the re-use of waste, but also, the underlying patterns. The interesting thing is that, when you work on the paradigms of food waste, you realise that they are actually similar to the paradigms of other food system problems like biodiversity loss. These paradigms are, for example, productionism, profit maximisation, and a disconnection from food and nature. Leverage points can be on all these system levels, but changing the paradigms is really transformative.

You are building this movement, but would you say it is very much a Western approach or is it happening on a more global scale?

I think it is happening on a global scale. And interestingly, the younger generations, for example our students here at my university, really understand the challenge that we face, and want to be part of the solution. Look at the climate marches. So I am very hopeful that there may be a ‘silent revolution’ of the younger generations that will lead us all to sustainability.

But we have very little time and we are already exceeding a number of planetary boundaries from our food system. We are contributing a quarter more greenhouse gases from agriculture and food, so clearly, we need to do something more radical than what is happening currently. However, transition starts with awareness that food systems are related to other issues; the climate and food and water security, for instance, are all inter-related so we cannot just apply a quick-fix or a technology push.

Worldwide, the food system needs to be changed and Western countries maybe need to change the most. Dietary patterns are an example – reducing meat consumption and eating more fruit and vegetables are simple things, but very effective for the global system.

To adopt the strategy of transforming food systems, we need to work in coalitions. And we need leadership to transform food systems, both formal leaders like presidents, policymakers or captains of industry, as well as ordinary people as leaders in their community or circles of influence. Never underestimate how your sustainable choices can contribute to big change.