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Fixing food systems for environmental sustainability


© Neil Palmer - CIAT

Two reports and a new book highlight how food can be used to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

If the world were to get 5°C degrees warmer by 2100 – a scenario that is not far-fetched – there will be 50% less grain to feed a global population that may well be 50% bigger. To cope with such an outcome, the way we produce and consume food and our culture(s) surrounding that is going to have to change.

The EAT-Lancet Commission’s 2019 report, Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, in its very first sentence of the summary, explains: “Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth. However, food is currently threatening both people and planet.” Using sophisticated infographics, including adaptions of the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ graphic, the report explains just how much a risk unhealthy diets are for the global population, as well as the degree to which the global food system threatens the environmental sustainability of the planet. The extent of the threat, the report states, is dire and requires a “radical transformation of the global food system”, implying a required shift in, or a reimagining of, unstainable food culture. To achieve this, the report identifies two ‘end-points’ of the system – healthy diets and sustainable food production – that must be our targets, and proposes five strategies for the global community to meet them.

The importance, underappreciation and underdevelopment of nutrition is the basis of the International Food Policy Research Institute’s new book: Agriculture for Improved Nutrition: Seizing the Momentum. The book’s primary emphasis is that the recognition of agriculture’s “vast potential to improve nutrition” is only just being acknowledged by scientists and policymakers. Looking at recent history, the book draws attention to the fact that significant levels of resources, time and effort were put into increasing food production in the 20th century, but the ability of nutrition to deliver world-impacting results on food and diets has frequently been overlooked. Agriculture, perhaps obviously, can play a key role in improving food system nutrition, with methods such as biofortification and changing (food) culture.

An examination of traditional cultural practices related to food as not only “a strong driver of cultural identity”, but also ways by which the global population can “produce and consume food in harmony with their environment”, is also the focus of FAO and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s report, Chefs as Agents of Change. The report argues that chefs “shape public opinion and influence the general population, the private sector and governments”, and therefore they have an important role to play. The report also reveals that the influence of such actors in the field of food culture and nutrition will lead to improvements relevant to 13 of the 17 SDGs.

Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems – Summary Report
By W Willett et al.
EAT, 2019; 32 pp.

Chefs as Agents of Change
By FAO and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
FAO and UNESCO, 2019; 8 pp.

Agriculture for Improved Nutrition: Seizing the Momentum
Edited by S Fan, S Yosef & R Pandya-Lorch.
IFPRI, 2019; 233 pp.
ISBN 978-17-8639-931-1

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