A new way of managing ‘broken’ food systems

There is no doubt that current agriculture and food systems are significant drivers of planetary ill-health. Impacts include land degradation from poor production practices, high levels of species extinction, unhealthy diets driving rising levels of obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases, and nearly 25% of global greenhouse gases from land use change, agriculture and deforestation.

The annual EAT Forum held in June 2018 in Stockholm generated plenty of discussion on how to fix “the broken food system”. The host, Sweden, offered some innovative approaches to reducing the impacts of current food systems. For example, a recent Climate Change Act commits the Nordic country to zero emissions by 2045. In addition, the Swedish Green Party (a member of the current ruling coalition) is considering a tax on the intensive meat industry and there is also discussion on copying French legislation on banning the disposal of edible food. Senior Swedish officials anticipate that animal-based investments may become the stranded assets of the future – just as with fossil fuel-based energy businesses – with a predicted mass shift to plant based-diets. Highly successful crowd-based funding of new food markets shows the interest in change among consumption and investors.

A group of experts, advisers and investors were challenged to put their money where their mouth is. Insurance companies, fund managers, pension funds, banks and foundations are all finding ways to shift investments towards more sustainable and less damaging agriculture. Several groups are focussed on better knowledge of investments and are setting up scorecards of impacts in relation to biodiversity loss, emissions and waste management as well as benchmarking good practice. Far-sighted leadership of investors and behavioural nudges and changes have made a difference, such as the fast emergence of the Green Bonds market. But, better data for better decision-making is needed – such data will need to sit alongside engaging narratives for change and framed by values.

Investment, innovation and wider system transformation in agriculture and land use, however, still lags behind other areas such as energy despite its centrality to current and future planetary health. While latest estimates show that $250 billion was invested in renewable energy last year, it was reported that only $10 billion flowed to land-based investments. But hopefully that imbalance will start to change as groups like the Food & Land Use Coalition, chaired by Unilever CEO Paul Polman and a member of The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Heath, encourage business to help drive changes in land use and food production to reduce environmental destruction.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), disruption and transformation of the energy sector is well underway driven by decarbonisation, digitalisation and decentralisation as mainstream renewable technologies can be expected to provide average costs at the lower end of the fossil fuel cost range by 2020. The notion of zero coal and low-emissions transport and energy systems emerged just a short 5 or 6 years ago, but in Stockholm – in response to the challenges of the food system – the concept of low or zero meat diets was considered.

Just as the future of coal has been discussed, now is the time for a discussion on the future of meat, particularly intensive meat production and consumption (with all the disruptions, political, economic and social that may emerge). Technologies are emerging and new dietary norms could emerge faster than expected.

There was a consensus at the EAT Forum that society, economies and leaders have a binary choice between a bleak future of resource constraints and global warming, or to take advantage of the opportunities for transforming a new way of managing our food systems. There is a sense of optimism that this is achievable with the right combination of vision, leadership, investment, knowledge generation, partnership and collective action.

By Sam Bickersteth, Executive Director, The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health