23.08.2018 |

Sustainable development requires a transformation of food systems

Healthy and sustainable food consumption patterns are needed (Photo: CC0)

We need to transform our food systems if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and combat climate change. This is the message of an article published in the journal “Agronomy for Sustainable Development” on August 9th. According to the authors, food systems “are at the nexus that links food security, nutrition, and human health, the viability of ecosystems, climate change, and social justice.” They are not just vital for achieving SDG2, which focuses on ending hunger and malnutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture – they concern the entire 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “We need to implement a comprehensive transformation in food systems, centering on different paradigms and models from those of the 20th century,” said lead author Patrick Caron, a researcher with CIRAD and Chair of the UN’s High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. He stressed that the overriding priority for agriculture was for a long time to increase production, but this century has brought new challenges. We therefore need to move beyond food supply and focus on the long-term sustainability of food and farming.

The authors build on the work of the “Milano Group,” a group of experts convened by the UN Secretary General for an informal meeting in Italy on World Food Day 2015, and propose a four-pillar strategy for the transformation of food systems: First, drastic changes in consumption patterns are needed, with a shift towards healthy eating. “What must be produced in the future, both in terms of volume and quality and the social, health, and environmental footprints of production modes, will mainly depend on what is consumed, wasted, thrown away, or recycled,” the article reads. “Unhealthy diet is now recognized as a universal problem and the number one risk factor driving the world’s disease burden.” Second, the transformation involves a new vision for sustainable agricultural production and food value chains. This includes the promotion of inclusive, sustainable, and nutrition-sensitive forms of agricultural production, processing, distribution, and marketing. According to the authors, “sustainable agriculture can create decent jobs, support inclusive growth, improve livelihoods, and adapt to climate change”. They write that patterns of agricultural production and the measures of agriculture’s performance and effects must be reconsidered in ways that take account of the multiple functions expected from agriculture, including adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, biodiversity management, the provision of ecosystem-based services, people’s incomes, and just societies.

Mitigating climate change by means of sustainable farming practices is the third pillar. Agriculture and land use changes produce greenhouse gas emissions, but agricultural practices can also minimize emissions and store carbon in soils. “Provided that opportunistic behavior, in particular green-washing, is avoided, transformed agriculture and food systems can be important levers for effective climate action.” Fourth, the authors recommend a package of operations aimed at rejuvenating rural territories. Effective action at territorial level contributes to the food and nutrition security of rural and urban populations, to steady and shared economic growth, to decent jobs for young people, and to reducing root causes of frustration and conflict. “The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development relies on flourishing rural areas,” says Patrick Caron. “The interdependence of rural and urban areas must be acknowledged and used as the basis for a new rural-urban social contract. This would lay the foundations for a civilization that pays its rural areas and their inhabitants for the functions they fulfil and the public goods (commons) they provide for societies, the planet and economies.”

According to the Milano Group, these four parts together make up the food systems change that is required if the SDGs are to be achieved. But this transformation will not happen automatically: “The transformation will hinge on renewing food system governance, giving priority to human development and food and nutritional security, rational resource management, ecosystem health, and fairer development and consumption models. This means adopting new ways of designing, planning and managing programmes to support production, consumption, innovation and rural development.” The authors stress the need for context-specific, multi-dimensional, and integrated approaches. They refer to the IAASTD’s finding that “context-adapted” and “place-based” solutions should be favored over “one size fits all” prescriptions, even if the latter maintain the illusion to be easily taken to scale. (ab)

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