07.04.2021 |

Report outlines two visions for the future of food systems

Visions for the future of food systems (Photo: CC0)

Agribusiness giants could dominate the future of our food systems, accelerating environmental breakdown and surrendering the food security of billions of people to untested technologies managed by for-profit companies. Or civil society and social movements could fight back instead and succeed in transforming financial flows, governance structures and food systems from the ground up. This is the message from a new report published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and ETC Group on March 30. In the report “A Long Food Movement? Transforming Food Systems by 2045”, they outline how these different futures for food systems, people and the planet could look like. The authors stress that the 2021 Food Systems Summit, convened with the express intention of restructuring the regulatory environment for food and farming, could be a sign of the battles to come. “We are facing a corporate tidal wave. In only six months’ time, the UN Food Systems Summit could rubber-stamp changes that force millions of people off the land and put our food security at the mercy of high-risk big data and AI-controlled farming,” warns lead author Pat Mooney. “But farmers, food workers and their allies are mobilizing in new ways to defend their spaces and livelihoods. In fact, the Summit could spark a quarter century of food system transformation - a ‘long food movement’.”

In the first scenario termed ‘Agribusiness as usual?’ the authors consider what food systems could look like by 2045 if agribusiness is allowed to run its course. “The keys of the food system are being handed over to data platforms, private equity firms, and e-commerce giants. This is the dystopian future of food and the planet, unless civil society fights back,” explains Mooney. The authors identify the mega-trends of technological development and corporate consolidation that are already underway, but they also point out three further trends that could characterize food systems in 2045 if agribusiness prevails. The first trend is termed “Precision-engineered ecosystems and the internet of farming things”. The authors project that algorithms will be used to pinpoint the growing conditions of every fertile square metre on earth. Crops and livestock will be tailor-made (and modified) for those conditions. Artificial intelligence (AI) will be used to re-engineer ecosystems for optimal performance and robotic tractors and drones are being rolled out as fast as digital infrastructures allow. The second trend is termed “Logistics corridors, resource conflicts, and the new data geopolitics” and foresees a future in which many low and middle-income countries will be convinced to put land, resources, and data in the hands of those supplying the technologies and offering to pre-purchase their harvests. Powerful corporations and major governments will be able to control resources and food supplies across vast economic corridors. The free trade agreements of the 2020s and 2030s will serve mainly to secure access to resources and protect rights to corporate data exploitation. With food seen as a strategic asset, a new wave of land, ocean, and resource grabs will get underway. The third trend focuses on consumers and is termed “Hyper-nudging, personalized diets, and new frontiers in shaping the eating experience”. Data from everyday transactions (digital wallets to automated food services) will be increasingly combined with information harvested online to track and manipulate people’s eating habits in order to reshape food cultures.

In the second scenario, titled ‘Civil Society As Unusual”, the authors imagine how the future of food and farming in 2045 would look like if civil society and social movements – from grassroots organizations to international NGOs, from farmers’ groups, to cooperatives and unions – gained power. This vision would require these movements to develop deeper, wider, and more effective collaborations over the next 25 years than ever before, with collective activities and umbrella strategies. “Civil society and social movements must think decades ahead. We must be ready for shocks on the horizon. Neither short-term actions nor long-term planning can wait. That’s why we need a ‘Long Food Movement’,” said Third World Network researcher Lim Li Ching, who also contributed to the report. This scenario is imagined in four interrelated pathways of food systems reform and transformation: (1) Rooting food systems in diversity, agroecology and human rights, (2) Transforming governance structures, (3) Shifting financial flows and (4) Rethinking the modalities of civil society organisations’ collaboration. The authors also describe 13 strategic opportunities within these pathways that are grounded in what is already happening or is achievable. The key strategies include diverting funds from major commodity subsidies, research expenditures and ‘niche’ budget lines to small-scale food producers. In order to redirect R&D to sustainable food systems, food movements would need to step up the pressure on bilateral donors to reorient research projects in the global South towards agroecology, to realign the mission of global research centres (the ‘CGIAR’), and to reform their own agricultural research programmes.

In addition, the shift towards territorial supply chains and ethical consumerism needs to be accelerated. If the food movement succeeds, as much as 50% of food would be sourced from local and regional supply chains by 2045. The authors also project that up to 80% of people in previously high-meat consuming (wealthier) population group will have shifted to vegetarian and flexitarian diets. Apps would allow consumers to rapidly distinguish between business-as-usual corporations, firms with a sustained commitment to corporate responsibility, and sustainable, cooperative enterprises. Other key strategies include levying taxes on junk food, toxins, CO2 and the revenues of multinationals as well as adopting emergency food security measures that supersede trade and intellectual property rules. By 2045, famine, malnutrition, and environmental degradation would be considered as criminal violations that can be internationally prosecuted if the second scenario becomes true. The authors estimate that the four pathways of civil society-led food system transformation combined could shift $4 trillion from the industrial chain to food sovereignty and agroecology. This includes $720 billion in subsidies going to big commodity production, and as much as $1.6 trillion in healthcare savings from a crackdown on junk food. Under this scenario, 75% of food systems’ greenhouse gas emissions would be cut. “Civil society can and must transform itself,” the authors conclude. “History shows that when confronted by necessity or opportunity, people can adapt almost overnight. (…) The vast changes experienced as society has adapted to COVID-19 (…) show that, tomorrow, anything is possible.” (ab)

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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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