Food security needs systemic change

I don’t know about you, but the closest I ever got to a Rubik’s Cube, shortly after it was first launched in 1974, was to handle one in a toy store. For me, it seemed insoluble – and many assumed it was, until persistent cubers discovered not just one way to crack the puzzle, but many. And the cube came to mind as I thought recently about the astonishingly complex global security challenge we now face.

Back in the seventies we were challenged by a series of energy (or at least oil) crises, but now we see the energy security issue linking ever more tightly to food security, water security, climate security and so on. Indeed, when I sat down with Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC recently, he argued that the biggest mistake the founders of the sustainability movement made was framing the agenda as one for future generations. That was true enough then, he suggested, but today we are living through the early stages of the potential system crash the Brundtland Commission warned us about.

And all of this came to mind as I trawled through Appetite for Change, a new report from SustainAbility, backed by Nestlé, IBM and Sodexo. Apart from suggesting the title some time back, I was not part of the project team, so came to the analysis as an outsider. But the conclusions generally resonated powerfully with Lester Brown’s – and indeed my own – in terms of the growing need for system change.

By way of an aperitif, SustainAbility notes that “in just the past couple of weeks, one of the worst E coli outbreaks in history has killed 37 people and made more than 2,600 ill, academics concluded that climate change will have more negative consequences for agriculture than expected, and the UN’s Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation released a guide warning world farming needs a major shift to more sustainable practices as intensive crop production since the 1960s has degraded soils, depleted ground water and caused pest outbreaks.”

Industry and food system experts interviewed for the report conclude that the food industry is failing to address the true scale of the problem, warning that there is “a startling lack of consensus on the path forward.” The sector may be at an inflection point, but it isn’t at all clear that it knows what to do next.

One thing I found surprising is just how unprofitable much of the food industry can be. Sector executives often settle for lower margins than those in other sectors, while most producers “literally find farming a ticket to poverty – half of the world’s malnourished are themselves farmers.”

Growing unease about food futures is driving some dramatic trends. Until 2008, for example, investment in farmland globally had been running at around 4 million hectares a year, whereas by the end of 2009 it had soared to over 56 million hectares. Seventy per cent of those land acquisitions took place in Africa, generally with little or no links to local markets or interests.

By contrast, SustainAbility concludes, a sustainable food system would be “reliable, resilient and transparent,” producing food within ecological limits, empowering food producers, and ensuring accessible, nutritious food for all. On the evidence presented, however, this looks like pie in the sky for most people on this small planet of ours.

One of the most striking aspects of the global food market is that while almost one billion people are undernourished, another billion are what the industry likes to call over-nourished – or obese. I recently heard the Mayor of Arlington, Texas, a city of some 400,000 people, explain that 20 years ago 20 per cent of young people there were obese, a proportion that has now grown to 40 per cent, with no solutions obvious – except, though he didn’t say this, getting Arlingtonians out of their cars, away from their TVs and back to more traditional, healthier diets.

Among the spotlighted initiatives that give some grounds for hope is the Cool Farming programme designed to sequester carbon dioxide, improve soil fertility and reduce soil erosion – now backed by companies like Unilever, PepsiCo, Marks & Spencer, Pulse Canada, Yara and Sysco. And then, too, there is Wal-Mart’s embrace of a zero waste target, which the giant US retailer is working on with a range of suppliers and civil society partners.

But for me, a vegetarian since the year the Rubik’s Cube first taxed our brains, one of the central issues we have to tackle is the growing global appetite for meat. The UN Environment Programme estimates that 3.5 billion people could be fed with the cereals currently fed to animals – even after you take the energy value of the meat eaten into account.

One way forward may be in vitro meat, where stem cells extracted from cattle are multiplied a billion-fold to create meat at least fit for hamburgers. Researchers at Oxford University say the process would consume 35 to 60 per cent less energy and 98 per cent less land, while producing 85 to 90 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Whatever we may think we want, food from a test-tube rather than a field may be on the menu before too long.

A brave new menu – and we may soon have little choice in the matter. Once, tackling food security issues meant putting more land under the plough and injecting more agrochemicals, but now that everything is linked to everything else, the need for systemic thinking and action is inescapable. That would be fine if we had political and business leaders who knew what they were doing, but Appetite for Change suggests that such people are as rare as hen’s teeth. And the unappetizing reality is that if we can’t deal with what’s now on our food security plate, our chances of solving the wider Rubik Planet puzzle seem vanishingly slim.

John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn and is a member of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel. He is a past Chairman – and current Trustee – of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development.

Download Appetite for Change and watch the video briefing , and contact SustainAbility to discuss more of their insights on food sector sustainability.

This post originally appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business blog.

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