The question of how we can feed the world’s rapidly growing population in a sustainable and healthy way is one that the members of the Global Future Council on Food Security and Agriculture ask every single day. One of several dozen councils convened by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to address the most pressing issues of our time, the Food Security and Agriculture council brings together some of the world’s leading food industry and policy experts to explore how we can transform our global food system so that it works for everyone on the planet, as well as the planet itself.
In a recent article for the WEF, council member Dr. Corinna Hawkes discusses some important questions about how our food system is changing, and how it needs to change in order to support a healthy future for people and the planet. A professor of food policy at City University of London and the director of the university’s Centre for Food Policy, Dr. Hawkes has spent her career examining food systems and food policies from the perspective of healthy eating and nutrition. Read on for a look at the key takeaways from her WEF article.
Our food system is changing, but it’s not always clear how beneficial these changes are, and for whom.
We often speak of the global food system as something that needs to change, but the reality is that the system has already changed considerably in recent years. However, these changes have not been without controversy, nor is it clear that they will ultimately lead to the kind of food system that experts like Dr. Hawkes believe we need.
For example, major changes have taken place recently in the relationship between production and consumption. These changes have been driven by producers, since consumer dietary behavior is influenced by what is available, but also by consumers, in that people are making different lifestyle and diet choices, which in turn influence what producers decide to produce.
However, Dr. Hawkes argues that there is a troubling lack of coherence when it comes to the policies that govern this producer-consumer relationship. Specifically, there is a disconnect between social policies that encourage people to eat a healthier diet; agricultural policies that are focused on quantity over quality, or simply producing more food, not necessarily better food; and corporate policies that don’t provide sufficient incentives (or disincentives) for businesses to decrease sales of the “wrong” kind of food.
There are three vital issues that need to be addressed within our food system: inclusivity, sustainability, and health and nutrition.
According to Dr. Hawkes, inclusivity must be a fundamental principle in our food system moving forward. Under her definition of inclusivity, workers in the food system need to be treated fairly and with dignity. Healthy and sustainable diets must be broadly accessible and appealing, rather than confined to elite segments of the population, as they often are now. Finally, space must be made for diverse systems of production and distribution, from large-scale agriculture to innovative small entrepreneurs.
In order to ensure that sustainability is central to our future food and agriculture system, Dr. Hawkes is adamant that we must first agree what sustainability actually means, as different groups tend to use the term in different ways and to achieve different ends. For Dr. Hawkes, the best and clearest definition of sustainability is that used in the Brundtland Report, a 1987 document produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development. This report defined sustainability as development that meets present needs without compromising future generations’ capacity to meet their own needs.
Health and nutrition
Health and nutrition are a major focus of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but Dr. Hawkes argues that we can’t achieve these goals without examining and changing how agriculture and the food system operate. As mentioned above, the nature of the food supply system is currently at odds with what policymakers want people to eat, with built-in incentives in the supply system preventing many people from having access to a nutritious diet and a healthy relationship with food.
Dr. Hawkes suggests that instead of tackling this problem from the producer’s end, as has happened in the past, we should instead start with the eater. In other words, she proposes reforming the food system by first asking “How are the problems of our food system affecting people and their lives?” and working backwards from there. This may allow us to create a system that works, not just for “consumers,” but for real people whose food choices are influenced by individual needs and constraints.
To build a better food system, we need to adopt a holistic approach.
To fundamentally change our food system—and to avoid a future in which agricultural and food production continue to cause environmental degradation, poor human health, and unfair labor practices—Dr. Hawkes believes we need to adopt a holistic approach. We need more coherent decision-making; new food governance systems at the international, national, and local levels; and greater efforts from business to transform their practices to better support healthy, sustainable diets. As Dr. Hawkes states, the food system is in theory a wonderful thing, producing essential ingredients for human life and enjoyment. The vital question now is how we can make it wonderful in practice.