A sustainable food system: how to get there?

Our new contributor, Arnaud, shares his thoughts on creating a more sustainable food system!

For diverse reasons, we are not all active advocates of building a more environmentally friendly food system. Our specific impact in the food sector also remains unknown, partly because we are sometimes assumed to be “consumers” only. So what does this position imply and how can overall improvements benefit us personally?

Current issues in our food systems

Globally, around 800 million people suffer from hunger (1), despite the astonishing 30 to 40% of food production discarded globally (2). Food waste is expected to increase substantially in the years to come, notably in India and China, due to so-called “western food habits”. Reducing food waste would be one of the most beneficial food policies in terms of sustainable development (3).  Besides that, more people are over-eating and consuming products damaging to health (4). The seemingly contradicting issues of malnutrition and obesity can even impact single countries, such as India (5). Malnutrition in India is due to a combination of insufficient affordable food availability in rural areas, and of so-called “western food habits” in urban areas (obesity rates are also impacted by a decreasing share of active travel modes overall). All of this comes at the environment’s expense. Our agricultural sector today is one of the most prominent agents of global land use change, biodiversity loss, water contamination, and greenhouse gases emissions (6).

Troubleshooting

Food supply chains are extremely diverse and involve hundreds of millions of people around the world. However, there are four categories of solutions that can be applied anywhere.

  • Come back to local supply chains as much as possible to cut emissions from transport and extended refrigerated storage (see our last blog post!).
  • Improve yields through technology. Technological innovation has been comparatively low in the sector for the last thirty years. Innovation has been historically poorly welcomed in Europe, suspicion being high on multinational’s goals, the Monsanto cases having caused several public outcries. (7). Still, many start-ups, that enjoy a better public image, are now betting on promising techniques to enhance productivity and reduce waste (8). And the scope for improvement is humongous!
  • Strengthen legal frameworks. Not all supply chains can or will turn local, at least in the medium term. Supermarkets are big actors in food waste (along with consumers). France just proved that for such actors, making it mandatory for them to give unsold stocks to charities and food banks is feasible and impactful (9). Other rules could further target over-packaging to reduce substantially the use of energy-intensive and polluting materials.
  • Engage farmers and producers when making changes. Central governments and big companies have often forgotten the human factor when analysing food production – to their own expense, as the UK energy crops plan exemplify (10). If you’re interested in the farmers’ exposure to uncertainty, it is worth taking a look at the recent report from the House of Lords on agricultural resilience (11).

So, what about us?

We now have a synthetic vision of the overall global issues and the directions suggested to address them. How to locate ourselves and our actions as “consumers” in this framework?

  • Favouring locally-produced food will reduce your carbon footprint, stimulate change through market forces and strengthen the feeling of community where you live. Organic apples from New Zealand surely don’t fit in the ecotarian scope. Check out our guides here and here!
  • Adapting your behaviour to reduce your waste can make you discover new personal skills - check our banana cake recipe!
  • Adopting a new habit or behaviour doesn’t mean that you need to be strict about it. You can start reducing your meat consumption but allow yourself for the once a month beef burger that you worship.
  • We are what we eat…and becoming an ecotarian is just much healthier! This is due to reduced meat consumption (bad for cardiovascular condition), reduced salt intake (processed food), more organic products (less chemicals in your body) and proportionally more vegetables and fruits.

Consumer: the key change enabler

As mere citizens, it can feel as though we are just the end-piece of the banana cake. However, our actions have the power to set new trends upfront and directly impact the main issues that the world is facing in terms of food supply chains.