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What I Talk About When I Talk About Food Systems
“Systems thinking” is an oft-abused term these days, but essential when it comes to food
Over the weekend, the climate community - particularly those in developing countries - lost a key champion. Saleemul Huq, founder of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh, passed away on Oct 28, aged 71.
I first met Saleem in April 2012 in Hanoi, Vietnam, at an international conference on community-based adaptation. Despite being new to the topic, I could see he was doing something different - putting affected communities front and centre in the fight against climate change.
He was also unfailingly generous with his time and expertise and became one of the experts I regularly turned to over the past 10+ years, particularly when I needed someone to cut through the climate jargon.
Saleem was a keen advocate on transforming our food systems too. His focus was climate but the communities most vulnerable to climate change are also the most vulnerable to food insecurity, and his goal was to build their resilience to both, he told me in a 2021 interview.
For those of you who don’t know about Saleem or his work, do have a read of the obituary from The Guardian.
Every day, we hear, see, and read stories about how bad weather and wars are destroying harvests, pushing up food prices, and increasing hunger and malnutrition. As is often the case, the worst affected are poor countries and territories vulnerable to external shocks - Myanmar, Afghanistan, Gaza, South Sudan, just to name a few.
When faced with this kind of suffering, it is natural to focus on something that will provide almost-immediate relief - food aid. We push recalcitrant governments to help their own people and/or shame international donors into upping their support to developing nations (which, by the way, is almost always woefully low).
But here’s my message to everyone who cares about the future of this planet - we cannot stop there. Food aid is essential to save lives in an acute crisis, but it is just a plaster. We need to look at the bigger picture. We need to think “systems”.
Let’s start with “food systems”. I use this term a lot, but what does it mean?
The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food says a food system “includes not only the basic elements of how we get our food from farm to fork, but also all of the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population”.
This means we need to think not only about how we’re growing our foods and what kinds, or how they’re being processed, transported, consumed, and discarded, but also who is doing these activities and what kinds of factors influence these decisions.
We have been stuck in a productivist mindset for a very, very long time, where almost all agricultural policies are about growing the most amount of foods in the most efficient and cost-effective manner, without considering the costs to our mental and physical health, our environment, and our ecosystems.
We are now reaping what we have sowed. Pun intended.
No longer a poor country’s problem
Another thing that we have been stuck on until quite recently is the idea that food insecurity - people’s inability to consistently have sufficient quantities of food for a healthy life - is largely the domain of poor countries and communities. It took a global pandemic for many of us to realise how swiftly supermarket shelves can empty and that food availability and accessibility cannot be taken for granted.
I’ve written about the Emerging Hunger Hotspots series before, but in case you missed it, here’s a recap. Over the past 12 months, I’ve been coordinating this series of stories for The New Humanitarian. It started out as a way to look at how middle-income countries are faring from the fallout of the Ukraine war.
We’ve covered Sri Lanka, Peru, Egypt, Georgia, Argentina, Ghana, Philippines and Pakistan. With the exception of Peru, I worked on every single story together with reporters on the ground. These countries are scattered all over the world but their commonalities are striking.
Hunger is increasing in all these places. All but one are facing double-digit inflation. Public debts are high. All are highly dependent on imports to feed their population, or in the case of Argentina, exporting food to get foreign revenue to keep its economy afloat. So they are at the mercy of currency swings and market volatility. Many are having to pay much more to buy the same amount of food.
In every single country we looked at, there was no shortage of food - yet - but many citizens are struggling to consume three square meals a day, because the prices have jumped while wages have stagnated. People are eating less and/or eating lower quality food.
All are also seeing changes in cropping seasons, rainfall patterns, and availability of water. These are key ingredients for successful harvests. The shifts threaten future food production and we are already seeing the impacts in some places.
A convenient scapegoat
While working on the series, we also quickly realised how the fallout from the Ukraine war highlighted how our current food systems are not working (or at least not working for the vast majority of people). It also made me realise how the war is being used as a scapegoat for a lot of structural problems within our food systems.
Food prices were rising even before the war broke out but they worsened after the war.
Soon after the invasion, a group of journalists at Lighthouse Reports tracked investment flows into commodity funds. I was part of that group. By April, two top agricultural Exchange-Traded Funds had attracted net investor investment of $1.2 billion. Guess how much they got for the whole of 2021? $197 million.
We spoke to experts, whistleblowers and industry veterans, including people like food systems professor Jennifer Clapp, economics professor Jayati Ghosh, and Michael Masters, the hedge fund manager who testified in the U.S. senate in 2008 on speculation and food prices.
They told us that the amount of speculative money flooding the market was more than the market needed to function properly, and that prices had been driven up out of keeping with supply and demand. They also pointed to structural weaknesses that have remained unaddressed since the 2007-2008 food crisis because the financial industry successfully sued the U.S. regulators to stop them from imposing stricter rules and lobbied the EU regulator to weaken the rules.
I should add that there are economists who disagree with our findings and this piece by Alessandra Kirsch, Director of Studies at French think tank Agriculture Stratégies, provides a counterpoint.
We followed up the above investigation, which we called Hunger Profiteers, with one on how the world’s top 10 hedge funds made profits of nearly $2 billion from grain and soya bean trading in the run-up to and aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. In another, we analysed the accounts of more than 70 major pension funds in seven European countries and found a fifth were investing in food, and in a perverse way, contributing to the cost of living crisis their members were facing.
We’ve also looked into farming lobbies in Europe that are not representative and campaign against the wishes of European citizens, all the while claiming the war in Ukraine meant we should prioritise productivity above all else.
Breaking away from fossil fuels
Of course, we can’t talk about food systems without talking about its linkages to climate change. I’ve used a particular analogy ad nauseam so won’t repeat it here but if you’re a new subscriber, check out this issue from a few months ago.
Essentially, modern food production is energy-intensive, whether it’s to run machinery such as tractors and irrigation pumps, heat stables and greenhouses, produce fertiliser and pesticide, or process, transport, and store food. At the moment, much of this energy comes from fossil fuels.
This week, a new report from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food tried to put a number on just how reliant our food systems are on them. Their new calculations suggest “food systems currently account for at least 15 percent of global fossil fuels use annually, driving as many emissions as all EU countries and Russia combined”.
Now, this number isn’t perfect. It’s based on country-level data from the U.S., Brazil, the European Union, and India - 30 countries out of 195 - but they represent some of the biggest emitters and industrialised nations. It also underlines the lack of global data of fossil fuel usage in food systems.
The data is also based on studies that used different methodologies and not all elements of the food system were included, Patty Fong the Alliance’s Program Director for Climate, Health & Well-Being told me. So the 15% if a conservative estimate. “The actual figure could be much higher.”
In addition, the numbers came from different years. Still, “current trends suggest fossil fuel use is only growing in industrialised food systems, making it valid to make comparisons”, Patty said.
Its publication is both timely and intentional. The next U.N. climate summit is four weeks away. COP28 will be in the UAE, a petrostate, and chaired by the head of UAE’s national oil company. Yeah, you can’t make this up.
The host “has pledged to include food systems as a key theme of the conference, and world leaders are expected to sign a declaration committing to making food central to their climate action plans, alongside energy and transport”, said Patty, who called the developments “welcome, and long overdue”.
But she is also aware that UAE is opposed to the phase out of fossil fuels. “So we urge countries that are serious about tackling the climate crisis to go further and faster than the minimum bar set by the COP28 hosts.”
How? “By setting out ambitious plans to wean their food systems off fossil fuels, including phasing out fossil-fuel based fertilisers and pesticides; shifting to renewable energy for processing, cooling, and drying food; supporting minimally processed, less-energy intensive foods and plant-rich diets; and encouraging the uptake of locally-grown food.”
Shifting the blame
This won’t come as a surprise - I think the nexus between food and climate change is one of the biggest challenges humanity is facing today and needs much more scrutiny than it is currently receiving.
A lot of mainstream coverage around food systems tends to focus on individual actions or lack of - what we are eating or not eating, why we choose certain foods over others, and how to nudge us towards ‘better’ behaviour.
This ignores the elephant(s) in the room - actors and policies that have outsized power and influence over these seemingly individual actions. These include subsidies that encourage the production of resource-intensive foods and industry lobbying that keeps these policies in place.
This framing of “individual action” is most apparent when it comes to meat consumption. This 2021 analysis by Australian researchers looked at media framing of red and processed meat consumption. They found that media attribution of excessive meat consumption to “individual dietary choices” results in the idea that individual consumers are responsible for reducing the impact.
“Challenging evidence and discrediting scientific data is a timeold technique from the corporate playbook, particularly in the realm of climate and environmental policymaking efforts. By intentionally disseminating doubt over the consensus of evidence, the general public is less likely to support public policies that are reliant on that evidence,” said the authors.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
We’ve seen it with the concept of carbon footprint promoted by oil companies and when tobacco companies posited that smoking is a personal choice. So, yes, Big Ag is following the playbook of Big Tobacco and Big Oil, where the latter has perfected the art of “deny, deflect, and delay” tactics.
What I'm trying to say with this little rant is that we need to think about broader systems and structural issues beyond the immediate hunger and conflicts, which understandably but unfortunately take up a lot of our oxygen.
Because none of what we’re experiencing happen in a vacuum. The way we have been producing, processing, transporting, consuming, and discarding food has not been working for a lot of people for a long time. It is environmentally destructive, socially inequitable, and nutritionally deficient. And this is not a problem limited to a single country, region or group of people within certain socio-economic strata. It is happening in rich and poor countries in all regions of the world.
“Food systems are responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Patty. “To prevent catastrophic climate change, we need to make major changes at a systems level, rather than tinkering with individual sectors or steps.”
“For example, more food needs to be produced locally and sustainably, rather than being treated as an industrial commodity and exported around the world.”
Carin Smaller, a food systems expert I admire, said something similar a year ago on where we are going wrong.
To me, one of the biggest tragedies about what's happening with the food systems is the lack of political will to take hard decisions, to move away from the status quo, to say 'no' to the various interest groups who often put profits above everything else.
Even if we don’t care about future generations, even if it is purely out of self-interest, we should be pushing to transform our food systems, because they are in trouble. And if we don’t fix them, we will be in trouble too. Sooner than we think.
After all, we can afford to eschew much of the modern technologies - driving, flying, even having a mobile phone - that feed unsustainable lifestyles, but we cannot afford not to eat. That should be motivation enough to push our governments and ourselves to change.
Chocolate - Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
I’m sure you’ve seen this - if not, why haven’t you??? - but it is so well done, I have to share it. Seriously, John Oliver and his team does some of the best journalism these days.
Professor Alan Matthews, who runs this blog, shared his talk at the recent EIT Food conference on the future of food as a post. It’s long-ish, but great, wide ranging, and also addresses the productivist mindset of governments.
10 things I know are true about food – that people don’t want to believe - The Washington Post
I’m recommending Tamar Haspel’s interesting - and likely controversial - piece because I want to hear what you think! I disagree with her on a few points but I think it’s definitely a conversation starter.