Science Blog

Our Food System: Facing a Titanic Problem?

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science

Whenever a new report on some aspect or other of the food system comes out, the metaphors start flying around. We saw that recently with the EAT-Lancet report on what a healthy diet from a sustainable food system might look like.

The food system is a well-oiled machine, some say. Just think what it must take to get from Brazil’s ranches, America’s amber waves of grain, Dutch glasshouses, Australia’s vineyards, Indonesian oil palm plantations, Ghanaian cacao plots, Algerian date oases – the list goes on – to the incredible choice many of us have in our supermarkets. Just let it do its thing, is the advice from the Panglossians.

The food system is broken, others retort: broken like a blown light bulb. Hunger, the double burden of malnutrition and obesity, climate-unfriendly farming, loss of biodiversity, food waste, consolidation of the seed sector, volatile prices, food safety scares: the evidence is not exactly hard to find. Just last week the first State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture painted a grim picture. We need to start from scratch, some people say, as a result. We need a new light bulb, maybe one of those fancy long-life LED ones.

No, it’s not that bad, comes the cry from the middle ground: the food system has simply come off the tracks. Sure, a lot of the food diversity in our supermarkets is not accessible to many people, some of it is making us sick, and some is bad for the planet, they concede. But there are ways to ensure food is more healthy and accessible, and agriculture more sustainable. We know how to fix these things. We have the expertise, the tools, the technologies. We just need to get that powerful locomotive back on the rails.

As with many metaphors, these are compelling, and useful each in its own way, but also far from perfect. They all highlight elements of the truth, but struggle to encompass the whole truth. The food system has indeed fed and employed billions, and continues to do so. That surely counts for something. On the other hand, it’s equally undeniable that significant problems exist with some parts of it, though there is still room for disagreement as to what the solutions might entail, as we have just seen with the role of meat in that planetary health diet, for example.

But then again, the food system is made of many, many different parts, all interacting with and influencing one another, in complicated ways. Making sure the system as a whole works as it should is not like changing a light bulb, or putting a train back on its tracks. It’s a political problem: more like making sure the light – or the track – is pointing in the right direction.

Let me risk overburdening our already well-stocked shelf of food system metaphors by comparing it to something else: the Titanic. That was an impressive machine too, though it did have its design flaws. But these were so tragically exposed only by the fact that it hit that iceberg. If only they had steered clear of it…

What we need to do is change the food system’s direction. Because, as it turns out, it is efficient, yes, but all too often at doing things that are not so good for the health of either ourselves or our planet, if not downright harmful.

To change the system’s direction, it needs better policies, ones that will steer it away from the iceberg – the inequities and iniquities that the current policies, have led us into. That’s what the EAT report was trying to do, and why it is welcome. It’s a much-needed tap on the ship’s wheel.

But we need many such taps.

Some useful policies are already in place, of course, but they must be implemented. Take Sustainable Development Goal 2, which is about food and nutritional security, the so-called Zero Hunger goal. The governments of the world have agreed that in order to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture,” we need, among other things, to conserve crop diversity, including in genebanks.

Think about it. Zero hunger depends on good genebanks, ones that are soundly managed and financially secure. So, there are quantifiable metrics that go along with the policy.

We at the Crop Trust are very excited by this, because our mission is to help make sure that genebanks are indeed soundly managed and financially secure. Excited, and in a hurry: Target 2.5 is for 2020. That’s just around the corner.

How do you make sure by 2020 that genebanks are properly supported long into the future? The Crop Trust’s answer is an endowment fund, the proceeds from which we use to support globally important genebanks for the long-term. We have just announced a partnership with the International Rice Research Institute to ensure that the world’s most important rice genebank will always have enough funds to conserve and make available the over one hundred thousand different varieties of rice in its cold store. But what about wheat, pulses, coffee, to name just some crops that have been in the news lately? They need some love too.

And that cannot just come from governments, as it largely has so far. That’s why we’re increasingly looking to industry, and even private individuals, to contribute to the endowment fund. We need to make sure that our food system, in all its human and biological diversity, all its wonderful and maddening complexity, works to nourish us and the planet, while not gnawing away at its own foundations. And to do that, we can – and must – all do our bit. We’re all on the Titanic together, after all.

Are we going to steer clear of the iceberg? Do we really have a choice?

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