We have the solutions; we are running out of time to fix food

15 October 2021

We recently posed the question to some of the world’s leading experts in food sustainability whether the global food system was the ‘hidden hero’ in tackling climate change and a weapon to reaching net zero. After our summit last week I came away more of the opinion that it is in fact a hero in plain sight.

It’s clear that there is a gathering consensus about the need to fix food as an integral weapon in the fight against climate change. There is a lot happening – political will is growing, businesses are doing more than ever before; the public, particularly the younger generation, are putting the environment at the heart of their thinking around lifestyle choices.

It is still too disparate; too uneven; off the radar in finance circles though. There are glaring gaps in evidence and a need for common data which track and demonstrate progress and highlight areas to focus on. The publication last week of our report on tackling the greenhouse gas emissions from the UK’s global food system was a contribution to this goal

The good thing is we know this; these are things which, with leadership, expertise, science and human ingenuity, we can fix. The thing we are running short of is time. We have to act now.

My takeaways from a rich and inspiring discussion:

  • The food system is a complex machine full of thousands of interconnected and interdependent moving parts. It has evolved into something where there is an overreliance in judging return on investment purely in terms of productivity gains, without taking into account the wider social and environmental impacts. . This is bankrupting the planet and harming the human race. We need to focus investment in areas that bring the multiple wins of reducing costs and environmental impact, for example investing in the cool chain and reducing food loss and waste.  
  • The transformation required is huge and on a global scale, similar to the agricultural revolution in the last century. The fight against climate change should not be about energy alone and there needs to be a global agenda which recognises this. It is lamentable that transforming the food system appears to be largely missing in action at COP26 next month. This needs to be addressed going forward.
  • Reform is achievable, but it will need action at all levels and in multiple ways and crucially, at scale and pace. It will require a combination of dietary shift, regenerative farming, tackling deforestation, and reducing food loss and waste. We can’t decouple health and nutrition from the environment; the two are intrinsically interlinked – eating healthily is correspondingly nurturing for the planet.
  • Food businesses are at the forefront of change, but this needs to be underpinned by well-designed government policy and public behaviour change campaigns. Citizens care about the environment but find abstract concepts around net zero difficult to relate to so messaging needs to be clear and actionable. People will need supporting to make the right choices in ways which are relevant to everyday challenges and in ways in which they can have personal agency in the global journey.
  • Financial investment has to be part of the solution. We need to construct a finance model which reduces risk and unlocks investment which makes change equitable, rapid and affordable. Governments and finance institutions have an important role here.
  • At the same time potential beneficiaries, such as farmers, need support to build a business case which attracts that investment and ensures they have access to available capital. Farmers are the heroes in the story, but they need support to be custodians of the land in a way which is also affordable for them, and which builds in sustainability and Nature as an equal benefit alongside productivity and price.
  • We need to take a holistic, global approach. Solutions which may be appropriate for developed countries, might further entrench poverty in others. This is pertinent when we consider that around half of the global population are working in agriculture, and many of those are in the developing world.
  • We have to be cautious about unintended consequences – will dietary shifts trigger food waste? Will reducing GHGs in one country simply offshore them somewhere else? We have to think globally.
  • There are some fascinating and innovative examples of work happening on the ground around redefining our relationship with food. Businesses were talking about how they were changing the offer in their own workplaces, reducing waste in their own kitchens, using data and insights. This needs to be shared, joined up to form a groundswell of inevitable change.
  • Science, science, science. What emerged strongly were critical evidence gaps; metrics to deepen understanding and demonstrate achievements. This turns it from commitment and rhetoric into something tangible.

We have a visceral and complicated relationship with our food system. Change will not be easy. But I more convinced than ever that there is the will, the expertise, and the means to restore it to all its restorative, regenerative, life-enhancing, potential.

Watch this fascinating and important debate here