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Food is at the heart of our future

Dr Nick Rose, Executive Director, Sustain

On 30th May, 46 people from around Australia met via zoom for a roundtable on food security, as part of the work of the Commission for the Human Future (CHF). The CHF was established in 2019 by faculty at the Australian National University, to focus on ‘developing solutions to the greatest challenge in human history – the complex of catastrophic global threats that now confront us all”.

In a Conversation article published on 22nd April 2020, ANU Human Futures Fellow and CHF Board member Dr Arnagretta Hunter, and former leader of the Opposition, Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy and Chair of the CHF, Dr John Hewson, set out these to catastrophic threats as follows:

  1. Decline of natural resources, particularly water
  2. Collapse of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity
  3. Human population growth beyond Earth’s carrying capacity
  4. Global warming and human-induced climate change
  5. Chemical pollution of the Earth system, including the atmosphere and oceans
  6. Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
  7. Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction
  8. Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
  9. The advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technology
  10. National and global failure to understand and act preventatively on these risks.

The CHF issued its first report in March 2020, titled ‘Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century’ following a Roundtable process. That report ‘called on all people and nations to prepare a plan for humanity to survive and thrive, far into the future in the face of [these] ten intersecting threats’ (preface to the 2nd Roundtable report, Dr John Hewson).

Sustain’s Executive Director, Dr Nick Rose, was one of several dozen practitioners and researchers from diverse walks of life who formed the 2nd Roundtable on Food Security on 30th May. The Roundtable took place over 5 hours, divided into three sessions of 90 minutes each, with the first dedicated to identifying and articulating the most pressing risks and threats to national and global food security; the second to identifying and articulating the most promising policy and practical solutions; and the third to a discussion as to how they might be advanced and implemented. The process was well facilitated, collegial and enjoyable. Sustain welcomes this initiative and supports the broad thrust of the Roundtable’s report, representing as it does an endorsement of our own mission to ‘design and build better food systems’.

Below we share some of the key lessons that emerged from the day. We will share the full report when it is finalised.

Key risks to national and global food security

There was broad agreement that the ‘global food system is headed for failure in the mid 21st century’, and that accordingly ‘the current system must be transformed to one that is safe, sustainable, healthy and fair to all’.

The draft report of the Roundtable sums it up well:

Industrial food production, as practised today, cannot be sustained in the longer run. It causes massive land degradation, wastes water and overuses toxic chemistry; it generates 30% of the world’s greenhouse emissions; it is the chief contributor to the loss of two thirds of the world’s wildlife; it demands crops suited to industrial rather than nutritional needs; and it wastes enough food every year to feed 3 billion people. The corporatized global food system, with control concentrated in a handful of transnational companies, is bad for farmers, for consumer health and nutrition and the environment that grows our food…There is a worldwide focus on renewable energy to power the human future: the current focus on renewable food is negligible. This has to change.

Unpacking this statement, the Roundtable identifies several fundamental destructive tendencies that undermine humanity’s capacity to feed itself well far into the future without destroying the systems of life on which we depend. These are:

  • Resource risks: Mining of soil, fresh water, and oceanic fish stocks; degradation and destruction of forests and ecosystems
  • Climate risks: The current trajectory guarantees a minimum of 2 degrees of warming by 2060 which will place many farming systems under immense strain; 3-4 degrees of warming is quite likely and will bring about the failure of agriculture in many regions of the world. Land-use conversion (e.g. deforestation for grazing and cropping) is a major reason why the food system contributes so much to global emissions
  • Agroecosystem failure: The over-production and over-use of industrial agricultural chemicals is having a disastrous effect in terms of species loss. Global agriculture releases 5 million tonnes of pesticides annually into the environment which is bringing about a collapse in pollinating insects amongst much else. The dramatic growth of monocultures and in particular factory farming has created the perfect breeding ground for dangerous new strains of pathogens, as we are currently experiencing with the COVID19 pandemic. Global fisheries are in collapse through over-exploitation
  • Hunger amidst plenty: Various forms of malnutrition, from overweight and obesity, to hunger and food insecurity, to micronutrient deficiency, impact more than 60% of the world’s population. 17,000 children and youth die daily from preventable causes, linked principally to poverty and malnutrition
  • Over-production and waste: 5 billion tonnes of food are produced annually of which 2 billion tonnes – 40% - is wasted – ‘enough to feed 3 billion people’.
  • Adverse economics: “The global food system is slave to a productionist paradigm that focuses on producing more food for monetary profit rather than nutritional purposes…Food producers worldwide are locked into a competitive spiral to produce food at the cheapest possible prices to enrich a handful of transnational corporates…the global, industrialised and commodified food system is deeply unsustainable and grossly unfair.”
  • Food chain failures: The globalised food system (in particular unfair trading rules) has led to high levels of import dependency for many countries; and the highly-spatially distanciated, just-in-time delivery systems have been exposed as highly fragile and non-resilient with the COVID19 pandemic. Much research is now privately funded and focuses on corporate priorities, rather than ‘public good’ investigations into healthy and renewable food systems.
  • Population growth: Humans and our livestock constitute 97% of all vertebrate biomass on the planet – ‘an almost complete reversal of the situation a century ago’. Humans and human societies must live within the carrying capacity of the planet
  • Links to global risks: in particular conflict, refugee flows, hyper-urbanisation, increased chemical pollutants and poisoning, and catastrophic climate change

The Roundtable then proceeded to identify and articulate solutions and pathways, aligned in particular with the ‘Zero Hunger’ commitment expressed in Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals to which all countries are committed. The key solutions and pathways have been expressed as follows:

  • Act now on climate change: De-carbonise the food system – ensure that the agricultural sector is carbon neutral by 2040. The key means for doing this is a large-scale transition to regenerative farming practices
  • Embrace a shift to 'renewable food systems': Both land-based in the form of regenerative agriculture and circular economy urban agriculture systems, but also sustainable aquatic-based plant and fish production and harvesting systems
  • Commit to urban food security: Design cities to be capable of producing increasing amounts of their own food, through methods such as rooftop farming, peri-urban horticulture, aquaponics and more
  • Embrace aquaculture: In particular the large-scale production of microalgae and sea plants – this will relieve pressure on farmland and allow for biodiversity recuperation
  • Transform food systems: Embrace the challenge of designing and implementing healthy and sustainable food systems, including the development of supportive policy and regulatory frameworks
  • Design circular food economies: Using natural capital accounting methods that will adjust food prices to externalise the true costs of production; support and expand local food economies and producer-consumer connections
  • Empowering change: Using digital and social media based on sound science, build levels of food literacy to support the mass embrace of circular food economies and renewable food systems
  • Flatten the population curve: Bring human and human livestock populations within the carrying capacity of the planet – which involves a reduction in meat consumption
  • Recast food policy: Food is typically taken for granted or marginalised in policy discussions; yet as it is fundamental to all life it must be central to policy. We need participatory, inclusive, and deliberative processes of policy formation that lead to integrated and long-term approaches for food systems
  • Food and national security: The vulnerabilities revealed by the COVID19 pandemic demand a focus on resilience and integrity throughout the food system – including wresting control of the food system away from corporate giants and returning it to the realm of the commons
  • Re-investing in food: Including through a comprehensive research & development program guided by the principles of the public good and with the goal of supporting the transition to ‘safe, wholesome and healthy diets and diverse food supply chains’

These solutions and pathways do not represent a consensus position on the part of those attending, and while, as noted, Sustain supports the broad thrust of the pathways in terms of whole-of-system transformation, we are not necessarily endorsing every specific solution as it has been outlined here.