‘Ensuring the sustainability and security of food is one of the most defining issues of our time’

Ruth Richardson on the need for investors to support a transformation in food systems

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Climate and food systems are inextricably linked. The way we produce, process, distribute, eat, and dispose of food contributes to climate change, and climate change affects the future sustainability, security, and equity of the food system. Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for radical changes to be made in the way we use the land in the face of climate change. Agriculture and food systems are identified as the key drivers of land degradation and desertification, with carbon emissions and extractive activities affecting 75% of the Earth’s land surface.

A major paradigm shift is needed in how we view and manage our agriculture and food systems, demonstrating how to evaluate not just the visible but also the hidden costs and benefits

The IPCC findings have real implications for us all. Up until now, the subject of fundamental change in land-use, food, and agriculture systems has been viewed as too complex and contentious to deal with, resulting in limited political attention and accountability. But, ensuring the sustainability and security of food is one of the most defining issues of our time thus requiring immediate and radical transformation. Business leaders and investors are central to this agenda; now is the time to act and finally shift the global conversation.
Business leaders and investors are central to this agenda for two reasons: first, they are central to the funding flows that provide incentives and dis-incentives to our food future; second, they are at the front end of the risk associated with the harmful, negative externalities and impacts of the current, predominant industrial food system that is: too dependent on fossil fuels and non-renewable inputs; results in pollution and environmental damage; often at the root of eroding human health, social cohesion, rural livelihoods; and promotes an economic system that results in liabilities due to hidden costs, global trade vulnerabilities, declining rural economies, and increased inequality.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the economic environment in which many of the world’s farmers operate is distorted by significant externalities, both negative and positive, and a lack of awareness of our dependence on nature. A major paradigm shift is needed in how we view and manage our agriculture and food systems, demonstrating how to evaluate not just the visible but also the hidden costs and benefits. This requires exploring alternative frameworks and models for how we grow, process, distribute, and consume food, and manage food waste.
More and more it is recognised that transformational change – not incremental change – of current food systems is key to tackling critical issues like malnutrition, climate change, and migration. The good news is that there are many pathways to the transformation we need and they start with the food system itself. This is the central theme of our new research report – Beacons of Hope: Accelerating Transformations to Sustainable Food Systems – launched this week in partnership with Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development.
Beacons of Hope shows us that, around the world, farmers, consumers, governments, businesses, and investors are working toward sustainable food systems and facilitating food systems transformations. For example, Eosta in the Netherlands is an award-winning, private-sector initiative dedicated to the production and importation of sustainable, organic, and fairtrade fruit and vegetables and it is one of the Beacons of Hope.Tapping into growing consumer awareness of food sustainability, they provide full traceability of their products so that consumers can make well-informed purchases at prices fair to producers, society and the environment. Eosta also provides extension services to farmers, promotes true cost accounting and provides agro-economic advice, finances, packaging, product innovation, logistics, marketing, and distribution to their customers.
Another Beacon of Hope, the Timbaktu Collective, works with marginalised women, men, children, the landless and the disabled in the drought-prone Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, India. Their mission is to enable those who are marginalised to enhance their livelihood resources, get organised, work towards social justice and gender equity, and lead meaningful and joyous lives. The Collective believes in autonomy and helps set up people-owned business enterprises. They develop models that address the rights of the marginalised through the ecological restoration of wastelands, organic farming and marketing, alternative banking, credit creation, legal aid and counselling for women, child-friendly education and spaces, animal husbandry and disability support. They have a farmers’ cooperative and processing and packaging plants, and provide numerous extension services.
What these examples show us is that to harness the potential of food systems to deliver the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals, and other international commitments, we must keep pushing to eliminate harmful production practices, adopt ecological approaches to agriculture, change consumption patterns and behaviours, and ensure that this is done with equity at the heart.
Businesses and investors exist to provide value to their shareholders. But the context in which business and investment operate – and therefore their ability to provide value to their shareholders in the trusted, accepted ways of the past – is changing rapidly. Consumption patterns are increasingly linked with negative health outcomes, particularly obesity and other diet-related diseases. Youth, farmers, and civil society are pushing evermore loudly for change and influencing national policy. Foundations will start scrutinising their endowment portfolios in a similar way to the fossil fuels divestment campaigns and, instead, mobilising capital in support of change initiatives. Climate change is putting unprecedented economic pressure on food production and resource availability, with those whose livelihoods depend on a stable agriculture sector – smallholders, low- income, women, and/or Indigenous farmers – worst hit. It is in the private sector’s self-interest to understand the environmental, economic, and social costs and risks of their operations and to adapt their business models accordingly.
Ultimately, as the Beacons of Hope report makes clear, transformation is already happening. With a climate emergency looming, this is a contested moment and a pivotal moment. It’s also a moment ripe with opportunity in which the most successful investors and businesses, small and large, will be those who won’t only manage to navigate through growing uncertainty, but who will open the doors to innovative models and turn today’s daunting challenges into economic opportunities that work with nature, are publicly acceptable, are responsive to real needs, and empower those most central to the system – women and small-holder farmers. This is key to a future that is sustainable, secure, and equitable.

Ruth Richardson is the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.