World leaders gathered in Cornwall in the UK for the G7 meeting this weekend had a packed schedule. COVID-19 recovery, economic security, migration and health were all on the agenda, alongside what was billed as ‘meaningful action’ on climate as the groundwork is laid for the COP 26 climate conference in November, which will also be held on British shores.
According to Ruth Richardson, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, one factor connects all of these issues: the food system. “If you want to make progress on climate, pandemic recovery, health, poverty, and importantly, fighting the risk of future pandemics, food systems are what connect all of these challenges,” she suggested. “Global solutions all start with food systems transformation.”
The G7 took place just months before the first ever United Nations Food Systems Summit, which aims to set the stage for a ‘decade of action’ to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. During the Summit, we can expect to see the launch of actions aimed at delivering progress on the SGDs. This will be followed up by COP 26, which will set the agenda to move to a net-zero footing in line with the Science Based Targets.
All of this relies on healthier, more sustainable food systems, according to Richardson, who argued that world challenges need to be met with ‘holistic’ and ‘systemic action’.
“In this moment of global recovery, the time has passed for issue silos.”
COVID-19 spotlights role of food system in public health
Richardson told FoodNavigator that greater emphasis must ‘absolutely’ be placed on food system transformation. Current events have underlined the link between the food system, environmental sustainability and population health, she suggested.
“COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the deep interconnections between food systems, public health, and biodiversity and habitat loss. Paired with the climate crisis… food systems transformation is a fundamental solution that can accelerate progress on multiple global challenges.”
Instability in the food system is a ‘deep risk’ to economic viability, public health and even national security, the Director, who represents an alliance of philanthropic organisations, told us.
“Food system transformation is urgent — and leaders know it. It’s time national governments rise up to the challenge of truly transforming our food systems with tangible, bold action for long-term impact.”
True Cost Accounting for transformation
What action does Richardson believe will deliver the scale of change needed?
“There is an unprecedented opportunity for governments to show real leadership and tackle the challenges we face head on. For instance: tying food systems transformation to COVID-19 response and stimulus measures; moving to more integrated policy development and implementation at the ministerial level; and, transparent ways of tracking the real costs of our food systems, to name a few.
“This includes breaking from harmful subsidy and incentive programs that are enabling unsustainable farming practices and the expansion of industrialized agricultural land-use toward supports that incentivize agroecology and regenerative practices.”
These efforts will require policymakers to stop making decisions based on what Richardson characterises as ‘incomplete and, effectively, bad data’.
“That’s where True Cost Accounting comes in,” she believes.
True Cost Accounting is an evolving method to assess the cost of different production systems, based on the concept that we pay for the food we eat in more ways than at the till. It takes into account the different ways we pay for the environmental and public health consequences of poor food choices, from taxation that is used to cover environmental clean-up costs or fund agricultural subsidies to the price of diet-related disease on healthcare systems.
Richardson elaborated: “TCA goes beyond limited economic assessments used today and, instead, provides a broad and comprehensive systems-based framing that helps us to account for and understand the deep interconnections between agriculture, food, the environment, and human wellbeing. It is a tool that helps us to accurately account for costs like soil erosion and toxic exposure to harmful chemical pesticides, or the benefits of healthy diets and biodiversity.”
‘Everyone has a role to play’
Richardson stressed that regulators need to reappraise their approach to the food system, noting that governments have a ‘crucial role’ in reforming the food system.
“Governments have in-hand a number of “levers of change” which they can utilize to shape our food systems. For one, they can take an integrated and participatory approach to establishing food policy; setting the rules, laws, and standards that uphold human, animal, and ecological health. They can also direct public sector finance and fiscal policy towards regenerative, resilient, and ecologically-beneficial forms of farming.”
These measures should go hand-in-hand with a ‘bottom up’ approach, the food systems expert claimed. Richardson emphasised that ‘everyone has a role to play’ in food system transformation, from farmers, to civil society, the private sector and citizens.
She said food industry stakeholders should ‘commit to True Cost Accounting or similar transparent, measurable systems with integrity’ as well as using the UN Food Systems Summit as a ‘moment to communicate the urgency of making much-needed and overdue transformative changes’.
Richardson also highlighted the pivotal role that consumers can play in food system transformation.
“The ongoing planetary emergency and COVID-19 pandemic have exposed the fragility of our global food systems, showing us that they are not fit for purpose. As consumers, citizens can have a powerful role in creating space for systemic change. Where possible, by supporting brands that put True Cost Accounting at the heart of their operations — like EOSTA in the Netherlands — they can send a sharp signal to business and policymakers alike that change is wanted, as much as it is needed.”