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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition • FSN Forum

Re: Towards a common understanding of Sustainable Food Systems

Peter  Steele
Peter SteeleIndependent Consultant Agricultural EngineerAustralia

Here are some suggestions/ideas which some of you may like to explore.


First some linguist thoughts about producing a document that … ‘is to become a reference document for anyone working towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns in the area of food and agriculture’ It will need to be re-drafted into a version that will be easy to read ‘first time round’. Perhaps this will come - but I’ve not noticed reference to language, interpretation and/or target people. As presented v1.0 is a complicated document written in techno-complex English that is suitable for others with similar scientific backgrounds and language skills.

Given the fundamental importance of the messages that are being promoted, requested, emphasized, it becomes essential that key community people – management, political, financial - with limited time, language capabilities and/or interest be captured. Everyone knows the gaps that exist between decision-makers across the academic-techno-political divides.


Daunting draft document; daunting subjects, issues, prospects and information. How to feed estimated 10B people expected within the next 30 years given the same physical resources that we have today? The question is obvious, and the considerable feedback provided thus far is as generally critical of current progress - as it is with the galaxy of examples of ideas and opportunities recommended for further use/exploration. Much is being done; and if not always as recommended, at least documentation is being prepared and people are talking one-to-the-other (leastways in forums such as FAO/FSN).

The dynamic nature of socio-economic human development during the past 250 years – times of intensive global exploration, industrialization, urbanization, population growth and more - has been staggering. When allied to the current explosion in information exchange/knowledge of what is happening elsewhere following ever-more innovative tele-communication developments (and cheap air travel) the complexities of ‘what to do next’ overwhelms.

On the one hand there’s the recent UN/IFCC reports on Climate Change to further raise awareness (and the current UN/FCCC COP24 meeting in Katowice Poland); the need to implement the insurance investments that may provide for a measure of control over GHG emissions and, it follows, some semblance of control over rising ambient temperatures. Given the fragility of our living space on Planet Earth – that friendly atmosphere of gases that, at best, is just 20 km deep that sustains and protects us – there’s little room for manoeuvre where food production is concerned.

Not only are we living longer than our forebears, but we’re demanding more. However, half the world’s people remain poor notwithstanding that the middle classes are on the rise everywhere – therein are issues with widening gaps with millions of people being left behind. And the issues herein, of course, relate to these being rural people in fragile parts of the world; people who may eventually become the mass socio-economic and/or environmental refugees for the latter part of the 21st century.

Some interesting FSN Feedback then

Thus far there has been some provocative feedback – consider, for example, the handful of contributions from Messrs Jeevananda Reddy, Tinsely – all of which help establish the basis of new decision-making, revision, redrafting, re-evaluation of the existing draft v1.0.

In his highly pragmatic contribution Mr S. Jeevananda Reddy in India has already covered the issues – the need to be realistic when compiling standard texts with which others can work; the need to take account of the practicalities of real-life situations. He emphasizes this, for example, with a critique of definitions used and contradictions for supply of food in India – skewed support for agriculture, ad hoc interventions by the multinationals, expensive state food subsidies for poorer families, mixed support for basic staples – millet vs rice, maize, and more.

The unknowns of climate change will impact food supplies into the next short term – droughts that will follow in India – a country already over-exploiting surface and subterranean water resources – and home to 20% of the world’s people. There’s another 20% across the Himalayas in China – with similar tenacious food self-sufficiency long term.

Dick Tinsley rightly draws attention to farm power – and the unsustainability of smallholder producers when they have only family labour available; people ill-fed on a diet that does not support hard physical work over long periods. There’s no way that crop timetables can be met, and the crop performs below expectations; less food is produced.

Trade-offs between key priorities of any food system – poverty reduction, raised productivity, enhanced nutrition feature from Roger Leakey of the UK; he extrapolates into the unsustainability of ‘conventional modern agriculture’ in the world’s tropical/sub-tropical regions, where it contributes to land degradation and social deprivation. More on industrial agriculture below.

Perhaps best of all there’s George Kent of Hawaii with his robust messages that suggests ‘Nero fiddling whilst Rome burned’ (i.e. ineffectual leadership and/or no concern for others). The focus of this particular debate/request from FAO/FSN on ‘Food Security’ is way off target, according to Mr Kent, when the real target should focus upon enriching the lives of poor people - re-appraising global hunger issues with diagnosis, commitments and action plans. Underlying this are issues that continue to promote the sustainability of food systems that patently do not work for everyone; Mr Kent calls it ‘ignoring the political economy of hunger’.

Taking the best of what we currently have ….

Perhaps missing from the debate is the wide issue of smallholder production vs conventional modern production – with all the ramifications for those who highlight the potential of the former with the degradation that comes from the latter; and this no matter that industrial production tends to feed most of us. There’s a key point therein that leads to the application of food production that blends the best of the value chains that we have (and which are further developed within draft v1.0 as ‘sustainable food value chains’ and ‘green value chains’) wherein the wider global/socio-economic/environmental context is included – as illustrated in Fig.1 & Fig.2 of draft v1.0.

There’s an easy-to-read/understand of the blending issues/opportunities involved in an article prepared by Johnathon Foley and published by National Geographic: ‘Five Step Plan To Feed the World.’* In summary: 1. Freeze agriculture’s footprint; 2. Grow more on farms we’ve got; 3. Use resources more efficiently; 4. Shift diets; and 5. Reduce waste. The headings/steps are self-explanatory and the majority FSN network will be familiar with them; in any case, the original article says it all.

You only have to follow the trends of people leaving ‘agriculture’ worldwide to appreciate that lack of personal interest shown by the majority smallholders that ‘feed half the world’; no one wants the drudgery of poorly-resourced production/services. Equally, the issues of conventional modern agriculture are also well-known; industries that successfully fill supermarkets around the world on the basis of pragmatic short-term production systems, and which may pose risk for the longer-term.

Get the messages right with documentation such as draft v1.0 and it may be that there will be sufficient initiatives, legislation, decision-makers and world-class politicians that will steam-roller the changes required. Consider the redrafted/finalized ‘Sustainable Food Systems’ document as simply one more building block on the road to progress. There will be much more to follow.

Meantime, ensure that people everywhere take on board the urgency of recent UN/FCCC recommendations for climate change mitigation/reversal – including progress with COP24 in Poland this week. And implementation of the December 2016 Paris Climate Accords by the majority industrial and industrializing countries. Fail to get climate issues right and everything else fails too.


Peter Steele

Agricultural Engineer



05 December 2018


PS. Definitions

And, on an aside – those definitions contained in section #4 – long, verbose, confusing in places. Consider a ‘sentence or two’ definition (and then follow with supporting text – if required). Additional headings/text required in support of ‘Modern production systems’; the listing currently focuses upon ‘novelty’ (notwithstanding potential). To include additional farm-forestry, harvesting/gathering, novel foods production (e.g. protein from insects, algae, etc.); to include food processing (e.g. simplistic/minimum added value – use of sugar, salt, oil, desiccation); to include food production supporting sectors – energy, farm mechanization, labour, safety, irrigation, etc.). Sure, where do you draw a line? Difficult.


*Available at: