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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition • FSN Forum

Re: Towards a common understanding of Sustainable Food Systems

Stephen Thornhill
Stephen ThornhillDept of Food Business & Development, University College Cork, IrelandIreland

Congratulations on such a thought-provoking report and bringing together the many different issues regarding sustainable food systems into a coherent document. This first draft will act as a useful reference, but I think the document’s main strength is in guiding us toward actions required to make our food systems more sustainable.

Food systems are commonly framed as being sustainable from an environmental, social and economic perspective. But the reason so much of our global food system is so unsustainable is that we have failed to build sufficient environmental and social costs into economic profitability. We need to put planet and people first and not be afraid to develop policies that make unsustainable food systems uneconomic, whilst promoting more sustainable food systems at affordable prices to all.

The introduction notes that “governments remain in the driving seat”, but is it not the case that multi-national agri-food companies yield more power in the global food system? There is growing acceptance within the private sector that much of our food system needs to be transformed, but so far this has mainly amounted to a bewildering array of voluntary certification schemes that have only made limited inroads.

The section on value chain approaches refers to such schemes, as well as the importance of improving consumer information, but they are not specifically mentioned in the section listing the main strategies to promote sustainable food systems. Yet sustainability certification and regulation could play a much greater role in ensuring the transition to sustainable food systems given that major multi-national companies have already started to adopt such practices.

The main problem is that these schemes are currently voluntary, there are far too many of them (463 according to the Eco-label index) and they each cover different environmental, social and economic criteria. It is therefore very difficult for consumers to understand what is included in each of the voluntary certification labels and whether one is more sustainable than the next.

The UN and nation states could play an important role in setting out a minimum level of environmental and social criteria that any sustainability certification scheme must adhere to in order to describe itself as promoting “sustainability”. In this way consumers could be confident that any product certified as sustainable, is indeed promoting, at a minimum level, all forms of sustainability throughout its value chain. This approach could be included under, and create an important link between, the proposed strategies to strengthen the policy environment, promote public-private partnerships, education and awareness-raising, as well as metric based monitoring and evaluation.

The focus on metric-based evaluation is important in terms of measuring progress on key sustainability issues. There is also a need for better methodologies and metrics to monitor sustainability performance, particularly in relation to food and nutrition security. One example of this is the Nutrient Deficit Score which calculates the deficiency (or excess) of key nutrient intakes from reported food consumption data, so as to provide guidance back to households on better food production and purchasing decisions. This can also then be linked back to greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental indicators in the value chains associated with such foods.

On strengthening the policy environment, there could be a role for trade policies that penalise foods that clearly involve unsustainable practices, such as deforestation: this would then encourage more foods to be sustainably certified. Similarly, agri-food support policies should be transformed so as to encourage more sustainable food production instead of those responsible for the largest greenhouse gas emissions and other unsustainable practices. Meanwhile, newly-emerging agri-food sectors and value chains in developing countries should not have to face unfair competition from imports of products which benefit from significant domestic support.

Regarding the definitions and frameworks:

In the definition of a food system, I suggest using the word “encompasses” rather than “gathers”, as the definition should be describing what a food system is rather than what it does.

Mention is also made that a sustainable food system is “more than a linear linking of the individual stages of the value chain”. Yet the framework used in figure 1 depicts a linear system within an environment of elements, drivers and outcomes. We need a better way of depicting the food system that shows circular flows at different stages of the value chain, as more and more of our biomass resource is fed back into the system as nutrients (eg any so-called food-based “waste” used in anaerobic digesters to produce organic fertiliser and gas energy).

Importantly we need to show not only the economic, but the environmental and social values at each stage of the supply chain, so that we can identify where additional links in the chain often reduce such values, and perhaps add unnecessary economic value at the expense of environmental and social costs.

Thank you for compiling this very interesting and informative document and I look forward to reading the next version.