This member participated in the following discussions
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.
Having just commented on the Sustainable Food Systems consultation, I was surprised there was so little mention of climate change in its draft concept note, yet the two consultations are inextricably linked....
1. Climate change and food security are also inextricably linked. Policymakers need to consider the latest research highlighted by Ackerman and Stanton (2013) which argues that climate change impacts on agriculture could be much worse than expected, particularly regarding the temperature threshold of crops, above which yields rapidly decline, and the variability and intensity of rainfall.
So first and foremost we need an increased urgency from governments to implement effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stablilise climate change, including regulatory policies where market-based solutions have already failed: without that adaptation and mitigation policies may achieve very little.
Adapatation policies need to be nutrition-sensitive, with a greater emphasis on sustainability throughout the food system - we need to improve nutrition whilst reducing emissions. What may have been a sustainable system in the past may no longer be so in the face of climate change, requiring different cropping and livestock systems that can adapt to the changing conditions.
And policymakers need to consider the whole food system when implementing climate change adaptation and nutrition policies, from production (eg conservation agriculture) through to the consumer (eg behavioural change toward more sustainable and more nutritious diets), including trade policies which may currently exacerbate emissions.
But we also need to keep livelihoods at the forefront of such policies. In some recent research I have been doing on the impact of biofuel operations on food security, I found that households with employees on large biofuel estates in Mozambique had significantly better food and nutrition security outcomes than other households in the same locality, largely due to paid employment: food access is likely to remain the key issue in food and nutrition security.
2. Here at University College Cork (UCC) we have been running an AgriDiet project in Ethiopia and Tanzania over the past two years and institutional barriers have emerged as a key issue in linking agriculture and nutrition, not so much at the national level where policies have now been put in place, but more so at the local level where ag extension and health officials rarely liaise. We have held workshops in both countries to bring local extension and helath worlers together and there is now growing recognition of this problem and things are starting to change. It will be important that ag extension staff also work with nutritionists on climate change issues to promote resilient food systems that also deliver optimum nutrition to the most vulnerable.
UCC has also been working with the NGOs Valid International and Concern to address the barriers in sourcing locally produced raw materials and producing ready-to-use therapeutic foods in food insecure countries so that the most vulnerable households have access to nutritious foods and local farmers can also benefit through new markets.
3. The improved coordination between local ag extension staff and health workers in Tanzania is a good example of improving the effectiveness of the public sector, although climate change impacts remain a new and uncertain issue for most local extension staff. Also, as part of my bioenergy and food security research I have encountered a number of food-energy integrated projects that could be regarded as cross-sector initiatives. For example, in response to deforestation and smoke-inhalation related illnesses from open fires, a number of community-scale projects are intercropping oilseed plants to produce fuel for oil-based stoves, as well as for generators used for irrigation and food storage of perishable crops. The urgent need for clean energy to replace wood and fossil fuels is often overlooked, but without renewable sources such as solar and bioenergy, it will be difficult to improve the production of nutritionally important foods, such as fruit and vegetables and reduce wastage in hot climates.
Lecturer and Research Fellow at University College Cork, Ireland.
Reference - Ackerman and Stanton (2013) Climate Impacts on Agriculture: A Challenge to Complacency? GDAE Working Paper No 13-01.
Congratulations on the draft concept note on this important issue.
I think it needs to have a stronger focus on ethics and equity as key issues in delivering food and nutrition security and would therefore propose that the "goal" needs to be changed to “sustainable and ethical food systems” to encourage a fairer distribution of resources within the system and to protect the livelihoods of the poor.
I think the draft also needs to highlight that food systems sit within different socio-economic and political contexts, which may not be coherent with a move toward sustainable food systems (eg WTO and other free trade agreements currently being negotiated, national policies to encourage large-scale intensive farming in developing countries, etc).
In terms of promoting the move toward a more sustainable food system, this is a global scale issue and requires commitments from governments and organisations to ensure that more sustainable food systems are actually implemented, in a similar way to how climate change targets have been set. I would therefore incorporate a 5th objective to “Develop and recommend a set of policies and targets that UN members and other signatories should adopt to ensure that sustainable food systems are delivered”.
And on the work areas, the focus on "market-based and voluntary" solutions may not be sufficient. Mandatory sustainability certification and standards may be required, as experience has shown with the many voluntary biofuel sustainability certification schemes, most of which do not adequately address food and nutrition security.
Finally I would encourage that under work area 1 there should be a central platform and website housed at FAO which would assemble and disseminate all relevant information on this vital issue, with links to the various platforms and initiatives.
Firstly I would like to congratulate the team on the very interesting and thought-provoking zero-draft.
With reference to the CFS brief, my overall impression is that the draft provides a very useful analysis of the negative effects of biofuels on food security, but contains relatively little on positive impacts.
For example, our field research of biofuel operations in Mozambique and Tanzania found that households with paid employees in such operations were far more food secure, both from a calorie and micronutrient status, than other households in the same locality (and had shown the greatest improvement in food security since the operations were established).
The other main impression drawn is the tendency toward generalizing about biofuels, particularly with regard to policy recommendations. We know that some biofuels are more efficient than others. Brazil has been producing cane-based ethanol since the 1970s without any major criticism of its impact on food security, and we know that cane is, for the most part, an efficient biofuel feedstock for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as are a number of other feedstocks. Calling for an end to blending targets or mandates on these types of biofuel could be regarded as counterproductive to reducing global warming and food insecurity.
Furthermore, the cane-ethanol sector in Brazil has provided employment, helping to alleviate poverty and improve food security in many rural areas. This has been replicated in other countries, as illustrated by a study in Thailand showing how the ethanol sector there contributes far more jobs than the oil industry per unit of energy output, reducing the country’s oil import bill and helping to raise food productivity through spillover impacts. Another recent report by the Stockholm Environment Institute suggests that cane ethanol production could be significantly increased in Malawi to help alleviate fuel shortages, due to the high import price of oil, and reduce deforestation.
Much criticism has, of course, been aimed at US maize-based ethanol due to its relatively low efficiency in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and, perhaps more importantly, due to its influence on world food prices. As the US is the leading global exporter of maize, the US price generally denotes the world market value for maize, so the sharp increase in US ethanol demand is assumed to have had a significant impact on the rise in maize prices around the world.
However, much would also depend on how US supply increased to match ethanol demand, and the USDA suggests that a significant part of the rise in supply was due to additional plantings and multi-cropping by farmers and the use of higher yielding varieties, as well as a swing away from soybeans and other crops. This, together with the substantial amount of co-product outputs going back into the food and feed sector (both in the US and as exports to countries like China), would have dampened the price-raising impact of increased ethanol demand and limited the amount of maize diverted from animal feed and other markets. Indeed, it could be argued that these feedstuffs would not have been produced without the biofuel policy incentives, although it is impossible to tell how US maize supply and demand would have evolved without biofuels.
Then there is the point made by the FAO AgriMarket team, PANGEA and others that US maize price changes are not necessarily reflected in the markets where food insecurity prevails. And there is also the fact that (as stated in the draft) some rural farmers would benefit from rising prices as net sellers. Our research showed evidence of a multiplier effect where biofuel operations had been newly-established, introducing effective demand into a locality and encouraging increased food production by local farmers. Indeed, Swinnen and others rightly point out that NGOs and others lobbied against artificially depressed world cereal prices for many years, which acted as a disincentive for food production in many developing countries.
So, whilst the US maize ethanol policy may indeed have contributed to the rise in world maize prices, its impact on food security may not be as adverse as first appears. More importantly we need to find the right balance in the level and stability of food prices, which would provide an incentive for farmers in food insecure countries to raise productivity, whilst providing affordable food to consumers.
It is also important to acknowledge and support biofuels used for providing energy in rural and remote areas, as well as clean cooking stoves to reduce the many deaths caused by indoor smoke inhalation, and the hours spent in collecting fuelwood by so many people in the developing world, as well as reducing deforestation.
Regarding the policy recommendations, it would be important to ensure that beneficial biofuels and investments are encouraged, whilst those biofuels providing limited or negative benefits for GHG emissions, food security and other key socio-environmental issues (eg land and water rights), should be discouraged, including the removal of targets and other supportive policies.
So blending targets (and even mandates) may be suitable from a food security (and climate change) perspective in some circumstances, but this would largely depend on the biofuel feedstock and whether the country has sufficient land and labour resources to meet food and biofuel demand, as well as the way in which the biofuel is produced.
In this regard the development of multi-stakeholder sustainable certification schemes should continue to be encouraged and officially approved (and even mandated), such as that of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), which incorporates GHG emission and food security criteria. Only those biofuels and operations meeting environmental and social criteria should be authorized. Land and water rights must also be part of any certification system for allowable biofuels (also included in the RSB scheme), and any operations should adhere to the principles of responsible agricultural investment.
In this way beneficial biofuels can be encouraged to promote food security and mitigate climate change.
Consultant and Department of Food Business and Development, University College Cork, Ireland.
 This supports the general perception that food insecurity is largely due to poverty and lack of access to food rather than lack of availability.
 Where it does not result in the release of large emissions from land cleared for new cane plantations
 See Silalertruksa et al (2012), Biofuels and employment effects: Implications for socio-economic development in Thailand.
 See Wallander et al (2011) Where did the corn come from to fuel the expansion in ethanol production?