Food Systems Transformation a ‘Must’ For A Liveable Future

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The biggest threats to nature and biodiversity arises from converting natural habitats to agriculture and farming land intensively | Credit: Paulina L. Ela / BOSF

United Nations Summit Calls for End to ‘War On Nature’

I’ll never forget seeing empty supermarket shelves during the early days of Covid, with people panic buying and scrabbling for essential supplies. Months on and my local superstore still goes for weeks without having frozen veg available. And now shortages of seasonal labour, delivery drivers, petrol and gas have raised political questions and sparked media headlines about the possibility of ‘Christmas being cancelled’.

For our generation, Covid has brought an unprecedented sense of shared adversity underscoring just how fragile our way of life really is. It has exposed weaknesses in our food system, hitting production and availability. A light has been shone on inequalities, whereby healthy and nutritious food remains out of reach for far too many people. And in growing parts of the world, Covid has again raised the spectre of famine. 

Against this backdrop, world leaders gathered last week for the United Nations Food Systems Summit. Billed as a ‘people’s summit’, the event provided an historic opportunity for the world to look at what’s going wrong with food. It brought together a wide diversity of voices globally, including young people, food producers, Indigenous Peoples, civil society, researchers, private sector, finance and governments. Its stated aim was to focus on transforming food systems to drive our recovery from Covid and get us back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Costing the Earth

It was compelling stuff; Zac Goldsmith, Minister for the Environment spoke on behalf of the UK, just one of more than 90 government statements delivered at the summit. 

Our food systems are heaping costs on future generations and on the planet” Lord Goldsmith warned. 

A worker in protective mask handling intensively farmed pigs | Credit: dusanpetkovic

Pointing out that a billion people worldwide face hunger, he went on to describe the way we produce and consume food as being “fundamentally unsustainable, increasing the risk of zoonoses and the threat of antimicrobial resistance and putting impossible pressure on freshwater, forests, biodiversity, climate and weather systems.” He continued by referring to the independent review of the nation’s food strategy together with action on food waste and plans to switch farm subsidies to support good environmental stewardship. 

Like many other governmental leaders, Goldsmith called for global action to feed everyone whilst tackling the growing challenges of health, climate, and biodiversity loss. 

“We need to recognise that we have all the tools we need. All that’s missing is the political will to use them,” said Lord Goldsmith. I couldn’t agree more. 

There was no shortage of fighting talk at the summit.  

The man behind the event, the UN’s Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, framed the problem saying, “We are waging a war against nature – and reaping the bitter harvest. Ruined crops, dwindling incomes and failing food systems… The war on the planet must end, and food systems can help us build that peace.”

The gauntlet to world leaders was well and truly thrown down. 

Changing the Narrative

For me, the summit was successful in changing the global narrative; moving away from business as usual with a few tweaks, to one that speaks to the need for transformational reform. At the summit, it felt like we were entering a new era of thinking. Thirty years ago, the paradigm was very much that things have ‘never been better’ and that anyone raising issues like hunger, wildlife declines or animal cruelty were being annoyingly political. Radical even. All that we could hope for were minor adjustments to the system to make it less bad. Fundamental change was but a pipedream. 

If government interventions at the summit were anything to go by, official attitudes are changing. A procession of national leaders queued up to recite reasons for food system change. There were repeated references to being ‘only 9 harvests left’ to achieve the globally agreed SDGs or not. The emphasis was on positive, actionable solutions. Aiming for the provision of school meals for every child, zero food waste and agricultural innovation were amongst the announcements made by governments on the day. Profoundly good and much needed changes.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking that governments were gravitating toward low hanging fruit rather than fundamental reform. 


Much rarer were statements offering genuine game-changing ideas such as moving away from industrial animal agriculture and tackling diets over-reliant on livestock products. The reality is that unless we move away from factory farming, most of those UN SDGs will remain seriously out of reach. So far, it remains largely a universal governmental blindspot. 

Which could be what Guterres was getting at in saying, “We need the advocacy and voice of civil society to continue calling for change.” Oh, we will, dear General-Secretary; we will.

Industrial agriculture is a major driver of wildlife declines, deforestation, and soil degradation. It is the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet. And now it is recognised as a serious pandemic risk too: factory farms create the perfect breeding ground for new and dangerous strains of disease. 

Combine harvesters crop soybeans in Campo Novo do Parecis – a former rainforest in Mato Grosso Brazil | Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba

Far from sparing land for nature, the reality is that industrial agriculture continues to expand farmland, encroaching on the world’s last remaining wild lands. So-called ‘sustainable intensification’ is an oxymoron.

Vast acreages of precious arable land is devoted to growing feed for confined farmed animals. Globally, 40 per cent of our entire grain harvest is fed to industrially reared animals. If fed directly to people, it could sustain four billion of us. Yet, as animal ‘feed’, much of the food value is lost, in terms of both calories and protein.

Meaning Business

It was heartening to hear some governments grasping the nettle and talking about moving away from industrial farming – Sri Lanka and the EU are two examples; but there were too few. 

Sri Lanka’s President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke of “bold” steps to restrict imports of harmful chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that “lead to adverse health and environmental impacts”. Hinting at a common problem, he described how changing the mindset of farmers long accustomed to using industrial methods had “proven challenging.”

Frans Timmermans, the EU Commission’s Vice-president, spoke of this being a “make or break decade” for humanity where we have got to learn to live within planetary boundaries. Of needing to tackle the climate crisis and “looming ecocide”. 

“We must act now if we don’t want our children to fight wars over water and food,” he said, before talking of EU commitments to be carbon-neutral by 2050, halving pesticide use and boosting organic farming significantly by the end of the decade. 

Although the UN summit itself was not a decision-making body, more a global conference, the masterplan was clear: to bring the world’s attention to the central role of food in the battle for the planet. In convening it, the UN Secretary-General set the stage for governments to own both the challenge and the solution. To move the global conversation on so that never again could there be an excuse for not making food a central component of talks on health, food security, biodiversity loss and climate. 

With food systems being responsible for up to 80 per cent of biodiversity loss, particularly due to the impact of cruel factory farming, and generating one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, all eyes now fall on Glasgow and the UK-hosted COP26 climate talks. 

There is no time to lose. To quote Iceland’s Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, “we are now in transition from urgency to emergency.” What we do now will define the next thousand years.

Note:  This article was first published in The Scotsman on Monday 27th September, 2021

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