During a panel discussion organized by Food Tank, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), experts discuss the need to account for the impacts of the food system on the environment and communities.
The event is part of a series of panels with themes inspired by Global Alliance’s Seven Calls to Action to transform the food system. Moderated by Ruth Richardson, Executive Director of the Global Alliance and Danielle Nierenberg, President of Food Tank, each conversation features members of the United Nations Food Systems Champions Network.
The third Call to Action and the panel discussion focus on the hidden costs and benefits of agricultural systems. Panelists include Joao Campari, Global Leader of WWF’s Food Practice; Sandrine Dixson-Declève, Co-President of the Club of Rome; Naoko Ishii, Director of the Center for Global Commons at University of Tokyo; and Michael Taylor, Secretariat Director of the International Land Coalition (ILC).
“Today’s dominant, simplistic, economic productivity metrics like yield per hectare don’t capture all the many, many ways food systems impact the world around us,” Richardson begins. These impacts can be negative — habitat destruction, soil erosion, water contamination, and chronic health issues — as well as positive — carbon sequestration and insect pollination.
Richardson explains that all of these are unaccounted for in the final price of food. But some organizations such as the Global Alliance are working to change that with true costs accounting (TCA). Intended to take these externalities into consideration, TCA was developed to give stakeholders a more holistic understanding of the food system.
During the conversation, panelists discuss TCA and solutions that can help drive change.
When considering the impact that the food system has on the environment, Campari says it is important to avoid vilifying the food system, especially producers. Rather, everyone must recognize the benefits it yields and help facilitate the transition to a system that works for nature and people.
Ishii believes that two important things are needed to achieve this. First, she calls for a narrative shift, so that everyone along the supply chain feels a responsibility to make better choices. “We need a social contract,” she says. “The current economic system doesn’t really do it.”
Second, Ishii says that a practical instrument is needed to guide people’s actions. TCA can serve as this tool, she says, but information must be more accessible so the different stakeholders can understand the broad consequences of their actions.
While there is not a single solution that applies to all local contexts, the panelists also discuss some of general tactics that can help effect positive change.
Campari believes that the individual has a significant role to play. “We need to be aware that what we choose to put on our plate has the power to transform and reduce the hidden costs of the food system on the planet,” he tells Food Tank. Collectively, consumer choice can send signals to producers and encourage them to implement more sustainable practices.
Finance can also serve as an important lever, argues Dixson-Declève. Instead of thinking about short-term gains, companies must re-prioritize. “Build a different shareholder value around long-term financial benefits, which are linked to what is essential to humanity, to our survival,” she tells Food Tank, “and to ensure that as we have further crises, we are resilient to those crises and we create an equitable food system for all people, not just those that have a choice.”
Taylor and Dixson-Declève also call for the food system to be more inclusive of marginalized communities.
Taylor argues that while women and Indigenous peoples are essential to sustainable food production and land stewardship, land tenure systems make both groups particularly vulnerable.
“Women feed the world, but we would say that they feed it on somebody else’s land,” Taylor tells Food Tank. He argues that securing women’s land rights is one of the most important issues to address.
Indigenous peoples also grapple with issues of land ownership. Despite the fact that Indigenous peoples and local communities occupy 50 percent of the world’s land, they are legally recognized for owning just 10 percent of it, according to a report from ILC.
“Recognizing land rights of Indigenous peoples isn’t just the right thing to do — it is the right thing to do because it’s their land — but it’s also good for the rest of us,” Taylor says.
Dixson-Declève also adds that youth, who are developing creative solutions, are also essential to the equation. “We need to get away from this tokenism,” she tells Food Tank. “We actually need to co-create solutions with the youth.”
Finally, the panelists agree on the importance of agroecological practices that not only work with nature, but also have a social component that supports the health of communities.
“We’re a big defender of agroecology and other regenerative and restorative practices on soil,” Campari tells Food Tank. “We need to really scale out these agroecological principles.” To accomplish this, Campari states more research is needed to highlight the environmental benefits of agroecology.
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