On November 9, UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) attendees in Glasgow heard food system experts discuss the importance of breaking silos and elevating healthy and sustainable diets to address the world’s most pressing challenges. Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg shared videos highlighting a few Food System Vision Prize winners, which were selected based on their potential to inspire real, positive, and bold transformation of a food system that is actionable, concrete, and attainable by 2050.
The Rockefeller Foundation launched the US$2 million Food System Vision Prize in 2020 to highlight inspiring and actionable visions for food system change. The Visions aim to tackle challenges tied to six themes—environment, diets, economics, culture, technology, and policy—while showing the systemic interdependencies between these themes.
“We can’t just use the word ‘systems,’ we need to think, act, and collaborate in a systems way,” says Sara Farley, Managing Director for the Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation. “That means no longer is it one outcome…it’s not either/or between us, we don’t have time for that anymore.”
The Food System Vision Prize winners showcase what the food system could look like when nutrition, regeneration, and equity are brought together. These food systems of the future must be people-centered, operating in the spirit of Ubuntu, meaning “I Am Because We Are,” says Elizabeth Kimani of the African Population and Health Research Center, a top Vision Prize winner.
Kimani’s project, “Restoring Nairobi to ‘A Place of Cool Waters,’” is a collaboration of Kenyan government officials, researchers, NGOs, businesses, and development experts who are rethinking food production and access in urban spaces. The Vision outlines a transformation for Nairobi, Kenya, from a food-insecure megacity with high levels of inequality to a place of “cool waters” through a regenerative and human-centered food system.
In China, “From Mama’s Kitchen to Metropolitan Beijing” aims to revolutionize family kitchens, turning them into hubs where traditions, good health, environmental sustainability, and kindness are celebrated. This winning Vision encourages home cooks, restaurants, food courts, and other food providers to shift to plant-based diets as a way to improve health and reduce carbon emissions, aiming to not only nourish families but nourish human connections within each community.
“We carry on with a great sense of urgency…these problems are real, you might not see it on your dinner table, but they are real,” says Jian Yi, President of the Good Food Fund, the Chinese NGO that led the Vision.
In the Netherlands, “Re-rooting the Dutch Food System – From More to Better” calls for a holistic transformation of the food system into one organized around a circular economy. The Vision is working to reconnect people to their food while developing a new economy, “one that goes beyond GDP and that serves the planet and all its inhabitants,” says Imke de Boer, Professor of Livestock & Sustainable Food Systems at Wageningen University & Research and the Vision’s leader.
Taking these projects from vision to reality means bringing food systems to the forefront of global conversations surrounding climate.
“We need to start connecting the top and the bottom,” says Brent Loken, World Wildlife Fund’s Global Food Lead Scientist. “I love these ground-up movements that are happening all over the world, but if we don’t have an international multilateral process to support it, it’s not going to be enough. We cannot rely just on the individuals to do the work.”
An important first step is that the food systems community is present across this year’s COP, says Patty Fong, Program Director of Climate, Health, Well-Being for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. She has heard from many COP veterans this week that they’re seeing more food events than ever before.
There’s an urgent need to work together on these issues within the context of the climate emergency, Fong says, “but a sense of urgency cannot replace the need to take time out, build trust, and develop that co-ownership of solutions because it cannot just be top-down.”
“Collaboration is no longer an option, it’s a necessity,” says Danielle Nierenberg, President of Food Tank.
Young people are embracing food systems transformation and especially dietary changes across the world, says Lana Weidgenant, Deputy Partnerships Director for Zero Hour International, a youth-led climate justice organization.
Yet when Weidgenant proposed an event on healthy and sustainable diets at the COP26 Methane Moment pavilion, she was told that it was too controversial of a topic to discuss. “It’s a response we get very often,” Weidgenant says.
“But you can see all the people here [at this panel event], there’s such a range between the vegan and the smallscale livestock farmers—there’s so much that we can agree on and that we can move forward with,” Weidgenant says. “We can’t afford to not address [these issues] because of excuses like that.”
Loken believes “we need a dedicated Food Day at COP27.”