The Global Panel urges all nations, including low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) and their development partners, to take urgent action to change the ways in which food systems are currently managed, governed, and used. This is essential to achieve the goal of sustainable, healthy diets for all, which is vital for the health of millions of people and the health of the planet, but also for progress in almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The starting point for this report (Part I – Chapters 2 and 3) was a call for policymakers to pay urgent attention to a set of inter-linked and deepening crises: the global nutrition crisis, the climate emergency, and the planet-wide natural resource crisis. Negative feedback loops run through and across these crises: from dietary patterns related to the ways that food is produced, processed and sold, to ecological damage, through to the impacts of climate volatility on food systems and the accumulating health effects of sub-optimal diets. Food systems are at the nexus of these crises. The economic impacts of compounding food system failures are profound, exposing systemic weaknesses and fragility in the face of a dangerous new threat in the form of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is LMICs and the poorest in all societies who are likely to suffer most from exposure to climate shocks, to the unsustainability of food systems, and to the livelihood threats posed by ill-health. These threats will only become more severe, and more difficult to rectify, in the absence of appropriate actions across the food system. They are already a reality. Today, a minority of the world’s inhabitants eat well. Future food systems need to deliver healthy and sustainably produced diets to everyone. How the transition is managed will be critical,not least to ensure it is orderly and protects the poorest. This report has set out a framework for achieving that.
The goal of sustainable, healthy diets for everyone depends on the fundamental reform of the food system. The food system contributes to multiple aspects of planetary degradation and is in a spiral of decline with environmental systems. But reform will only take place if there is political will and commitment to turn aspiration into reality. Without decisive action, policymakers must expect increased inequalities in terms of incomes, health, and diet quality across and within countries, and increasingly fragile and risk-prone food systems degrading the planet’s natural systems on a vast scale.
For a century or more, our food systems have been largely successful at delivering what they were primarily designed to deliver: an abundance of relatively cheap staples. That goal remains important, but the benefits fail to address many aspects of malnutrition or inequality, and the dominant business model is one that has made itself unsustainable. The incentives and disincentives built into current production, marketing, processing, retail, and
demand systems reflect the past and prevailing choices of policymakers, businesses, and the expressed demand of billions of food purchasers. This makes any food system transition complex and challenging, but the ways in which decisions are made today cannot be sustained. The choices that drive the interlocked climate and health crises have to change.
Delivering healthy and sustainable diets will require a re-engineering of each domain of the food system. The process of transition, which must start without delay, will not be without challenges. This report sets out a framework for that process (see Chapter 8), and a coherent set of actions (Part II – Chapters 4-7).
Upcoming international summits on food systems and nutrition must promote greater donor support to enable all nations to move quickly through a transition phase. This chapter lays out the Global Panel’s recommended actions, and proposed first steps to making the transition possible.
9.1 Turning crises into opportunities
The cost of inaction will rise so fast that no country, rich or poor, will easily cope with its negative impacts by 2030. Estimates of the health and economic burdens likely to beset countries around the world by the escalation of diet-related problems (human diseases, nutritional deficiencies, GHGs, failing food production systems, and more) are estimated at US$16 trillion per year by 2050. 2
Those estimates were made before the pandemic. In May 2020, the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) estimated that wealthy nations alone (not including LMICs) could see government debt rise by US$17 trillion as a result of collapsed tax revenues, a deep fall in economic output, and rising public sector borrowing. 3 Figure 9.1 illustrates the scale of rising indebtedness for OECD countries, showing the sharp rise that followed the 2007–2008 world food price crisis (the effects of which are still being felt). Debt levels are expected to rise just as sharply in LMICs, representing less total value in absolute terms, but are likely to be just as significant in relative terms.
The huge human and economic costs of the pandemic will be compounded every year by the growing human and economic costs of unsustainable, unhealthy diets. The expanding deficit in most national budgets due to the continued healthcare costs post-pandemic, lost labour productivity, growing economic inequality
and the unpredictable impacts of climate volatilitywill be highly destabilising for LMICs which already struggle to service high levels of debt.
While the growing debt burden due to the coronavirus is now inevitable, the future costs linked to failing food systems are not. Modelling undertaken for this report on dietary shifts towards food-based dietary guidelines (FBDGs) estimate savings in the range of 10-15% of global GDP, which represents roughly US$8 trillion to US$13 trillion (based on 2019 global GDP of US$88 trillion). 4 5 Another study suggested an ‘economic prize’ from changing food and land use systems to avoid health and environmental costs at US$10.5 trillion a year by 2050. 6
Part of these gains would come from tackling malnutrition in all its forms. For example, there would be significant gains from finally resolving child undernutrition. Ending stunting for a single cohort of children (which would translate into improved schooling, productivity and wage rates) would generate an estimated US$177 billion per cohort year (at nominal exchange rates), rising to over US$616 billion per year if exchange rates are adjusted for purchasing power parity. 7 In South Asia, currently home to the highest number of stunted children, a 40% reduction by 2030 (the SDG target) would boost the earnings of the cohort of workers entering the workforce not stunted by US$2,148 billion over their working life; the same calculation for sub-Saharan Africa suggests a net present value of earnings gained by 2030 at US$588 billion. 8
9.2 Food system transition: who needs to act?
Governments, donors, civil society, food companies and all other stakeholders must work together to deliver food systems which are safer, more resilient, and sustainable. The starting point for transforming food systems lies with global institutions and national governments. The Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit in Tokyo and the UN Food Systems Summit both offer important opportunities for governments and donors, but also businesses, to make not just new pledges for nutrition but to agree how to invest in actions which facilitate a transition towards enhanced food systems. The technical recommendations made in Part II of this report can be used to inform concrete proposals for action.
The 2030 SDG target year is, however, poorly aligned with the goals of food system transformation. Given the varied nature of food systems globally, and disparity in capacities and resources to enact necessary change across countries, it is infeasible that transformation could be completed in a single decade. The various transition steps chosen by policymakers in the context of their own specific needs must be clearly planned, feasible and proportionate in their ambition (see Section 9.5). They need to be initiated by assessment of appropriate actions location-by- location, identifying cost-effective instruments, re-purposing, re-balancing, and re-aligning incentives and disincentives across the food system, and establishing effective social protection mechanisms to protect the most vulnerable during the transition. The sequence of actions needs to be tailored to local needs, and be supported by wide stakeholder commitment.
9.2.1 Governments and their development partners
Governments have much to gain from the transition of food systems, and they have a lead role to play. The gains to governments will be employment created across the food system, reduced health care costs for both undernutrition and diet-related chronic diseases, and reduced environmental losses associated with ecological degradation and the economic impacts of climate change. The transition process will require wide and sustained support, and a mandate for change.
The principles that should guide government action on food systems are laid out in Chapter 8. These apply to all governments, and not just those in LMICs. 9
Specific government policy recommendations laid out in this report include:
- Rebalance subsidies going to the agriculture sector in ways that better support sustainable, healthy diets. The challenge is to better align government support away from a narrow commodity focus towards national public health goals, while also shifting resource incentives towards climate-smart agricultural technologies, sustainable approaches to intensification and carbon sequestration, and support for innovations which can catalyse a rapid transition of investments and activities across the food system.
- Rebalance agriculture-related research and development (R&D) to invest in ways that enhance sustainable intensification. Specifically, this requires ensuring that national and global funding for crop research and other related food systems research be both increased in total, but with a much larger share dedicated to non-cereal crops than at present. This does not mean reducing research on the productivity and protection of stable grains and tubers, but it does mean significantly increasing funding towards similar work on the nutrient-rich foods needed to support sustainable, healthy diets. In other words, the quantity of research funding and support, as well as its balance, must both be improved.
- Bolster research on food systems, not just foods.
An ambitious, forward-facing research agenda must pay close attention to joined-up system-wide investments, the cost-effectiveness of policy instruments used, scalability of innovations, and rigorous documentation of multi-win examples and best practices. The future needs and demands of citizens should be built into the research agenda from the outset. Achieving systemic change will require policymakers to adopt a perspective that encompasses all parts of food systems – from production through to processing, storage, transport, retail and households. This will enable governments to engage with and facilitate actions by all stakeholders, with a view to motivating integrated and concerted action. The economic and environmental feedback loops (positive and negative) associated with altered food product mixes in agriculture and trade, both nationally and globally, must be carefully modelled, measured, and managed.
- Rebalance agriculture technology R&D towards efficiency gains which narrow the gap between higher- and lower-performing producers. Existing gaps in productivity and output of both staple and non-staple foods must be significantly reduced. Local agroecological conditions, and the availability of (or constraints on) domestic factors of production, such as arable land, water, labour, and capital, must be addressed through new strategies aimed at shifting the product mix both in agriculture and in diets.
- Rebalance relative market prices among foods. Using a range of policy levers, including taxes and subsidies asappropriate, realign the price of nutrient-rich foods relative to the cheapest locally available staples, and ensure that ultra-processed foods (high in unhealthy fats, sugar and salt) are no cheaper than nutrient-rich foods. This also includes reducing transaction costs along supply chains through investments in market infrastructure and support for technology and innovations which cut food loss and waste.
- Realign public procurement and institutional activities from the goal of feeding people to nourishing them. The local purchase and programming of meals in schools, hospitals, and prisons should include nutrient-rich foods within healthy diet options.
- Focus national job-creation strategies on enabling an efficient transition of the food system. While income growth within agriculture will still be important in the coming decade, the greatest potential for new jobs lies in post-production value-addition and services. Governments should ensure that job promotion, tax incentives, investment subsidies and the promotion of technology innovation are aimed at rapid increases in incomes associated with post-harvest activities in the value chain. One important aspect of this agenda is to facilitate improved hygiene and food safety conditions alongall food value chains, especially in traditional informal markets.
- Significantly increase funding for effectively designed poverty reduction and pro-poor income growth policies, as well as social protection policies. Cost- effective programmes are needed on a much larger scale to support the purchasing power and diet quality of the poorest households, and to ensure vulnerable people are much more resilient to crises (including lockdowns during global pandemics). LMIC government budgets are always constrained, but the scope and scale of social protection interventions enacted quite swiftly in the face of the coronavirus crises shows how valuable such programmes can be to protect people from food system disruptions of many kinds. Donor agencies should play a more active role in supporting the establishment and systematisation ofeffectively managed, diet-supporting safety nets in countries most vulnerable to global and local shocks of all kinds.
- Prioritise ecosystem regeneration and food system sustainability. To first ‘freeze the footprint’ and then invest in reducing that footprint, governments must increase budgets relating to agriculture, health, natural resources, transportation and market development, dedicating these funds to coherent cross-sectoral activities required to sustain food system support for sustainable, healthy diets. This would include repurposing land for carbon sequestration and enhanced ecosystem services. The pandemic has also highlighted the need for all nations to conserve natural habitats and provide enough space for wild animals to live without overly close human interactions. Adequate protection from poaching and trapping is also important since this may increase the risk of zoonoses and related virus mutations.
- Invest in a next generation of enhanced food-based dietary guidelines (FBDGs). These are needed as part of building a mandate for change, and they have the potential to inform and guide policymaker actions, not simply to inform or encourage individuals. They must contain much more information and evidence on the impacts of food choice on natural resources and climate, as well as the implications for human and planetary health of healthier, more sustainable dietary patterns.
- Promote data-driven accountability of SMART commitments made by actors in the run up to the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo, now scheduled for 2021. A robust accountability mechanism that uses better data and measurement in nutrition is essential to drive equitable progress and leave no one behind. An important adjunct to this specific recommendation is the need for
much greater investment in evidence building, database management and dissemination of information relating to all aspects of national and local food system functions.
The urgent need for robust science to answer key questions on appropriate policy actions to achieve sustainable, healthy diets cannot be over-stated.
- .Use the upcoming summits to catalyse global support for a science-based policy agenda, including agreeing specific ways to improve and build on existing mechanisms to support science and policy engagement with sustainable food systems transformation. Policy decisions based on the best available science and evidence will be more cost effective, better focused, and more readily accepted by key stakeholders (see Section 8.3.1 and also Box 9.1). Moves to ensure greater clarity and transparency in global and local actions towards sustainable, healthy diets should build on, strengthen, and complement existing inter-governmental mechanisms which influence the world’s agendas on agriculture, food, and climate.
- Strive to keep food trade functioning as seamlessly as possible. This will be important in a post-pandemic world. Indeed “global supply chains and co-operation are themselves a source of resilience, allowing countries to focus on their strengths and share expertise”. 10 The supply chains and the co-operation must be significantly enhanced rather than disrupted to build resilience, equity and sustainability into their fabric. The potential exists – and should be urgently considered in the context of World Trade Organization negotiations – for stronger agreements on maintaining a smooth flow of food via global trade during multi-country crises as well as between crises.
It is important to highlight that while each of the 13 actions applies to every government in the world, in practice there are important additional recommendations which must be considered as primarily high- and middle-income country responsibilities. These include:
- Pay attention to how domestic actions in high-income countries are likely to influence food availability, accessibility and affordability in other settings. This applies particularly to low-income food deficit countries, when designing and implementing domestic food policies of all kinds. Pursue a ‘do no harm’ principle by off-setting any negative impacts for those nations through targeted fiscal, trade or other mechanisms.
- Actively pursue politically viable conclusions to outstanding multilateral agriculture and food trade agreement issues. Make binding commitments to resolving and avoiding future bilateral impediments to effective trade flows (and retaliatory measures).
- Realign donor policy priorities towards supporting actions which promote simultaneous achievement of planetary and human health goals. Significantly increase funding support for cost-effectively changingthe mix of food products and technologies in agriculture. Ensure a wide understanding that sustainable, healthy diets are a key driver of success for the SDGs and beyond. Make major new commitments to accelerating progress in improving malnutrition in all its forms. Adjust international poverty lines to account for the affordability (or lack thereof) of sustainable, healthy diets and support national governments to update domestic poverty lines and public investments accordingly.
- Establish significantly increased funding for new research agendas focused on measuring ‘what works?’ This can improve sustainable, healthy diets across geographies, income groups, and cultures over time. The grand challenge of this decade is to link climate modelling with equivalent initiatives aimed at economic modelling and natural resource modelling to understand food system patterns, dynamics and trends. A range of innovative policy instruments and programmes must be rigorously assessed in terms of cost-effectiveness across multiple outcomes or ‘wins’ simultaneously (for example health and nutrition, incomes, resource use and climate impacts).
- Explore a dedicated Global Financing Facility for the transition of food systems. Use N4G and the UN Food Systems Summit to discuss multilateral resource mobilisation which supports and incentivises increased allocations of domestic resources towards making food systems more resilient and diets more sustainable and healthy.
9.2.2 Commercial food companies
The food industry exerts very substantial influence throughout the food system. Commercial food companies need to have an improved evidence base upon which to make more informed decisions about investment patterns, their responsibilities to citizens, the impact of their products on human health and food system sustainability, product R&D, and retail and advertising strategies. At the same time, governments have a crucial role to play in leveraging business investments by providing more extensive and effective regulation, oversight, and responsibility and by incentivising best practice. This is likely to be most successful through the development of a trusted (rather than adversarial) relationship. The aim should be to agree a common agenda of promoting sustainable, healthy diets, while respecting that each operates under different constraints.
Companies must be persuaded to revise the ways in which they currently operate. Under a business-as-usual scenario, many companies profit from a food system that exploits natural resources and influences individual choice towards an increasingly wide range of ultra-processed foods. The benefits accrue mainly to industry stakeholders while the costs (population-wide ill health, ecological degradation, natural disasters) are mainly borne by the public sector and wider society. That imbalance will have to be addressed during the transition.
Many businesses will need to adapt. There will be costs involved in adjusting investment portfolios towards fresh strategies focused on providing diverse, perishable, nutrient-rich foods
to a much larger consumer base. There will also be costs involved in compromised market share for some ultra-processed foods as profitability falls in line with reduced demand, rebalanced relative prices, and greater government regulation (taxes and subsidies) across dietary goals.
Many companies stand to gain from the potential for innovation in business models, technologies, and product shifts. They will also gain from enhanced productivity through a well-nourished workforce. However, a transformed food system requires a shift away from reliance on ultra-processed foods as the bulk of the grocery bill. Profits and market share in that space will be squeezed and companies in the food product, retail or service space will have to accept the need for strategic investments aimed at supporting different future demand patterns. That represents a normal cost of doing business.
The following key actions are needed:
- CEOs lead this agenda, ensuring that all employees understand each company’s links to and impacts on food systems, and their potential role in supporting change. The governing boards of companies should play a major role in monitoring and rewarding actions which translate aspirations into genuine results in the form of public goods.
- Support greater understanding of the source and hidden costs of all foods in the retail domain through engagement with national and local business associations, including chambers of commerce. This will mean that governments must engage with all commercial stakeholders in defining how the businesses should be incentivised to play a much bigger role in achieving national goals in public health and food system sustainability.
- Support healthy diet choices. Food industry stakeholders must accept responsibility for partnering with national governments to support a public health agenda which pursues sustainable, healthy diets.
- Commit to reducing the price of nutrient-rich, perishable foods relative to cheapest staples to support the affordability of healthy food choices.
- Substitute sales of ultra-processed food products with nutrient-rich foods, reformulate products to reduce levels of sodium and added sugars significantly, and phase out unhealthy ingredients (such as trans fats).
- Reduce food loss and waste in line with SDG goals. This applies to commercial food companies (wholesalers, new product producers and retailers). In the case of producers, enhanced production and harvesting practices, as well as post-harvest gleaning 11 can make a large contribution to reduced farm-based losses.
- Make perishable, nutrient-rich foods accessible year- round. Increase the number of weeks each year during which nutrient-rich foods are available in the market. This will require innovations in packaging, cold storage, transportation, and retail distribution.
- Commit to clear targets and plans for reduced emissions / carbon footprints for all commercial food activities. Each commercial entity must seek to lower their natural resource and/or climate impacts, while also seeking ways in which to support carbon sequestration and ecosystem regeneration through their activities.
- Commit to a significant reduction in energy and other inputs, investing in production and processing efficiencies, reduced leakage of energy (heat/cold loss, water, and gas waste, etc.), and a significant adoption of renewable energy.
- Increase private R&D to support locally appropriate nutrient-rich foods and share related intellectual property with public research entities. This would add huge value to the public research agenda and serve as a genuine contribution in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or blended financing models.
- Improve workplace canteen food choices to support healthy diet choices. Increase the selection of nutrient-rich foods available to workers and use meal spaces to enhance people’s knowledge and insight regarding the implications of dietary choices on health and the environment.
9.2.3 Civil society and citizens
The benefits of a transition towards a new food system will be an opportunity for most people to eat better, leading to improved health, less time lost at work due to sickness, reduced out-of- pocket costs for treatment of sickness, and less dependence on social safety nets. For children who would otherwise suffer one or more forms of malnutrition, their physical and mental development would be enhanced, leading to increased earning potential through life. There will be job opportunities across the food system in countries where governments choose to support innovation and growth across all value chains, as well as less exposure, particularly in LMICs, to climate-related shocks.
Reduced spending on ultra-processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), and higher purchasing power deriving from higher and more equitable incomes, will be important goals to be promoted by advocacy groups and non-governmental organisations. These groups have important roles to play in supporting people’s awareness, influencing patterns of demand, and protecting the rights of all individuals to high-quality diets.
Individuals have the potential to drive change, both through their own diets and through their collective demands on the food system. But they need to make informed decisions to shift food systems in different directions. The changes needed in diets will require enhanced awareness of the natural resource and health implications of food choices, supported by higher and more
equitable incomes, shifts in the relative prices of food products, and the management of supply chains to reduce loss and waste. Everyone should be able to demand sustainable, healthy diets for their own benefit and for the benefit of all. They need to be informed, capable of accessing nutrient-rich, sustainably produced foods, and have the purchasing power and desire to make these choices. Individuals have a primary responsibility for their own health, but they also have a responsibility for their contribution to public health challenges and to the planet’s biological integrity.
The following are objectives and changes which are needed by civil society, action coalitions and advocacy groups:
- Promote and facilitate a vision for a food system transition. Local and international civil society organisations and action coalitions should urgently engage with policymakers and other stakeholders to this end. Local governments, professional associations, private charities, and religious entities all have an important role in supporting national change agendas but also in mobilising grassroots engagement with, and support for, such change. Advocacy should always be based on rigorous science and seek to support cost- effective policy actions.
- Establish rigorous and transparent mechanisms for monitoring and reporting. These mechanisms can track commitments made by governments and businesses, and actions and outcomes, to ensure strong accountability mechanisms.
- Advocate for institutional investors and asset managers to link human and environmental health goals to their core strategies. The ethics-focused ‘sustainable investing market’ is growing fast, requiring that investment mechanisms pay increasing attention to longer-term societal goals beyond profit. Civil society has a potentially powerful role in advocating and monitoring the engagement of business actors and social enterprises supporting the goal of achieving co-benefits to people and planet of transformed sustainable food systems.
It is accepted that the various tasks set out in the previous subsections (9.3.1–9.3.3) may appear daunting. However, looking across all of these, 10 priorities are proposed which are considered to be generally applicable. These are set out in Box 9.2.
9.3 Improvements to facilitate science-to-policy action: inter-governmental backing is needed
Decisions regarding steps to be taken in a transition towards more sustainable, healthy food systems should be guided by the best available science and evidence. The coronavirus crisis once again exposed how mistrust and manipulation of science can sow confusion, lead to misplaced government spending, and risk lives. Appropriate policy actions must be based on a robust foundation of science and evidence of costs and benefits.
Governments will need to assess the impact of their policy choices relative to food system goals: human health supported by diets which are sufficient, diverse, nutrient-rich and safe, and environmental health via ecosystem restoration, repurposing of land use and vastly increased agricultural efficiencies. This assessment calls for multi-sectoral coordination across sectors which influence food systems. Each country has a responsibility to ensure that nutrient-rich foods are made available but with a reduced carbon footprint.
Government leaders and development partners should work together without delay to agree on concrete ways to improve and build on existing mechanisms to support science and policy engagement with sustainable food systems transformation (see Box 9.1). Such improvements would enhance what institutions such as the FAO are already mandated to offer in terms of normative guidance relating to agriculture and food. The aim would be to provide the robust foundation of science and evidence on which a transformative policy agenda for the global food system could move forward both with authority and efficiency.
The improvements should be underpinned by inter-governmental backing to help ensure the resulting science and evidence is driven
by the most pressing needs of policymakers, and to ensure uptake of the results. The improvements would build on, and be entirely complementary to, existing efforts and need to add value in three ways:
- Establish a credible and authoritative consensus on the evidence, while reflecting diversity of opinion and lack of consensus across disciplines and countries. Resolve key issues with new research.
- Improve efficiency in research by improving exchange and coordination among science disciplines and research efforts at scale as well as between science and policy domains. Specifically, better link science practice across climate, natural resources, food, health, and nutrition.
- Increase transparency in the synthesis and assessment process based on rigorous peer cooperation and review. Raise the profile of food systems so that they are widely understood as a necessary focal point for policy action. Increase the legitimacy of assessments and recommendations, ensuring a more rounded and global evidence perspective, inclusive of research from different geographies.
Box 9.1: Improved support for policy decisions: key tasks and functions of improved science and evidence mechanisms
Resolving controversies. Along with regular assessments on the state of science, an authoritative and trusted mechanism is needed to resolve controversial and conflict-laden assessments: on nutrition interventions, market stabilisation policies, technologies and innovations (potential, risks, regulation), land use change, land ownership (including land investments) and multi-level governance structures and responsibilities that often slow decision making.
Identifying data and knowledge priorities. This role would be critical in view of the very important gaps in current knowledge which urgently need to be filled. In particular, there are substantial data gaps in the current understanding of food systems. For example, many of the private enterprises operating in local and regional food systems are SMEs which are unlicensed and unregistered. Also, global, corporate food industries are generally extremely protective with their data. Exactly which people (by age, sex, residence, income level) eat which diets and why, is little understood. The relationship between diet and nutritional status in various settings also needs to be better studied. This is highly variable because of differences in access to water, sanitation and hygiene, nutritional beliefs, and social mores. The productivity ceiling for key commodities/foods is also unknown, especially with regard to the potential for greater dietary diversity.
Modelling. The same ambitious methods used in the past decade to model future climates and
agricultural impacts must be matched by modelling the economics of diets, and the multidirectional relationships among diet, human health and planetary boundaries.
Streamlining and coordinating research. There is a need to facilitate new divisions of research tasks and efforts, and to help overcome current duplications, as well as the limited scale of science engagement. The aim would be to improve the efficiency and cost effectiveness of existing research funding.
Facilitating peer-reviewed assessments on food and nutrition security. This is needed to deliver evidence-based analyses for action. This function goes far beyond any ofthe existing science advisory bodies for policy at nationalor international levels. The entire international science system related to food and nutrition security, and food production and harvesting, needs to be engaged in inclusive ways for the purpose. Policymakers need to carefully consider a set of criteria such as:
- How to enhance the use of evidence across many sectors in decisions on policies and investments across the food system.
- Political and organisational feasibility of actions proposed.
- Costs, including transaction costs of actions including how these would change over time, who would bear them, and importantly, how the poorest could be protected from increased food prices during the transition.
The Global Panel notes that the idea for a creation of an organisation like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for sustainable food systems (an ‘International Panel for Sustainable Food Systems’, or IPSFS) has been mooted in recent years. This is one of a number of ideas that could be considered to deliver the necessary improvements in the support of science and evidence for policymakers. However, whatever organisational structure is used to deliver the improvements, Box 9.1 provides an outline of the proposed scientific tasks and functions which are needed. These functions are informed by the experience of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
9.4 Getting started: managing the transition
The set of actions recommended in this report may seem daunting, especially to LMIC governments burdened with many existing priorities, competing advice from donors, severe fiscal constraints, and limited space for political manoeuvre. This is a reality to be acknowledged and addressed. It is important, therefore, to spell out not just what should be done, but how policymakers should start engaging with this complex multifaceted agenda, and how their development partners can realign current economic and technical resources to more fully support new national priorities. The transition process itself needs to move forward on multiple fronts simultaneously (Figure 9.2). It will never be enough to pick one or other domain of action, or one or other policy instrument alone.
Put simply, if people are not empowered to spend more (through higher incomes and purchasing power) on diets that they know (through information and education) to be both sustainable and healthy, such foods will not become available to them because retailers will not stock them. Effective demand must therefore be better informed and incentivised, while different foods must be made more desirable and aspirational, primarily by commercial food companies.
The transition requires actions to promote both supply and demand, but also appropriate support for key interventions in the middle segments of supply chains where value addition through processing and marketing all take place. The four domains of intervention, associated with the four technical chapters that together comprise Part II of this report, are therefore inseparable. What must change remains clear:
- Sufficient nutrient-rich and staple foods produced sustainably must be available to all.
- Foods must move along value chains more efficiently, becoming more accessible, with lower costs of doing business and less food loss.
- Sustainable, healthy diets must be affordable to all.
- For sustainable, healthy diets to be desirable, individuals must be empowered to make more informed food choices, thereby fuelling rising demand.
Figure 9.2 lays out how the priority actions in this report’s recommendations relate to the four critical domains of food systems. While there are highly significant benefits to be realised where fundamental change is achieved, the individual actions recommended in each of the figure’s quadrants will be most effective when undertaken in concert.
The technical or political feasibility, and the need versus cost, of each of these recommended actions will vary depending on context. To achieve a particular outcome could entail a range of possible configurations of actions in one or more of the four action domains. Figure 9.3 illustrates this idea by suggesting that the actions required in each of the four domains can, under different contexts or scenarios, have more or less relevance to desired outcomes locally, and therefore must be selected based on the key parameters of cost relative to benefit (where benefits are determined in terms of natural resource and broader environmental terms, not just in economic or human health terms), as well as political and technical feasibility across alternative options.
A number of important first steps are needed for initiating the process of policy and investment transition. In particular, the following are about establishing necessary governance structures as well as ensuring appropriate linkages are in place. They will apply in most contexts.
- Establish an independent high-level commission of trusted experts and thought leaders to ‘make the case’ for investing in the time and effort needed to transition domestic food systems to support fundamentally different outcomes than today. They would:
- distil evidence pertinent to local conditions,
- cost out bundles of policies, and estimate their benefits relative both to costs of intervention but also to the economic costs of inaction, and
- present domestic priorities for government as well as for food industry stakeholders.
- Empower cross-party and cross-ministerial working groups to identify ways to reconcile trade-offs across sectors, including agriculture, health, and environment, as well as balancing short-term gains against long-term losses for different constituencies.
The feasibility of adopting and implementing key policies depends heavily on how individual and group preferences are derived, and on the role of information in shifting those preferences.
- Establish linkages with the World Bank and other multilateral agencies to collaborate on modifying international poverty line and purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations.
The aim is to update the calculation of national poverty lines in ways that pay attention to the affordability of healthy diets as recommended by national guidelines and based on current national food prices. The new (higher) poverty thresholds would be used to enhance the value of income and other resource transfers through safety nets, minimum wages, and pro-poor growth policies to ensure that millions more people can afford at least minimally adequate diets.
- Empower subnational authorities to assume practical responsibilities for the transition. Countries as diverse as Ghana, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, and Zambia have been devolving some sectoral responsibilities, in both agriculture and health, to elected sub-national authorities. These trends recognise the need for vertical coordinating mechanisms which reconcile variations across sub-national administrative units in capacity, finances, and political influence. It also means that global and regional commitments on climate change and food security need to be balanced by ongoing decentralisation processes which aim to prioritise local citizens’ needs and priorities.
- Build engagement and momentum across all stakeholder groups about the gains associated with a food system transition through a series of national, regional, and local dialogues. Gauge understanding of, and support for, change which promotes both human and environmental health.
- Establish specific responsibilities and accountability mechanisms to allow commercial and civil society entities to take ownership of various parts of the transition process. They can be tasked with finding actionable solutions to challenges at the interface of consumer and the retail environment.
- Actively engage at regional and global levels with UN and other initiatives supporting the setting of targets for a successful food system transition. This includes championing national scientists working in this space and promoting the need for independent consensus on priorities and appropriate practices.
Each of these steps is separately important, but collectively powerful; each can be initiated immediately. They can then be amplified in the context of upcoming global summits relating to food systems, climate change, and nutrition. A more granular identification and selection of locally viable and impactful policies and programmes would represent the next step. This involves implementing those actions carefully (well-designed and monitored), coherently (across domains and reconciled with existing policy frameworks) and effectively (measuring aggregate net benefits against detailed assessment of costs). These steps represent ways to promote government leadership for collective endeavour around commonly defined goals.
9.5 Concluding remarks
Today’s food systems are in a spiral of decline, placing both human and planetary health in jeopardy. Millions of people are suffering from diseases, growth impairment and productivity deficits linked to inadequate diets, while food systems are operating beyond planetary boundaries. These negative trends put a brake on development, meaning that national governments, particularly in LMICs, face huge economic burdens and risk not achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals. When current trends and the multiple impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are taken into account, there is no real prospect of the SDG2 goal for 2030 being met. Failure to meet this and other SDG targets will lead to more people experiencing inequality and malnutrition, and cause even greater environmental damage. This report’s recommendations offer a pragmatic way forward: if the right decisions and investments are made today, there is potential to not only avert catastrophic damage to human health and the environment, but to secure massive benefits from positive change.
A strategic focus is needed on catalysing, supporting, and facilitating new business models, investments, technologies, and practices across the whole food system. This means ensuring appropriate government policies not only focus on a sector (such as agriculture or health), but also on a system of activities encompassing the complex value chains that convert commodities into food products which enter people’s diets. The growth potential from investments in a future-facing food system is substantial. Already the food sector (agriculture, processing, wholesale/retail, institutional procurement, food service, and food-related R&D) is the single largest employer across most of the world. Modern approaches to production, transportation, packaging, and digital retail have already transformed an ‘old sector’ into a vibrant ‘new’ economy in countries as different as Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Singapore.
But a more fundamental transition toward sustainable, healthy diets is essential. As with the fossil fuel transition, it will eventually become so costly to not change, that change risks being forced upon us, leading to a transition that will likely be more unjust and challenging. An effectively managed transition, starting now, is critical. Box 9.2 provides 10 priorities for the transition which are considered generally applicable. However, local conditions are likely to be important. Locally tailored strategies are needed which pursue pathways toward multiple gains, incorporating the recommendations made here, bringing together the many actors through appropriate incentives and regulations, and more clearly articulating the benefits to be gained while being transparent about the costs.
This will require a major overhaul of the governance of the global food system, involving a move towards enabling different nations and communities to develop their own unique responses. It will enable a ‘just’ transition in which the poorest are protected and all stakeholders are involved in shaping a jobs-focused strategy which unleashes the compounding potential of the food system as a whole (not agriculture as a source of cheap calories and foreign exchange), and which involves climate-smart investments to make the entire system more resilient and nurturing of human and planetary health for current and future generations.
While the gains of the past must be respected and protected (feeding more millions than ever before in human history), the future focus must be on food systems which nourish all people in ways that respect the planet’s boundaries.
This remains the paramount challenge. The outlook is bleak, but this report shows that the future is not set in stone.
By casting the problems into their constituent parts, this report has set out a range of pragmatic and achievable actions which together, can reverse the current situation. The Global Panel believes that with renewed leadership and sustained action, these new opportunities can be grasped. The moment has come to commit to the challenge.
Box 9.2: Ten priorities for transitioning food systems to protect human and planetary health
The report contains many recommendations for action by different classes of stakeholders, and which need to take account of local circumstances and constraints. However, the following priorities are considered to be generally applicable:
- Policy makers must build on existing global development targets (such as the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change) so they embody the goal of sustainable, healthy diets for everyone as a shared objective. These targets need to recognise the central importance of sustainable, healthy diets as a key enabler for progress on diverse agendas – equality, economic growth, climate change, the environment, and job creation.
- Policy makers in relevant government departments must address planetary and dietary challenges simultaneously, since they are so fundamentally interlinked. The approach to date, involving tackling these issues piecemeal and in silos, simply will not work.
- Donor agencies must support LMICs to ensure that the transition of food systems is socially and ethically just. They have an important role to play to ensure that the poorest are protected during and after a period of food system transition.
- Governments in countries at all stages of development must resolve policy distortions which could fundamentally impede change – or even drive food systems in the wrong direction. Examples include: taxation and regulation, subsidies, and food- related research and development. The aim is to give much greater weight to the importance of nutrient-rich foods and to better support measures which further both human and planetary health simultaneously.
- Relevant ministries (e.g., agriculture, health, transport infrastructure, environment) need to work together to implement policies to realign production systems so that they support healthy diets in sustainable ways. Food systems today do not produce enough nutrient-rich foods to meet today’s needs, let alone projected demand over coming decades, nor are they producing most foods sustainably. Narrow targets relating to productivity need to be replaced with broader measures valuing efficiency and sustainability.
- Major trans-national businesses and local SMEs must work closely with the governments on more clearly articulated common agendas to deliver sustainable, healthy diets. While already contributing much, the many diverse commercial actors too often pull in directions that are not
conducive to health or to the sustainability of food systems. It is important for governments to incentivise businesses to make a much wider range of nutrient-rich foods affordable to the entirety of ‘bottom of the pyramid’ families. More generally, a comprehensive framework for food-industry engagement is needed.
- Policy makers in relevant government departments need to prioritise building resilience of food systems – COVID-19 has highlighted their current deficiencies and vulnerabilities. A broad approach is required which addresses: the causes of lack of resilience within food systems, the root causes of the threats, and mitigation measures which may be needed during times of stress.
- Civil society advocacy groups and citizens need to play their part. The former have a major role in leveraging change in businesses operating across food systems and holding policy makers to account, and the latter have considerable influence to drive change through their purchasing power. However, shifts in demand in favour of sustainable, healthy diets, will need encouragement and empowerment through information from trusted sources.
- Policy makers in relevant ministries in LMICs should creatively target actions which can create multiple ‘wins’ across health and sustainability. Opportunities need to be sought throughout food systems from farm- to-fork. Major projects in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have already shown that this is possible, creating substantial and lasting benefits in terms of jobs, equality, and the development and prosperity of individuals and regions. Technology innovations across food systems from production through processing, storage, and retail hold considerable promise.
- Leaders and decision makers should capitalise upon upcoming global fora to agree to new commitments for making food systems more resilient and diets that are healthy and sustainable. The Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit and the United Nations Food Systems Summit are important opportunities to explore the creation of a dedicated Global Financing Facility for food systems transformation and to secure national endorsements for change, including much improved capacity for research and evidence to better support policy decisions. A new vision for sustainable food systems delivering healthy diets for all must be supported through the best science and evidence of what works as informed by practical evidence.
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- Post-harvest gleaning is the collection of discarded perishables (fish or fruits not meeting supermarket aesthetic quality standards) and the collection of ‘broken’ grain on the ground.