Frogs in Hot Water!

Frogs in Hot Water! – The Risk to Food Systems and What to do

Insights from 12 reports on the future

“A diet for planetary health”, “1.5 degrees is too hot”, “business as usual is no longer an option” – these are headlines from three of a recent slew of 2018/19 reports on the future of our global food systems.

Let’s take stock of 12 of these reports and explore the common themes (here you can find a table summarising the reports). Judging by the number of reports and number of organisations waving a flag on the issue, there is clear anxiety about the future of our food systems (click here for a collection of key documents on food systems foresight from the past five years). Across the board, from science, business and government groups, the call is coming for a radical transformation of how our food systems function – with warnings that business as usual is not an option.

But there is also a paradox. The 2018 OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook predicts a gradual decline in commodity prices over the coming decade, with a return to prices seen in the early 2000s. Apparently, at least for the medium term the risks of high and fluctuating food prices have abated. One might imagine that pressure on the food system would have the opposite effect. Further, a downward trend arguably provides little incentive for a shake-up of the system or for the sort of political attention the 2008 food price crisis created. So, what is going on?

Perhaps we are experiencing the boiling frog syndrome – if thrown into hot water a frog will jump out, but placed in cold water and warmed up slowly the frog does nothing and ends up cooked. So, are medium-term prices simply not signalling the inevitable longer-term changes? Two other aspects need consideration. One, commodity prices do not, at least in the short term, reflect the huge externalities related to resource use, climate and public health. Two, risks to food systems are connected as much, if not more, to sudden and unpredictable shocks (drought, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, food safety scares) which are not easily reflected in trend analysis.

Thinking about all this quickly puts us in the terrain of food systems thinking – the relationships between production, distribution and consumption; the linkages with ecological, economic, social, and political environments; and the way complex systems behave. Interestingly the global debate since the 2008 food price crisis has shifted from one of food security to one of food systems – for good reasons as articulated in the reports from over the last year or so. Elsevier’s SCOPUS shows a threefold increase in annual publications on food systems since 2008.

So what are these 12 reports telling us, beyond the need for a food systems transformation? Five big themes emerge. First, there is pretty much universal agreement that food systems are central to all of the Sustainable Development Goals and that food issues affect the entire world and not just those suffering hunger in the South.

Second, the really big shift over the last decade has been from a focus on producing enough calories to ensuring good nutrition. Basically, as so prominently highlighted by the recent EAT Lancet Report, the world is heading toward a major health crisis by producing and eating way too much energy rich food (processed carbohydrates and sugars) and producing and eating way too little nutrient rich food. The costs to individuals and society of the growing burden of non-communicable diseases caused by a triple burden of under-nutrition, over-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are phenomenal. Undernutrition and hunger remain stubborn problems still affecting some 800 million people.

The third big issue is around the natural resources that will be needed to feed nearly 10 billion by 2050 if everybody aspires to the sort of high animal protein diet currently enjoyed by the more affluent consumer. The consensus is that this would require 50-60% more production than today which would be largely unsustainable using current production methods. The inefficiency of our current resource use in that 30% or so of food is lost or wasted from production to consumption is also a key message across the reports. The report from the World Resources Institute in particular highlights the interconnection of projected increase in food demand and land use, and the implications for greenhouse gas emissions if business as usual activities continue.

The fourth issue and the joker in the pack is climate change. Any mitigation of climate change must involve change in food systems. Food systems contribute about 1/3 of all emissions, and significantly increasing the consumption of animal-based proteins will dramatically compound this. For most of the most densely populated and poor areas of the world, climate change is likely to reduce yields and increase extreme weather events – droughts and floods. But areas in Canada and Russia may be able to produce more grain, impacting global trade regimes. A confluence of climate change induced shocks to the food system (for example droughts in a number of locations combined with a disease outbreak), either locally or globally has the potential to radically disrupt food supply, an increasingly risky prospect as the world heads towards 70% urbanisation.

ICIMOD’s ‘Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment’ is a good example of what this means at a more granular level in a particular region. The report points out that about three billion people depend for their food on the river systems that start in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. The report concludes that even a 1.5 degree increase in temperature will have catastrophic consequences for the mountains and downstream users of water resources.

The fifth critical issue raised in the reports is equity. Poor people spend disproportionately more of their income on food so are highly affected by food prices and are often unable to afford more nutritious food. At the same time in low-income countries, up to 60% of the population still work in agriculture and in middle-income countries it is up to 40%. However most of these people are poor or extremely poor. In middle income countries there is also very substantial employment in food processing and food services, often as part of an informal economy.

The consensus on what needs to be done is actually pretty clear across all the reports –

  1. Shift towards healthy largely plant based diets,
  2. Dramatically reduce food loss and waste,
  3. Develop much more resource efficient and climate smart production systems that provide a wider diversity of healthy food, and
  4. Ensure food systems provide inclusive (fair) economic opportunities for as many people as possible.

How to make this happen is the challenge we now face.

Scenario thinking underpins a number of reports. Somewhat simplified, there are essentially three-story lines. A business as usual approach that leads down the path of the problems outlined above. A winner takes all (and isolationist) story line of how the wealthy and wealthy countries manage to improve their lot and insulate themselves from the problems afflicting the wider mass of humanity (at least initially). An inclusive and sustainable story line where there is success in implementing the four strategies outlined above. The ‘Land Use and Food Security in 2050: a narrow road’ for example, presents five scenarios on land use and food security, but concludes that only one is likely to meet food security demands for the future while making responsible choices in food systems transformation.

Technology clearly has a critical role to play, yet none of the reports espouse simple technological fixes. For example, the World Economic Forum Report on technology and innovation notes “transformation requires a holistic approach engaging all stakeholders employing a wide range of policy, investment, management and behavioural strategies”. However, there is clearly a broad technological menu that can be drawn on including bioengineering, big data, ICT, blockchains, precision agriculture, alternative proteins.

Warnings are also sounded about who has power and control over markets and technology in food systems and what this can mean for equitable and inclusive systems, to benefit the many rather than the few.

Where does all this leave us?  The “what” needs to be done seems pretty clear, as do the reasons “why”. Where there is still a huge gap is in the “how”. This means that foresight efforts now need to shift towards a much more detailed analysis of pathways forward and consequences of the different trade-offs that may be involved. This will require a much more detailed and context specific analysis. Such work will require both investment and coordination to avoided fragmented and duplicated efforts.  Foresight4Food has been established to help catalyse collaboration in this direction.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Secretariat Lead