Our food system is broken. Here’s how we fix it

Comment: Transforming how we use land represents a $4.5 trillion per year business opportunity, we must now find the political courage to act

A woman growing food in rural Mexico (Photo: Oxfam International/Flickr)


The world today is filled with a daunting array of seemingly intractable problems — from widening inequality, to massive loss of species, to runaway climate change, to a breakdown in the rules-based international order.

Fixing our broken food system is not one of them.

In fact, addressing the core issues at the heart of our food challenge offers an enormous opportunity to tackle many of the broader risks we face. And it also makes good business sense. Collectively, we have the tools, the resources and the know-how — we just need to summon the political will and courage to act.

2020 will be a decisive year for the Paris climate accord and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, culminating in a series of global meetings on climate and biodiversity.

Fixing our broken food system can inject renewed energy and momentum into our quest for a more inclusive and sustainable economy. CEOs in the food and agriculture sector have a key role to play in driving courageous leadership — or risk reaping the consequences of current “business as usual”.

And “business as usual” is failing us. Every day, 820 million of our fellow human beings go to bed hungry, while over one-third of the food produced globally is wasted – a moral outrage and economic waste. A further two billion people in the world suffer from obesity and diabetes – with mounting and catastrophic costs to society. 500 million smallholder farmers continue to provide much of the food the world consumes, living often in conditions of great poverty and vulnerability, likely to be exacerbated by the impacts of a changing climate on those least able to cope.

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Transforming the way we use land to grow food and fibre has a huge role to play in addressing three critical planetary boundaries of climate, biodiversity and oceans.

More than 30% of the cost-effective solutions to climate change by 2030 are to be found in “nature-based solutions” and the shift to more sustainable agriculture and land use choices. At the same time, the greatest driver of species loss is land conversion for agriculture, and agricultural practices continue to threaten marine habitats through unregulated run-off of pesticides and fertilisers.

In its September report, Growing Better, the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) sets out ten critical pathways to transform our broken food system to deliver more nutritious food, help avert runaway climate change and biodiversity loss, and improve economic opportunity and livelihoods for farmers.

Critically, it finds that the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action. A further two FOLU reports published today, Prosperous Forests and Overcoming Economic and Political Economy Barriers, describe both a powerful set of examples of where the world is succeeding in protecting and restoring its tropical forests, as well as a series of public sector measures which would enable such efforts to be dramatically scaled up.

The good news is that protecting forests and fixing our broken food system represents a $4.5 trillion business opportunity per annum by 2030 – and will yield a total societal return of 15:1 for the investments needed for the transition. The case for action is clear and the benefits enormous.

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Momentum is building. At a high-level meeting attended by The Prince of Wales on 7 November, and jointly organised by the World Resources Institute, WWF and the Food and Land Use Coalition, three promising commitments to work together to address these enormous challenges will be referenced.

First, a number of governments, research institutions and companies committed to a just rural transition will set out their plans to support countries to reform their agri-food policies to deliver better outcomes for rural people, smallholders’ livelihoods and the natural environment.

Whether by focusing on better agriculture and land management in the cocoa and forests sector in West Africa, or in the rice landscapes of south east Asia which are central to the food security of billions of people, a coalition for the just rural transition is set to make a significant impact in the years ahead.  In particular, the coalition will work with governments to repurpose over $700 billion spent each year on food and agricultural subsidies to achieve stronger outcomes for nutrition and the environment.

Second, the Global Resource Initiative will set out how the UK government will ensure that its global forest and sustainability footprint is as positive as possible, working in partnership with other governments, companies and civil society. Whether in enhancing public procurement, ensuring greater company disclosure and traceability, or encouraging the financial community to invest at scale in sustainable land use, the Global Resource Initiative is also set to make its mark in enabling the private sector to meet its zero-deforestation goals.

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Third, the meeting will also see further indication from investors and the financial sector that they are willing to invest significant flows of finance into the protection and restoration of the natural world – in the form of “nature-based solutions”. Investments of this kind will be critical to ensuring that next year’s all-important meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, will truly deliver on the global agenda to prevent further biodiversity loss.

These three initiatives – as well as many others – contribute to an emerging blueprint for how the world can pivot to a more sustainable food and land use system: one which meets humanity’s food and nutrition requirements while safeguarding the natural world on which we so entirely depend.

2020 is a critical super year in which a new path ahead for the world will be forged, with food and land use at its heart. Courageous CEOs – as well as political and civil society leaders – have an essential role to play in driving the system change we so desperately need. There is not a moment to lose.

Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, is the chair of the Food and Land Use Coalition, chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, and vice-chair of the UN Global Compact. He is co-founder and chairman of Imagine, a for-benefit enterprise aimed at harnessing the power of the private sector to tackle climate change and inequality.

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