The most powerful tool in the global shed: moving to a food systems paradigm

AgriEducate attended the Crawford Fund Conference in Canberra last month, which covered the nexus of agriculture, food, nutrition and health. Christine Freak is a passionate development ag writer and policy thinker, and was one of the AgriEducate representatives at the conference. Christine has put together the following article, exploring the biggest lever in the shed to help improve nutrition, environment and food security. Enjoy! 

“In the Anthropocene, agriculture is the biggest lever humans can pull”

– Andrew Campbell.

So what does this mean?

For centuries, agriculture has been at the heart of societies across the world. Not only does agriculture provide a means to subsistence, but it defines livelihoods, is essential to health and well-being, forms the basis of trade, is an essential part of culture and traditions, forms gender roles and ultimately shapes the human relationship with Earth. Since agriculture is so fundamental, it is inextricably linked to multiple facets of human life. This means that our approach to managing the global food system must consider and support these linkages through a systems approach. So, what this really means is that agriculture is a very powerful tool in the shed. If agriculture can influence and shape health, environmental, livelihood and gender issues, then agriculture can be an incredibly powerful tool which we can harness to overcome some of the greatest challenges of our time.

The world is facing the challenge of how we can feed a population of 9 billion people by 2050. There has been much talk about how this can be done from the production side, with estimates that global food production will need to double to match the growing demand. There are estimates that the world will need to produce more food in the next 50 years, than in the entire history of mankind together. There is optimism about how this can be done. As Andrew Campbell explains “Agricultural Science has shown it can respond to very big challenges, very effectively”. We have seen through the Green Revolution that technological advancements have great potential for agricultural development to increase yields and improve crop resilience. But, as Robyn Alder explains, “In agriculture, we have made mistakes with good intentions… we thought we could do it [achieve food security] with yields and productivity, but we now realise it’s much more complex”. So, alongside the optimism that agricultural science can address these big challenges, there remains a further step to bridge production advancements to consumption gains, and reach positive overall development outcomes.

The next step towards meeting this challenge, is recognising that given the complexity and interlinkages of food security, a paradigmatic shift is needed to a systems approach. Andrew Campbell explained at this year’s conference that agriculture can respond to these contemporary challenges, but “we’re not going to do it with the same paradigm” as we have in the past. Andrew Campbell explains that this new approach needs to have a food systems perspective, and be tailored to deliver against the Sustainable Development Goals. After all, agriculture is said to be the most effective means to poverty reduction, and is linked to every one of the Sustainable Development Goals!

So, how do we make such a shift?

1) Look to nutrition (demand) rather than simply production (supply)

What is referred to as “The Nutrition Challenge” spans the ‘triple burden’ of food insecurity: malnutrition, over nutrition (obesity), and micronutrient deficiencies (particularly iron and vitamin A). Today, the food insecurity landscape has:

  • 816 million people suffering from acute hunger
  • 2 billion people overweight or obese
  • 2 billion people with micronutrient deficiencies

Clearly, productivity alone (whilst incredibly valuable in its own right) is not the issue. Consumption and distribution remain as two crucial facets of our response to the global food security challenge.

2) Implications for Agricultural Science and the need to address transdisciplinary challenges with multidisciplinary solutions

Taking a systems approach, means new collaborations and partnerships will be required with the multiple actors involved. This spans the full length of the supply chain, from the agricultural sector who provide the inputs and outputs; to the financial sector who trade on markets and invest in the agricultural sector and new technologies, the public sector who regulate food access, availability and utilisation, and implement public health policies; the education sector who communicate valuable knowledge about agricultural production and nutrition consumption; and the health sector who promote and manage nutrition and health outcomes at the individual level. Afterall, 5% of global GDP comes from primary production, but this figure soars to 30% of global GDP if the whole food system is considered in its entirety.

Within academia, the response to the transdisciplinary challenges requires multidisciplinary collaborations and partnerships. The global food system does not fit within any one academic box. Andrew Campbell explained that “we now need to think about how agriculture works with public health, and re-conceive interdisciplinary”. Robyn Alders puts the call out – “Nutritionists we really need your help”. We need to identify the opportunities many other disciplines present to contribute to knowledge of the global food system.  Robyn Alders explains that every discipline has vital contributions to this challenge – “Historians and philosophers have a contribution”. We have seen in the AgriEducate Essay Competition that it is possible for these disciplines to come together, and how every discipline offers a unique lens to approach our food challenges. What now needs to happen is for these lenses to come together to achieve our visions for a global food system.

It is important in this interdisciplinary space, to not only be able to speak our own languages, but to learn to work with others. This will see unprecedented collaborations and partnerships formed to tackle the thread which spans all disciplines and links all aspects of human life – our food system. But just as importantly, as Colin Charters wraps up, “the solutions to these challenges are going to come from transdisciplinary solutions, but they are going to come from disciplinary excellence”. We need to “really knuckle down into our disciplines” and then be able to work with colleagues in theirs. We must learn our own languages, and learn the languages of others.

3) policy implications

Andrew Campbell discusses governance for the Anthropocene within food systems. Humans are now changing the basic biogeochemical cycles of the planet, and exceeding some planetary boundaries already. On-going environmental changes will challenge governments, industries and communities. What is needed is policy convergence across the multiple and interlinked challenges, which spans multiple actors and sectors.

One particular issue for the nutrition challenge is that nutrition falls in a crevice between agriculture and health, as Dr Lindiwe Sibanda’ highlighted at the 2017 Crawford Fund Conference. There is no ministry for nutrition in national governments, in the same way that there are ministries for agriculture and for health. This year, Robyn Alders reiterated this point, stating “until they overlay, we are not going to get there”. So as Lindiwe suggests in 2017, “it’s these two communities coming together” and “the two languages have to meet somewhere”.

This is where the idea of Smart Foods becomes important. These are foods which are good for you, good for the planet, and good for the farmer. Part of this smart food agenda focus means looking beyond the ‘Big 3” (wheat, maize and rice). As Dr Alessandro Demaio explains, “whilst there is a fixation on fixing consumption on a few key species, we often forget to look at the diversity of foods which are available, and by enhancing these we can enhance biodiversity in our ecosystems”. Joanna Kane-Potaka explained how there are valuable gains by diversifying food production, both for agro-biodiversity, nutritional diversity, and for risk mitigation in ensuring production which is sustained and resilient to climate variations. Joanna Kane-Potaka shows that finger millet has three times the calcium of milk, is high in vitamins and zinc, but can also be grown with minimal fertilisers and requires much less water. This presents a valuable opportunity as a smart food which has previously been overlooked in favour of ‘big 3’ staple crops or cash crops. Robyn Alders identifies that “market signals are about quantity and volume; they were not selected for nutritional capacity”. Now is the time we see the value of diversity in crop selection, as a vital part of preserving biodiversity and nutritional diversity.

We can also look at how our policy responses can target multiple policy objectives, given the fundamental and interlinked position agriculture has with other sectors, such as the environmental and human health. Dr Alessandro Demaio points out that “food systems are at the heart of the SDG agenda” and “food is a great driver of achieving all the SDGs at once”.  This is consistent with Glenn Denning who explains      “don’t think of nutrition as a social welfare program, but an economic development program”. This is for the multiplier effects agriculture has outside of the immediate field. However, Dr Demaio also points out that “the SDGs are complex and complicated; to the point they sound confusing”. One way to breakdown this challenge is to look to the single biggest lever which we can pull which spans these multiple complexities – agriculture.  Agriculture offers unprecedented opportunities to achieve some of the greatest global challenges – as Dr Alessandro Demaio summarises – “The biggest opportunity we have is our food”.

Yet there are still a number of challenges in shaping this policy convergence to be able to use the lever of agriculture across many global challenges. For one, as Robyn Alders addresses, “at the end of the day, if it’s not financially sustainable, no farmer can stay in their business”. Further, she explains that “sometimes you have to face the hard reality that what you’re proposing” is not suitable to the most vulnerable populations. This is particularly evident in the shifts to cash cropping in many parts of the world, which presented mixed results for local incomes and nutrition. We also must ensure that whilst we look to a global food system, that we understand how food systems operate on a local and farm level, and tailor our approaches as necessary. As Dr Anna Okello explains, “we cannot deny that these systems are different, and therefore require different solutions to mitigate”. The reality is we cannot compare western meat consumption with those in sub-saharan Africa, as the choices which underpin production and consumption patterns are not equivalent. We must tailor our approaches locally, within a broader global food system.

So what does this lever mean?

In summary, the global food system is complex, has multiple actors and has vast linkages to other sectors. However, this complexity is not only a challenge, but offers valuable opportunities to address global challenges, both within and beyond the agricultural field. So to answer our initial question, perhaps this is what is meant by one of our top quotes from Andrew Campbell: “In the Anthropocene, agriculture is the biggest lever humans can pull”.



One thought on “The most powerful tool in the global shed: moving to a food systems paradigm

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.