Food Systems: The Nexus of our Planet’s Most Critical Issues

By Ruth Richardson, Executive Director for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, 17 November 2016


Climate change, food security, and the health of humans and the environment are some of the most pressing concerns of our day. There is a growing recognition that to tackle these issues we must open up dialogue across “special interests” and work together. More and more, people working to protect our planet are breaking down silos so we can act holistically at the speed and scale that is necessary to bring about positive change.

In early September 2016, over 10,000 delegates from across sectors and geographies worldwide attended the IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) in Honolulu, Hawai’i. The Global Alliance was pleased to participate, and honoured to bring the voice of food and agriculture to a global stage given food systems’ critical role in conservation.

Together with IUCN, the Global Alliance co-hosted a discussion that brought together global leaders from government, business, civil society, philanthropy, multi-laterals and other sectors to better understand how to accelerate transitions to sustainable food systems, and how sustainable food and agriculture can be a positive force in conservation efforts and other critical global issues.

There were an abundance of recommendations signalling the clear connections between food systems and conservation, and the creative opportunities to consider solutions with multiple positive benefits. Yet the challenge we presented to these thought-leaders wasn’t just about simply identifying opportunities, “What we wanted to leave with was a real understanding about how IUCN and others can strategically engage in the space where conservation and food and agriculture meet,” says Inger Andersen, Director-General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

iucn congress 2016

Participants filtered down the plethora of issues and recommendations to three promising pathways for collective action:

Bring together fragmented organizations and initiatives to map and analyze complex systems – food systems are highly complex and we need to understand and embrace that complexity and ensure that our understanding is underpinned by the best available evidence, data, analytics, and forecasting.

Assess costs and impacts – positive and negative – of key food systems with an aim to reforming public finance, including subsidies, taxes and incentives aligned with sustainability objectives – the economics of food systems are a major driver for change  and can be an extremely powerful tool to get to sustainable, conservation positive policies, on-farm decision-making, market mechanisms, and public finance.

Develop transparency and traceability of local, regional, and global governance and commodity markets related to food and agriculture – increased visibility of governance and market structures leads to accountability, for example, on how policy is made, how the regulation and governance of regional and global markets work, how supply chains function, how global trade impacts local systems.

These three opportunities form a suite of needed and powerful tools that can advance not just sustainable food and agriculture systems, but also offer cascading benefits for amazon protection, cultural preservation, ocean conservation, human health and wellbeing, and so on. They also provide a critical pathway to the global community for meeting the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals.

What do the experts in the field say about the pathway forward?

We brought these recommendations back to the full congress and shared with them insights from food and agriculture thought-leaders: Alexander Müller, TEEBAgriFood Study Lead and former Assistant Director General of FAO; Jeffrey Sachs, economist and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University; and, Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Food and Markets, Executive Director, Markets Institute, World Wildlife Fund. A few key considerations emerged for strategically moving forward:

  • This issue isn’t about industrial agriculture, it’s about agriculture and the complexity of food systems;
  • We need much more research and information about the agriculture-nature-biodiversity interface;
  • There is an urgency to craft a road map that will allow us to get to change, at speed, and at scale;
  • National governments may not lead the way but need to be part of a multidisciplinary effort;
  • IUCN and other well-positioned organizations need to take a leadership role in charting the way forward in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and planetary boundaries.

In the words of Maurice Strong, “What seems certain is that in order to meet these needs and to make the transition to sustainable agriculture, will require a radical overhaul of government policies and a degree of cooperation amongst nations, institutions and peoples on a scale without precedent in human experience.” This is an ambitious pathway forward, but imperative and achievable.