Time to tip our food systems towards a sustainable and equitable future

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By finding well targeted 'tipping points', a sustainable, resilient, and more equitable world food system can still be created, argue Simon Sharpe and Tim Lenton. [National Renewable Energy Lab Follow/Flickr]

By finding well targeted ‘tipping points’, a sustainable, resilient, and more equitable world food system can still be created, argue Simon Sharpe and Tim Lenton.

Simon Sharpe is Deputy Director of the UK Government Cabinet Office COP26 Unit; Tim Lenton is Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter

Leaders, activists, investors, and researchers meeting at the UN Food Systems Summit next week confront a daunting set of challenges. Our food systems are fragile and inequitable. During the COVID19 pandemic, nearly one in three people have gone hungry. Agriculture and land use change account for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, driving both climate change, and the crash in biodiversity, that threaten future food security. Meanwhile, demand for food is expected to rise by 35-56% over the coming three decades.

The need to plot a new course towards food and land use systems that are sustainable, resilient, and equitable is obvious and urgent. Achieving this can appear impossibly difficult. How could any of us grapple with such complexity?

One way we can start is to look for positive tipping points: places where a relatively small intervention can trigger large and self-propelling change. A study published earlier this year showed that tipping points had played a role in the world’s fastest transitions to low carbon electricity, in the UK, and to zero emission vehicles, in Norway. In these cases, policies that helped clean technologies outcompete fossil fuels led to rapid shifts in industry investment and consumer behaviour.

new report from the Food and Land Use Coalition and the University of Exeter shows where similar opportunities might lie in the transition to sustainable food and land use systems. Tipping points could be activated that would rapidly shift our patterns of consumption, production, and trade.

On the consumption side, meat is the biggest problem. Livestock farming and feed production take up nearly 80% of global farmland but give us only 20% of our calories. It is a staggeringly inefficient use of resources.  It is not hard to imagine how alternatives – plant-based substitutes and lab-grown meat – could be more efficient: why grow a cow when you can grow a burger?

These alternatives are at an early stage of development, but investment in them is increasing rapidly, rising fourfold in Europe in 2020. As with most new products, investment is leading to improvement and falling costs. A tipping point is foreseeable where alternative meat becomes cheaper, tastier, healthier, and more socially acceptable than the animal kind.  Governments and businesses can accelerate progress towards this point by supporting research and development, and by favouring these new products in large-scale procurement.

As for production, emerging case study evidence suggests that sustainable agricultural practices – those that regenerate the soil and other ecosystems on which they rely, instead of degrading them – can increase yields. In India’s Andhra Pradesh state, for example, an approach to controlling weeds, pests, and diseases using natural inputs led to farmers earning five to ten times as much per acre as those who relied on chemical fertilizers and insecticides.

Tipping points where sustainable practices become more profitable than unsustainable ones are therefore possible. Reaching them requires the dissemination of knowledge, and sometimes financial support, since for a farmer struggling to make ends meet, any new way of doing things presents a risk. Governments can help bridge this gap with training and support programs, just as they did in past agricultural transitions. They can also reallocate agricultural subsidies so that instead of incentivizing ever greater use of polluting inputs, they encourage the uptake of new practices.

In our connected global economy, no country’s food system is an island. Internationally traded commodities such as soy, palm oil, beef, and cocoa are important to food security and economic development, but their expanding production is a major driver of tropical deforestation.

Progress in eliminating illegally harvested timber from global markets shows what is possible. When access to the largest consumer countries’ markets was made contingent on compliance with producer countries’ laws, the balance of incentives in global trade tipped strongly towards favouring legal, and increasingly sustainable, production. The same can and should be done for the other forest-risk commodities. If at the same time communities are rewarded for the ‘ecosystem services’ that forests provide, then for farmers along the forest frontier, it could finally become more profitable to keep forests standing than to cut them down.

These are some of the tipping points that can bring sustainable food and land use systems more quickly into being.  Governments, businesses, and civil society organizations can all help to activate them.  Our chances are better if we work together. The UK is promoting this kind of collaboration as host of the upcoming COP26 global conference on climate change. The Food Systems Summit is an opportunity for many more actors to coordinate their efforts.

By describing such an immense task in terms of a few tipping points, we do not intend to understate the complexity of the problem. It is precisely because of this complexity that we must find the points of greatest leverage and join forces in pulling the levers. With a concerted and well-targeted effort, a sustainable, resilient, and equitable world food system can still be brought into being.

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