Anna Palli

There is no doubt that food has always had a remarkable power to bring people together. We need to eat to live, but food is also a source of pleasure and it is one of our best pretexts to socialize, celebrate and even reinforce our identity and cultural heritage. As Pierre Van den Berghe explains, we are food-sharing animals and use food to establish, express, and consolidate societies. A meal can also provide a good excuse for reconciliation, for how many times have we said "let's meet for lunch", thinking "and see if we can sort it out".

Appetizers: Houston, we have a problem

On September 23, 2021, the international community will gather in New York at a summit convened by the United Nations to do just that: fix the current dysfunctional food systems. The UN Food Systems Summit is a pinnacle moment after more than 18 months of hard work to raise awareness at the highest political level of the systemic risk we face, and to sensitise public opinion to set in motion a far-reaching process to transform our lifestyle and our food production and consumption systems. It is an unprecedent opportunity to come together to finding more equitable solution to global supply that does not destroy natural resources: we need to live as a planet in order to eat as humans.

2021 has been dubbed the year of climate action, due to the staging of several high-profile global events. These began with the Climate Adaptation Summit (CAS21), which was held in January, now there is the Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September, and finally the Climate Change Conference (COP26) will be held in November. The staging of these events is by no means a coincidence and highlights the close links between food and climate change. As the latest report published by the IPCC warns, time is pressing, and in agronomic terms, we have little more than 9 harvests left to get back on track.

We need to live as a planet in order to eat as humans

Myriad of evidences are piling up, showing us that global food systems are failing on many levels as the tensions over production resources continue to rise. One in ten people is undernourished while one in four is overweight. More than one-third of the population cannot afford a healthy diet, and the number of people going hunger between 2019 and 2020, was 15% higher.

The food sector contributes to more than one third to climate warming, mainly due to emissions of methane from animal production and rice fields, nitrous oxide from fertilizers and carbon dioxide emissions associated with the clearing of tropical forest for expanding cropland. Globally, more than 80% of freshwater is used in agriculture, and poor farming practices are also linked with soil degradation and contamination of watercourses and coastal ecosystems, due to excessive use of nitrates and pesticides. Furthermore, deforestation in tropical regions, the loss of natural habitats and changes in land use make food production one of the main causes of the lowering of biodiversity.

In parallel, one third of food produced is lost or wasted. In many regions the population depend almost exclusively on food production for their survival, but throughout the value chain, structural imbalances are increasingly shifting power from primary and small scale farmers to other actors downstream.

The food-related problems that we face will only become bigger due to the effects of climate change and a demographic growth

The food-related problems that we face are huge and all they will only become bigger due to the effects of climate change and a demographic growth, that will add two more billion mouths to feed by 2050. This will mean an estimated increase of 50% in global food demand, and around 70% of animal origin products (meat, eggs, milk…), due to the increase of consumption in some countries as they become more affluent. In this scenario, it will be as important to increase food production as to guarantee its access to everybody. And one thing is clear: we cannot afford to increase food production by expanding current agriculture.

We have a large enough body of empirical evidence which shows the connection between the way that we produce, we consume and even what we think about food and the problems that most clearly threaten our future as a species, such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of non-renewable natural resources. Most of these problems are interconnected in feed-back loops, leading in turn to greater imbalances and social injustices. As the interlinkages become more evident, new approaches are clearly required.

The recent health crisis caused by COVID-19 has mutated into a food crisis in many parts of the globe, and right now more than 820 million people are suffering from hunger, while many others are eating low-quality diets. There can be no doubt that the climate crisis will also become a food crisis, not only due to its impact on the regions most directly affected, but also as a result of the destabilisation food markets.

There can be no doubt that the climate crisis will also become a food crisis

The FAO warns that there has been an unprecedented increase in global food prices, largely due to extreme climatic events. Between May 2020 and May 2021, prices rose by 39.7%, the highest annual increase since 1990. Over the last 10 years, three food price crises have occurred, and many experts warn that a new speculative bubble in food prices is likely to occur.

And we must bear in mind that we are talking about a resource that is essential to life, together with water and the air we breathe. Access to food is a fundamental right, and therefore it cannot be treated as a mere commodity. Our mothers used to say to us "food is not to be played with", and it should certainly not be subject to speculation either.

First course: Time for solutions

We cannot fool ourselves, unless firm and decisive action is taken on the issue of food, we will not be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out in Agenda 2030 or fulfil the Paris Agreement, and we will leave future generations a planet that is severely damaged, in which a large part of the population will suffer the consequences of climate change and malnutrition. Time for diagnoses or simply treating the symptoms has run out; it is imperative to find an effective and long-lasting cure that will return us to a stable operating space within the planetary boundaries.

For food is our principal link with the planet. It is like af connective tissue that links our health with the health of many biophysical systems, and it affects our wellbeing in many different ways on various scales. It is precisely for this reason that only if we are capable of transforming food systems, will we have a genuine opportunity to return to this secure operating base and leave our children a planet that is not only habitable, but also stable in the long term.

The United Nations Food Summit has described itself as the people's summit and the solutions summit, because it seeks to spark tangible changes for positive transformation, harnessing the efforts of all the players involved such as heads of state, food producers, youth, private sector, the scientific community, indigenous peoples, and civil society. It intends to bring them all together for action around ambitious climate solutions ad food security and towards a future with more justice between people and generations.

Purely techno-scientific solutions will not be enough

The human capacity to transform knowledge into innovation will play a key role in the development of these solutions. Although we should avoid being too techno-optimistic, many experts share the opinion that we are on the threshold of a new agri-food revolution that will bring about unprecedented opportunities. However, purely techno-scientific solutions will not be enough, social innovation, a shift in our diets and new policies and governance models will also be essential.

The application of scientific advances and technologies developed in different fields to food production, open up possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years ago. For example, the combination of advances in satellite technology, artificial intelligence, robotics and precision genomics will help us to increasing the efficiency of current production systems.

FAO has coined the term sustainable intensification to describe these sets of innovations aiming to basically producing more with less. Research and innovation will also lead the way towards radically different productive systems, such as alternative sources of protein, synthetic foods, vertical farming that can be close to large urban areas or the use of new products for animal feed and human nutrition. Integration and massive analysis of data fuelled by sensorization and citizen participation, will also open the door to more systemic approaches, which will gradually enable us to progress towards more diversified and resilient production and consumption models, such as those based on the principles of agroecology.

FAO has coined the term sustainable intensification to describe innovations aiming to basically producing more with less

None of these options will be sufficient on their own, nor do they have to be exclusive. When faced by complex problems, we cannot expect simple solutions, and it is advisable to turn to the widest possible range of techniques, production systems and even alternative diets. A plurality of transition pathways has to be made available. The different conditions (physical and social) and realities that exist at a local level will determine for example what may be the best combination of high-tech intensive models with those of local ecological producers.

But, above all, in this field, we must keep both feet on the ground (literally speaking). Today, 95% of the world's food depends on the soil, a non-renewable resource on a human scale that is being destroyed at breakneck speed. In many parts of the world, farmers still have to plough their fields with a caterpillar tractor and irrigate with broken pipes, if they lucky. We are still far from being able to introduce techno-farming on a global scale, especially in the poorest regions. We cannot lose ourselves in futuristic visions that do not take stock of today's reality.

Second course: our opportunity

Thus, we are facing unprecedented challenges regarding food safety and planetary balance, and although the good news is that we know what to do, we are yet to figure out how to do it and then demonstrate the commitment to do so.

In this context, a new generation of startups is emerging, offering for example many solutions for more efficient and sustainable production of food and for prevention of food loss and waste. The Ag Tech and Food Tech sectors are arousing increasing interest among many investors, and with more than 400 startups throughout the agri-food chain, Spain is one of the countries that generates most companies with a high technological value. Various regions such as Catalonia, Andalusia and the Ebro’s Valley stand out as RDI hubs in the field of agri-food, and they have the potential to become highly competitive.

These innovation ecosystems have the characteristics required to become leaders in sustainable food systems in the Mediterranean. To make this vision a reality, we can lever on a sound and competitive sector at international level, a wide network of universities and research and technology centres, and a long tradition of innovation culture. There is also an increasing entrepreneurial dynamism and a growing interest and awareness of society with regard to food and its impacts.

The prestige of our foods and the high reputation of our gastronomy and the Mediterranean diet in general are also playing in our favour. Barcelona's nomination as World Capital of Sustainable Food, is a good prove of that, and this autumn the Catalan capital will host the 7th Global Forum of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. More than 200 cities from all over the world will come together to defend the strategic role of cities in the development of sustainable food systems, promote access to healthy food and support the fight against indiscriminate food waste.

This context also provides an invaluable opportunity to join forces and deploy an ambitious strategy that will help to reconnect citizens with the European project. The origins of this project are strongly linked with the model and the policies of food production; now, within the framework of the Green Deal and the European Recovery Strategy, which intends to make our continent the world leader in sustainability. The transformation of food systems represents one of the most powerful levers for boosting this new social and technological revolution on the pursuit of sustainability and resilience, which must have at its heart the far-reaching social and planetary challenges described in the SDGs.

Desserts and coffee: our responsibility and their future

Some days ago, I met a few friends for dinner (as one does!) to talk about innovation. One of the guests recounted how some 7 years ago he and a group of entrepreneurs presented a project for the production of electric batteries in Barcelona to various public authorities and businessmen. They could not find support for a project that today, would have well and truly, put the city on the innovation map. At that time, it must have appeared to be of greater interest to continue milking the conventional car sector. We must not miss the boat again; this is the moment to make a serious investment in this opportunity, in order to harvest the fruits in the future.

Today, we can aspire to become key players in innovation for sustainable food systems, promoting their transformation, from the Mediterranean basin, to become future prof. Our daily bread is at stake, and most importantly, our children's too.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.