NOTICE | What needs to be done to ensure a more sustainable food system?

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A food system is a complex system driven by interrelated economic, social, cultural and environmental factors, which require transformative and systemic thinking and tools to guide informed strategic policy formulations towards resilience and sustainability, writes Luxon Nhamo, Sylvester Mpandeli, Samkelisiwe Hlophe-Ginindza and Stanley Liphadzi.


This year, World Food Day is celebrated in the context of the recent United Nations Summit on Food Systems (UNFSS), which has been billed as the People’s Summit.

The UNFSS has sought to launch “bold new actions, solutions and strategies to achieve progress” to support the transition to “healthier, more sustainable and more equitable food systems”.

The UNFSS has resulted in approximately 300 commitments from a wide range of global actors to achieve transformation of food systems. Most importantly, he recognized the role that food systems can play in transforming society, with the UN Secretary-General asserting that “food systems hold the power to realize our shared vision for a better world”.

The theme for this year’s World Food Day, “Our actions are our future – Better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life“, resonates quite well with the vision and principles of the UNFSS. The theme recognizes that food systems are essential for sustainable development. They are at the center of the link between people, planet and prosperity. Therefore, our will going from the norm will determine the sustainability of the socio-ecological systems of today and tomorrow.

It calls for urgent and transformative change in food systems through innovations that lead to sustainable, resilient, equitable, inclusive and healthy food systems.

Healthy and sustainable food system

A food system includes subsystems such as agriculture, waste management, and input supply.

It is closely linked to other systems like energy, commerce and health. A sustainable food system provides healthy food to meet current food needs, while preserving healthy and sustainable ecosystems capable of providing food for future generations, with controlled negative impact on the environment.

This interconnection shows that any structural change in one food system can come from a change in another system. For example, changes in a food system could be triggered by a policy that promotes more biofuels in the energy system and impacts food systems in the process. Therefore, a food system is a complex system driven by interrelated economic, social, cultural and environmental factors, which require transformative and systemic thinking and tools to guide informed strategic policy formulations towards resilience and sustainability.

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The complex interconnections of food systems, and how a change in one system can trigger tensions in others, underscore the need for a change in the way humanity is solving current challenges. Today’s era dubbed the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) depends on complex, cross-cutting and interconnected systems to deliver goods and services. While this comes with tremendous opportunity, it has also exposed systems to disruption and shocks of immense magnitude, as evidenced by disruptions to global supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In complex systems like food systems, tensions always arise between efficiency and resilience, the ability to anticipate, absorb, recover and adapt to unexpected disturbances. Thus, sectoral or system-specific resilience initiatives, such as food or health systems, are often associated with systemic risks, which emanate from strategies that lead to suboptimal efficiencies in one sector at the expense of others. sectors. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only caused immeasurable losses and losses in the health sector but also in the global economy, with high social and environmental costs, demonstrating the fragility of some of the systems. human-made such as globalization, as well as unreliable linear approaches.

The Covid-19 pandemic has rekindled the need to address today’s intertwined and cross-sectoral challenges in an integrated manner, other than through singular and linear approaches. Gone are the days of seeing the world from a linear perspective, with the idea that just the click of a button will bring the economy and society back to normal.

Impact of extreme weather conditions

Likewise for food systems, the sustainability of the sector is driven by integrated, circular and cross-sectoral strategic policies formulated around the interrelated resources of water, land and energy, as well as nutrition and health.

Enlightened policies formulated from a cross-sectoral perspective offer transformational pathways towards national goals such as job creation, poverty reduction, inclusive economic growth, climate action, health and well-being.

Circular models that include linkage planning, scenario planning and the circular economy catalyze sustainable food systems. They provide tools to inform investment decisions on agricultural infrastructure, climate-smart agricultural technologies, agricultural water management, field decision support tools to manage water flow and beneficial mobile applications in the agricultural value chain.

They allow resources to stay in circulation longer, reducing waste and environmental pollution.

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Notably, the worsening sensitivity and exposure of food systems to increasing extreme weather events continues to impact economies and the environment. These are aggravated by changes in nutrient cycles, hydrologic cycles, vegetation cover and composition, and pollution.

The changes are causing significant spatial and temporal shifts in the distribution of crop yields across the world, further emphasizing the sensitivity and exposure of food systems. Although efforts have been made to increase agricultural production, it has failed to keep pace with population growth.

The transition to sustainable food systems is a complex process and could be achieved through:

  • Integrated and circular models that promote critical biophysical and economic “leverage points” in food systems and improve resource use efficiency.
  • Improve the resilience of food systems that allows food resources to remain in circulation for long periods of time and achieve the circular economy.
  • Innovative practices that assess the tradeoffs of agricultural practices and balance with advancements in technological developments.
  • Investment in agricultural technologies.

– Luxon Nhamo, Sylvester Mpandeli, Samkelisiwe Hlophe-Ginindza and Stanley Liphadzi work for the Water Research Commission.


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