From 2012-2016, Global Action Platform engaged over four hundred of the world’s leading experts and executives in food, health, and economics to define the major challenges and opportunities for advancing scalable, sustainable solutions for abundant food, health, and prosperity.  Joining these experts were some 3,000 corporate, university, investor, government, and NGO leaders who participated in annual Summits and Forums where these ideas were discussed. As Global Action Platform concludes its first five years of work, launches the innovation hub at oneC1TY as a living laboratory for urban solutions, and works with GPSS and the IPEU to launch a living laboratory for rural solutions in the Philippines, we have consolidated and synthesized the ideas of the past five years into a knowledge base presented here.  We see this knowledge base as a foundation for effective strategies to inform our work moving forward, and offer it as a synopsis of best practices for others who want to join with us in creating a world of abundant food, health, and prosperity. Foundations for Creating Abundant Food Over the past five years, experts across the food research and industry sectors worked with Global Action Platform to frame scalable, sustainable solutions for abundant, nutritious food for all people.  As framed by these leaders, the food landscape between 2012-2016 consisted of five main areas of strategic importance:
  • Food Strategy and Systems
  • Food Business Models
  • Food Science and Technology
  • Agriculture-Climate-Environment Nexus
  • Food Culture and Nutrition
Several game-changers for food were identified: business approaches to streamline distribution and financial sustainability, strategies to eliminate food waste, scientific research identifying nourishing and disease preventing foods, big data/analytics, mobile technologies for smart farming, and renewal of local food cultures and programs to improve nutrition and to engage a new generation of food entrepreneurs and farmers. Key Ideas on Food Strategy and Systems Situation: One of the grand challenges facing the world today is how to produce enough to feed the projected ten billion people expected to inhabit our planet by 2050, while at the same time strengthening the biodiversity, climate, and environment of the earth.  To feed the world’s growing population in balance with nature will require a comprehensive new food strategy and the creation of new food systems. Targets:
  • Double available food for the world through increased production and decreased waste;
  • Increase investment in infrastructure and technology to deliver food to market without loss and improved food safety;
  • Transition to sustainable, climate-smart agriculture that transforms agriculture from the world’s most polluting sector to the world’s most sustainable force for bio-diversity and environmental sustainability;
  • develop new school programs to create the next generation of farmers and food entrepreneurs; and
  • build trust, innovation and collaboration among farmers, businesses, governments, research institutions, foundations/NGOs and finance to overcome current polarization among the sectors needed to redesign the current system.
  • Restore strong food cultures and the connection between wellbeing and diet.
  Challenges: Increasing the productivity of the existing food system will not solve the challenges to abundant future food. The resilience of production systems, nutritional implications of production systems, and how to reduce waste are concerns, as well as the following:
  • Price Volatility: Farmers face consistently low prices for their foods. Without increases to food prices, agriculture will not be sustainable for farmers. Biofuel mandates have added constraints and rigidity to the system.
  • Poverty: The cycle of poverty and disease enslaves 2.3 billion people globally resulting in long-term social and economic disruptions stemming from a lack of nutrition.
  • Climate Change: Climate change is altering the landscape for food production. The world faces as much as a four degrees’ Celsius warmer world which could decline food staple production by 10-15% over current levels.
  • Governmental Regulations: The global food system is dependent on the government policies and regulations that affect trade issues, safety issues, and equity and often discriminate against the poor and most vulnerable.
  • Food Waste: Globally, $750 billion worth of food is wasted each year. As the third largest consumer of food after the US and China, food waste is a critical issue. Solutions will address what happens to food upon leaving the farm, during transportation, how food is stored and displayed in retail stores, in food service, and at home are all part of the problem.
Opportunities: Women make up 43% of the agriculture labor force in developing countries but are less productive than men due to social constrains and less access to resources.  By giving women the same access as men, farm yields could increase by 20-30%.  Updated technologies (cell phones, videos, etc.) offer ways to disseminate and extend knowledge to help farmers.  The US and other nations need to work closely with governments on investments in infrastructure and agricultural innovations.  Private industry can encourage people to eat healthier diets in conjunction with government incentives.  The focus should be on international policies that link food production to nutrition and health outcomes and allow for the sharing of ideas and data.  Science and technology have progressed to effectively use big data to study genomics and metabolic chemistry.  Data will be the root to increasing the abundance of food in the developing world.  Sustainable change is only possible and scalable when partners work together to coordinate and share data across disciplines. Key Ideas on Food Business Models Situation: The world’s food is produced and distributed through the private sector.  Hence to create abundant food, a paradigm shift is required in the food industry. To achieve a sustainable food and agricultural system, food companies need to bring sustainable sourcing to their business models, as well as new models for food safety, distribution, and nutrition.  The challenge is figuring out what it will take for companies to adopt a sustainable resource model.  At the same time, there is a constant, global drive for lower prices on food, which undermines the economic stability for producers, especially small farmers. A solution for the future will need to address the entire production and supply chain. Challenges: Businesses’ priority is to maximize stakeholder value, often preventing them from investing in programs that also optimize social good.  This is especially notable when 'sustainable' development activities are hard to substantiate.  While development aid and funding are typically coordinated between national governments and organizations such as the World Bank Group, they often fail to effectively engage local stakeholders, which can lead to failure.  The poorest nations are impacted the most by this lack of inclusion in new business models.  The food industry’s current business model is a major barrier to information sharing and innovation.  There is no unified theory of sustainability or engagement of local farmers, thus impeding the emergence of new business models that can scale innovations to achieve total food safety, security, nutrition, sustainability, and shared value economic benefit with all stakeholders in the food supply chain. Opportunities: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a new framework to help businesses and governments work together to solve the problems of hunger and poverty. The SDGs are a pledge by business and government leaders to eliminate poverty, hunger and 15 other global issues by 2030.  The new focus on social/environmental benefit, coupled with economic return, helps food businesses to innovation and helps recruit talented workforce, specifically millennials, who want to make a difference.  Other business opportunities include:
  • Synthetic biology to increase farming in urban areas
  • Leveraging technology to expose farmers, distributers, and consumers to facts
  • Utilize “big data” to inform development goals
  • Cultivating collaboration and innovation among farmers
  • Increasing water efficiency, safety, and quality
  • Creating forward-looking companies
Key Ideas on Food Science and Technology Situation: Food science and technology today faces a significant loss of faith and widespread public opposition, especially in the food technology’s relation with the food industry and global companies.  As the world faces major new challenges of increasing and improving the food supply for a growing population, opposition to food science and technology—the leading source of food revolutions in the past—is at an all-time high.    The food science sector will need to restore trust through better collaboration between academics and farmers, increased sensitivity to food safely and nutrition concerns of the public, and greater alignment of scientific-based solutions and food culture and values. Challenges: Most experts agree that to meet increased global food demands, crop yields per acre must be maximized, while also preserving the biodiversity that contributes to the higher nutrition of foods.  In meeting this goal, the food sector is also challenged by a suppression of entrepreneurship by regulatory and market-based push-back to food biotechnology.  Seven to eight companies own all the seeds in the world and all biotechnology research is funded and directed by them.  Transparency is required throughout the system so that the science and its products can be trusted. Food losses often occur before food can be harvested. This waste problem is one of many that may be solved by partnering with scientists and technology experts. However, collaborations between with scientists, academic institutions, and NGOs for practical solutions are often difficult. An underlying cause is demonization of food processing due to the advent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Additionally, collaboration among diverse cultures is difficult and compounds the challenge when attempting to solve these issues globally. Opportunities: Scientists agree that the following are necessary to enhance sustainability and prevent the marginalization of biotechnology:
  • Continuing to innovate to optimize food systems through biotechnology and other means
  • Using technology to reduce food waste can reduce the required food production from 70% to 20%.
  • Recognizing the true value of food will help achieve the right pricing structure as there are many     external impacts not included in the price of food
  • Involving the public in more science-based discussions about food can build trust and move appropriate technology innovations forward;
  • Increasing understanding among food scientists of the culture and values surrounding food;
  • Engaging private investment in agricultural innovation to make long-term commitments
Listening to farmers and the public is important to effectively promoting sustainability through innovation. The World Bank is working on “Climate Smart Agriculture” to raise agricultural productivity and food nutrition, increase resilience of farmers to climate change, and look for ways to reduce carbon emissions through agriculture. Key Ideas on Food Culture and Nutrition Situation: Food is not simply a commodity, nor is it simply a source of calories for the body.  Food is a cultural artifact, an expression of love and companionship, an expression of culture and identity.  Food is part of a complex historical and social set of meanings, memories, and values.  Food is also deeply connected with nutrition and health and tied into folk medicines and traditions of healing and wellbeing.  This complex interweaving of wellbeing and social tradition constitute the culture of food. Challenges: Today, many people and communities are not connected with their food.  Increasing numbers of people do not notice the quality of food they eat, know how it is grown, or where it comes from.  Food is increasingly a commodity distributed through commerce, disconnected from history, community, and family.  Increasingly food is also detached from the idea of a healthy diet or wellbeing.   At the same time, human behavior and the social determinants of health are being recognized as vitally important to health.  Producing more food is not enough.  The food produced, manufactured, and distributed must be nutritious and promote good health.  The food production industry favors large companies which prevents the smaller, more community-focused farmers to be viable. The culinary community fuels obesity by equating the size of a meal to value (i.e. the bigger it is, the more value received).  The introduction of processed foods shifted the connection of food and nutrition to consumption of more calories per meal.  People also have less of a cultural or religious connection to their food. Opportunities: A growing food culture revolution is underway in response to these challenges.  Consumers are demanding increased transparency on the content of the food they purchase and consume, as well as on the sustainability and ethical practices of the sources and the food supply chain.  Movements like Slow Food are reviving the traditions and pleasures of freshly prepared meals enjoyed in social settings and family. Farming is also undergoing a revolution with the growth of local, smaller-scale farms providing local food sources.  Crowdfunding, and other financial tools, are helping local farmers, providing independence from the large financial institutions tied to fast food.  Local communities are focusing on local food culture and their role in food production and distribution by starting community farms and gardens.  Social media allow farmers to connect directly with consumers and other farmers and chefs. The culinary community is also driving positive change.  More people are eating out - asking chefs to make food choices for them. Increasingly chefs are taking more responsibility to serve locally sourced foods and healthier meals.  Technology is educating chefs and consumers on different diets and cuisines around the world which can expand opportunities for healthy food and cultural experience. Because food that is best for health may also be the food that is best for the environment, shifting the message to “healthfulness” may be effective in changing consumer behavior.  By understanding behavioral nutrition, we can identify why consumers make unhealthy choices even with the right information.  Sustainability research and the consumer education on why it matters also provides opportunity.  New global ventures in food manufacturing, processing and production are focusing on the intersection of food, health and sustainability. Implementing more sustainable approaches in food and health requires a balanced public dialogue that engages research, the public sector, and the private sector. To read the rest of the five-year report visit here. This report was produced in collaboration with North Highland. Photo by Tony Webster via Unsplash.  

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The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.