Donna Berry 2019CHICAGO – Food systems will need to evolve during the next 20 years to feed more than 10 billion people while at the same time protect natural resources and ecosystems. “Resetting the Food System from Farm to Fork,” a virtual global event held Dec. 1 and hosted by the Barilla Foundation, Parma, Italy, and Food Tank, Chicago, presented solutions to rethink food systems during the next decade.

Agriculture, food and nutrition experts, along with policymakers, private sector authorities and civil society advocates discussed how to re-align food systems with human needs and planetary boundaries in order to become more resilient, more inclusive and more sustainable in the aftermath of the pandemic and beyond.

“We need a positive movement to accelerate, empower, refine and design a more sustainable future, and raise awareness in people — companies, citizens, institutions — that another future is possible,” said Guido Barilla, chairman of the Barilla Group and the Barilla Foundation. “We need new ideas about food from a lot of people — those who grow it, regulate it, supply it, cook it, study it and just think about it.

“The future of food is in our hands. Let’s make the future grow.”

The event was organized to set the stage for the United Nations 2021 Food Systems Summit and provide the Secretary-General with an actionable list of efforts “to turn things around.” The summit will take place in the fourth quarter of 2021.

“The food sector, looked at broadly, is one of the most important contributors to our environmental ills,” said Jeffrey Sachs, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University, New York, and director, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. “Food production does more to change the planet through human means than any other single sector.”

It is estimated that around 30% of all the greenhouse gas emissions come from food production and distribution, Dr. Sachs said.

Chris Barrett, professor and co-editor-in-chief of Food Policy, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, said it’s important to keep in mind successes and figure out how to leverage them, while at the same time address the problems they are causing. He noted that 2020, despite the pandemic, was a historical record cereal harvest. Further, this year the current food system provided adequate healthful diets to about five billion people.

“This is the trick,” Dr. Barrett said. “We have to keep two different compelling thoughts in mind at the same time, the global food system and the host of local food systems that comprise it. We are more successful than we’ve ever been by the terms that we have designed our food systems for, and yet, at the same time, utterly unsustainable.”

A key is innovation, not just technological, but also institutional and policy. Dr. Barrett said the need to innovate effectively and incentivize the right innovations is required. He explained that in the 1960s and ‘70s, the industry succeeded in maximizing the productivity per unit area cultivated of starchy staples to avoid famine in the face of population growth.

“But tomorrow’s problems are different,” Dr. Barrett said. “We need to redesign the system by coordinating the activities of the individuals that comprise the complex food system.

“It’s a network of billions of decentralized agents of individual food consumers, farmers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, chefs, each making decisions on their own. We need to coordinate activities to induce collectively a massive response in the direction of healthy, equitable, resilient, sustainable food systems.”

Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, said, “The future of the food system is truly in our hands and we are excited by the important discussions that took place (during the three-hour virtual event) and that will continue to take place in the lead up to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.”

At the end of the event, the co-hosts presented five takeaways to reset the food system:

  1. Producers play a pivotal role in fostering change in global food systems.
  2. Innovation in technologies, financial incentives, public policies must accelerate the transition of agri-food systems toward equity, resilience, healthiness and sustainability.
  3. Sustainably produced, nutrient-dense foods must be accessible and affordable for all.
  4. Food businesses across the globe must urgently rethink strategies and operations to align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
  5. Alliances between chefs and hospitality, producers and consumers are vital to introduce responsible consumer habits, enhance regional food systems and uncover the true costs of food.

Three recommendations were passed to the UN Food Systems Summit Special Envoy. They included aligning around a shared sense of purpose that enables stakeholders to craft diverse visions for a healthier, more inclusive, sustainable and resilient food system; connecting, mobilizing and inviting all actors in the food system on a collective journey that leads to a transformed food system; and raising awareness and empowering consumers to make appropriately sustainable choices by fueling a scientifically grounded and action-oriented public discussion.

Consensus among the presenters was the world needs urgent action on agriculture and food systems. When all the players work together, resetting the future of food is possible, Ms. Nierenberg said. By leveraging the links between how we produce, buy, sell and eat food, it is possible to support healthier, more prosperous and fulfilling lives.