One size does not fit all—Addressing the complexity of food system sustainability

 Mary Ng'endo and Melanie Connor   |  

Since the global COVID-19 pandemic, the urgent need for enhanced food system sustainability through a major shift in mindsets is irrefutable. The overriding message is that the trajectory of our global food systems is unsustainable and that multiple actions are needed urgently to amend this imbalance.

Since the global COVID-19 pandemic, the urgent need for enhanced food system sustainability through a major shift in mindsets is irrefutable. The overriding message is that the trajectory of our global food systems is unsustainable and that multiple actions are needed urgently to amend this imbalance.

Therefore, the need for transitioning food systems to ensure sustainable and healthy diets with minimal environmental impact has become one of the most prominent goals of several local and international organizations. The novelty in our work lies in our contribution to this agenda by discussing and linking hitherto disconnected socio-environmental pillars that pose barriers to change when considered in an isolated fashion and showing how together they contribute to the food system sustainability agenda.

The food system encompasses activities involved in producing, processing, packaging, distributing, retailing, and consuming food that form the basis of the four food security pillars of availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability. Undertaking these activities leads to several outcomes that contribute to food security and relate to environmental outcomes. It is acknowledged that sufficient global food production is not synonymous with guaranteed food security for all. Food security, as commonly used in the development discourse, emphasizes food quantity over food quality.

Hence the term “nutrition security” is now commonly used to capture the quality dimension. In addition to the aforementioned pillars of food security, there are four priority policy actions to transition food systems toward healthy diets that are produced sustainably, that is availability, accessibility, affordability, and desirability. There is a need to link these policy actions, which can be done by explicitly showing the disconnect between food production and consumption, which has been referred to as the “missing middle”, and then making practical suggestions on how to close this gap. The missing middle refers to the paradox of persistent hunger despite growing global food availability. As more food is not synonymous with the right kind of food, there is a need for improvements in food access and changing consumer behavior.

Given the multifaceted nature of food security, especially in the context of global environmental change, solving food insecurity needs to center on comprehension of complex interactions. Various stakeholders have utilized food system concepts to enhance interdisciplinary work on the two-way interactions between food and nutrition security efforts and global environmental change. However, there is a need to contextualize an integrated food system approach that accounts for interconnected inequalities to ensure food security.

While food systems are dynamic and complex, they also have national boundaries, with no single dietary pattern or food system that could be applicable globally. We argue that to achieve food system sustainability, it is essential to address socio-environmental inequalities alongside agricultural transformation. Therefore, this perspective employs a descriptive methodology that interrogates a range of food system transformations measures that are needed and that collectively underpin socio-environmental local contexts, nutritional habits, livelihoods, and ecosystems.

The recommendations on needing to change production and consumption patterns rely heavily on behavior change, which, while necessary, needs to be expounded upon contextually—for example, how and which behavior change models can be used to facilitate food system sustainability? Also, to what extent does behavior change work? The difficulties with behavior change have been well-documented, for example, in the case of scaling agrobiodiversity. It has been shown that agrobiodiversity is beneficial for smallholder farmers to attain all the pillars of food security and produce sustainably utilizing locally available resources.

However, agrobiodiversity has been challenging to scale up, even with the support of multiple partners. One of the reasons for this is that behavior change is not easy for all stakeholders in the value chain thus resulting in isolated success stories, such as increasing agrobiodiversity of various cereals in rural Europe, traditional rice varieties in India, and agroforestry in Kenya. Nevertheless, despite the existing challenges with scaling up agrobiodiversity, this agroecological practice that emphasizes diverse crop and animal husbandry is leading to food and nutrition security in countries such as Malawi and Kenya.

Similarly, many papers discuss the need to change food consumption patterns by growing seasonal and vegetarian foods locally with lower environmental costs. While growing and consuming locally produced seasonal foods is a valid suggestion, the recommendation to adopt a vegetarian diet needs to be evaluated considering geopolitical boundaries. In most developing countries, diets are primarily vegetarian or limited to certain food groups due to a lack of finances to purchase meat, milk, and fish.

In general, animal-sourced foods, especially from large livestock such as cattle, are expensive and unaffordable, especially in rural areas. While consumption of animal-sourced foods may need to be reduced in the global north, we agree that this needs to be enhanced in the global south, primarily using small livestock such as chickens, rabbits, and goats.

These are affordable, offer both macro-and micronutrient adequacy, and a possibility to enhance asset ownership, especially by women, who suffer from multiple forms of malnutrition. This, in turn, will benefit childhood nutrition and is also likely to improve the first critical 1,000 days “window of opportunity” of a child’s life.

Smallholder farmers often face exclusion from global markets and commercial-oriented value chains, which leads to inequality but can also increase post-harvest losses significantly due to insufficient storage capabilities. While there is a lot of evidence on technology interventions that reduce post-harvest losses, there is a lack of interventions beyond technologies and handling practice changes. These include finance, infrastructure, policy, and market interventions. In addition, there are smallholder-driven solutions that could be presented to policymakers to pave alternative ways for co-creating positive change.

This has been shown for the Githunguri dairy farmers’ cooperative society in central Kenya that has grown into a significant market player outcompeting large-scale dairy systems through a local social finance model. Similarly, the support of smallholder farmers by international organizations has facilitated changes in the dairy and root crops value chains in Tanzania. Such local solutions could also benefit from the rigor that science provides to offer improved replicable innovative solutions.

This approach aligns well with the need to build partnerships in the food systems agenda through emerging opportunities. One example is the G-soko (“soko” is Swahili for “market”) online platform for regional trade that has gained popularity in the East African Community lately. The platform connects farmers and grain buyers and has gained popularity during COVID-19, facilitating regional and national grain trade. Furthermore, east and southern African governments have started to harmonize measures to ensure continued trade across borders. This needs to continue beyond COVID-19 by learning what is and is not working.

However, a significant challenge that remains for a sustainable food system is connecting the different policymakers. The problem is that policies relating to agricultural production are often at odds with policies for nutrition, and solving this disconnect would address the “missing middle”. Moreover, the different actors needed to transform the food system and nutrition patterns currently operate in silos, and many stakeholders speak different “disciplinary languages,” making it difficult for policymakers to engage and negotiate with these multi-disciplinary complexities.

We, therefore, argue that bringing existing scientific knowledge into practice is a far greater challenge than pursuing the acquisition of new scientific knowledge. There is value and need to remove barriers between knowledge generation and its use by addressing how different stakeholders interact with the knowledge, mainly traditional and indigenous knowledge.

The nexus on how these changes are implemented is where knowledge generators can better interact with policymakers to effect much-needed change. Where policies are available, they must be backed by the political will to catalyze stronger linkages across science, policy, and practice to gain increased momentum in addressing the complexities embedded in food system sustainability.

Specific recommendations for food system Sustainability:

  • Shocks to food systems such as the COVID-19 pandemic should also be viewed as valuable opportunities to closely examine the local solutions that could change this unsustainability. This could be by increasing agrobiodiversity with locally available resources such as vegetables and grains that also include livestock production and consumption (including fish) that is culturally and environmentally applicable, so as to proliferate the success stories showing agroecology’s contribution to food and nutrition security.

  • As opposed to relying solely on top-down approaches, there is a need to incorporate bottom-up approaches from diverse geographies. This can be implemented by including emerging smallholder-driven solutions and integrating local and indigenous farmers, which could catalyze systemic thinking on similar or alternative ways to scale interventions. This can be done by showcasing alternative and emerging successful local smallholder farmer-led food security solutions that can be up-scaled and mainstreamed (for example, the aforementioned social finance models), especially in the regular high-level decision-making forums, such as the United Nations-led High-Level Political Forum.

  • Increase international organization-led multi-stakeholder interactions for professionals across science-policy-practice nexus to determine what can be done better or differently to proliferate, evaluate and reflect upon ways of navigating through behavior change barriers. For example, the inaugural 2021 pre-HLPF seminar series led by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development promoted dialogue on navigating challenges in this interconnected space and catalyzed solving the ‘missing middle’ by linking production and consumption actors.

Read the study:
Ng’endo M. and Connor M. (2022) One Size Does Not Fit All—Addressing the Complexity of Food System Sustainability. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 6:816936

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