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Planet-proofing the global food system

Here is an article from the new journal nature food:

Planet-proofing the global food system

Without a great food system transformation, the world will fail to deliver both on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. There are five grand challenges to be faced, by science and society, to effect that transformation.

Food is failing us. The global food system is the single largest greenhouse-gas-emitting sector in the world1, and by far the largest cause of biodiversity loss, terrestrial ecosystem destruction2, freshwater consumption, and waterway pollution due to overuse of nitrogen and phosphorus3. It holds a firm grip over the stability of the Earth system and the future of humanity. Unhealthy food is the world’s biggest killer, with diet-related chronic disease estimated to be responsible for 11 million premature deaths in 2017 alone4. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people — more than 900 million — are undernourished. This increase is due in part to armed conflict, but climate change and the water–food–environment nexus are increasingly identified as amplifiers of social instability5,6.

The global food system is a prime driver — and generally the first victim — of the Anthropocene. A swift global food transformation towards healthy diets from sustainable food systems is necessary, and without such a food transformation the world will not meet the targets set in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement7. Scalable solutions do exist, but the food sector lags 30 years behind the energy sector (despite the inertia in decarbonising the global energy system) in concerted efforts to transform the system towards a safe operating space on Earth.

Food and the state of the planet

Modern agriculture was able to develop through the benign climatic conditions and abundant biodiversity of the Holocene. In the Anthropocene, however, the food system is the primary driver of our current Earth trajectory, which follows a path at risk of creating a cascade of interacting non-linear processes that propel the planet towards a radically different climatic state. Where certain tipping points lie is not yet well understood, but it is now increasingly established that warming beyond 1.5 °C places us dangerously close to those red lines. The world has already warmed by 1 °C above pre-industrial levels; at 1.5 °C, tropical coral reefs are very likely to collapse; at 2 °C, Arctic summer sea ice would disappear and the Greenland Ice Sheet could tip towards disintegration; several glaciers of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might already have passed tipping points, contributing over two metres of unstoppable sea-level rise in the long-term. The oceans have buffered the effects of global warming by absorbing more than 90% of human-caused excess heat. However, social and environmental costs are mounting and, as oceans grow warmer, more acidic and less productive, coastal extreme events and sea-levels are on the rise. Under climate change, the diversity of species and ecosystems is declining faster than at any time in human history. Increasing evidence shows that tipping elements are connected and can trigger cascading effects, for example, Arctic sea-ice melt amplifies regional warming, accelerating Greenland ice sheet melt, which in turn may have contributed to the recent 15% slowdown in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). The AMOC itself is connected to both regional rainfall dynamics in the Amazon and the West African monsoon, with a further slow-down potentially triggering drought, amplifying global warming and risking food shortages. Without a major transformation across sectors and scales, we risk crossing points of irreversibility that threaten the Earth system as we know it.

There is a critical need to scientifically define and move towards a safe operating space for food within planetary boundaries. This is a completely new positioning of the food system — a shift from the conventional focus on reducing environmental impacts at the ‘farming system’ scale towards defining science-based targets for food at the planetary scale, recognizing the global force that food constitutes today. A first attempt at this definition has recently been made for the planetary boundary processes directly associated with food — namely land, water, biodiversity, nutrient loading and climate change. Globally, food transgresses all five of these planetary boundaries.

Grand food challenges

Food production and environmental conservation have traditionally, and falsely, been pitted against each other. Food production, dietary health and environmental sustainability have, at best, been advanced as separate, siloed disciplines with limited explorations of synergies and trade-offs. Food-system science, policy and action continue to largely be pursued as local or regional concerns, despite food’s role as a global driver of planetary instability. Transforming food across the world might be our best bet in meeting the Paris Climate Agreement and the SDGs. The challenges we face call for rapid but thoughtful actions along five primary axes.

Science-based targets

The ‘planetary health diet’7 is the first attempt to provide scientific targets for healthy diets from sustainable production systems. They provide a set of universally applicable scientific boundary conditions within which all diets should operate for both human health and Earth sustainability. Following the Paris Climate Agreement, there are 285 companies that have adopted science-based targets (SBTs) for climate through the SBT initiative. Now, there is a growing momentum to widen that initiative to set SBTs for the entire Earth system — that is, to establish quantitative science-based targets for all planetary boundaries to support business transformations towards sustainable development. Similar efforts are needed for cities and national governments. Food systems across the world can be the first sector to adopt system-wide SBTs for planetary health. Making the SBTs for food operational across scales, sectors and agents will require further development of the planetary health diet and major methodological advancements. Immediate challenges include defining the food boundary for atmospheric aerosol loading (air quality), and novel entities such as the contamination of land and water with plastics, antibiotics and biocides.

Practices and policies

Modelling analyses suggest13 that it is biophysically possible to feed 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries, and in ways that leave at least 50% of natural ecosystems intact. Success hinges on triple action at a global scale: shifting towards healthy diets; increasing productivity while transitioning to regenerative production practices; and reducing food waste and loss by 50%.

Major policy and investment shifts toward this global transformation are central to turning the food system from a primary threat to a primary solution space for human and planetary health. Grand challenges remain in how to accelerate and scale the pace of change, reconfigure food value chains from ‘field to fork’, and support shifts in consumption. Overall, there is a need to test the planetary health diet hypothesis — that we can feed 10 billion people healthily within planetary boundaries — on the ground. The universal recommendation allows alignment across sectors and scales. However, what it implies for national transformation pathways is not uniform, but relies on the emergence of culturally and agroecologically diverse solutions14.

Human and natural capital

A recent assessment15 puts the ‘hidden costs’ of global food and land-use systems at $12 trillion, compared to a market value of the global food system at $10 trillion. If current trends continue, these hidden costs could rise to more than $13 trillion a year by 2030. Today, food is an exceptionally subsidized and socially sensitive commodity. Not only is the planet subsidizing the global food system at a level that probably exceeds its global market value, the food system is also receiving massive direct subsidies from governments around the world. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is perhaps most prominent, currently accounting for 37.8% of the total EU budget. Shifting these types of subsidies to reward the production of public goods (such as carbon capture, habitat creation and improved water quality) presents a ready option for securing the global commons while supporting farming communities.

Food security, social instability and conflicts

The human pressures put on the entire Earth system are causing a rise in frequency and amplitude of extreme weather events16 and a reduction in ecological resilience. Occurring simultaneously with decades of agricultural research and development that focussed on enhancing productivity over building resilience, this has resulted in heightened vulnerability as monocultures designed to operate efficiently under stable conditions are not adapted to handle shocks and stress amplified by global change.

Food production is the first victim of environmental pressures arising in the Anthropocene. Our immediate scientific preoccupation with this worrying trajectory has been on mapping impacts on food production and seeking strategies to build food-system resilience. This may not be enough. Real world examples are providing evidence, while still debated, of the amplifying role of food-system collapse on social conflict and migration, ranging from the Arab Spring to the Syrian war, the Sudanese crisis and the Sahelian instabilities17,18,19. This is an area in need of integrated analyses that couple big data and qualitative insights on social movements (physical and political), livelihood conditions, food security, and biophysical trajectories and shocks.

A new paradigm for our food future

Planetary boundaries for the food system define thresholds for the critical overuse of global commons. In the Anthropocene, when we are at risk of destabilising the Earth system, the global commons need to be expanded from including only global externalities (high seas, atmosphere, polar ice sheets) to also include all major biomes and element cycles, which together contribute to regulate the state of the Earth system20. This puts the onus on food, and requires an urgent shift in mindset to recognize agricultural ecosystems as possibly the Earth’s largest biome — and the biome with the largest impact on the planet’s elemental cycles: nitrogen, phosphorus, water and carbon.

A second major shift is to look beyond carbon and climate. Building resilient food systems requires a systems-approach integrating carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, soils, biodiversity and biome stability; and taking a truly inter-disciplinary planetary health approach by addressing food cultures, nutritional security and geopolitical stability, as well as the role of governance, trade and equity. In light of the significant lag time to drive global progress on climate mitigation, we cannot afford to have succeeded in tackling climate before moving on to other planetary boundaries. Approaches must be developed and tested at a scale that operationalises a global commons framework for the stewardship of all food-related planetary boundaries. The social costs of our current global food system are unprecedented in both inter-temporal and inter-regional scales15, providing crucial information for effective governance of the commons. Advanced methods of cost-benefit analysis and the application of the precautionary principle will allow the social costs of exceeding planetary boundaries for food to be used in the transition process of crafting and justifying government rules and interventions, such as agricultural subsidies and trade agreements, providing a new paradigm for navigating our ‘Common Food Future’.

Gone are the days when it was enough to ‘think global and act local’. All our actions aggregate and are interconnected with the global commons and the Earth system. The global food system transformation to a future where healthy, culturally appropriate and adequate diets are available for all, from food systems that operate within planetary boundaries, is one of the grand transformation challenges for humanity over the coming decades. We must act across scales and along the entire food value chain to enable a prosperous and equitable future for humanity on Earth.



Food Systems

Food does not come out of thin air — foodstuffs generally need dirt, water, sunlight, and some kind of seed. Food does not magically appear in supermarkets — food is generally processed, stored and transported. Much of the time, food doesn’t even appear on your plate without substantial further storage, processing and cooking at home or out and about. Food doesn’t become nutrition until your digestive system profoundly processes whatever food goes into your mouth. Food originates within systems both natural and man-made. Human agricultural, food processing, food marketing, and consumer practices deeply shape the nature of our food, the ultimate nutrition it may provide, local economies and the ecology of our planet.

Food Systems for health


The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Nurses Association, American Planning Association, and American Public Health Association initiated a collaborative process to develop a set of shared food system principles. The following principles are a result of this process and have been collectively endorsed by these organizations:

We support socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable food systems that promote health – the current and future health of individuals, communities, and the natural environment.

A healthy, sustainable food system is:


• Supports the physical and mental health of all farmers, workers and eaters
• Accounts for the public health impacts across the entire lifecycle of how food is produced, processed, packaged, labeled, distributed, marketed, consumed and disposed


• Conserves, protects, and regenerates natural resources, landscapes and biodiversity
• Meets our current food and nutrition needs without compromising the ability of the system to meet the needs of future generations


• Thrives in the face of challenges, such as unpredictable climate, increased pest resistance, and declining, increasingly expensive water and energy supplies


• Size and scale—includes a diverse range of food production, transformation, distribution, marketing, consumption, and disposal practices, occurring at diverse scales, from local and regional, to national and global
• Geography—considers geographic differences in natural resources, climate, customs, and heritage
• Culture—appreciates and supports a diversity of cultures, socio-demographics, and lifestyles
• Choice—provides a variety of health-promoting food choices for all


• Supports fair and just communities and conditions for all farmers, workers and eaters
• Provides equitable physical access to affordable food that is health promoting and culturally appropriate


• Provides economic opportunities that are balanced across geographic regions of the country and at different scales of activity, from local to global, for a diverse range of food system stakeholders
• Affords farmers and workers in all sectors of the system a living wage


• Provides opportunities for farmers, workers and eaters to gain the knowledge necessary to understand how food is produced, transformed, distributed, marketed, consumed and disposed
• Empowers farmers, workers and eaters to actively participate in decision-making in all sectors of the system

A healthy, sustainable food system emphasizes, strengthens, and makes visible the interdependent and inseparable relationships between individual sectors (from production to waste disposal) and characteristics (health-promoting, sustainable, resilient, diverse, fair, economically balanced, and transparent)
of the system.

from: http://www.planning.org/nationalcenters/health/foodprinciples.htm

You can download a PDF version of these principles here: https://planning-org-uploaded-media.s3.amazonaws.com/legacy_resources/nationalcenters/health/pdf/HealthySustainableFoodSystemsPrinciples_2012May.pdf

World’s Largest Food Companies Called Out for Food Justice

Ready for a big shake-up of the world’s largest food and beverage companies?  Here it comes!  The international relief and development organization Oxfam America has launched a new global campaign called ‘Behind the Brands’. The campaign scores and ranks the agricultural policies, public commitments and supply chain oversight of Associated British Foods, Coca Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, Pepsico and Unilever.  The “Big 10” food and beverage companies together make $1 billion-a-day while failing millions of people in developing countries who supply land, labor, water and commodities needed to make their products.

Raymond C. Offenheiser, President,. Oxfam America, says, “It’s time these companies take more responsibility for their immense influence on poor people’s lives.  Eighty percent of the world’s hungry people work in food production and these companies employ millions of people in developing countries to grow their ingredients. They control hundreds of the world’s most popular brands and have the economic, social and political clout to make a real and lasting difference to the world’s poor and hungry.”

You can download the entire report, “BEHIND THE BRANDS: Food Justice and the ‘Big 10’ Food and Beverage Companies.”  Here is the report summary — powerful stuff:

“In Pakistan, rural communities say Nestlé is bottling and selling valuable groundwater near villages that can’t afford clean water. In 2009, Kraft was accused of purchasing beef from Brazilian suppliers linked to cutting down trees in the Amazon rainforest in order to graze cattle. And today, Coca-Cola is facing allegations of child labor in its supply chain in the Philippines.

Sadly, these charges are not anomalies. For more than 100 years, the world’s most powerful food and beverage companies have relied on cheap land and labor to produce inexpensive products and huge profits. But these profits have often come at the cost of the environment and local communities around the world, and have contributed to a food system in crisis.

Today, a third of the world’s population relies on small-scale farming for their livelihoods. And while agriculture today produces more than enough food to feed everyone on earth, a third of it is wasted; more than 1.4 billion people are overweight, and almost 900 million people go to bed hungry each night.

The vast majority of the hungry are the small-scale farmers and workers who supply nutritious food to 2–3 billion people worldwide,6 with up to 60 percent of farm laborers living in poverty. At the same time, changing weather patterns due to greenhouse gas emissions – a large percentage of which come from agricultural production – are making farming an increasingly unreliable occupation.

Adding to the vulnerability of poor farmers and farm workers, food prices continue to fluctuate wildly, and demand for soy, corn, and sugar to feed affluent diets is on the rise. And to top it off, the very building blocks of the global food system – fertile land, clean water, and reliable weather – are growing scarce.

These facts are not secrets; companies also realize that agriculture has grown risky and are taking steps to guarantee future commodity supplies and to reduce social and environmental risks along their supply chains.

Today, food and beverage companies speak out against biofuels, build schools for communities and cut back on water usage in company operations. New corporate social responsibility programs are proliferating and declarations of sustainability are now ubiquitous. The CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, in fact noted in 2011, ‘It is not enough to make things that taste good. PepsiCo must also be “the good company.” It must aspire to higher values than the day-to-day business of making and selling soft drinks and snacks.’

But such claims of better environmental and social behaviour have thus far been extremely difficult to assess, despite rapidly growing consumer demand to know the truth of these claims.

Now, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign evaluates where companies stand on policy in comparison with their peers and challenges them to begin a ‘race to the top’ to improve their social and environmental performance. By targeting specific areas for improvement along the supply chain, the campaign pinpoints policy weaknesses and will work with others to shine a spotlight on the practices of these companies

Behind the Brands is a part of the GROW campaign. Oxfam’s GROW campaign aims to build a better food system: one that sustainably feeds a growing population (estimated to reach nine billion people in 2050) and empowers poor people to earn a living, feed their families and thrive.

Oxfam’s campaign focuses on 10 of the world’s most powerful food and beverage companies – Associated British Foods (ABF), Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International (previously Kraft Foods), Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever – and aims to increase the transparency and accountability of the ‘Big 10’ throughout the food supply chain.

At its core, the campaign features the Behind the Brands scorecard. The scorecard examines company policies in seven areas critical to sustainable agricultural production, yet historically neglected by the food and beverage industry: women, small-scale farmers, farm workers, water, land, climate change, and transparency.

According to the scorecard rankings, Nestlé and Unilever are currently performing better than the other companies, having developed and published more policies aimed at tackling social and environmental risks within their supply chains. At the other end of the spectrum, ABF and Kellogg have few policies addressing the impact of their operations on producers and communities.

Yet the scorecard also clearly shows that all of the Big 10 – including those which score the highest – have neglected to use their enormous power to help create a more just food system. In fact, in some cases these companies undermine food security and economic opportunity for the poorest people in the world, making hungry people even hungrier.

Behind the Brands reveals that the social responsibility and sustainability programs which companies have implemented to date are typically tightly focused projects to reduce water use or to train women farmers, for example. But these programs fail to address the root causes of hunger and poverty because companies lack adequate policies to guide their own supply chain operations.

Important policy gaps include:
• Companies are overly secretive about their agricultural supply chains, making claims of ‘sustainability’ and ‘social responsibility’ difficult to verify;
• None of the Big 10 have adequate policies to protect local communities from land and water grabs along their supply chains;
• Companies are not taking sufficient steps to curb massive agricultural greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate changes now affecting farmers;
• Most companies do not provide small-scale farmers with equal access to their supply chains and no company has made a commitment to ensure that small-scale producers are paid a fair price;
• Only a minority of the Big 10 are doing anything at all to address the exploitation of women small-scale farmers and workers in their supply chains.

Although the Big 10 food and beverage companies consider themselves limited by fiscal and consumer demands, they do in fact have the power to address hunger and poverty within their supply chains. Paying adequate wages to workers, a fair price to small-scale farmers, and assessing and eliminating the unfair exploitation of land, water and labor are all steps which clearly lie within the means of these hugely powerful companies.

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign encourages companies to reassess ‘business as usual’ and instead begin a race to the top; a healthy competition among the Big 10 to ensure a more sustainable and just food system for all.”