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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds We have this problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions, degradation and unsustainable depletion of natural resources, growing population, with associated health problems arising from the sorts of foods that they’re consuming. How can we move forward in ways that deliver on our environmental and societal goals? And the obvious but true thing to say is that there isn’t a single answer. We need to be doing lots of things all at the same time. We need to be improving the way we produce food. We need to be re-balancing the distribution of food. So that’s reducing waste, ensuring that food is produced and accessible to the people who need it rather than people who have it in excess.

Skip to 1 minute and 9 seconds So that’s a governance and a socio-economic challenge. And we need to be changing the sorts of foods that we consume so as to reduce pressures on natural resources while also meeting our health challenges. When it comes to production side approaches, I think the biggest challenge is to avoid any further land use change. Because further use of agricultural land means further loss of biodiversity and further release of carbon from soils and from forests. So whatever food we produce, we need to be producing it on existing land.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 seconds And where this implies an increase in yields because of the intensity of production– because we can’t be using more land– we need to do this in ways that don’t incur all the environmental costs that resulted from the Green Revolution with its package of new seeds, fertilisers, and irrigation. We need to be doing this in ways that are parsimonious with water, and that doesn’t need to further water pollution, that is not reliant on excessive fertilisers and nitrogen inputs. And the emphasis of breeding regimes is not on just producing more calories, but on producing a more diverse range of nutritious and micronutrient-rich foods.

Skip to 2 minutes and 49 seconds Now that all sounds fine on paper, but the challenge that is implied by those ways forward is absolutely enormous. When you think about the production challenge alone, we have some 1.3 billion people worldwide who rely one way or another upon agriculture. Now how to change the production approaches of all those individual farmers, but equally how to learn from and scale up the good practise that already exists. So that’s the production challenge. And then with the distribution challenge, we need to be de-carbonizing our transport and our storage and our retailing formats. We need to be reducing the amount of food that is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain.

Skip to 3 minutes and 46 seconds So, estimates vary, but between 30 to 50 percent of all food produced ends up not being consumed. And we have to address the equity challenge, the fact that food is not always accessible to those who need it most, whereas other people are actually dying from a surfeit of the wrong kinds of food. And then when it comes to food losses and waste, some of those are institutional problems to do with lack of cold storage facilities, lack of adequate harvest facilities. How do we de-carbonize the transport sector? How do we address all those governance issues? How do we halt deforestation and land use change? How do we develop policies that incentivise cleaner production methods as opposed to degrading production methods?

Skip to 4 minutes and 47 seconds And then finally there’s the consumption challenge. As the global population becomes– on average– more affluent, people are starting to want to eat not just more food, but more resource-intensive food– particularly animal products. Is this an inevitable trend? Or can we actually do something about it? Can we develop a set of policies that actually re-orientate people’s consumption patterns and indeed consumption preferences along more sustainable and health-enhancing lines. I think there are definitely possibilities there, but what we really need is the political will and the commercial will to explore and to implement ideas and solutions.

Challenges to sustainable and efficient food systems

Transitioning to environmentally sustainable food systems will be no small task. In this video, Dr. Tara Garnett, of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, reviews some of the many challenges we’ll have to face as we progress.

This overview of challenges gives us the scope of the tasks. And as you are by now well aware, there are layers and scales to each of the topics Tara covers. “We need to be doing lots of things all at the same time”, she says, reminding us that while every action makes a difference, our goals of environmental sustainability and food security will require combined efforts from multiple actors on multiple scales.

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This video is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute