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Feature - Issue 6

Rebooting Our Food Systems

Climate and food writer Thin Lei Win looks to the UN’s Food Systems Summit in September, and introduces the “action tracks” designed to address issues around the world’s food security.

Photograph courtesy Thin Lei Win.

Over the past year or so, as days and weeks have blurred into each other through an endless loop of strict lockdowns and tentative openings, I turned to cooking to stay sane. Some of the dishes I made were ones I grew up eating at our home in Yangon, Myanmar, where three generations shared a dinner table every night. There were spicy curries, tangy salads, garlicky noodles and lots of rice. Other dishes were foods I tasted after I moved abroad, like Sichuan noodles, Mediterranean stews and bangers and mash. But they all helped me cope with homesickness and anxiety through the pandemic.

That is what food does - it not only keeps us alive but also nourishes our soul. A smell, a taste, even the name of an ingredient can transport us back in time and space. It remains a universal language to demonstrate love.

Unfortunately, the way we are currently producing and consuming food is not sustainable. It is environmentally destructive, inequitable and, frankly, what we eat is killing us. This is not a problem limited to a single country, region or group of people. It is happening in rich and poor countries all over the world.

Globally, around one in 11 people go to bed hungry every night and this number has been rising since 2014, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020, the UN’s flagship report on hunger. The same report found that more than 3 billion people - about two in five - cannot afford healthy diets. This includes 18 million people across North America and Europe.

A recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington found that bad diet killed more people in 2017 than smoking - 11 million versus 8 million, while The World Bank estimates that the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could push up to 115 million more people into poverty in 2020.

Covid-19 has also shone a spotlight on the domino effect caused by our destruction of nature to expand farmland and our demand for cheap meat, facilitating the transition of viruses from animals to humans, called zoonotic diseases. Scientists for the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services say that outbreaks of influenza viruses and new pandemic strains have emerged largely because of dense production of poultry and pigs in some parts of the world.

Then there are the emissions. Producing, processing, transporting, distributing and consuming food accounts for 34% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that are warming up the planet, according to a recent study by the European Commission and the UN. A study last year, published in Science Magazine, found that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, food production could still push temperatures to rise beyond 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial times, the lowest goal in the Paris climate pact.

Our food systems are broken and need urgent repair. In a few months’ time, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will convene an event that aims to do just that. The Food Systems Summit, slated for September 2021, plans to “launch bold new actions” to transform the world’s food systems and deliver progress on all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

So what are food systems, a term you’ll be hearing a lot more in the coming years? The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food’s definition is that a food system “includes not only the basic elements of how we get our food from farm to fork, but also all of the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population”. This is a more holistic way of looking at food, but it also brings a much more complex and interconnected web of stakeholders from sectors that previously used to operate in silos, from health and environment to finance and human rights.

And what are the ingredients of sustainable, equitable and healthy food systems? For one, they would ensure everyone has access to safe and nutritious food. It is no longer enough to have food. The food has to be good, available and affordable. It also means food is produced in a way that doesn’t destroy biodiversity, degrade the soil, pollute the waters and air, or churn out more emissions. This would ensure food supplies are resilient to shocks and stress, whether it’s a hurricane, an earthquake or a pandemic.

What else? Well, the actors along the entire food chain, from farmers and factory workers to cooks, servers and the person delivering your dinner on a bicycle, should be paid fairly and adequately, regardless of gender or race. And let’s not forget the importance of discerning consumers who waste as little food as possible and demand foods that require fewer resources to produce and transport.

All of these are being addressed under five cross-cutting “action tracks” that will help prepare solutions and strategies ahead of the summit. 2020 was a terrible year for many of us, but it was also an eye-opener, showing that the old ways of addressing hunger and malnutrition through a narrow focus on crop productivity is no longer sufficient. We saw tremendous community spirit and awe-inspiring resilience too. We just need to bring them all together to remake something that is fundamental to our continued existence - our food systems.

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