Sustainable Production and Consumption: who cares and who is going to pay for it anyway?

#CHFoodFuture warmup – session 2

Burning questions on global food security will be addressed next week at the conference A Sustainable Future: production supply and consumption at Chatham House, London. The entire event is divided into five sessions and each could be a conference in itself. It’s important to warmup and enter the right mindset before the event begins next Monday 7th December 2015. To help do that, each day this week I will post an entry discussing each session. Click here to read session 1: How are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to global food systems?

Session 2 – Sustainable Production and Consumption

The questions that will be addressed are:

  1. What patterns of food production and consumption need to be developed to ensure a sustainable global food system? What are the roles of technology, education and government policy within this framework?
  2. How can the cultural productivity of small-scale farmers be improved? In achieving this, what is the role of access to land and resources, education, market and financial services?
  3. What impact will changes in food demand in developing and emerging economies have on global food production?
  4. Where and how might other policy agendas, in particular health, be leveraged to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns in developed and developing countries?
  5. How might public attitudes and awareness around the environmental impact of diet be influenced, and to what extent is this necessary to shift consumption patterns?

Oh my. Where should we begin? These are tough, complex, systemic questions.

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Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

1. What patterns of food production and consumption need to be developed to ensure a sustainable global food system? What are the roles of technology, education and government policy within this framework?

Let’s look at the first one focusing on the consumption part: “what patterns of consumption need to be developed to have a sustainable global food system?”. The scope of the question is tremendous. We are talking about the consumption patterns of populations, cultures, entire demographics. And yes, what are the roles of technology, education and government policy within this framework!? Will education change people’s diets? Will government policy change people’s diets? This brings to mind the recent document published by public health UK. The publication suggests action on reducing sugar consumption by introducing a levy aiming to reduce sales through increased prices on sugary foods. Will British consumers react to this sugar tax in the same way the recent 5P charge on plastic bags or will they take to the streets filled with outrage? So interesting.

2. How can the cultural productivity of small-scale farmers be improved? In achieving this, what is the role of access to land and resources, education, market and financial services?

Now, the second question is fundamental. Small-scale farmers suffer from the problems mentioned in the question: access to land and resources, education, market and financial services.

Further questions arise: do small-scale farmers own the land or do they live on it and pay rent to their landlords through their work or do they live elsewhere? If so, what are the implications of both options. On resources, what kind are we referring to and how do we prioritise them? Fertilizers? Technology? ICTs? Furthermore, what is meant by education? Are we referring to specific agricultural education (i.e. identification and treatment of pest and pathogens) or are we contemplating a more holistic education, perhaps training farmers to add value to their production to set up their own sustainable food enterprises?

In terms of access to markets, infrastructure plays a huge role here, especially in developing countries where food waste occurs in the transportation from the farm to the market, vegetables and fruits on many occasions require their temperatures to be lowered to prevent their degradation and toxicity. To sustain a cold chain from farm to market, infrastructure is vital, good roads, contribution to timeliness efficiency reduce cost. That is just one example. Finally, financial services what is meant by financial services and how can smallholders benefit from financial services and what models need to be set up? Does any of this matter in the context of climate change and poor infrastructure?

3. What impact will changes in food demand in developing and emerging economies have on global food production?

The third question is still widely debated but the main premise behind it seems to be that changing diets in emerging economies are having consequences on the demand of animal-derived foods. Meat and dairy are very water intensive agricultural activities and most of the global population belongs to emerging markets. What are the consequences on water supply with their changing preferences towards meat and dairy? Is it sustainable? Or should we try to deter their demand? Can we? Should we? Who is we?

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Thai population is a good example of emerging markets. Photo credit: used with permission from Lisa Delgado Castillo.

That line of questioning, exactly, brings us into the fourth and fifth questions:

4. Where and how might other policy agendas, in particular health, be leveraged to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns in developed and developing countries?

5. How might public attitudes and awareness around the environmental impact of diet be influenced, and to what extent is this necessary to shift consumption patterns?

I am a vegetarian and my dairy consumption is low. What has led me to adopt this diet? The change has been progressive, over the course of the last decade. It started in my teens and why? What was I exposed to? Did my upbringing have any impact? I come from a country where it is believed that meals are not complete without a source of animal protein or that meat is expensive and its consumption is a signal of social status.

In the United Kingdom, dairies play an important role – the popular diet is rich in cheese and milk. Tea and cream comes to mind, it is strongly ingrained in culture. Is the pretension of modifying diets by informing the public realistic? How do we reach the public? What media and platforms are most effective for doing so? Who cares and who is going to pay for it anyway? Who actually has the public’s best interest in mind?

The chair of section is Gerda Verbur, the permanent representative of the Netherlands to FAO, IFAD and WFP, and Chair, Comimitee on World Food Security (2013-2015).

Speakers:

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