Should there be more agricultural scientists and less food marketers?

#CHFoodFuture warmup – session 3

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

Session 3 – Food Value Chain and Sustainability and Efficiency

The five questions that the segment tries to answer are:

  • How can vital resources, including water and land, be costed in food production and trade, and what might be the incentives for doing so?
  • What policy or regulatory options are available to governments seeking to promote less resource-intensive production?
  • How can the business case for developing sustainability across the food value chain be strengthened, is sufficient understanding of food security issues within industry and what can be done to ensure food businesses play their role?
  • How can responsible ingredient sourcing be demonstrated by industry and is there a role for collaboration in supporting this?
  • How might businesses reduce food waste along the supply chain, from harvest to consumer, to bring both environmental and cost benefits?

 

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A food market in Bangkok. Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

This section is so essential. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend Food Matters Live. Before I continue, I have to acknowledge that this is commercial event primarily that attempts to integrate academics, government and NGOs; this is extremely valuable, however, the nature of the event must not be forgotten. I had the opportunity to attend talks with promising speakers, nonetheless, I was disappointed about the lack of preoccupation with the source of our food. It seemed that few cared about where crops come from. Dear food businesses and retailers, where does the raw material for those gluten-free snacks come from? Where does the chocolate for your premium bars come from? There were themes focused on packaging, social media marketing, health and safety, the free-from trend, and even know there was some focus on sustainable food businesses, it lacked the rigour and preoccupation with the actual production of food. Throughout the event, with few exceptions, there was a general neglect towards acknowledging where raw materials are sourced from, the implications and the current issues in the context of climate change. The last session I attended, coincidentally, included a speaker that will also be present in session 3 of the A Sustainable Future event. His name is Dan Crossley, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. During his session at Food Matters Live, I made a question directed to one of the speakers that was concerned with the creation of more food outlets that supplied plant-based foods. My issue was not with her focus on calling for more plant-based businesses, restaurants and markets, but with the apparent neglect towards mentioning anything regarding to crop production: where are these plants sourced from? Is it sustainable? I am deeply concerned with the omission of actual food production.

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Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

This is why this session is perhaps my favourite: who holds the responsibility for guaranteeing global food production? Shouldn’t businesses pay a tax to go to research, scientists, academics, who are expanding knowledge around fertilisers, crop resistance, improved techniques for cultivation in the context of climate change? Who pays for this development?

Based on Food Matters Live, it seems to me that the answer to question three: is there sufficient understanding of food security issues within industry? is no.

There isn’t (with some exceptions). Not enough preoccupation exists on crop growth, with improving agricultural production, with the actual job of being the field managing fertilisers, understanding irrigation and minimising post-harvest loss. And yes, what can be done to ensure food businesses played a role? How can we create a pool of funds that food businesses contribute to that will be dedicated to research, development and communication of knowledge that advances and benefits the entire industry. Some agricultural knowledge is a public good provided by organisations like FAO. There is also private knowledge developed and not shared. What is fair? Can farmers who use only public knowledge compete with the private sector? Is it ethical for businesses to fund public research? Will it be skewed? And yes, what can be done to ensure food businesses played a role? How can we create a pool of funds that food businesses contribute to that will be dedicated to research, development and communication of knowledge that advances and benefits the entire industry? Some agricultural knowledge is a public provided by organisations like FAO. There is also private knowledge developed and not shared. What is fair? Can farmers who only use public knowledge compete with the private sector? Is it ethical for businesses to fund public research? Will it be skewed?

I expect the fourth question to address these concerns: how can responsible ingredient sourcing be demonstrated by industry and is there a role for collaboration in supporting this?

Industry should indeed substantiate ingredient sourcing – responsible ingredient sourcing. Consumers in developed countries usually pay a premium but they remain blind to what it actually took to the deliver that superfood-paleo-beautifully-packaged cereal bar at Waitrose. This must change if sustainable global food systems are to be established.

Speakers:

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