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Now is the Time to Transform the Broken Food System

A radical transformation of the global food system is critical now more than ever to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, and to meet the capacity to feed a projected 10 billion people by 2050.

A radical transformation of the global food system is critical now more than ever to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, and to meet the capacity to feed a projected 10 billion people by 2050. The technologies of the industry 4.0 present promising opportunities to bring much needed change at scale to a languished food and agriculture sector. 

The Obsolete Global Food Systems

The global food system is made up of the technical, economic, social, and environmental processes and actors through which the world has been able to feed its 7.8 billion population. 

Improvement in food security has been largely significant in the past years. The industrialization and institutionalization of our food system, through tremendous human stride, unleashed a level of productivity that helped nourish billions of people on the planet. 

However, our existing global industrial food system is also incredibly unsustainable for both humanity and the planet. Among the persistent issues include inequalities in access to food, health deterioration in terms of malnutrition for some while obesity for others, environmental degradation, a fifth of greenhouse emissions contributing to climate change, the use and waste of almost 85 percent of the world’s fresh water and marginalization of millions of small-scale farmers. 

If it is critical for our future to transform this outdated system, why are we so far behind?

The Lock-ins of the Industrial Food Complex

The aforementioned issues are symptoms of a systemic problem. Even though there are superior alternative sustainable agriculture and food system models, the world has been locked in a vicious circle that entrenches and extends the dominant global industrial food complex. In addition, powerful feedback further perpetuates the lock-in in the form of incentives in the food production and consumption systems which adhere to the current existing structures.

The following characteristics illustrates the path dependence and lock-in:

  1. Technological. The industrialization of the food system since the 1930s has resulted in technological standards for mechanics, chemical, and pharmaceutical inputs. The technical interdependencies between these various aspects led to further adoption. 
  2. Societal. Citizens, especially in developed countries, expect to be able to access affordable food which the industrial food complex is distinctively positioned to provide. This incentivizes farmers to specialize and further industrialize their production systems in order to provide low cost commodities. 
  3. Standards, trade, and export agreements. The dominant system has imposed standards that were implemented to promote interoperability in order to allow specialization, productivity, safety, and quality, as well as increase variety of products and choice for consumers. In addition, the existing trade and export agreements ensure a common criterion to encourage global food commerce. 
  4. Institutional. Political and business cycles incentivize short term thinking. As a result, we are only enacting short term solutions that do not attempt radical reforms. 
  5. Power Concentration. The agriculture sector is dominated by limited number of powerful corporate bodies. The top 10 commercial seed corporations control over three quarters of the global seed market, the top 10 pesticide companies control over 95 percent of the global market, and the top 10 firms control over 41 percent of the global fertilizer market. These incumbent corporations hold tremendous disproportionate power that is used to influence policies, incentives, and priorities to lock in to the existing industrial food complex. 

To overcome this lock-in, some extraordinary events need to occur. Several plants based and lab grown meat startups in America are attempting to displace the massive livestock industrial complex. Livestock contribute to almost 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and are also responsible for using up tremendous amounts of limited fresh water. However, these startups are facing an uphill battle with the powerful incumbent cattle industry. Missouri lawmakers, who have strong political ties with the cattle industry, are pushing legislation that would make it difficult for these alternative meat startups to label their products with the “meat” labeling. This is just one of many stories that signifies the incredible complexities of overhauling our current industrial food complex. The existing industrial food system has become deeply embedded in the social, economic, political and technical landscapes, leading to extremely problematic and resilient to much needed transformation.

An Agenda for Action

In order to reform our global food systems so as to deliver inclusivity, sustainability, efficiency, and nutrition every stakeholder in the system needs to commit to fundamental transformation that will address the significant current challenges. 

  • Governments must deliver on infrastructure and enforcing long term innovative policies. 
  • Companies must collaborate to reform industry standards and opening new markets through sharing data and intellectual property. 
  • Financial institutions and investors must calibrate capital to enable entrepreneurs and innovators to enact technological solutions. 
  • Customers must be educated and demand change for more sustainable and healthier foods.

Essentially, all the actors and processors in the system must align their objectives and enable innovations so that our global food system can harness the modern technologies to reform this critical sector.

English (UK)