OPINION | What must be done to ensure a more sustainable food system?

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A food system includes sub-systems such as farming, waste management, and input supply. It is intricately related to other systems like energy, trade, and health, write the authors. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A food system includes sub-systems such as farming, waste management, and input supply. It is intricately related to other systems like energy, trade, and health, write the authors. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A food system is a complex system driven by intricately interlinked economic, social, cultural, and environmental factors, which require transformative and systemic thinking and tools to guide informed strategic policy formulations towards resilience and sustainability, writes Luxon Nhamo, Sylvester Mpandeli, Samkelisiwe Hlophe-Ginindza and Stanley Liphadzi.


This year, World Food Day is being celebrated in the backdrop of the recently ended United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which was billed as the People's Summit.

The UNFSS sought to launch "bold new actions, solutions, and strategies to deliver progress" to support the transition towards "healthier, more sustainable and more equitable food systems."

The UNFSS resulted in about 300 commitments from a broad range of global actors to achieve food systems transformation. Importantly, it recognised the role that food systems can play in transforming society, with the UN Secretary-General affirming that "Food Systems hold the power to realise our shared vision for a better world."

The theme for this year's World Food Day, "Our actions are our future-Better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life", resonates quite well with the UNFSS' vision and principles. The theme recognises that food systems are pivotal in sustainable development. They are at the centre of the nexus between people, planet, and prosperity. Therefore, our willingness to step and change from the norm will determine the sustainability of socio-ecological systems from now going into the future. 

This calls for urgent and transformative change in food systems through innovations that lead to sustainable, resilient, equitable, inclusive, and healthy food systems.

Healthy, sustainable food system  

A food system includes sub-systems such as farming, waste management, and input supply.

It is intricately related to other systems like energy, trade, and health. A sustainable food system delivers healthy food to meet current food requirements, while at the same time preserving healthy and sustainable ecosystems that are capable of providing food for future generations, with a controlled negative impact on the environment.

This interconnectedness shows that any structural change in a food system might originate from a change in another system. For example, changes in a food system could be triggered by a policy that promotes more biofuel in the energy system and impacting food systems in the process. Therefore, a food system is a complex system driven by intricately interlinked economic, social, cultural, and environmental factors, which require transformative and systemic thinking and tools to guide informed strategic policy formulations towards resilience and sustainability.

READ | Food, oil prices are risks to inflation but Reserve Bank is vigilant - Kganyago

The intricate interlinkages of food systems and how a change in one system can trigger stresses in others, highlight the need for a change in the way humankind solve current challenges. Today's age dubbed the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) depends on complex, cross-cutting, and interconnected systems to deliver goods and services. Although this has come with considerable opportunities, it has also exposed the systems to disruptions and shocks of immense magnitude, as evidenced by the disruptions in global supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In complex systems like food systems, tensions always manifest between efficiency and resilience, the ability to anticipate, absorb, recover, and adapt to unexpected disruptions. Thus, sector-based, or system-specific resilience initiatives such as food or health systems, are often associated with systemic risks, which emanate from strategies that lead to suboptimal efficiencies in one sector at the expense of other sectors. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic did not only cause immeasurable losses and casualties in the health sector but also in the global economy, with high social and environmental costs, demonstrating the fragility of some of the man-made systems such as globalisation, as well as the unreliability of linear approaches.

The Covid-19 pandemic reignited the need to address current intertwined and cross-sectoral challenges in an integrated manner, other than through singular and linear approaches. Gone are the days of viewing the world from a linear perspective, with the thought that a click of a button will get the economy and society back to normal.

Impact of extreme weather 

The same with food systems, achieving sustainability in the sector is driven by integrated, circular, and cross-sectoral strategic policies formulated around the intricately interlinked resources of water, land, and energy, as well as nutrition and health.

Informed policies formulated from a cross-sectoral perspective provide transformative pathways towards national targets like employment creation, poverty alleviation, inclusive economic growth, climate action, and good health and wellbeing.

Circular models that include nexus planning, scenario planning, and circular economy catalyse sustainable food systems. They provide tools to inform investment decisions on agriculture infrastructure, climate-smart agriculture technologies, agriculture water management, on-field decision support tools to manage water flow, and mobile apps beneficial in the agriculture value chain.

They allow for resources to remain in circulation for longer periods, thus reducing waste and environmental pollution.

READ | Covid-19, hunger, lawlessness and the erosion of democracy

Notably, food systems' worsening sensitivity and exposure to increasing extreme weather events continue to impact economies and the environment. These are compounded by changes in nutrient cycles, hydrological cycles, vegetation cover and composition, and pollution.

The changes result in significant spatial and temporal changes in the distribution of crop yields throughout the world, further highlighting the sensitivity and exposure of food systems. Although efforts have been made to increase crop production, it has been failing to keep pace with population growth.

The transition to sustainable food systems is a complex process and could be achieved through: 

  • Integrated and circular models that promote critical biophysical and economic 'leverage points' in food systems and enhance resource use efficiency. 
  • Enhancing food systems' resilience that allows food resources to remain in circulation for long periods and achieve the circular economy.
  • Innovative practices that evaluate trade-offs of agricultural practices and balance with the advances in technological developments.
  • Investment in agricultural technologies.

- Luxon Nhamo, Sylvester Mpandeli, Samkelisiwe Hlophe-Ginindza and Stanley Liphadzi work for the Water Research Commission. 

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