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Food and sustainability

Sustainable food: the need for diverse dietary systems

What makes a food system truly sustainable? Cost transparency, attention to the differences between varied cultural and geographical contexts, and the promotion of health.


Among the speakers at the BCFN Forum on Food and Nutrition was Ruth Richardson, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, who asks us to look at the current “food system” with a critical eye, suggesting strategies to change it for the better and move towards true sustainability. Guiding the expert’s words are principles which inspire the efforts of the Global Alliance, a group for which she works daily and of which BCFN is a member, with an ambitious final goal: leverage all resources to make the food system sustainable, healthy and fair.

What are the core requirements of a truly sustainable food system?
There are many needs, but we can say that there are three main points to focus our attention on: costs, diversification and health. I’d put costs at the top of the list. We need clarity and transparency in terms of the costs relating to food systems. We must be able to approach this topic from various points of view, especially environmental, social, cultural and health-related. Only then will we be able to understand the strategies that can carry us towards better food systems.

One of the key words is diversification, but what does diversification mean when talking about food systems?
Today it’s quite clear that we can’t talk about one single food system, rather we must refer to the plural: food systems. In other words, we must realise there isn’t one solution that’s perfect for everyone, but instead we need diversified solutions on diverse scales and in diverse geographic areas in order to satisfy specific needs and adapt to diverse local conditions. This makes the problem more complex and the final goal more difficult to reach, but it is without a doubt a critical issue and we need a multiplicity of approaches based on the different contexts in which the strategies are to be applied.

When talking about sustainability, you argue that the word “food” cannot be separated from the word “health”. What’s behind that statement?
There’s no doubt that a sustainable food system must also be “healthy”. Today, however, our system doesn’t provide health. Just think, for example, about an obese child, we have to understand that the problem isn’t present just because the child drinks too many sugary beverages or eats hamburgers. His obesity is also caused by what we produce, how we produce it, how we transport it, how we process it and how we sell it. We need a fully comprehensive system which, through food, brings health to everyone in every corner of the world.

Theory is perfect, but how can we transform good ideas into practice?
To reach these sustainability objectives, we need everyone to contribute. Policy makers could, for example, adopt the true cost accounting framework, that is, the calculation of the real cost of the finished product, for agriculture and food. That’s the goal set by TEEBAGRIFOOD, a project also supported by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, which is part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and coordinated by TEEB (The Economics of the Ecosystems and Biodiversity). The programme is intended to show the price of food production and it looks at an entire series of aspects relating to the cost system, including social, cultural and environmental indicators. This way of moving forward can also be adopted by businesses, farmers and national and local policy decision-makers, who can thus have the information and the tools in their hands to change the current situation into a new, more sustainable global system and a better food future.


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