- Date: 29 March 2023
- Author: Julia Kurnik, Senior Director of Innovation Startups, WWF Markets Institute
Our food system needs to change. In the US, we produce more food than is needed, yet 53.6 million people, including 17% of children and 24% of Black individuals, don’t have consistent access to healthy food. Millions face hunger while we waste up to 40% of fresh fruits and vegetables. This comes with an environmental impact, too. Food production is the largest human impact on nature, accounting for 70% of biodiversity loss, 70% of freshwater use, and up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions (FAO, IPCC). Meanwhile, our appetites, especially for things like protein, are growing faster than our population. We need to figure out how to grow more and waste less while reducing our impact on the planet.
These problems aren’t new, but COVID-19 demonstrated that our food system is a bit like the emperor with no clothes. It has shown the frailty of our supply chains and revealed how many people live on the edge of hunger. We’ve watched many store shelves remain empty while our grocery bills creep higher because a perfect storm of disruption has ensued: sky-high demand for stuff instead of services (think buying more groceries instead of seeing live entertainment), shipping ports overwhelmed, a shortage of truck drivers and workers, the war in Ukraine, and inflation.
This will only get worse with climate change. Without immediate action, we will face a world with increasingly disrupted food supplies and higher prices at the grocery check-out line. Growing and transporting food will become more difficult. All of this will further push food-insecure communities into vicious cycles as healthy food becomes more expensive and even less available.
And even if you can afford food, it won’t be fun. Coffee, cacao (chocolate), and wine are three of the most threatened crops on the planet. Due to climate change, much of the land used to grow these crops is likely to be unproductive by 2050. If you’re somehow not a fan of those, peanuts, apples, bananas, and tea are not far behind.
These problems are all interconnected – and there isn’t one magical solution; that’s why they call it a food ‘system’ and why we all need to be part of the solution. We need to throw the kitchen sink at the future of food and radically rethink where, how, and what we grow, how it gets to market, and who gets to eat it. But there isn’t a magic ‘we.’ Each and every one of us needs to consider the effects of what we eat.
From the ground up, farming needs to change. In the US, a third of our vegetables and more than 2/3 of our fruits and nuts are grown in California, typically on large farms, and then trucked across the country. This arrangement broke during COVID-19 and may well again. And in the last few years things haven’t been looking too hot for California agriculture… or perhaps a little too hot. With raging fires, increased heatwaves, frequent extreme weather events, and drought, we need to think about farming more kinds of fruits and veggies in other areas of the country, growing crops only where and when it makes sense. Growing more seasonally, regionally, with regenerative practices, or even indoors or using newer technologies could mean fewer inputs (like fertilizers). But it also will require adjustments to our expectations about what’s available when.
We can all be thoughtful about what we choose to eat. There is no one-size-fits-all diet, but our individual choices do add up to global impacts. So where possible we can choose more sustainable ingredients and eat diverse foods with little processing. We do need to be realistic about the global appetite for meat; it isn’t going away. Many people are eating substitutes alongside their meat, not in place of it. We need to concentrate our efforts on making protein options as healthy and sustainable as possible. For example, if each of us were to ask our grocery stores and restaurants to sell hamburgers that were produced without cutting down forests or plowing up grassland, they’d start to do so.
“We can all be thoughtful about what we choose to eat. There is no one-size-fits-all diet, but our individual choices do add up to global impacts.”
We can't separate food production from the people that grow, harvest, process, transport, and sell it. Right now, we depend heavily on migrant labor to pick our food, but technology and robotics will change that. Automation is coming to farms. We need to recognize that on-farm and food production positions are often undesirable, backbreaking jobs rife with abuse and concentrate on how we can make new job openings that will occur due to automation accessible to those who most need them. Support for farm and food workers is integral to food security.
If we want to redesign our food system, we may need to accept higher prices for a while in exchange for more environmentally and socially friendly food. That means figuring out how to avoid leaving people behind. Let’s think about community programs, food education, and access. We need to focus on availability of both healthy and culturally appropriate foods in different communities. We also cannot forget about farmers, one of the most food insecure groups globally. We need to ensure that BIPOC, women, and small-scale farmers have a chance to help design and see gains from a new system. All of this will only happen if we are all asking questions, choosing our food thoughtfully, and advocating for change.
This is a lot and it’s daunting. As tough as the past three years have been, people are paying more attention to these issues. We must cut waste out of our own kitchens. We must advocate with our dollars and our voices for more sustainable and equitable food policies and options with government, local schools, and everywhere we buy food. No one can do this alone, but together, we can transform the system into a more equitable and sustainable one for all.