In a changing climate, we need a holistic approach to food safety

If we can engage people across the globe with food issues on their level, and address the interconnected food safety challenges the world faces in a holistic way, then we stand a far greater chance of sustainable success, explains Dr Sarah Cumbers. Banner image: Shutterstock// Marius Dobilas
In a changing climate, we need a holistic approach to food safety
Like
The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

As we mark the fifth World Food Safety Day, we live in a world where – as shown by the latest Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll – one in five people across the globe have (or personally know someone who has) experienced serious harm from food they’ve eaten within the past two years.

Correspondingly, just over one in five say they are ‘very worried’ about being harmed by their food. Both measures increased marginally in 2021 compared with the first edition of the Poll in 2019.

But foodborne illness – food safety as traditionally defined – is just one facet of the food safety equation. What of, for instance, the safety of the people who produce our food, and of the production process itself?

At Lloyd’s Register Foundation, given our deep roots in enhancing the safety and sustainability of the ocean economy, we are most familiar with this challenge in relation to blue food. There is little public awareness, for example, that fishing is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, with an estimated 100,000 fishing fatalities globally every year. This is why the Foundation has supported programmes such as fishSAFE 2025 to improve safety outcomes in the industry, particularly in low-income contexts such as Bangladesh.

Also on the Forum Network: Agriculture and climate change: A complicated relationship by Lee Ann Jackson, Head of the Agro-food Trade and Markets Division, OECD

Agriculture and food systems have a unique relationship with climate change. While it is among the most vulnerable sector in the economy to a changing climate, agriculture and food production itself substantially contribute to climate change, explains Lee Ann Jackson, Head of the Agro-food Trade and Markets Division at the OECD.

And what then of the safety of the planet? We know from the World Risk Poll that public awareness of the threat posed by climate change has stayed relatively high, even through the overwhelming period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two-thirds of people globally regard climate change as a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ serious threat to people in their country within the next 20 years, including two in five who say is a ‘very’ serious threat.

Relatively few people make the link between food production and climate change, being unaware, for example, that around one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the food system.

However, we also know from our ‘Feeding Tomorrow’ research with the Science Museum Group that relatively few people make the link between food production and climate change, being unaware, for example, that around one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the food system.

Alongside all of this, of course, is the fundamental issue of food security – the safety of supply required to keep people around the world adequately fed in the face of growing populations, worsening climate impacts and geopolitical instability.

A small phrase like ‘food safety’, then, can bring to mind many different meanings to different people in different parts of the world, depending on the risks that are front-of-mind based on the realities of their day-to-day experiences and socio-economic contexts: safety of consumption, safety of production, safety of supply, or safety of the planet.

This variation is illustrated by findings from our ‘Feeding Tomorrow’ project, which saw research participants from India, Brazil and the UK interviewed about their attitudes to food issues. While participants in all three countries showed a high level of interest in food issues – over 85% self-scoring their interest at seven or more out of 10 – the nature of their interest varied. While respondents in low- and upper-middle-income Brazil and India were most interested in food as a basic need and in terms of healthy lifestyle choices (showing a focus on safety of consumption and supply), those interviewed in the UK were more interested in the origins of their food and how their choices affect others and the environment (showing a focus on safety of production and the planet).

On the face of it, addressing these four interconnected food safety issues is an oppositional challenge – an example of what has popularly become known as a ‘wicked problem’ – where action on one aspect can be to the detriment of the others.

There are no easy solutions, but what we do know is that these four faces of food safety are intrinsically interlinked, and cannot be tackled in isolation. Instead, a holistic approach where all four are integrated and considered from the outset is required.

This is an approach Lloyd’s Register Foundation has been modelling as a co-founder and inaugural funder of the Global Seaweed Coalition (formerly the Safe Seaweed Coalition). Our Foresight Review of Food Safety identified the safe expansion of aquaculture and blue food industries as a vital route to meeting the world’s mounting food safety and security challenges, and seaweed is being hailed with increasing fanfare as a key part of this contribution.

The Coalition was established to drive forward the growth of the industry at scale across the globe, but we and the other Coalition partners recognised from the start that seaweed could not realise its full potential to improve the safety of food supply if it did not also build in safety for consumers, for workers and for the environment from the ground up.

Bringing research into the public arena through education increases awareness of key food safety and sustainability issues and encourages consumer behaviour that can in turn influence industry practice.

Across all of these interconnected food safety challenges, we have long recognised that education and training are a pivotal part of the solution. Bringing research into the public arena through education increases awareness of key food safety and sustainability issues and encourages consumer behaviour that can in turn influence industry practice. Meanwhile, delivering professional training in the food supply chain, especially in low- and middle-income countries, can improve traceability and consumer safety. Lloyd’s Register Foundation has already been investing in this training in East Africa and the Caribbean, in collaboration with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

However, it matters not only that we expand the reach of education on food issues, but that we improve how we do it. As shown by our ‘Feeding Tomorrow’ research, to achieve meaningful engagement it is crucial to connect with people through their own particular frame or ‘mindset’ – the reasons they have for caring about food, which as we have seen, are variable – and to engage via already-trusted sources of information.

Moreover, across all counties and audiences, people have been shown to be more engaged by exploring solutions than by learning about causes and impacts, with discussion of regenerative and community-supported farming, and greener aquaculture, proving particularly popular.

If we can engage people across the globe with food issues on their level, and address the interconnected food safety challenges the world faces in a holistic way, then we stand a far greater chance of sustainable success.





To learn more, read also the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031

A consensus assessment of the ten-year prospects for agricultural commodity and fish markets at national, regional, and global levels, and reference for forward-looking policy analysis and planning.

Learn more about the impact of the OECD Meeting of Agriculture Ministers, which took place 3-4 November, where more than 45 Ministers of Agriculture from OECD Member and Non-Member countries agreed on concrete actions to contribute to Building Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems in a Changing Environment: Shared Challenges, Transformative Solutions

Please sign in

If you are a registered user on The OECD Forum Network, please sign in