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Last week, I spoke to 60 agriculture ministers from around the world at the OECD Agricultural Ministerial meeting in Paris. This was particularly important because nutrition and healthy diets—The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition’s (GAIN) preoccupation—are normally debated in ministries of development or health. Just the fact I was talking to agriculture people was, therefore, an excellent sign of the times, reflecting the need for more joined up action. The topic was also important: I was asked to talk about trade-offs between different food system outcomes and how to manage them.
Food systems are both the cause and victim of climate change. So how do we square the circle?
I framed the trade-off discussion around what matters most: maximising the coherence of outcomes. In the real world, that means asking how policymakers can be more successful in advancing food security, nutrition, climate, livelihoods and resilience, all at the same time. This is, of course, the perfect outcome, and we have to be realistic enough to acknowledge that that is only rarely possible. After all, there is always competition for scarce resources. But it's also true that apparent trade-offs are not always inevitable and can be headed off—and even turned into opportunities—if they are spotted, diagnosed and managed on the front foot.
Animal-source food can be bad, right?
The example I gave the ministers was around the consumption of animal-source foods (ASFs) such as fish, eggs, dairy and meat. I worry about the frequent binary statements in the media saying ASFs are bad because they generate more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) per kilo than other foods; the reality is far more complex. These foods are also high-quality sources of the vitamins and minerals that are so critical to the development of the brain, central nervous system, immune system and a whole host of other bodily functions critical to human well-being. As UNICEF puts it in its report Fed to Fail? The crisis of children’s diets in early life: “Animal-source foods such as dairy, eggs, fish, poultry and meat are nutrient-dense and maximize the nutritional value of each bite. Non-breastfed children should be fed plain milk or yogurt from 6 months of age”. Meaning these foods are the essential building block for the growth and development of infants and young children.
This encapsulates the problem: food systems are both the cause and victim of climate change. So how do we square the circle?
We need to start by breaking the problem down. At GAIN, we estimate there are three groups of individuals in most countries, both rich and poor:
- Those who consume ASFs at levels far above the food-based dietary guidelines of the country they live in. If this group decreased their consumption, it would be good for their own health and good for the planet.
- The next group is about to rapidly increase their ASFs consumption. Call them middle income or middle class, but their intakes are about to increase with higher income and, in some parts of Africa, as production levels explode with fast population growth. It will be difficult to alter this consumption trajectory because it is fuelled by strong latent demand. Rather, the challenge is to decouple GHG emissions from increasing ASFs production. This is essentially about innovation and improved practices.
- The final group is those who need to increase ASFs consumption for their own health but do not have the ability to do so. They are currently eating monotonous cereal-based diets. Here we need to link social protection and other income support programmes to modest increases in ASFs consumption, but again in a way that decouples GHG emissions.
By breaking this down we see clear roles for ministries of health in healthy eating campaigns for Group 1; ministries of agriculture, business, and innovation in decoupling GHGs from production for Groups 2 and 3; and ministries of social welfare and labour, which need to improve ASFs consumption for Group 3.
More on the Forum Network: Seven Meals from Anarchy? How AI, a global network of experts and the Dream Team can help farmers adapt to climate change by David Hughes, Director, USAID Innovation Lab on Current and Emerging Threats to Crops & Founder, PlantVillage
Joining up for coherence
It's very obvious that the only way this can work is by these ministries adopting more joined up and coherent policies.
Is this too theoretical? No. The degrees of freedom for this approach are more significant than we may think. For example, evidence from Europe and North America shows there is a great deal of variation in GHG emission by different ASFs, by different red meats and by different production processes for any given red meat.
What facilitates the identification, diagnosis and management of trade-offs to help turn them into opportunities for coherent action?
Examples from around the world are very helpful.
Bangladesh has elegantly integrated their commitments from the UN Food System Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit and the COP26 into their national strategy. Ireland has recently launched a Food Vision 2030 strategy that is coherent across all food system outcomes. Norway has an integrated food systems approach to their international co-operation. The United Kingdom has a food strategy, coherent across different outcomes, which is waiting to be implemented.
Prerequisites: political leadership and data
The two common factors in all these examples are political leadership and evidence-driven decision-making.
Leadership is paramount: it is not a cure-all, but its absence is a kill-all. And it can deliver the real change we need. Leadership means taking risks on policies that will benefit a wide range of stakeholders. Leadership also changes minds, which as Christina Figueres said at the OECD last week, is a critical prerequisite for change. We desperately need a mindset shift in the food system space because, as we've already seen, apparent trade-offs can be turned into opportunities for coherent action.
Leadership drives institutional innovation, which is also important: appointing envoys and constructing food system budgets are ways to reach across silo boundaries.
Finally, leaders engage other stakeholders. Youth, for example, are not bound by the old silos. They are more focused on outcomes than who owns the levers that can get us there. Similarly, private sector investors are not constrained by sectoral silos, as embodied in the multidimensional nature of ESG standards.
Indicators on hunger, malnutrition, biodiversity, climate and decent work are all moving in the wrong direction. The only way to change that is to work together.
Technically, data and evidence are critical. We need these technical assets to turn trade-offs into opportunities for coherence.
First, we need data to identify these apparent trade-offs. The Food Systems Dashboard is the only platform we know of that brings data together on the outcomes driven by food system change. But we also need dashboards at the subnational level for more granular policymaking.
Second, we need more science on the nature and extent of trade-offs. Most of the evidence comes from Europe and North America, and it is a huge leap to assume this evidence is equally relevant for Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Third, policymakers need policy diagnostics. How do we even know how coherent a set of policies is when it comes to different outcomes?
We don’t have a choice
Managing trade-offs and creating opportunities for coherence is not easy. It means going outside our comfort zones for uncertain rewards that we may not be able to claim. Is it worth it? A better question to ask is, “What's the alternative?” The answer to that is self-evident: indicators on hunger, malnutrition, biodiversity, climate and decent work are all moving in the wrong direction. The only way to change that is to work together.
The agriculture ministers listened politely, which was especially impressive since I was interrupting their dinner. Some of them told me that my points registered with them and they were going to do some things differently. Whether or not that happens, I hope I convinced them that apparent trade-offs, which to political leaders often seem like problems, can become the gateway to opportunities for coherence. After all, coherence of outcome can only be achieved if we are intentional about the coherence of action.