Knowledge for better food systems

FCRN Blogs

FCRN - A yearly round up

December 17, 2014
Tara Garnett

This was a busy year for the FCRN.  In addition to our weekly newsletters, our interviews and ad hoc blog posts (featuring some particularly vigorous to-ing and fro-ing with the Sustainable Food Trust on the red meat debate), we produced a number of substantial reports.

This was a busy year for the FCRN.  In addition to our weekly newsletters, our interviews and ad hoc blog posts (featuring some particularly vigorous to-ing and fro-ing with the Sustainable Food Trust on the red meat debate), we produced a number of substantial reports.

Appetite for Change charted the dramatic transformations underway in China’s food system, took a close look at the societal, health and environmental implications and identified some key policy and research questions that merit further exploration.  At 180 pages this was definitely a monster report and, recognising this, we will be publishing a series of summary briefing papers in the New Year which we hope you will find more digestible!

2014 also saw us publishing widely on the topic of sustainable healthy diets. Changing what we eat, based on discussions arising from an expert workshop we organised, outlines the work needed to shift societies to consumption patterns that can meet both public health and environmental goals; What is a sustainable healthy diet? our most widely read paper with 50,000 reads takes a walk-through the issues; while Changing to healthier sustainable diets: how might this be achieved? looks at how different disciplines and sectors approach the question of how on might go about achieving change in people’s behaviour and practices.

The FCRN membership has grown in strength too – we now have 1300 network members, spanning over 70 countries  and more and more of you are now using our Forums to ask questions of, and debate with another.  We hope to encourage more such interactions in 2015 and particularly welcome contributions from our many developing country members.  We know that some of you are put off by the process of logging in but with the launch of our new and much improved website in the early New Year (delayed by a hacking glitch), we hope you’ll find the process much easier.  You will also find the new website much easier to search – and with links to around around 3,500 reports and papers in our research library, this is clearly very necessary.

Ultimately our goal is to make the FCRN the go-to place for accessible, impartial and rigorous insights on the multiple aspects of food system sustainability and a safe space for the food sustainability community – who may sometimes hold very different views – to interact.   But we are a very small team – just Tara, John and Marie, supported by our wonderful advisory group – and our financial situation is precarious and insufficient.  We are in the process of fundraising to enable us not only to keep our heads above water but also to expand and improve … so if any of you is able to introduce us to new possible funding sources, please do get in touch.

Enough about the FCRN – what has this year brought more broadly for food systems and sustainability and what are the challenges for 2015?  Sitting here in the UK ( and this observation holds for Northern Europe more generally) - we have seen a much more vigorous set of discussions within the NGO and increasingly the research community about the need for altered consumption patterns, with a particular focus on the meat/livestock issue.  However action at the policy level has been non existent, and businesses too are wary of getting involved in what they see to be a contentious debate.  Some government-linked bodies may be starting to develop advice that links nutrition and sustainability (not the UK alas) but guidance is one thing – robust policy action quite another. In the US, things seem to be going backwards.  Discussions about sustainable healthy diets in low income countries and the transition economies are still embryonic.

Within the NGO debate on consumption, there has been a strong focus on the need to address meat consumption, as evidenced by the work of, say, the UK’s Eating Better alliance and the WWF’s European Livewell for Life initiative. The livestock issue is clearly critical – and is highlighted in the FCRN’s various publications - but as the debate grows and matures it will be increasingly important to situate the meat debate within a wider dietary and production context.  All foods generate environmental impacts.  If we are serious about addressing the negative impacts of our consumption practices, we also need to take a hard look at the range of environmental challenges posed by the horticulture sector (water stress, pesticide use and in protected systems, energy use, to name a few) and by foods and drinks such as coffee, tea, sugar, cocoa, alcohol where land use and degradation are important concerns. These foods tend to receive lighter treatment by the ‘sustainable diets’ community.  A range of problems are associated with fish and aquatic products too – and many people may turn to these foods if they are looking to reduce their meat consumption. Closer attention also needs to be paid to the relationship between production and consumption – can we develop sustainable nutrition enhancing landscapes? - and more broadly to understanding the cultural, historical, economic and social context within which foods are produced and consumed, and the distribution of power and influence along the supply chain.  Critically, we need to understand not just what a healthy sustainable diet looks like across a range of sustainability dimensions, but at how this might be achieved and with what mix of policies – and how definitions and approaches might vary from country to country.

More broadly still, while the Food Climate Research Network is all about food, we recognise that there is life – and a host of sustainability challenges to address – beyond food. Discussions about food system sustainability need to be situated within a broader debate about consumption in general - of everything from cars, holidays, televisions and shoes to international aviation-dependent conferences urgently convened to discuss the food sustainability crisis…. 

Is more better?  And when is enough enough?

Happy Christmas.

Advisory board summarising the year and looking ahead

a)    What do you think has been achieved this year or what do you think the big missed opportunities have been? 

b)    What do you see as the big challenge/opportunity for food sustainability in the coming year?

Daniel Crossley - Executive Director at the Food Ethics Council  

a)    Biggest achievement/ missed opportunity in 2014

I would argue that food waste is both the biggest achievement and the biggest missed opportunity from 2014. It’s risen up the public and corporate agendas and there has been some great work to reduce food waste at a range of levels. However, too much of the focus has been on redistribution of food surplus, rather than avoiding surplus food in the first place. It’s back to that old (festive) chestnut of needing to tackle the root causes!

b)   Big opportunity for food sustainability

Firstly, there is a ‘must-take’ opportunity on climate change, with the UN Climate Change conference taking place in Paris in 2015. Perhaps using the climate change hook, we need to accelerate progress on transitioning to ‘less and better’ meat consumption in high meat-eating countries.

Secondly, we should use the fact that 2015 is the International Year of Soils to drive much-needed work to restore that vital ingredient for food production – good soil health!

Jon Woolven - Strategy and Innovation Director, IGD

a) The first task in feeding a growing world population sustainably is to cut food waste. Companies have been working on this internally for a long time but in 2014, over 100 businesses signed up to our campaign, in association with WRAP, to help consumers in their efforts to reduce waste. In the first year, we were delighted that around 650,000 food company employees received advice in their role as householders.

b) Next year, collective efforts to cut waste will gather further momentum and the bank of knowledge on sustainable diets will keep growing, with FCRN to the fore. Will sustainability get a look in at the UK general election? Let’s hope so!   

Vicki Hird - Senior Campaigner Friends of the Earth on Land use, Food and Water Programme

a) As ever the FCRN has provided an excellent platform on which to discuss and learn about aspects of sustainability in the food system, with the regular updates, increasingly active forum discussions and twitter news. It’s also been hugely valuable to have DR Garnett providing an expert, coherent and powerful voice in debates such as at the Guardian and at many conferences.

b) The big focus in 2015 will be on getting adequate attention to food and agriculture in the Paris COP outcomes – so we see strong level of mitigation targets set as well as serious adaptation and reparation for those affected so badly by climate change and a clear steer on rights based approach to land use changes. We also need to engage the public in a better way – both as consumers and citizens - and FCRN will help provide valuable resources to help all those aiming to do that.

Phil Bloomer - Executive Director at the Business and Human Rights Centre

b) 2015 must go down as a ground-breaking year for food and climate change. We have two global fora to make urgent decisions: the Sustainable Development Goals conference in September, and the UN Climate Change Summit in Paris in December. Food security and climate security must be the goal. Hyper-inequality, and the ecological crisis upon us must be our targets.

Sue Dibb - Coordinator of the Eating better campaign

a) 2014 has seen increasing recognition of the need to shift our food consumption towards less and better meat eating as part of healthy sustainable diets, alongside the need to reduce food waste and make food production more sustainable. Less positive is the lack of a policy response.  A big disappointment has been the failure of European Commission to publish its Communication: Building a Sustainable European Food System.  It is now unclear where sustainable food sits in the new Commission - if at all.

b) With climate negotiations high on the 2015 agenda, there is the opportunity to raise awareness of the GHG impacts of our food consumption and production, and to explore positive ways to engage people and food businesses in helping us to eat smart.

Timothy Lang - Professor of Food Policy at City University London's Centre for Food Policy

a) The UN’s International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in November 2014 was the opportunity for governments to set new thinking for global food systems and public health. Inevitably, ICN2 fell short of what we’d like and what the evidence says is needed. It remained mainly focussed on under-consumption and hunger rather than the new complex picture of under-, over- and mal-consumption. This focus lets the rich world off the hook, despite the mountains of evidenced that our eating patterns are key drivers of environmental, nutrition and cultural transitions.  ICN2 ought to have been when we charted sustainable diets.

b)  2015 is when the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are to be finalised, and to replace the Millennium Development Goals. My dream is that the SDGs become the hook on which the other SDG – sustainable dietary guidelines (or goals) – are hung. Ever the optimist, I hope 2015 is when we articulate SDG2.

Duncan Williamson - Food policy manger WWF UK

a) I think one of the biggest missed opportunities this year came from the IPCC report in the spring where they finally said climate change is a food security issue. This should have been the signal to make food part of the climate change debate and move it more into the mainstream, away from the mantra we need to produce more. It could have been the catalyst to making both areas more holistic. This never happened, food and climate are still seen as separate by most people, governments and companies. Look at Lima, food is hardly mentioned.

b)    There are 2 clear opportunities, one being a challenge as well.

The biggest opportunity and challenge is around the Sustainable Development Goals. Food security, agriculture and the oceans (with almost no talk of food security) are all there. As is health (though food it not mentioned here). They need to be joined up and used to promote a sustainable, healthy food system – this will be the challenge. There is a risk it will focus on producing more to feed the hungry and ignore what is grown, how it is grown, where it is grown, the associated inputs and the other side of malnutrition obesity. This can be avoided if we continue to apply evidence and pressure. We have a chance to bring development and the environment together. Let’s not miss it as the SDGs will shape a lot of food policy for the next 15 years.

The second builds on the recent change to the Brazilian government’s eating advice. They included sustainability. I understand the USA is about to do the same. The recent ICN2 spoke about health and sustainability in connection to food guidelines. It is also a subject coming up in the Milan Expo and in the Milan Protocol. We might finally be on the cusp of healthy, sustainable eating becoming mainstream and even part of future government policy.

Chris Foster - environmental consultant at EuGeos Limited

The FCRN's "Sustainable, Healthy Diets" work was a major success, bringing together - in one manageable place - all dimensions of the sustainable food debate. Unfortunately, that has to be placed in the context of much-diminished policy interest in a whole-system approach to food provision - an approach that will be necessary if a sustainable food system is ever to be achieved.

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