Sustainable food systems – the challenges we face

Addressing the main theme of the conference, this session featured four leading speakers on themes of economic and environmental sustainability, food systems, food security and sustainable intensification.

Charles Godfray
Susanne Padel (ORC): Chair

Session summary

The session had four speakers who presented their views on the situation and challenges for a sustainable food system. Professor Charles Godfrey gave an overview of how a number of high-level global challenges are all happening at the same time (population, competition for scarce resources, climate change & environmental derogation and new realities of hunger) and will inform how we address sustainable food systems. He presented his views on Sustainable Intensification which is a goal not a trajectory; it can’t be business as usual but includes genuinely radical changes where elements of organic systems need to become mainstream but with an overall increase in crop yields. What was clear, he said, is that action was needed on all fronts and that both low and high tech solutions will be needed.

Sue Lockhart presented Sainsbury’s vision and their ’20×20 Sustainability Plan’ and explained that with Sainsbury’s large reach they wanted to be sustainable themselves but also help their customers and supply chain to be sustainable too. The 20×20 sustainability targets are very challenging and aligned to the values of Sainsbury’s. Of the 20 goals 14 are in the food chain and 6 are on the operation of Sainsbury’s as a company. They need to deliver these goals but ensure there is a commercial edge too. There are a lot of conflicting demands and it is clear they cannot do the best for everything. Data is scarce in many areas, issues are complex and interactions impact on others.

Gunnar Rundgren (Grolink) gave an overview of the history of how we got to the industrialised food system that we have today and the problems that those who oppose it need to overcome and what the ‘cures’ might be. He said that opposition is often (single) issue based and does not really address the real problems i.e. organic v local etc. To address the problem we need to address the whole system and create a regenerative food system including land, biodiversity, inputs, labour etc. Not everyone can buy local but there is a need to move towards that. Consumer choice is a good thing but we also need to work on changing people’s values, and with the political framework such as enforcing the polluter pays principle and encouraging public procurement etc. We Need new economic relationship between the people, the farms and the landscape. Iain Tolhurst (Tolhurst Organic Produce) looked at the issue from a long-term producer perspective. He is very uncomfortable with the concept of Sustainable Intensification and believes the approach should be Sustainable Optimisation. He has identified 10 challenges for a sustainable future that can be applied to most farmers and growers enterprises. These cover the whole of the production systems including soils, energy, labour, biodiversity and economics. All need to be looked at and optimised to deliver a sustainably optimised food system.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Supermarkets aim to make the consumers life easier. That locks them into a dependent relationship with the supermarket. A sustainable local approach might not make the customers life easier i.e. dirty carrots.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Charles Godfray (University of Oxford): What do we mean by Sustainable Intensification? (809kb pdf file)

Over the next few decades we shall see a major increase in the global demand for food while at the same time the need to make food production sustainable will become ever more imperative. In this talk I shall argue that the challenges ahead require action throughout the food system: on moderating demand, reducing waste, improving governance but also increasing supply. Globally, the environmental costs of bringing new land into agriculture should rule out major extensification and this implies that any increase in food production should come from existing land and should emphasise the environment. This programme has been called sustainable intensification though the term is not liked by everyone. I will explore the different dimensions of sustainable intensification, how the organic movement can contribute to it, and how sustainable intensification relates to other food system priorities.

Sue Lockhart

Sue Lockhart (Sainsbury’s): 2020 and Beyond (3.5mb pdf file)

The presentation covers Sainsbury’s approach to sustainability, including Sainsbury’s sustainability plan (2020), the contribution of organic products, lessons learned to date, and what we are doing to help find solutions to some of the challenges we face e.g. R&D; and to secure the best most reliable information/data to ensure we make informed decisions particularly if trade-offs have to be made between targets.

Gunnar Rundgren (Grolink): Curing the global eating and farming disorder (1.66mb pdf file)

“To bake the bread I wanted, I didn’t just need a better recipe. I needed a whole different civilization” (M Pollan)

Industrial food and farming have been very successful in producing more food, and cheaper food. But it has come at a very high price. The practices have wreaked havoc in important biological systems, in particular in bio-diversity and the nitrogen and carbon cycles.

While food is abundant, the distribution system, the market, fails to reach 1 billion people which are hungry. More than anything else the global market revolution fuelled by oil and coal and shaped by endless competition and rent-seeking has been the factor that has determined the whole food system, from the prairies to the supermarket shelf, from the production of margarine to the emergence of fast food chains. It even trans-formed the act of eating from an act of confirmation of social relations to individual satisfaction of real or imaginary dietary needs. As a response to this organic farming, local foods, fair trade and alike has developed.

Gunnar Rundgren

However, these systems are by and large still subject to the market imperatives of competition, profit and constant labour productivity increase, and increasingly so the more successful they are – clearly visible in the organic sector. This limits their transformational power. Real change of our farm and food system must be linked also to changes in social institutions, in particular the market. A truly regenerative food and farm system will close loops of flow of energy, nutrients and most importantly meaning and culture.

Iain Tolhurst (Tolhurst Organic Produce): The challenge of sustainable food production from a grower’s perspective (2.2mb pdf file)

Growers have always faced many challenges and risks, that is part of the job. The nature of those risks has been changing and as our understanding of sustainable practices develops and matures we begin to see the real challenges that lay ahead. Sustainability to me means being able to feed people for ever from the optimal use of the planets resources whilst maintaining the natural ecology. Easier said than done though, and we face some stark choices.

Iain Tolhurst

Soil health is vital and if we mess-up then the future looks bleak. Fertility inputs need to be from sustainable sources, from within the farm or from local waste streams. Good soil management has the potential to lock up carbon on a grand scale if we treat it carefully and efficiently. The weather is getting tougher and we will need to prepare our growing systems to be resilient.

We will have to be accountable for the right to use an increasingly scarce energy for food production. Biodiversity should be integral to the whole food production system and be seen as the heart of the farm with food as a by-product of that. Marketing systems will need to be tailored to community needs and distributed as locally as possible. Better education and understanding of food will need to become a part of the social fabric of society, with closer links between growers and their customers.


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