The new science of sustainable food systems
International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food)
Olivier de Schutter has not said his last word. After leaving his duties as Special Rapporteur on the right to food at the UN’s Council of Human Rights, less than a year ago, he has since participated in the establishment of an international group of experts based on the IPCC (climate) model. This panel of 18 experts, called IPES-Food, aims at building bridges between the scientific community and policy makers.
Below is an extract of the first report by IPES-Food . Consequently, for these experts, even though major political and scientific efforts have been made in agriculture and food security, there is still much to be done on our agricultural model.
In line with Olivier de Schutter, this first report subsequently calls for a new vision of global agriculture and food governance particularly based on a holistic approach which guarantees food security and sustainable resource management in an integrated business model.
Encouraging the implementation of institutions and governance favourable to the improvement of food security is more than ever a crucial goal. To achieve this, Momagri is calling for the creation of a global Agricultural Security Council modelled on the UN Security Council, to anticipate and cope with food crises through enhanced international cooperation.
Momagri Editorial Board
Over recent years, and particularly since the global food price spikes of 2007-2008, the scientific and policy communities have trained their attention on multiple problems within global food systems. These range from persistent undernutrition to burgeoning obesity rates, from land evictions to agriculture’s soaring environmental footprint, from dwindling fish stocks to mounting food waste. Not only have political initiatives proliferated in response to these challenges, but so too have the expert panels, scientific assessments and research projects aiming to generate knowledge about these problems.
However, despite the mobilization of the political and scientific communities around various food systems issues, the task remains incomplete.
There has been a tendency to address the problems as individual pieces of the puzzle, and to overlook the power relations that play a major role in shaping these systems. And crucially, the knowledge of those affected by food systems problems has not been fully harnessed in framing the problems and diagnosing the solutions.
The challenge, therefore, is to produce a joined-up picture of food systems and their political economy, and to do so in ways that reach across the scientific disciplines, and beyond the traditional bounds of the scientific community. The opportunity to generate robust food systems knowledge around a nexus of science, policy and practice must now be seized. To accelerate the shift towards sustainable food systems, a new science of sustainable food systems is needed.
Broad policy constellations
Food systems refer not only to market transactions, but also to the web of institutional and regulatory frameworks that influence those systems. The question of government intervention must no longer be treated as a limited set of exogenous influences that can simply be turned on and off with predictable effects. From a food systems perspective, the types of policy intervention in question extend far beyond grain stockholding or setting agricultural price floors. A whole host of other policy domains must be accounted for: agricultural input subsidies, trade and investment policies, occupational health and safety rules and labor inspection mechanisms, nutritional standards, land tenure regulations, energy subsidies, environmental regulations, public procurement practices, food safety regulations, social policies to provide subsidized food to poor communities or guarantee minimum wages to farmworkers, and different ways of informing and influencing consumer behavior.
Returning to the example used above, if the chicken is packaged and sold as individual fillets, this may be because plastic packaging can be used plentifully due to energy policies that subsidize fossil fuel extraction, or because of health advice about light and dark meat that has influenced consumer habits. Furthermore, the decision by a processor to focus its operations on chicken fillets may be influenced by low trade barriers and differential food safety rules that allo cheaper cuts of the chicken to be sold in some countries and not others, while these perceived preferences among processors and retailers may drive farmers’ choices to raise particular breeds of chicken under particular conditions.
The potential for constellations of policy incentives to fundamentally reorient production patterns is perhaps most clearly reflected in the emergence of ‘export commodity’ sectors in various regions and countries, in response to trade openings and export-led agriculture policies. The regulatory frameworks surrounding food safety, and the consumer concerns underpinning them, are another key factor in shaping contemporary food systems. At the beginning of the 20th century, in Western Europe, food and water poisoning (bacterial or chemical) was a major cause of mortality (See for instance Satin, 2007). Improved hygiene, technologies and medicine have all but eradicated theses pathologies in the most affluent countries.
Yet they remain a major source of concern in large parts of the world, with additional risks from misuse of modern processed foods (infant formulas, frozen foods, etc). Meanwhile, consumers in the global North are increasingly anxious about additives, preservatives and ‘chemicals in food’ (Gaskell et al, 2011). The distrust of consumers toward food producers and food regulators, and the political and regulatory responses to that distrust, are therefore key factors in establishing dynamics within modern food systems, and must be central to a holisticfood systems analysis.
1 The entire report is available from