A food system triangle that best serves the brave new world of food
The world is gradually moving away from locally diverse system to food automation
Delivering the keynote address at a Food Systems Dialogue 2023, organised by Welthungerhilfe (For a world without hunger) at Ranchi early this week, I drew up a triangle to explain the three dominant food systems that currently operate globally. While we are still holding on to the local food systems which is largely people-centric, and is community-driven, the two other food systems that I talked about are technology-driven and have the inherent ability to take us to a brave new world.
We will talk about the other two evolving food systems, but first take a look at what the definition of food systems means.
According to the United Nations, which held the first Food Systems Summit in September 2021, the term ‘food system’ refers to all the elements and activities related to producing and consuming food, and their effects, including economic, health and environmental outcomes.
Given this description, it isn’t that most civil society organisations feel content and safe. They have questioned the increasing corporate influence, as well as through their quasi representation from some global institutes and organisations, whose actual aim is to use the opportunity to seek power and control and in the bargain multiply profits.
Anyway, when we talk of transforming food systems there is still is no clearly defined pathway.
Coming back to the triangle that I had laid out to explain the three dominant food systems, and thereby help understand the inequalities and dependencies, to decipher the national and international policies that are subtly (and very cleverly) moving towards the convergence of the three dominant food systems. Besides the diverse local food systems, it is important to know about the food systems that occupy the two remaining corners or angles of the triangle.
At the base of the triangle, along with local food systems on one side, the other corner is occupied by food automation – using sophisticated precision technologies like artificial intelligence, digital technology, drones, satellite data and robotics. Utilising the available data, e-commerce platforms will be able to market food products accordingly. The food automaton that I am talking about is the technology-driven food production systems moving from Agriculture
From Revolution 3.0 (call it Green revolution) to Agriculture Revolution 4.0: On top of the triangle is placed the third and, perhaps, the most important futuristic food systems – synthetic foods. The artificial food industry, which is growing at a fast pace, is actually using the climate neutrality targets to evolve a food system that does not employ farmers nor does it use land for food production. In other words, the synthetic food industry claims that it is keeping environment safe and encourages protection and conservation of precious biodiversity resources. With the US giving regulatory clearance to artificial chicken, and the first food factory already set up in Finland, the emerging food system takes away the democratic rights and issues related to economic justice, and moves fast to new food governance architecture where the entire food chain is in the control of a handful of food giants. They decide what to produce, how to produce and what to eat.
If you think the brave new world in food is still far away, and is probably a scientific fantasy, let me warn you. Not only in the rich and developed countries, but many startups in Bangalore and Pune are already into cellular fermentation processes to produce edible proteins. Similarly, there are ongoing projects for synthetic biology products like animal-free white egg, animal-free milk and real vegan cheese using milk from yeast. A number of dairy products on the supermarket shelves are not using milk from livestock.
If I were to draw a direction indicator in which way the food systems are gradually moving towards -- from locally diverse food system to food automation and finally to the top of the triangle – to the emerging brave new world of food.
A sustainable food system is one that delivers food security and nutrition to all. But within the parameters of sustainable food systems, there is protection and acceptability for both food automation and the synthetic food sectors.
Read carefully, and both the technological approaches ensure economic sustainability and have positive and neutral impact on natural resource environment safeguarding the sustainability of the environment. But this requires further validation and studies are already showing that vertical farming systems require 25 times more energy consumption.
The basic purpose of my drawing attention to the three kinds of food systems that prevail is to draw attention to the rethinking that is currently taking place. From the multi-stakeholders collaboration that we have always talked about, the transformation on food systems is increasingly moving into the hands of stock holders. While we share experiences, and success stories to transform nationally diverse food systems towards more sustainable outcomes, we also need to be aware of the challenges from the rapid technological upsurges. This will certainly have serious repercussions for the kind of food systems that we are trying to preserve and transform.
Once we become aware of the food systems triangle, it helps us understand the action tracks that are needed to build inclusive, efficient and sustainable food systems.
The idea is not to create a fear psychosis but empower civil society actors to fine tune appropriate actions and policy interventions. In fact, the locally diverse food system provides hope for the future, and should be showcased globally as to how it can be the climate-resilient pathway towards transforming the food systems. If people remain steadfast to naturally grown foods, using agro-ecological farming systems, which make farming economically viable and environmentally safe, the possibility is that the local diverse food system will be at the top of the food systems triangle.
In a country like India, where roughly 50 per cent of the population is engaged in farming, the challenge is on keeping the teeming millions on the farm with a production system that increases farm incomes, and does not aggravate the climate crisis. With the food system triangle before us, it should be easy to strengthen a system that serves the twin objectives of feeding the population with healthy foods and also keeping the population gainfully employed.
Remember, the world needs a production system by the masses, and not a production system for the masses.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)