We need to fix the food system. But how?

“Today’s food system is unfair, ineffective and operates beyond ecological limits,” Mark Lee says, via email.

“Unfair in that some 925 million are malnourished…

“Ineffective in that there are enough calories out there to feed everyone, but we fail to do so (and if we fail to do so for 7 billion, how will we cope with 9-10 by mid-century?)…

“Beyond ecological limits in too many ways too count – freshwater use, soil degradation, climate impacts, you name it.”

Mark is not an environmental activist. He’s the executive director of SustainAbility, a think tank and strategy consultancy that has worked with such food industry clients as Chiquita, Coca-Cola Kellogg’s, Mars and McDonald’s, Nestle, Starbucks and Unilever. He approached me because Sustainability recently released a report called Appetite for Change, about the food industry and how to fix it.

I’ve been writing a lot about food lately because it interests me, because food and agriculture matter a great deal if you care about climate or global poverty or health, and because there’s so much debate about what the path forward should be. Organics? Farmers markets? Genetically engineered crops? Vegetarianism? Local?

This 41-page report, based on interviews with about two dozen business people, environmental experts and government officials, finds an emerging consensus, inside and outside the industry, that “the food system needs to be dramatically transformed.” The report says:

We need a food system that produces enough, for everyone, within ecological limits, while treating all players fairly.

With a bit more specificity, SustainAbility defines a sustainable food system as “one that is reliable, resilient and transparent, which produces food within ecological limits, empowers food producers, and ensures accessible, nutritious food for all.”

But, while big companies and small are experimenting, sometimes creatively, with new approaches,  there’s no agreement on how to get from here to there.

I talked the other day with Mark and Jennifer Biringer, a SustainAbility director and an author of the report, and they pointed me to a few areas where business and environmental imperatives are coming into alignment.

To insure a secure supply chain, big companies are increasingly builder closer ties with small farms in poor countries, working with them to improve their environmental performance, their efficiency and their business viability.

Starbucks has worked for more than a decade with Conservation International to develop ethical sourcing guidelines that reward coffee growers who conserve water and energy and protect biodiversity. Mars is working with academic partners to sequence the cacao genome, hoping to improve yields and lift the standard of living for coffee farmers. (See my 2010 blogpost, The man who would save chocolate.) Costco has had a pilot program in which it sources fresh produce from smallholder farmers, such as green beans from Guatemala [PDF, download] for its U.S. stores.

And then, of course, there’s Walmart, which among other things, is seeking to buy more local produce for its stores. “I do see Walmart as a disruptor,” Jennifer said. The giant retailer is bringing pressure on food manufacturers to get a better handle on the environmental footprint and to drive transparency down their supply chain.

Companies that aren’t in the food industry stand to profit from some of these trends, the report notes. More than six million people in India, China and Indonesia have become subsribers to Nokia’s Life Tools [PDF, download], a subscription service designed for mobile phones in emerging markets that provides agricultural information (weather, market prices) as well as education and entertainment. IBM, which sponsored the SustainAbility report, along with Nestle and Sodexo, has a technology platform called Smarter Food that can trace food from “farm to fork” which both promotes food safety and environmental accountability.

One obvious problem with the food system, as the report notes, is that food policy and politics “are driven by who is in power” and  aren’t designed to promote sustainability or healthy eating. Experts interviewed by Sustainability

listed new and better policy as prerequisite to progress before closing. Distressingly, few are optimistic that improvements will come without major disruptions to the food system occurring first, sharing a perception that we likely will stretch the current system to (or beyond) its limit before acting.

For a variety of reason, the price of food at the supermarket doesn’t reflect its true cost. [See my 2010 blogpost, The high cost of cheap food] Farm price supports, cheap energy and cheap water all drive down the prices of commodity crops (corn, soy) and meat. Meanwhile, few subsidies go to vegetables and fruits. Farm subsidies and trade barriers also make it hard for farmers in poor countries to compete with those in the U.S. and EU. “Government does a huge amount to pick winners and losers,” Jennifer said.

In today’s New York Times, food writer Mark Bittman has a provocative article arguing that the U.S. should tax “bad” foods (like sugary sodas and fatty, salty fries) and use the money to subsidize fruits and vegetables and provide nutrition education. He quotes a study that found that

a penny tax per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages in New York State would save $3 billion in health care costs over the course of a decade, prevent something like 37,000 cases of diabetes and bring in $1 billion annually.

I’m not inclined to favor more government intervention in markets–just the opposite–but this idea is worth considering, I think, because it’s a way of adjusting the price of food to reflect its true costs. [See my 2010 blogpost, The high cost of cheap food] Big companies, of course, hate the idea of a “junk food” tax. While Coca Cola and PepsiCo offer healthy options, they also benefit from corn subsidies and want to maximize sales of sugary soft drinks. The trouble is, particularly as medical expenses become socialized through Medicaid and Medicare, all of us are paying the costs of the obesity epidemic.

The food system is so broken that maybe it’s time to think about radical fixes.



  1. says

    “More government intervention in markets”? Removing the plethora of subsidies and replacing them with a single tax would likely be “just the opposite.”

    Of course, the simplicity also means that it will meet plenty of political opposition.

    Still, “Bad food? Tax it” surely has a lot more impact than “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The latter is a good individual guide to live by, but the planet won’t notice it.

  2. says

    Gernot, this is an excellent point. If we could couple a tax on “bad food” — defined, essentially, as food that contributes to the externality of higher health costs — and then eliminate other agricultural subsidies and trade barriers, this would be a net reduction in govt intervention on the food/ag market and, yes, almost surely a good thing.

    Then if we add in a carbon tax to capture the environmental externalities, the world would become a healthier and safer place.

      • Aaron Bergbusch says

        There are some problems though, most of them geographical. Food security is a powerful issue. Prices and profitability can shift more quickly than agricultural infrastructure can respond, and the stakes are high. Subsidies are one way to ensure continued local/national production of a necessary variety of crops despite international prices. Land development regulation is often necessary to keep agricultural land in production, rather than developed, despoiled or paved over in those times when the ever-shifting market prices of food crops are unfavorable. In general, local/national production for local/national consumption is more secure than specialized production for worldwide transportation. (Especially when you factor in the volatile nature of transportation costs.)

        Removing subsidies for the production of ‘bad food’ seems like a no-brainer. Taxing ‘bad food’ specifically will require a more rigorous definition of ‘bad food’, but this is theoretically possible to do. To incorporate environmental externalities into the price of ‘bad food’, a carbon tax might be effective to reduce the production and overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides etc. and to discourage the transportation of food over long distances. However, a carbon tax might also impact the costs associated with the production of ‘good food’. While a carbon tax carries benefits across many industries and I support this idea in general, a more specialized ‘food production environmental tax’ might otherwise be possible, or just better regulation of food production practices and the chemical toxins involved.

        Whatever is done to reduce the environmental impacts and health impacts of food production and food consumption (i.e. discouraging rather than encouraging ‘bad foods’), efforts should also be made to ensure the continued local/national supply and widespread availability of ‘good food’.

  3. says

    There is a relationship between global warming, exodus from the country, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, usage of limited number of food crops and food insecurity. Growing Food Forests is one solution that if done in a large scale could provide a solution but we need to learn to eat a wider assortment of more natural foods.

  4. says

    Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and the End of Energy/Food/Transportation/Everything – that’s a lot to think about, but there are creative solutions that I would like to debate with you!
    Why not redesign our cities so that all of us can walk into large fields, commute by electrified rail, and get all of our energy from renewables? Impossible? Not so fast!
    Please view solutions that occurred to me as I recovered from my heart stopping for 10 minutes (!) following a car accident at http://www.greenmillennium.eu , and improve on them if you can!

    Let’s all work for the only scientifically provable form of eternal life – the components of our genes that have combined and recombined in new forms with each new generation ever since life first began here, and will continue to combine and recombine in our children’s children’s… children, as long as they have access to food, energy and transportation, all of which depend upon the decisions that we all make right now!

    Please enter the debate by emailing humansolutions@greenmillennium.eu and I will post the responses on the website of the same name!

    Thank you very much for your concern about how we can feed all the generations that will follow ours!

    Yours sincerely,

    Mr. Kim Gyr

  5. says

    The re-valuing piece is really important, Mark. For companies like Marks & Spencer’s who readily admit they are only 10% sustainable and for other food companies we interviewed who have sustainability ambitions which they are having a difficult time meeting, the policy landscape is a clear opportunity. As yet we haven’t dedicated much corporate involvement in the policy arena from a sustainability standpoint. There is a need for individual and collective corporate action — to realign our incentives system — in order to drive change in the biggest way.

    The food sector is at a crossroads and changing the status quo is urgent. There is risk here, certainly, but also enormous opportunity if we perceive the challenge to be not whether we feed nine-ten billion people sustainably, but how.


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