What needs fixing – our broken food systems, our attitudes to food, or both?

burgerOur food systems are broken, we were told during the Crawford Fund’s Annual Parliamentary Conference in Canberra, Australia from 26-28 August 2014.

So how do we fix them?

Is it through climate-smart agriculture, which aims for a triple win of increasing agricultural productivity, reducing emissions and helping farmers adapt? Certainly this is needed in the face of climate change to help farmers – especially smallholders – transition to sustainability and build their resilience. But will this be enough to ensure sufficient food is grown to satisfy the growing middle class’ demand for a protein-rich diet?

To me, the real challenge lies in the fact that it’s not just the systems that produce our food which are broken but our attitudes to food are effectively ‘broken’ too. I’m not talking here about the 870 million people who still suffer from acute hunger and malnutrition but about those of us who are fortunate enough to have the money to purchase food.

Firstly, there is the problem of food waste, with a startling one quarter to one third of food that is produced for people being wasted. During the conference, Helen Szoke Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia said her countrymen and women wasted $8 billion worth of edible food each year. Of course it is not just within the household that food is wasted. Poor processing facilities, lack of roads and refrigeration, and inadequate storage, especially in developing countries, lead to significant food waste.

Secondly, there is our ever-increasing demand for foods that require high amounts of energy to produce.

Rachel Kyte, chair of the CGIAR Fund Council and World Bank Group Vice President, spoke about how food preferences change with rises in income. As societies become more affluent they desire more meat, more eggs and more milk. This “intensifies pressure on land and increases greenhouse gas emissions,” explained Kyte.

The expected population increase of 30 per cent by 2050 – to 9 billion – means we need to produce 60 per cent more food, at least. Why so much more? Because not only do we have to produce fruit, vegetables and grains for humans but we also need to produce feed for all that livestock. And with this increasing number of livestock comes an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Thirdly, there’s the problem that we’re eating the wrong foods. One third of the world’s population is overweight or obese.

Norah Omot from the Papua New Guinea National Agricultural Research Institute outlined how many people in her country shy away from traditional vegetables which are high in nutrition because they are associated with low status and considered ‘village food’. “People prefer processed food; there is a lack of awareness of the value of food,” said Omot.

Can we make indigenous fruits and vegetables more popular than meat and packaged food? Should we all become vegan? Will people consider insects as a source of protein (as one conference participant suggested)? How would we sell these ideas to the world?

It seems like an impossible task, so instead we focus our efforts on how to meet the demand by ‘fixing’ food systems from the production end rather than the consumer end. At present, the most likely ‘fix’ is climate-smart agriculture.

Rachel Kyte is confident that agriculture and food systems can move to be part of the solution. Efficiency can be increased and emissions lowered. Brazil has managed to achieve this.

“Climate-smart agriculture is about resilience,” said Kyte. “It reduces exposure to risks such as drought and pests and diseases… it builds healthy ecosystems.

Agroforestry is one technology with huge potential in helping achieve the triple win of climate-smart agriculture. Trees buffer against weather-related production losses, such as by reducing soil erosion and minimizing damage from flooding; helping farmers build climate resilience. Agroforestry can increase productivity, such as through leguminous trees that improve soil fertility. Trees can also provide a diversity of food sources throughout the year as well as timber and additional income from the sale of tree products. Trees store carbon both above and below the ground, so agroforestry contributes considerably to climate change mitigation.

As Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute, pointed out, smallholders need incentives to adopt climate-smart agriculture. There is also a need for a “move up or move out” approach, said Fan, considering declining farm sizes associated with increases in population.

Research and development will play a key role if climate-smart agriculture is to be successful in increasing productivity and reducing emissions.

“Unless we chart a new course, we are facing volatility and disruption in our food system, possibly in the next decade,” warned Kyte. “We need to increase our investment in agricultural research now if we are to meet the challenges ahead.”


The Crawford Fund is a non-government organization and charity that promotes and supports international agricultural research for developing countries.

Related articles:

Climate-smart agriculture is making a difference

How to improve our understanding of climate-smart agriculture

Moving from food security to nutritional security

If you don’t pay attention to gender you will fail

See also:

Steenwerth KL et al. (2014) Climate-smart agriculture global research agenda: scientific basis for action. Agriculture and Food Security 3:11.


Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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