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Feeding the world sustainably after Covid: how will we do it?


About this ThinkIn

This ThinkIn is in partnership with

When the president of China scolds his nation of 1.4 billion people about food waste, it’s safe to rank food security as a global concern. The Covid pandemic has stress-tested food supply chains as never before. Border restrictions mean slower harvests and longer journeys to market. Farmers are having to dump milk and bury perishable crops. At the end of 2020, 1.6 billion people faced food shortages and global food supply will have to grow by 70 per cent by mid-century.In these circumstances food systems become critical infrastructure; their breakdown risks the breakdown of public health and public order. How do we get food to those who need it at a price they can afford in a time of protectionism, climate change and social distance?


catch up

podcast

Breaking the cycle

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a lot on hold – but tackling the threat to our climate can’t wait. How can we feed the world sustainably whilst also decarbonising it? Across two ThinkIns, Tetra Pak helped us find the answers


The readout

Before even health and education come the two imperatives of food and sustainability. We have to eat to live. And we have to eat sustainably for the planet to remain habitable. Hence the question for this ThinkIn: how will we feed the world sustainably after Covid?

It won’t be straightforward. It won’t “just happen”, either in terms of production or distribution, because the task is huge.

The number of people facing starvation has doubled during the pandemic, from 135 million to 270 million. A billion people are hungry. At the same time two billion are obese or overweight. A third of all food goes to waste, and the food industry produces a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a legitimate debate over whether aggregate food production needs to be radically increased and if so by how much. There is less room for argument over the need to cut waste, get more food to those who need it most, and shift the whole enterprise onto a sustainable footing. 

We heard three concrete proposals:

  • for a “Paris Agreement” on food security that would, under UN auspices, agree global goals on access to food, food affordability and food sustainability;
  • for a traffic light labelling system to inform consumers about the environmental impact of the food they buy, as similar systems already inform them about its nutritional value; and
  • for a commitment to independent evaluation of that impact using a whole life cycle approach, so that emissions from production, packaging, distribution and consumption are all factored in – together with emissions reductions from low-carbon innovations. 

There’s a clear role for government and regulators as honest brokers in this evaluation process. “We’d be huge supporters of traffic lights for the planet,” Unilever’s Hanneke Faber said – “but it can’t be a Unilever scheme.” Charles Brand of TetraPak said external measurement was incredibly important, not least because “we like to think we’re trustworthy but we’re not always trusted”.

There is a leadership role for business too. As Justin King, former CEO of Sainsbury’s, put it, it’s “not acceptable to sit back and [merely] respond to the consumer – you’ve got to be ahead of that curve”. Commerce has a responsibility to nudge consumers into good choices, and those choices aren’t always intuitive: the carbon footprint of New Zealand lamb imported to the UK, for instance, can be lower than that of Welsh. 

But the role of consumers themselves is paramount, King said: “Nothing changes commercial behaviour quicker than consumers changing the way they use their wallets.” Those changes may in turn be influenced by landmark studies such as the 2019 EAT-Lancet report urging people to eat half as much meat and twice as many vegetables. One upshot: Unilever’s €1 billion global sales target for plant-based foods by 2027. 

King frequently offered a dissenting view. The pandemic has shown the global food system is not broken, but resilient. Food output doesn’t need to grow by 70 per cent by mid-century – rather prices need to rise in the rich North to cut waste. And even if we can agree on food security goals, competition is as important as collaboration in attaining them. 

How to reconcile this view with those of the other speakers, who argued for stronger supply chains, increased food production and a focus on affordability and collaboration? It’s arguably a view formed in the developed world while the others bring a more global perspective. As Ertharin Cousin, former executive director of the World Food Programme, put it, your freedom to disregard food cost and quantity “depends on where you live”.

How will we feed the world sustainably after Covid? There’s no silver bullet, but strong supply chains, better eating habits and smart packaging clearly all play a part. “We need to connect food security, waste and sustainability and take that 360-degree life cycle approach,” says Brand. “That will give us a proper measurement of what is right.”

EDITOR AND INVITED EXPERTS

James Harding
Co-founder and Editor

Charles Brand
President of Europe and Central Asia, Tetra Pak

Ertharin Cousin
Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment and formerly Executive Director of the World Food Programme

Hanneke Faber
President, Food & Refreshments at Unilever

Justin King
Non-Exec Director at Marks & Spencer plc and former CEO of Sainsbury’s (2004–14)