Five changes of mindset for a true food system transformation

As someone with a lifelong passion for getting food systems right, I can attest to the fact that food systems have never been so high on the agenda. It has become crystal clear in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that an urgent transformation is needed, or we stand no chance of achieving the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Consequently, this year’s UN Food Systems Summit was widely welcomed. Yet, with less than six months until the Summit begins, there is tension in the air, as we are all being asked to leave our comfort zones and adopt a systems approach. This does not (yet) come natural to many of us. But to truly think in a systemic way, a certain level of discomfort must be accepted and embraced. Competing views should be heard, uncomfortable truths acknowledged.

In the end, our challenge is to weave all perspectives together into a common, compelling vision for the future of food, one that is serving people and the planet alike. Then, strategies will differ, as there is no one-size-fits-all solution, nor a silver bullet to get us through. But one thing is clear: if we want to see different results – we must do things differently.

As we advance on this path together, let me offer five mindset changes that I believe will help us all move towards a healthier and more sustainable future.

  1. From “Feed the World” to “Healthily nourish people to build resilient communities”

Calories alone cannot develop full physical and cognitive potential and will not produce the resilient communities we need. Well-nourished people and households are better equipped to endure and recover from external shocks, including from pandemics and climate change. As both a contributor to, and outcome of, strengthened resilience, nutrition must be fully integrated into food policies, including in the design and delivery of emergency food security responses.

  1. From “maximizing outputs” to “rewarding ecosystem services”

Just a few crop species provide half of the world’s plant-derived calories, and these monocultures place a unique burden on natural ecosystems, including high demand for water. Farmers should be equipped and encouraged to protect biodiversity and replenish soils, particularly through nature-based solutions grounded in agroecology. By rewarding farmers for their ecosystem services, we can support more diverse agriculture, increasing the resilience of farmers and the diversity of diets for improved nutrition outcomes.

  1. From “Food as a commodity” to “Food shapes our societies and our economy”

Food systems are not only linked to nutrition and health, but also to decent jobs and equitable livelihoods. Smallholders produce about 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and many are underpaid, especially women. Fair food prices – including externalities – will attract investments to where capital creates the most social and environmental value. Since women make up an average of more than 40% of the agricultural workforce in developing countries—this will also have a ripple effect on the success of their communities, improving prosperity also for children and youth.

  1. From a “take-make-waste mentality” towards “sustainable business models”

Business as usual clearly endangers life as we know it on the planet. It is time for the private sector to fully embrace sustainability as integral parts of business models. I am optimistic to see many companies adopting that path and rallying behind a common agenda for all people to thrive, within planetary boundaries – for instance through the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the UN Global Compact. Only a transparent collaboration between civil society representatives and the private sector can harness the ability of business to mobilize and invest in practices that will drive a transformative agenda for food systems: from (only) serving clients and investors towards also serving workforce, society, and planet.

  1. From “standardization of diets” towards “valuing good food, diversity and local resources”.

Despite cultural and geographical differences, powerful trends of urbanization and globalization are promoting a standardization of food preferences. Across all regions of the world, urban consumers are increasingly drawn to more sugary and processed foods and drinks – mostly imported. The ‘western’ diet leads to overweight and obesity, now spreading across low and middle-income countries the fastest. This must be curbed through local solutions promoting local, healthy and tasty food that is available and affordable. Farmers can be at the vanguard of this transformation, harnessing local knowledge, traditional plant varieties and animal breeds.

Like it or not, we must address some tough questions and change deeply ingrained practices if a sustainable, system-wide change is what we want. All actors must play their part, and none can afford to stay on the sidelines. On the road to the Food Systems Summit and beyond, Food Systems Dialogues offer an amazing opportunity to increase transparency across stakeholders. I am very proud that so many SUN countries are planning or have planned dialogues already. Challenging preconceptions – our own and others’ – will be the key to build bridges across competing views and restore trust across food systems actors so we can build a brighter, healthier future for all.

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