As the world’s first ever Food Systems Summit approaches, the spotlight on the need to transform the way we produce and consume food is intensifying. But what does the future look like? What shifts will get us there? And just how can we drive deep transformation with game-changing and long-lasting potential? Lesley Mitchell, Forum’s  Associate Director - Sustainable Nutrition, explores.

As the United Nations Food Systems Summit launches, food is front of mind across the sustainability movement. The challenge of transforming how we both produce and consume food is daunting and galvanizing in equal measure. 

It is now widely recognised that food and agriculture are at the heart of the world’s deepest environmental and health challenges - from climate change, soil degradation and crashing biodiversity to mal- and over-nutrition. These multi-layered crises are underpinned by deeply-entrenched inequalities across global food supply chains. So the current unsustainable nature of our food systems has major implications for not just land use and our diets, but our oceans, forests and the livelihoods of millions. 

Given its influence, agriculture has huge positive potential to restore ecosystems and sequester carbon, build thriving economies and healthy communities. The opportunity may be almost limitless, but time to seize it is not - so as calls for a ‘sustainable food future’ intensify, just what does this look like and how can we get there?

A ‘regenerative’ approach conjures a vision of new life, renewal, something becoming a better incarnation of itself. And in terms of food and farming, that’s exactly what it means -  enabling viable, thriving food production using practices that work with nature, support carbon sequestration and renew soils and biodiversity. 

The future of food 

One word stands out above all others when reimagining the future of food: regenerative. There’s no denying that ‘regenerative’ has become sustainability’s latest buzzword; you only need to scour the latest headlines to see the traction it’s getting. 

A ‘regenerative’ approach conjures a vision of new life, renewal, something becoming a better incarnation of itself. And in terms of food and farming, that’s exactly what it means -  enabling viable, thriving food production using practices that work with nature, support carbon sequestration and renew soils and biodiversity. 

In the process, regenerative approaches aim to deliver the right kinds of healthy foods for everyone. In real terms, this transformation is profound, impacting diversity of crop production, shifting from mono-cropping to multi-cropping, creating greater complexity of market models and routes to market, and requiring us to value and reward carbon and ecosystem services. It takes a longer view, requiring more patient financial capital and a willingness to build new knowledge, skills and share the risks of the transition.

A regenerative future is more than just nature and land - it has a strong societal dimension. It’s a future in which we proactively address the deep legacy of inequity and exclusion in food and agriculture, and where we build out a ‘just’ transition - leaving no-one behind, with resilience built in.  From government and big business to start ups and indigenous farmers, society will need to be aligned behind shared goals and working toward inclusive governance. 

If we want this vision to become reality, we need to get real about the change needed

Six types of transformation are key to creating a just and regenerative future. We need to:

  • Adopt techniques that are ‘regenerative’ and self-sustaining and restore the landscape’s ecosystem services (not least soil health, water quality and biodiversity) - shifting us away from extractive practices that externalise environmental impacts. This is likely to require a shift to distributed and more diverse production systems suited to regional landscapes, and away from intensive, high input driven monoculture cropping
  • Create innovative models and structures, capable of uprooting current practice. There is great opportunity in this space – from exploring new funding mechanisms and co-investment in new infrastructure to providing incentives for ecosystem services and creating novel market models
  • Focus on production of nutrition and consequent public health outcomes, rather than maximising yield and calories produced
  • Create resilient production systems that allow actors across the supply chain to thrive and adapt to increasing change and shocks, supporting peace and stability
  • Create just distribution of value by rewarding farmers and growers equitably, rather than concentrating profit for the greatest power holders in the food system
  • Harness modern technology and insights in ways that also enable, value, and respect hard-won traditional knowledge and wisdom of working with nature, rather than solely focusing on maximising techno-solutions for efficiency.

These are significant shifts in practice, and they will require us to reset our ambitions and reframe what we mean by farming and land. We must go well beyond risk mitigation, or on balance ‘doing no harm’ such as offsetting our impacts while continuing business as usual. It will be on us to sow the seeds of regeneration and build a viable future for people and planet. So much will change that we will need to think more systemically, seeing the emerging dynamics and complexity around us.

Leveraging momentum

Transforming food systems won’t happen overnight. The Summit is just one of a number of events, closely followed by The UN’s Committee on World Food Security conference, the UN climate COP26, the Nutrition for Growth Summit and, in 2022, the agreement of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s landmark post-2020 framework. These moments will likely raise as many questions as they seek to answer - from who wins or loses from transformation, to how we build out of the deep legacy of inequity and injustice. 

The momentum for change is palpable and we are going to need to sprint faster to meet the demands of the climate crisis. Whether as a consumer, producer, retailer, distributor, investor or innovator - we all have a role to play in delivering the deep transformational change that’s so urgently needed - and so long overdue.

Forum’s work on food

Forum’s ambition is to work collaboratively across the food system to drive transformational change. We want to ensure the way we grow, distribute and eat food provides healthy and nutritious choices for all while restoring the key ecosystems and farming livelihoods on which we depend. 

To drive this transformation, we’re working with our partners to reset ambition, ensure just transitions that leave no-one behind, and build capacity for systemic thinking. 

We are doing this in part through major programmes such as Growing Our Future, which is focused on scaling regenerative agriculture in the United States; the Protein Challenge in Southeast Asia, which aims to unlock the full potential of key financial actors as change agents; and - in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, EAT, Meridian Institute, OpenIDEO and Thought For Food - supporting the Food Systems Game Changers Lab, which aims to source and back new ideas and innovations with systems-changing potential. These programmes are enabling us to grapple with major questions: How can an equitable and just transformation be financed? How can supply chains and market models support diverse producers shifting to regenerative agriculture? How can we shape a food system that provides healthy and affordable diets for all? 

We know that collaborating with others to bring in new perspectives and insights will help us get there; after all, the systemic change needed will only be created by engaging all players in the system, at all levels. 

Let’s talk about food…

To get in touch and explore how we can work together on food, please reach out to Lesley Mitchell.