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All systems go: The urgency of food system transition

This week the national science agency, CSIRO, and the University of Queensland launched a new initiative – Food System Horizons – to accelerate the country’s transition to a food system that is more sustainable, nutritious, and equitable than what we’ve currently got.

Our food system is all the interconnected components that are needed to feed us.

It entails production, processing, packaging, transport, distribution, marketing, consumption, and waste – and all the associated activities, people, and inputs to make those components happen.

When you see those words, in that sentence, it’s clear what an undertaking trying to change it is.

Food System Horizons’ goal is to deliver on the findings of the Reshaping Australian Food Systems Roadmap, released by CSIRO in June 2023.

That roadmap was the result of input from more than 120 stakeholders and a working group of nine partners from government and industry to draft the ultimate map.

It represented the start of looking at our food system as a system, as the value chain where the main approach had been to look at each link individually, with nary a thought to potentially negative impacts on the links surrounding it.

Horizons is now set to take that further and – embedded in science and research – transition our food system into something more robust, equitable, and sustainable.

The sector is certainly hungry for it. The chair of last year’s parliamentary inquiry into food security, Meryl Swanson, told Food & Drink Business that there were calls to overhaul the food system from farmers to manufacturers and retailers.

The inquiry highlighted that Australia has not had a food plan for more than 10 years, and a nutrition plan for close to 30. Thirty years.

It turns out, food is a tricky thing from a policy perspective because it straddles many portfolios. Combine that with what we know is a complex and complicated “paddock to plate” system, plus a country that is really big and can get really hot, and is also quite fond of a catastrophic climate event, and suddenly the fact such plans haven’t eventuated – while not acceptable – is understandable.

You add in a triple lutz when you realise this is not a set and forget system either. The only way this works is if it is a living thing in constant motion.

And then, not everyone is interested in every component of the food system, but they all have to work in consideration of each other if we are going to get anywhere near a food system we want and need. See? Hard. 

But all these things do have solutions and that is where Food System Horizons enters stage left.

Leading this mighty undertaking is Dr Rohan Nelson, seconded from ABARES, where he was leading a community of Australian and global experts looking to better integrate agriculture into Australia’s food and national innovation systems. He specialises in the institutional design and management of public sector innovation and forecasting systems, and has a deep knowledge of competition, climate policy and natural resource management policy.

That should do it.

Under Nelson’s leadership, overseen by a steering committee and guided by a research advisory group, the project aims to throw as much multidisciplinary science and conduct equivalent research at the problem to “stimulate conversations about the state of Australia’s food system and opportunities to catalyse change”.

My husband used to work for a global tech company where one of the founders used to talk about how everyone who worked there should feel “uncomfortably excited”. That seems like an appropriate approach to this, don’t you think?

It’s huge, it’s complex, it involves people being grown-ups, and hard things like change, compromise, and negotiation, and the stakes are high.

And we’re not alone in trying to do this.

At COP28 last December, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN released its Global Roadmap for food system transition.

It also heralded the launch of the Alliance of Champions for Food Systems Transformation, with Brazil, Cambodia, Norway, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone the signatories committed to systemic change.

And the UAE, UK, US, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged US$890 million to help the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres (CGIAR) expand its network.

The Bezos Earth Fund also announced $57 million in food-related grants, the first tranche of $1 billion by 2030 to support food system transformation.

In March, Lebanon released its Food System Transformation Pathway – Building Back Better: The Recovery of a Fragile Food System, while last year Denmark announced its plan to move to a more plant-based diet and Ireland launched its Deep Demonstration partnership to transitioning its food system through what it calls “the power of radical collaboration”.

The Global Alliance for the Future of Food – an alliance of philanthropic foundations leveraging their resources and networks to transition food systems around the world – has been at this since 2012.

The urgency for food system change has been urgent for quite some time.

Part of CSIRO and UQ’s announcement this week was a paper led by CSIRO principal research scientist, Dr Enayat Moallemi, published in One Earth, that asked the question (and provided the answer) – why not draw on the collective wisdom from more than two decades of research on sustainability transitions to accelerate the transformation of global food systems? In other words, “shortcut theory into action”.    

This literally made me giddy – probably a fair indicator why I’m reporting on it, not doing it. I mean, it’s genius. Learn from other sector transitions on how to effect change, establish new partnerships and blammo – you’re already shaving time off a process that could easily settle into a glacial pace.

“Navigating transitions in food systems becomes exceedingly difficult when confronted with the triple challenges of change resistance, narrow technological focus, and feasibility. We can look to other contexts to learn how to address these complex challenges, to shortcut theory to action, and deepen the transformative power of food systems in a limited time,” Moallemi said.

Onward. 

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