Food security is a much discussed and misunderstood subject. It is complex. It is local, national, regional and global. It will be different depending on who or what you are, be it a smallholder in the sub-Saharan Africa or one in the UK, now labelled as a “hobby farmer”. A multinational chain has a different understanding compared to local green grocer.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation defines it as
‘all people, at all times, having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’.
Food security has four equally important, if not equally valued, components. They are the 4 pillars: Availability, Access, Utilisation and Stability.
To this the World Resources Institute and others, including WWF have added sustainability. Indeed in the report WWF and the Food Ethics Council (FEC) have just publish one senior executive said
“The terminology ‘secure and sustainable future’ is used within …. the organisation, but both concepts are understood to be interrelated as you cannot have security without sustainability or vice versa.”
Production alone isn’t the answer
Traditionally food companies have understood food security through the narrow lens of security of supply. Often you will hear them say that we need to increase food production to ensure global food security. Implying that increasing food production alone will solve the problem. This increase is estimated to be anything between 60% and 100%. This might not be possible, needed or desirable. This short term mantra does not take into account all the other elements, and in the long term it might be detrimental to their business model.
I have even heard one of the farming lobby groups saying it is the moral duty of UK farmers to increase production to address global food security. This fails to recognise the impacts of an increase in production. It doesn’t dig into what we are growing or how it will be used or even is the land being used appropriately.
The role of business
This report by the FEC explores the business case for sustainable food security. Through research, interviews and discussions with food companies and other business stakeholders it not only identifies where we are now, it also identifies the solutions. These solutions will enable long-term business security and benefit biodiversity. The solutions range from business collaborating more, considering commercial benefits alongside social ones, engaging customers and building capacity in producer areas.
The participants came up with a clear role for government. It needs to create the operating environment that rewards progressive action to deliver long-term food security and to regulate against actions that hinder it. As different leaders said:
“Where there is not a strong business case, legislate us, so that we are forced to perform, because voluntary standards can only get us so far.”
Change is coming
It is only by recognising the equal importance of all the aspects of food security that food companies will collectively be able to make the changes necessary in their business practices to secure sustainable food security in the medium and long term. The social and environmental impacts of the current model are clear. Attempting to increase food production to secure your own supply by using more water, more land and more energy is unsustainable socially and environmentally. An alternative model will move to a more equitable system, using less and a greater variety of resources, whilst working within healthy, resilient ecosystems. It will be a system when we pay more attention to what is grown, how we use it. This will result in an increase in choice of a greater diversity of foods not just more foods based on a few commodities.
In the coming years the food we eat will change. What we are able to feed our children and grandchildren will depend on what we do about climate change, hunger and equality now. We know what needs to be done. The narrative must be inclusive and move away from simply producing more or gaining security of supply. Businesses need to work together, to be collaborative. Government must step up and use its position to enable the change. We need to look at what we grow, and how we grow it. We need to promote sustainable diets, less wastage and a more equitable system.
Businesses, government and civil society need a fuller understanding of the breadth of the food security challenge, and their individual positive long-term contributions to addressing it in order to deliver the robust and sustainable food system that is so desperately needed.
As the report summarizes so well:
Companies that focus on making money from short-term actions or on making their contribution to food insecurity ‘a little less bad’ just won’t cut it in the long term. Sustainable food security equates to sustainable business security.