Perspectives on the Food System

By Kate Newbury Helps & Frances Buckingham

We need a food system where every person on Earth eats in a way that sustains—and improves—his or her own individual health and wellbeing, the health of the environment in which it is produced, and the livelihoods of those who grow it.

Our Appetite for Change report in 2011 asked whether the private sector was ready to play a central role in transforming the global food system. We set out a vision of a food system that is reliable, resilient and transparent, produces food within ecological limits, empowers food producers, and ensures accessible, nutritious food for all.

Despite a host of initiatives from the private sector and civil society and some great progress being made, we have a food system that is generally acknowledged as still not working for many people.

Ensuring that the very act of eating is restorative for eaters and the world we live in, and incentivizing businesses to make this the norm—is the future of food we want. Earlier this year we proposed a set of characteristics that put people at the centre of the food system. For this issue of Radar we have further distilled the principles that could help support the movement towards nourishing diets and nourished ecosystems:

  • Our food system has to be centred on the eater.

  • Food production must be rethought to minimise negative impacts and also amplify positive impact.

  • We need new business models, investment thinking, public policy and regulation to drive change.

To gain additional perspectives on how food system needs to change we reached out to our network for thoughts on how to produce food that nourishes us and nourishes the planet.

Olam, the global agri-business, is taking a landscape approach to promoting food security, livelihoods, health and environmental sustainability. Julie Greene, General Manager of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, spoke to us about the work that the company is doing to improve the health and the lives of producers and the land that they farm by “collaborating with stakeholders like farmers, local governments, and civil society to help rural communities improve their farm productivity.” This is then combined with initiatives such as “nutrition education, access to vitamin-A fortified cassava cuttings, entrepreneurship skills for women vegetable farmers, agroforestry and environmental education” to bring together all aspects of sustainability.

Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust reflects on the need for a more integrated view: “the huge proliferation of recommended healthy diets are generally missing a central point – they focus only on human health and this needs to be challenged”. Given that the health of soil, plants and human beings is “all indivisible” he calls for a broader definition of health, that is “good for planet and good for us”.

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The huge proliferation of recommended healthy diets are generally missing a central point – they focus only on human health and this needs to be challenged”
Patrick Holden, Sustainable Food Trust

Eating Better brings together over 50 UK-based civil society organisations working to help people move towards food that’s better for us and the planet. Its recent report, The Future of Food is Flexitarian, highlights 20 businesses that are helping their customer eat less, and better, meat and more plant based food. Sue Dibb at Eating Better notes the importance of cross-sector learning. “In the past environmental organisations have found it difficult to talk to health organisations, and vice versa.” The joining up of civil society is key to address and communicate the concept of well-being of humans being inextricably linked to the health of soils, the land and the planet.

Eating Better further emphasises the role of collaboration – of companies, policy makers, investors and civil society - in supporting the mainstreaming of sustainable diets. This cross-sector approach is particularly important, notes Dibb, if companies are going to restructure their businesses towards predominantly plant-based diets with less meat and dairy and a greater focus on better meat.

The shift to more sustainable diets will be a challenge. Patrick Holden believes that failing to differentiate between “meat which can be part of the solution and meat, which is the problem” is hard to do. He sees grass-fed livestock as playing a central role in a sustainable food system and warns of not “throwing out the ruminant grass fed baby with the bathwater of industrial chickens and pork”. He sees enormous confusion, especially amongst young people around meat, and education about ‘better meat’ therefore needs to be part of the solution.

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In the past environmental organisations have found it difficult to talk to health organisations, and vice versa.”
Sue Dibb, Eating Better

Messaging is also important. Holden acknowledges the role that companies can play in shifting diets but believes many corporates are confused about how to communicate. The issue is nuanced, making black and white messaging – such as: meat bad, plants good – misleading.

Dibb agrees that selling ‘less’ of something such as meat isn’t seen a good business strategy and that a more healthier food, healthier planet approach potentially conflicts with cheap food policy.

Overall, here and in many other conversations SustainAbility is having, there is broad agreement on the alignment between human health and planetary health. There is a need for health to be defined more broadly, not just of the eater but of the environment in which the food is produced and the well-being and economic health of the people that produce it. Additionally, as complex and nuanced as sustainable food may be – people need clear and simple messaging to help them eat well.

As with most sustainability issues, the transition to a sustainable food system will need long-term investments and investors will be critical to supporting those companies are committed to this shift. There will be difficult trade-offs as we try to turn the food system from a cause of harm to a cure, not least addressing the true cost of food and what it really means to provide sustainable and healthy diets for all.

About the author

Kate Newbury-Helps


SustainAbility Analyst based in London working across the technology and food sectors. Loves innovation, travel and music.

Frances Buckingham


SustainAbility Associate, Editor of Radar, interested in how business can use its influence to bring about social change.